I scour the universe to find amazing morsels of knowledge so that I can share them with the multitudes and thereby raise the intelligence level of all mankind. Some call it stumbling across trivia about writing, and posting it in people’s way just to be irritating. Whatever.
But you can always benefit from other people’s thoughts. At least I can, because that way I don’t have to do all that thinking myself, and I’m lazy. And it’s always possible you’re bored and need distraction. I’m here for you either way.
So I came across this blog post by James Altucher the other day. In case he stumbles across this post some day, I apologize to you, Mr. Altucher, for not having a clue who you were until then. On the other hand, you still don’t know who I am, so fair’s fair. I now know that he’s an author and entrepreneur and hedge fund manager and a whole lot of other things, and after sifting through his website a bit, I’ve determined that he’s smart and fair-minded and it’s apparent he’s known by pretty much the whole world except me. Being a basic cave-dweller, I’m okay with that.
He has lots of thoughts. This particular group of them is full of points to ruminate on if you’re a writer, because it’s all about becoming a better one. It’s good to look at what you do from a fresh perspective now and then, to help you get out of your rut and shake up your paradigms a little, and these are certainly different ways of examining the process. They aren’t all new and different, but there are some different ways of illustrating them in here, and a stroll through the list is entertaining and enlightening. Not everything will help, of course, but it’s all worth looking and considering.
Take a look. Consider. Stretch your mind. Be a better writer.
33 Unusual Tips to Being a Better Writer
by James Altucher
Back in college, Sanket and I would hang out in bars and try to talk to women but I was horrible at it.
Nobody would talk to me for more than thirty seconds and every woman would laugh at all his jokes for what seemed like hours.
Even decades later I think they are still laughing at his jokes. One time he turned to me, “the girls are getting bored when you talk. Your stories go on too long. From now on, you need to leave out every other sentence when you tell a story.”
We were both undergrads in Computer Science. I haven’t seen him since but that’s the most important writing (and communicating) advice I ever got.
A) Write whatever you want. Then take out the first paragraph and last paragraph
Here’s the funny thing about this rule. It’s sort of like knowing the future. You still can’t change it. In other words, even if you know this rule and write the article, the article will still be better if you take out the first paragraph and the last paragraph.
B) Take a huge bowel movement every day
You won’t see that on any other list on how to be a better writer. If your body doesn’t flow then your brain won’t flow. Eat more fruit if you have to.
C) Bleed in the first line
We’re all human. A computer can win Jeopardy but still not write a novel. If you want people to relate to you, then you have to be human.
Penelope Trunk started a post a few weeks ago: “I smashed a lamp over my head. There was blood everywhere. And glass. And I took a picture.” That’s real bleeding. My wife recently put up a post where the first line was so painful she had to take it down. Too many people were crying.
D) Don’t ask for permission
In other words, never say “in my opinion” (or worse “IMHO”). We know it’s your opinion. You’re writing it.
E) Write a lot
I spent the entire 90s writing bad fiction. 5 bad novels. Dozens of bad stories. But I learned to handle massive rejection. And how to put two words together. In my head, I won the pulitzer prize. But in my hand, over 100 rejection letters.
F) Read a lot
You can’t write without first reading. A lot. When I was writing five bad novels in a row I would read all day long whenever I wasn’t writing (I had a job as a programmer, which I would do for about five minutes a day because my programs all worked and I just had to “maintain” them). I read everything I could get my hands on.
Characters…everywhere…poor little lumps of blah scattered across the manuscript like they’d been urked up half-masticated, limp and lifeless and gooey, by a word processor with a hairball and indigestion. Yeah, you’ve seen ‘em. Maybe you’ve made ‘em. Can’t say I haven’t…it’s too easy and tempting to just blurt them out and go on with all that action and suspense and romance and suchlike. That’s where the fun is!
But, doggone it, characters need to breathe and feel and live! You owe it to the lives you’ve created to put a little spark in them. If they just lie there, drab and mundane, taking up space on the page, your readers won’t connect with them and won’t be interested in what they might be about to do. And giving them feelings and thoughts and, well, character will even help you get your own feeling about what direction they’re about to go. The character will frequently lead you to your next plot point if you pay attention. Giving your characters life is one of the most important things to do when you write, and one of the hardest to get right until you form the habit of doing it.
I recently shared another article about Character Craft from The Creative Penn website, and you can find it here if you’d like more. This article is by Rebecca McClanahan and brought to you by the folks at Writer’s Digest. Many more thoughts about the character-building process are laid out quite eloquently, and I recognize problems I’ve had and picked up some good tips. The very first point reminded me of a friend’s novel I read recently, in which he introduced each character with their height, weight, and the color of their hair and eyes. He had a law enforcement background and it showed. Perhaps you don’t always want to be as obvious…mix that stuff up and give your readers a little variety, and they’ll thank you for it by staying engaged and reading more of your stuff. That couldn’t hurt, now could it?
Here’s Ms. McClanahan with more wisdom for you.
11 Secrets to Writing an Effective Character Description
11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through effective character description, including physical and emotional description.
Jan 14, 2015
The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.
Soon they’ll be more than mere names. They’ll put on jeans or rubber hip boots, light thin cigarettes or thick cigars; they’ll stutter or shout, buy a townhouse on the Upper East Side or a studio in the Village; they’ll marry for life or survive a series of happy affairs; they’ll beat their children or embrace them. What they become, on the page, is up to us.
Here are 11 secrets to keep in mind as you breathe life into your characters through description.
1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”
It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”
This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?
When we describe a character, factual information alone is not sufficient, no matter how accurate it might be. The details must appeal to our senses. Phrases that merely label (like tall, middle-aged, and average) bring no clear image to our minds. Since most people form their first impression of someone through visual clues, it makes sense to describe our characters using visual images. Green eyes is a beginning, but it doesn’t go far enough. Are they pale green or dark green? Even a simple adjective can strengthen a detail. If the adjective also suggests a metaphor—forest green, pea green, or emerald green—the reader not only begins to make associations (positive or negative) but also visualizes in her mind’s eye the vehicle of the metaphor—forest trees, peas, or glittering gems.
2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.
It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair. If you use an adjective to describe a physical attribute, make sure that the phrase is not only accurate and sensory but also fresh. In her short story “Flowering Judas,” Katherine Anne Porter describes Braggioni’s singing voice as a “furry, mournful voice” that takes the high notes “in a prolonged painful squeal.” Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”