Ten Stupid Writer Tricks (That Might Actually Work)

We’re all full of weird little penmonkey tricks. Hell, I got a whole cabinet of ’em.

So, here’s ten.

Peruse.

Add your own should you see fit.

The Tiniest Outline Of Them All: The last 50-100 words you write at the end of your day should be a note to yourself detailing just what the fuck you should write tomorrow. (“HORACE MURDERS LORD THORNJIZZ AND THE LITHUANIAN DETECTIVE CIRCUS IS ASSIGNED TO THE CASE”). In other news, now I want to write a book about a “Lithuanian detective circus,” whatever that is. I call dibs. You can’t have it. I’ll get stabby.

Little Jail Cells: Use a spreadsheet to track your deadlines and daily word count. Individual cells can detail word target and word actual for the day. Color code those motherfuckers: a red cell means you missed the target, whereas a green cell means you met or exceeded the target. Subtract current story’s word tally from total word tally desired to see just how much more blood you have yet to squeeze from this particular stone.

Chekhov’s Continuity: You’ve got lots of little things to track from start to finish when writing a long-form story (novel, screenplay, comic script), and it only gets harder when you sit down to write the sequels. Take notes on continuity as you go. Write them in a little notebook. Or use the function of your individual word processor (Scrivener is great with this, but using Word’s comments or notebook view could work, too). You have lots of things to track: where’s that gun and how many bullets are left? Who’s got the key to the Apiary Gate? Who knows the secret about Lord Thornjizz and his clockwork marmoset? Who put the bop in the bop-she-bop?

The WTF Code: Sometimes you’re writing and you hit a part in the story where you’re just like, “Nope, no fucking idea what happens here. Maybe they fight? Maybe they make love? I’m envisioning an orangutan for some reason.” Or maybe you reach a portion where you need more information (“Note to self: research the sewer tunnel layout of Schenectady”). That’s okay. Leave it blank and drop a code you’ll remember right into the section, a code that will specifically not be duplicated anywhere else in the text (WTF2013, for instance). Then when you complete the first pass of the manuscript, just do a FIND for all instances of YOUR SEKRIT CODE and hop through your many narrative gaps and chasms. FILL AND SPACKLE.

Save Or Die: Wanna know when to save your manuscript? Uh, pretty much always, always, always. Ah, but here’s a good specific tip: anytime you stop for any reason at all — to think! to take a shot of vodka! to tweet! — SAVE THAT MOTHERFUCKING MANUSCRIPT. Save frequently. Save obsessively! Future You will thank Present Proactive You the moment your asshole computer shits the bed and you lose barely any text at all.

The Dictionary Of Superfluity: As you write, begin to collect what you believe are instances of so-called “junk language” that you seem likely to use again and again. This might be any word that seems to bog down the flow of a sentence — actually, very, really, effectively, just. Slap that shit in a list. When it comes time to edit, do a FIND and look for instances of all these nasty little word-goblins. Then stick them in a bag and burn them. (You can also do this with words that may not be junky but that you find yourself overusing — “For some reason I really seem to like the words ‘turgid,’ ‘clamshell,’ and ‘widdershins.'”)

The Shape Of The Prose: Print out pages of the work. No no no — don’t read it. Not yet. Just let your eyes gloss over it — behold the shape of the prose upon the page. You should see diversity there in shape — a few big sections, some short sections, some one-line dialogue. Uniformity is not ideal. Big giant shit-bricks of text will bog down the story; but too many short little sentences crammed together may also unnerve the eye. (Tip to an old writing professor, Doctor Kobre, for turning me onto this one. I still do this.)

The One-Sentence Description Exercise: Practice honing your mad description skillz by looking at someone and describing them with a single sentence. (And not a sentence with a half-dozen hyphens, colons and semi-colons, you little cheater.) Maybe it’s a celebrity — Tom Cruise! Maybe it’s that poor homeless down by the train station who looks like a bunch of half-full garbage bags lashed together under a pile of dirty rags. Alternate version: make it a tweet-length description, 140-characters only. Similar! But different.

Outline Other People’s Books: Pick up a book. Read it. And outline it. Study that outline. Study the narrative pivots. Study the shifts in pacing and tone. Take as many notes as you care to or are able to. Do this with multiple books. Compare them. GO MAD AS YOU INGEST THE SPIRITS OF THOSE AUTHORS WHO HAVE COME BEFORE YOU. Okay, maybe not so much with that last part — but this is a good way to grasp how other authors handle plot, story, and character. Don’t limit yourself to novels, either: study films, games, short stories, comic books.

Lords Of Google, Allow Me To Be Your Avatar In This World: Can’t visit a place? Use Google Maps Street View. It isn’t perfect (there’s no smell-o-vision, nor can you drive the Google Car into a bar and get a drink and talk to the local drunks), but it’ll give you a feel for what a place is like — enough to describe it in your Fancy Fictions. Plus you might catch some guy whizzing on a telephone pole or a couple of geriatrics having sex in a Chevy Malibu.

81 comments

  • (Trying this post again because my previous attempt never showed up.)
    For Windows users who want “set it and forget it backups,” there’s a great little program called Second Copy (that’s the web site name too). You simply:

    1) Choose the folder with your originals.

    2) Choose where you want to copy it to.

    3) Choose how often (whenever there’s a change, or every X often, etc.).

    4) Choose whether you want the backup to be an exact mirror (so if you delete a file in the original folder it gets deleted from the backup) or one of the other types (such as keeping all versions of your files even if you save over them in the original folder– provided it has time to grab a copy of course).

    It also allows you to make duplicates of the setup, so, for example, you can have it copy to your Dropbox folder with one, and an external drive with another. It’s not free, but it’s only $30 and there’s a fully functional free trial (I don’t remember how long the trial is for). I’ve been using is for about 5 years and love it. I’m sure there’s similar software for Macs.

  • Printing out your work to see how it looks on the page is a great idea. Also, when reading through it one last time (for those last-minute copyedits) I like to print in a really ugly font. It makes the words look different enough that I can read it fresh without glossing over any words.

  • And don’t forget to give a copy of your files to someone who doesn’t live near you ( as the writers involved in the Black Forest fires in CO can atest to )

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