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.

80 comments

  • June 5, 2013 at 12:15 AM // Reply

    Great suggestions (my auto-correct just changed it to “great suggest onions.” My brilliant tip: turn off auto-fill when you are writing. Unless you actually want craziness).

    My real tip is a lot your dictionary of superfluity: I do a search in my document for the letter combo “ly.” Then I consider each adverb and nuke 90% of them.

  • My WTF Code is XXX. But I write romance so at least half the time XXX is exactly what goes in the hole.

    So to speak.

    My Stoopid Rytr Trix: Write at 1.5 line spacing. It’s not so dense you can’t get through a page relatively easily, but at the end of each page you still get a decent word count to put in your Little Jail Cell.

  • Great pointers. Never thought of the looking at the blocks of text thing, but it makes sense.

    The saving thing is critical. Not only do you need to save to your computer, you’ve got to get it to the cloud. Automatically. When you revise, you need to keep versions, too. Scrivener for Windows doesn’t do it, so I came up with a way to get it done in the background without me thinking about it. I describe it in detail here: http://michaelhendersonnovelist.com/michaelhender/2013/5/7/backup-version-control-and-comparing-your-work

    Google is the writer’s gift from the gods. We have the entire knowledge base of the world, illustrated, with video, at our fingertips. I’ve thought many times about what I’d have to have done in 1975. Go to the library, try to get a microfiche, figure out the reader, find the nearly unreadable page, cough up a quarter to get it printed . . . I even figured out how to hack my DVD player to play zone zero (i.e., DVDs of all countries).

    • I just save my Scribner projects to my SkyDrive (or Dropbox). I have enough free storage and this way I can move for my desktop PC to my laptop devices without missing a beat.

  • At the LA Festival of Books, Robin Hobb shared a trick, similar to Chekhov’s Continuity above: a character glossary. She keeps a secondary doc file open while she’s writing, and every time a new character is introduced, or a new detail is added to that character’s description (i.e., eye color, profession, where they were born – anything that is concrete and might come up again), she copy/pastes it into her glossary, which she arranges alphabetically by character name.

    I have been doing this on my current large project; I’m not far enough along to have needed the glossary as a reference yet but at the very least it helps me to see which characters are well fleshed-out and which ones aren’t, and to think about whether the ones that aren’t ought to be more so.

  • I save my Scrivener file to the dropbox folder. Saves it on my computer and online. I also have dropbox on multiple computers. So I boot them up to sync the file to them as well. Also have two external backup hard drives. I hope I have it covered. Unless Skynet comes along.

  • Great advice! I really need to make a habit of #9. I tend to get too wrapped up at a word level in stuff I’m reading to notice how other authors have dealt with structure.

    If there isn’t a clockwork marmoset in the next novel, there is no God.

  • You know, this could be a reoccur-able feature. . .I wonder if it is trademarked? This form is much better for the attention span challenged that that terribly long list of 25. Hey, look at that pretty flower!

  • Oh…I already do some of these. Now I feel smart today (as opposed to feeling like I was just making shit up accidentally out of desperation). I prefer the former to the later.

    I use the code system quite a bit…I write erotic romance. There’s big sex, angry sex, shower sex…make up sex. It’s usually more time consuming (and more interesting, sometimes) to write what happens before and after those scenes, so I usually leave the sex till the end.

  • I have done many of these – but the continuity one is very very good advice. I have to go BACK and do more of that now. I regret not doing it all along.

  • “The Dictionary Of Superfluity”… gah. Yes, this times one thousand. There is something wrong with me: I pair “quickly” and “quietly” like conjoined twins, even when I know I do it and consciously try to avoid it.

  • Oh, the code system. The best ones I’ve heard are [...and then they have sex] and [insert wild monkey sex here]. Me, I keep it simple with [SEX GOES HERE]. Also I find it interesting how all the erotic romance writers are chiming in on this element. We are all yadda-yadda-ing our sex scenes.

    • You beat me to it. :) yes, I use square brackets too. Then during each read through and final editing, it’s like a contest to reduce the [research monkey arms] and [describe monkey dildo better] areas. I also use it when I’m not sure if I’m using a word correctly and need to look it up, when I know I’m repeating a word and need a thesaurus, and when I know something should go there but don’t want to stop and think about what, I leave them [] empty. They are an infinitely useful.

      • HA. Good to know that the steamy scenes readers love are products of [yadda-yadda-yadda BIG MONKEY SEX] and [how does a monkey dildo work anyway?] ;)

        Thanks for adding laughter to the excellent advice. I tend to actually go DO the [research thingy-dingy here] in the moment, instead of waiting. Waiting is better.

  • These are the best stupid tips I’ve seen in a while, and not just because I do all of them in one way or another.

    Here’s one I’m trying out now: if you are trying to write a funny scene, have *someone else* read it out loud. Because you don’t get to control the timing, inflection et al when a reader is, you know, reading.

  • You can set your word count target in Scrivener and simplify some of the word-count spreadsheet thing by going to Project > Show Project Targets.

    You can also do an actual check on word frequency by going to Project > Text Statistics

  • After a hard drive crash lost me a large portion of my work that not even file restoration programs could fix, I started saving to Google Drive as well as my computer. I’ve recently switched to Windows 8 and added SkyDrive, backing up at the end of the day. I also have a small capacity USB flash drive, which I update every time I leave the computer.

    Sure, it may be too much saving, but it’s multiple avenues to avoid losing well over 30000 words again.

  • The jail cells are definitely worth doing, but if you really want to waste time, you can go much further. I also have running totals, how much I’ve failed or exceeded my daily targets by, and how far behind or ahead I am of my running targets.

    I can spend several hours setting all this up and waste an entire writing session if I try hard enough.

  • Before each writing session, I duplicate the file I saved the last time I wrote and write/revise in the duplicate. The filename begins with a number that represents the number of times I’ve sat down to work on the novel. I use a Mac, so I add the word total in the Finder comment field, along with the date.

    If your word processing software supports it, you can do a global find/replace for overused words or suffixes (-ing, -ly), replace the text with itself, and add a color change or highlight.

  • All useful tips. I like the one sentence character descriptions. Maybe you should use that as a writing challenge, it would be interesting (and educational) to see how others achieve this.

  • June 5, 2013 at 11:20 AM // Reply

    Hmmm, interesting and useful tricks, thanks! Especially Dictionary of Superfluity. Apparently I like the word “just.” I ‘just’ searched my 90K novel (in Word 2007) and found 198 of the little buggers! If you don’t know how to do this–in Find/Replace, select Find and enter the word you want to count. Click on ‘Reading Highlight’ and select ‘Highlight All’ and a line comes up announcing how many instances the word appears. I’m afraid to try “really” and “very” but will gird my loins and wade in. Die, superfluous words, die!

  • June 5, 2013 at 11:22 AM // Reply

    Don’t just save, save in multiple formats. Save on your computer, flash drive, external hard drive, and print up an occasional hard copy on old fashioned paper. This is handy for when Shanghai uploads spyware onto your computer and hit the computers digital kill switch when they realize you’re not developing the next strain of bird flu or SARS. Yeah, that happened to me which is why I do that and no longer watch busty asian chicks doing stuff online anymore.

  • I’m gonna start doing thses, certainly in the rewrite.

    I do tend to keep a file open with necessary notes – mostly character names, descriptions and a one-or-two liner with their relatonship to plot. If I kill a character, I put a big ‘dies in *book/chapter*’ so that I don;t accidentally bring them back to life.

  • Thanks for another great blog post. I have to admit I tend to use notes a lot in my writing. I don’t start writing until my outline is perfect now. That way some of the stuff you mention isn’t necessary. But as you say with words, there are always some which I use too much so I will definitely add that into my process and the printing off… never thought of that before.

  • June 5, 2013 at 1:35 PM // Reply

    The spreadsheet idea is genius. Do you have a template you use? Does anyone? I’d love to see one! I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to Excel.

  • June 5, 2013 at 2:26 PM // Reply

    I have one that you might like. I linked to it in an earlier comment, but that roused the anger of the moderation queue.

    Just Google Fugitive Prose to get to my blog, then look at the link on the right called Novel Planning Worksheet. It has a quota tracking, complete with color coding. Hope it helps!

  • Fantastic stupid writer tricks. I’m going to start my spreadsheet today.

    The one I use that isn’t listed is in Word 2010, I turn on the ‘navigation pane’ under the ‘view’ tab. And when I’ve written a chapter or a scene I give it a descriptive heading, like ‘Thomas and Alice find the sheep in the swimming pool’, and then ask the novel gets longer it’s much easier to move about from chapter to chapter and still know what is going on.

  • These are great. Spreadsheets have a way of consuming my life – so I don’t know if I want to risk it doing a spreadsheet for the wordcount! As is, multiple spreadsheets for all the characters big and small – with cells for their loyalties, where they’re from, and sometimes even their birth date. I have other spreadsheets for who is in what location and when. It’s time consuming but I find that it gives me a better grasp for the flow of the story and certainly helps with continuity.

  • A quick and easy way to store a backup copy offsite if you don’t have cloud storage setup is to email the files to yourself using a web-based email program like gmail or yahoo or hotmail. If anything happens to your computer, a copy will be in your email inbox and in the sent folder. You can also setup an email folder just for these kind of backups.

  • June 5, 2013 at 5:12 PM // Reply

    I’ve started throwing chapters into Wordle to get a visual picture of the most commonly used words. Character names showing up big are great. Seeing “then” and “quickly” is not.

  • I’ve done a lot of these, but there are definitely two I’m going to try: outlining other novels and the WTF code. I’ve been working on ways to do just that with my WIP which is in transition nightmare-hell right now.

  • The one thing about great advice – You never get tired of hearing it.
    This qualifies. In spades.

    And the best way to find words/terms for your “Dictionary Of Superfluity”?
    Let someone else read your work.
    Someone other than your mom.
    Another writer-type person. And you should do the same for them.
    The best way to zone in on your bad habits is to have someone point them out to you and to then see them reflected in the writing of others.

  • June 5, 2013 at 8:54 PM // Reply

    I love my junk language list, and Scrivener auto saves for me (yay!) though I email myself backups every few weeks, just in case of random comp crash. I haven’t used WTF codes, usually I’ll jot down “something approximating X goes here” and highlight it. Might try codes in the future. Awesome idea.

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  • One more: Gantt charts for mapping plot/character dependencies over time.

    Not sure who told me about it, but if you have MS Project or something similar lying around anyway…

  • (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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