Though stories are imaginary, they have an incredible ability to encourage readers to either engage deeply with the real world, or search for an escape. As writers, our responsibility is to be intentional about the reactions we provoke and instead fill readers up. Only when they’re overflowing with hope can they pour themselves into others. To leave them in a better state than you found them, you need to stir up a special sort of longing.
Everyone has favorite genres that they fill shelf after shelf and hour after hour with. One of mine is contemporary fantasy. Yours might be romance and historical fiction. But, outside of binging and overspending on those, you probably read more eclectically. You don’t mind picking up a mystery or fairy-tale retelling when the blurb draws you in. After all, you’ve heard over and over again that diversifying your reading material increases your creativity and understanding of story craft. Reading outside your comfort zone, however, is not nearly as challenging as writing outside your comfort zone.
Writers tend to treat the fine points of writing like chemicals in a science lab. Some jumble style and grammar in an intellectual test tube, uncertain which combination will produce the desired effect. Others avoid the subject because they’re worried it might encumber their creativity and make their writing monotonous.
Prose is the undertow that immerses readers, and the deeper they sink, the more truth and beauty they can explore. The transformative power of storytelling resides in the author’s ability to pull readers into an unfamiliar sea and convince them they can taste the salt. Until they believe the waves lapping at their imaginations are real, they won’t set sail—or ever reach the shore of a new perspective.
I’m addicted to flash fiction. I enjoy the challenge of compacting a story into a thousand words or fewer—and watching other writers do it too! But flash fiction is more than a method for writing quick, poignant stories. It’s an incredibly useful yet overlooked tool for refining your skills in general.
I have a confession: trying to find the right words takes me ages. I obsess over sentence structure, vocabulary, and descriptions, pouring my time and energy into the black hole of unnecessary edits. It’s a harmful compulsion, and I know it. The more changes I make, the more I hate my work-in-progress, and the less productive I become. I forget the big picture and throttle my motivation. Worst of all, my creativity ebbs. But restraining myself seems impossible. Can chronic over-editors dare to hope for a cure?
For writers, especially “serious” writers, fanfiction can feel like the elephant in the room. Everyone is aware of it, and many of us have tiptoed into it. Yet, because of the stigma that clings to it, we avoid talking about it. The genre (if it can even be classified as one) has no gatekeepers or editors, and readers often use it to extend stories they love—usually with an odd or disturbing twist. You could fill a library with all of the erotica and overdramatic depictions of the worst tropes (consider yourself warned). Several popular mainstream books-turned-films began as fanfiction, including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen’s delightful novel repackaged with zombies and zombie fighters) and Fifty Shades of Gray (a smutty mutation of Twilight minus the vampires).
A book that’s the clone of hundreds of others won’t capture or keep a reader’s attention. Every sentence—the flesh and muscle of a story—must glisten. The most legendary writers, like Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, are memorable because they honed their own idiosyncrasies into pleasing forms of expression. If you hope to write evocatively, you need to learn how to capitalize on any sentence length.
Every story consists of tiny, pixel-like decisions that either make the big picture clear and vivid or fuzzy and muted. Whether you’re placing punctuation or determining which character’s voice should narrate a scene, each judgment call will affect readers’ enjoyment. Oftentimes, the difference between clunky and compelling text is a pair of scissors, and the acronym P.R.O.S.E. can help you recognize what to trim.
Everyone enjoys turning red in the face and struggling to breathe for a few seconds after a hilarious experience. Laughter lightens your mood, reduces stress, and even improves your immune system. On a relational level, humor helps you connect with others whether you’re swapping anecdotes in the same room together or reading a character’s wisecracks from a printed page. Humor makes stories more engaging overall, as well as balances out tenser scenes.