Writing Tips

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I get a lot of requests for writing advice. While that brings the boys (readers) to the yard (blog) like crazy, I have always resisted that route to boost my blog hits because there are many qualified people out there talking writing, and those are the blogs you should go to.

Here are some random tips that have been rolling in my unqualified head the last year.

1. Snacks are important when writing. Do not skimp here. Do you really want to sacrifice your book just because you went with off brand cereal instead of REAL Fruity Pebbles?

2. The quality of your space is important. Through trial and error, learn what spatial elements energize you. I like natural light, my feet off the floor, little to no noise, and someone nearby fanning me with palm fronds.

3. Get up and walk around for a few minutes every hour. I usually use this time to go to the fridge.

4. Use time in a way that is for you and not against you. I am painfully motivated by a deadline, the imaginary ticking of a clock. One of the most effective things I've discovered is writing sprints, where another author and I will start at a set time and write for an hour, with the goal to write 1k words. We're in such a rush that we don't have time to stop and edit or agonize over every sentence. I've written some world class crap during this time, but crap is editable. (Writers Digest, you have my permission to use that poetic quote.)  Another idea is to set a timer for 30 minutes or an hour. Write like mad until you hear the beep. Sometimes I use this technique for house cleaning as well. It's been suggested that I use it for ice cream consumption, but that's just a rude idea. You can't put a time on Chunky Monkey.

5. Read. A lot. Read in your genre, read outside of your genre. I think a lot of people make excuses about this one. Everyone has limited time. But I've learned more about writing from reading fiction than I've ever learned from reading books on writing. If you think you are the exception, please hear these words: YOU ARE NOT. Use that library card. Dust off that Kindle.

6. Discuss these books you've read. Brain research says one of the best ways to process/absorb new info is to discuss or write about it. Have a friend or two who are willing to listen to you babble on about that latest YA or rom-com you just read. Author Natalie Lloyd reads a lot of YA, and we have literary interests in common. We both like commercial lit, strong writing, strong covers. We like to analyze all of the above. I always like to hear what author/speaker Marybeth Whalen has to say about Southern lit. I get a charge from discussing books with my students, from classics to Hunger Games. And librarians are great folks to talk books. Join a book club. It's been very eye-opening for me to hear what a group of women liked or didn't like about a book. (Example: 95 percent of us thoroughly disliked a book that has few bad reviews and was a NYT best-seller.)

7. Don't let number six disintegrate into negativity. Even though I'm on an indefinite hiatus, I'm really working on not playing the Comparison Game. This is a tough industry and the waters seem to be choppy for a new reason every day. It's easy to read Publisher's Weekly and see the deal reports or read Twitter humblebrags (one of my new favorite terms) and get negative. Satan wants me jealous, envious, mean, and tacky. He wants me to hold up the success of others in my right hand while clutching my own failures in my left. This is a quick way to get real unhappy real fast. If necessary, get an accountability partner for this. Don't underestimate the power-suckage of the comparison game.

8. Promote and encourage others. If someone tweets about a book, I always look it up on Amazon. If the author tweets about her book, I rarely look it up. Word of Mouth is powerful, but if it's only coming from you, how effective is it? Plus who wants to be the author who only talks about herself, her books?

9. Use social media in pro-reader sort of way.
If all you're doing is selling to me with your 12 tweets an hour, I'm not even reading your posts. The folks I follow, whose posts I actually read, engage with people and interact. Or at least offer some entertainment value. We all have different agendas, but not being obnoxious is high on my list. If being on Twitter gets me 200 more in book sales, but I've annoyed half my friends and followers by constantly ringing their internet door bell, then it's not worth it. Integrity first. Sales second. (Actually integrity first, fajitas second, sales third…)

10. Attend conferences or fake-attend conferences. There is a large conference that happens every summer that I've yet to go to. Instead, I fork over about 125.00 and get the entire conference on mp3. It's so worth it. I can listen to all the classes, skip the ones I don't want (like the ones where the author reads her entire session verbatim from a legal pad), and hear agents and editors discuss what they're looking for. For this I recommend ACFW and RWA. If you write nonfiction (or both), also check out Mt. Hermon, which I believe still does conference recordings.

11. Get out of your head, your cubicle, your office.
You'd be surprised how many ideas will be naturally generated by just stepping away from the norm. Going to a Civil War reenactment a few weeks ago was not something I usually do. I'd never done that. Last week I went to a senior citizen event to see the Army field band and choir with my sweet neighbor. For more ideas on this see The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron and check out the section on “dates with yourself.”

12. Watch movies. If they're done right, they should have the same general story structure as a well-plotted novel. And they only have so many minutes to do that in, so they focus on the big moments and the most important dialogue. For more info read the highly recommended Save the Cat by the late Blake Snyder.

13. Unpublished? Consider contests for the sake of cheap feedback. If you're going to a conference, purchase paid critiques if available. You will never get the chance for professional feedback for so cheap a price.

14. Make your book stand out. I read a lot of books, and I see a lot of contest entries. I'm no literary genius, but I've noticed a common pattern in the ones that grab me. If you want your story to stand out, make sure:
A. Your dialogue snaps. Movies are great examples for this. Weak or even average dialogue is a killer. Is there tension in your dialogue? Is there fun or sizzle in your dialogue? Does it sound like people you know–do your characters sound real? (Warning: embarrassing admission coming…) A good book with good dialogue compels me to read the dialogue out loud like I'm the star in a movie. I know some of you do that too. If I MUST hear it out loud, then that's good dialogue. Study those books that give you that reaction.

B. You have well-developed characters. What are your favorite books? Think about the characters. Who are the characters who you still thought about after you'd turned the final page? What did you love about them?  I have a favorite author who is an auto-buy for me. She usually knocks it out of the park, but not always. But her readers, who are a mega-group of faithful followers, will forgive a lot because even if the plot is lacking, you had a good time with her characters.

C. You have a significant inciting incident. Start off with a bang and never let off. The stakes have to be high right from the beginning. Writer folks sometimes call this putting your character up a tree. Put that character in hot water immediately. It should be an interesting struggle to unwrap the tangle she/he has gotten herself into. Your reader shouldn't read the first 30 pages and be able to ask, “Who cares?” Go big.

D. Your voice is in the narrative. Don't just show your stuff in the dialogue. Your narrative shouldn't be filler–it should be just as interesting. This is usually the stuff we readers skim, but it doesn't have to be. Even if you're not writing first person (where it's easy to interject a character's personality), much of the non-dialogue prose should be just as engaging. Is your voice there? We need to see the scene through the characters' voice, not yours. If you're writing a comedy, is your narrative humorous? This is not just a time to tell me what color the curtains are.  There aren't a lot of authors who do this, but those are the authors who have hooked me for life. Imagine Rick Castle going to McDonalds and ordering breakfast at 10:31 a.m. just as a bus pulls up that reads, “Pearl's School of Drag Queenery.” You would describe the sights, smells, sounds much differently as Castle (snark, wry commentary, keen observation, irreverence, twisted joy) than you would if you were observing it through the eyes of Queen Elizabeth.

14. Rest.
If you are tired, worn out, burned out, niced-out, take a break. You are no good to your readers if the idea of coming up with another plot makes you want to step in front of rush hour traffic. Taking a break has been one of the scariest, yet one of the best things I've ever done. It's given me new ideas, some clarity, and helped me get realistic about where I've been and where I want to go. Maybe you need a shorter break. Don't take that manuscript on vacation with you. Don't think about it when you have your kid's birthday party. If you find yourself not present, not in the moment in your own life, then it's time to step back and get some perspective and create some boundaries. If I'm miserable, then something's wrong, something's off-kilter.

15. Respect the call.
If you feel that God has called you to write, then pursue it. If this is you, know that Fear is currently doing Boot Camp, P90X, CrossFit, and anabolic steroids to get tough and stand in your way. If there is a voice in your head saying, “This is for other people,” get the book The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.  There is a difference in fear talking and God talking. Sometimes God says no. But until you're sure it's the Big G, then keep pushing.

Writing is a frustrating, hard business. If a good book's in you, then you gotta keep going.
Any questions about writing? The biz? Any suggestions for fellow writers?

These tips have been brought to you by a rainy Spring Break and Jenny B. Jones.


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 28 comments
Colene Murphy - March 20, 2012

This was wonderfully awesome, Jenny. Some bits I actually needed to read right this moment, and the rest I’ve filed away for future reference. Glad you finally did this post! Was well worth the wait! 😉

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Joanne Kraft - March 20, 2012

Wonderful post. My first time here. I decided to neglect my children and spend a little blog time with you instead. Great choice.

I’m a newbie author with the discipline of a gnat. Sure wish God made some kind of focus-nectar. I’d be all over it.

Going now to Tweet this post. Thanks again, Jenny!

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Skye - March 20, 2012

Thanks for the great advice,
Crap is editable, that made me laugh.
I need to remember that.
I’ve been writing a lot of crap lately so you gave me hope. I love your blog it makes my day

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Cathy Richmond - March 20, 2012

The only thing I’d add would be a cup with a lid. Keep yourself, but not your laptop, hydrated. Thanks Jenny!

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Richard Mabry - March 20, 2012

Jenny, Don’t let that indefinite hiatus stretch on too long. The world needs more writers who know how to a) laugh at themselves, b) induce others to laugh, and c) recognize the value of ice cream (although I prefer Blue Bell Homemade Peach to Chunky Monkey).
Thanks for sharing.

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Lisa Buffaloe - March 20, 2012

Love these, Jenny. Thank you for sharing your wit and your wisdom! (Do you also share snacks?)

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Elaine Stock - March 20, 2012

This is also my first time here–you caught my eye on Twitter. In fact, I’m about to RT this because I think it’s just wonderfully liberating! I just took a little break after sending my requested work off to a few editors. Then, I tried–again–to continue this one problematic story I’ve been trying to work on, but after this particular break realized it was meant to be put down for a questionably sized nap… am working on a new story and it’s flying. So, you are so right: it’s okay to rest.

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Ashley Clark - March 20, 2012

Jen, you are such a little pearl of wisdom. Thank you for sharing these tips! 🙂

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Teri Metts - March 20, 2012

Great post, Jenny! Kept me laughing while imparting some excellent tips on writing. Well worth the stop.

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Amy - March 20, 2012

Loved, loved this. Thank you for the insight and encouragement!

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Natalie - March 20, 2012

This is incredible advice. And it’s free. It’s hard to find this much good advice in ONE post. Thanks for sharing this. Thanks for focusing on the personal heart-part of writing as well as the craft. I needed these reminders today.

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jada-renee AKA cookie703 - March 20, 2012

I will take this into consideration as i revise my second book. Thank you Jenny-you may have saved my career!!! 🙂

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Michelle Saint-Germain - March 20, 2012

There is a difference in fear talking and God talking. Sometimes God says no. But until you’re sure it’s the Big G, then keep pushing.

This is my favorite part of your post. I need to here this. Often.

Thanks!

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Jenny B Jones - March 20, 2012

Colene, Patron Saint of Stray Cats, I feel like we haven’t talked in forever!

Welcome to the blog, Elaine and Joanne!

Lisa, that one will take some thought. Do I share snacks…gotta pray about that.

Doc Mabry, thank you so much for the nice words. And I actually do not like Chunky Monkey, I just like the sound of it. My favorite Ben and Jerry’s has the most boring name. And I LOVE Blue Bell.

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Liz Johnson - March 20, 2012

Jenny, why are you so brilliant? I love your tips. So true. I fall into the comparison trap ALL the time. It’s such a struggle for me. Thanks for the reminder that it just gets in the way.

Also, I frequently forget that fajitas should be second and sales third. Sometimes I make jellybeans second, fajitas third, chocolate fourth, and forget about sales altogether. You’re one smart lady. Thanks for posting this advice. 🙂

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Danica - March 21, 2012

LOVE these!! So glad that Liz Johnson girl Tweeted about your blog to remind me that I’ve been missing my twin.

You forgot one important piece of advice… scheduling quality time with ME! (Like, hey, when is that going to happen already?)

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Erin McFarland - March 21, 2012

Best writing tips I’ve read in a long time! Actually I do have a question for ya…how long does it typically take you to write the first draft of a story (or does it vary story to story)? Thanks Jenny 🙂

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Bonita - March 21, 2012

Great advice! Going to share it everywhere!

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Jill Kemerer - March 21, 2012

I love that this is motivational and funny! Just like your books! I’m with Richard, keep the hiatus on the short side, please? 🙂

Oh, and I had a date with myself at Staples this morning. Let’s just say purple pens needed to come home with me.

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August McLaughlin - March 21, 2012

Such practical tips. Thanks! I’ve been amazed at how important rest and snacks are. Low blood sugar and overwork lead to grumpiness and blurred thinking. (Is it pickle or pickel?) LOL So glad Ms. Kemerer led me to your blog!

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Camille Eide - March 21, 2012

Love this, thank you! It’s perfect timing for me. Since you are Queen of All That Rocks about writing, it shakes me just a little that you could face doubt, comparison, etc. The Unpubbed are seeing a little more reason to lose hope every day. But that fact and your post remind me it’s not about the publishing world—it’s about the call, the gift, the drive to create & share. And the snacks, apparently. 🙂 Thanks, I’m drawing stars around this one and saving it. And sharing. Maybe sharing. For sure saving.

Camille Eide
http://camilleeide.wordpress.com

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Julie Glover - March 21, 2012

Fabulous advice! You covered so much, so well. In particular, I never considered purchasing a conference’s lessons. Thanks!

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Clare Kolenda - March 21, 2012

Great writing tips, Jenny! I’m in that final push in finishing my manuscript, and while half of me is ecstatic, the other half of me feels like I’m about to jump over a cliff. 🙂 These writing tips really helped me.

On a side note, just wanted to say that I really admire you in that you were able to take a break for a while from writing. It taught me that though writing is important, it shouldn’t suck the life out of you. Sometimes I feel like writing can become this monster that I’m constantly battling, guilt tripping me when I have the gall to take a weekend off. It was rather helpful to know that just because I’m a writer, it’s OKAY to take a break from it. To give myself time to breathe. 🙂

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Lana Packer - March 21, 2012

Jenny!

Well, I have to echo the masses…brava! Love this post! I am a faithful blog follower of yours and I love your humor and advice. It encourages me to strap on the backpack and climb that writing mountain!

Yup, you rock!

Lana

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Rel Mollet - March 22, 2012

Jen – love this. Even though I’m not a writer, there is plenty of good stuff for me to take in, as always. You’ve entertained me at 6am in the morning – that’s how I know you are really brilliant 🙂

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Heather Sunseri - March 30, 2012

My daughter and I are praying really hard that you end your indefinite hiatus soon!! We so enjoy reading and laughing together over your novels, Jenny!

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Jenny B Jones - April 1, 2012

Erin, I’m sorry I forgot to answer your question!
I usually have 6 months to write a book, but due to one thing or another, that time flies out the window, and I end up writing a book in 6 weeks to 3 months. But most of us are giving six months to a year to complete a book, depending on what we request or what the publisher asks for.

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Mai - March 14, 2019

This was fantastic, Jenny. I am actually rereading some of your books and I’ve gotten quite a few ideas. I love your writing style and as someone who aspires to be an author after high school, I was wondering if there are any classes you think I should take.

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