Creative writing belongs to the arts, and the arts are an odd bunch.
People pursue artistic endeavors for different reasons. For some, it’s a hobby. For others, a livelihood. For most, it’s a hobby they dream of turning into a livelihood.
It’s a worthwhile dream and a lofty one too. But what does it take to get there? How much fun are you allowed to have, and just how much work must you do to turn your passion into a full-time job?
This post was originally published back in 2009, but I’ve updated it to add some new resources. Enjoy!
You don’t have to search far to find creative writing tips. There are tons of books, websites, and magazines that will let you in on the secrets of creativity and good, strong writing.
But if you want the inside scoop on what it takes to be a successful author, wouldn’t it be best to get it straight from the source–from a published author, an agent, or the editor of a major publication or publishing house?
These experts can share proven techniques that will help us improve our writing, get our work in front of an audience, and build a readership.
I was recently reading a novel, and a few chapters in, I realized I had mixed up two of the main characters. In fact, I had been reading them as if they were a single character. I’m a pretty sharp reader, and this has never happened before, so I tried to determine why I’d made the mistake. Was I tired? Hungry? Not paying attention?
I went back and reviewed the text and noticed that these two characters were indistinct. They were so alike that without carefully noting which one was acting in any given scene, it was impossible to differentiate them from each other. They were essentially the same character. Even their names sounded alike.
This got me to thinking about the importance of building a cast of characters who are unique and distinct from each other.
We sometimes talk about stock characters in literature. You know them: the mad scientist, the poor little rich kid, the hard-boiled detective. These characters have a place in storytelling. When readers meet a sassy, gum-popping waitress in a story, they know immediately who she is. They’ve seen that character in other books and movies. Maybe they’ve even encountered waitresses like her in real life. These characters are familiar, but they’re also generic.
When we use a stock character as a protagonist or any other main character, we have to give the character unique qualities so the character doesn’t come off as generic or boring. It’s fine to have a sassy, gum-popping waitress make a single appearance in a story, but if she’s a lead character, she’s going to need deeper, more complex development so the readers no longer feel as if they already know her. She has to become new and interesting.
Stieg Larsson did this brilliantly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the sequels that made up the Millennium trilogy. At first the protagonist, Lisbeth Salander, seems like a surly punk, the kind of character we’ve seen a million times before. As the story progresses and Lisbeth moves to center stage, we learn there’s more to her than meets the eye. She’s antisocial (it is suggested she has Asperger’s Syndrome) and she’s a computer genius. She’s bold, brave, and tough. She’s not just some surly punk. She is a moral person with unique challenges–one of the most intriguing characters in contemporary fiction.
Cloned characters are often taken from source material, sometimes as an homage and other times as a blatant rip off. Such characters are particularly problematic when they feature prominently in a story and have no traits that differentiate them from the character upon which they are based. Do you want to read a story about a boy wizard named Hal Porter who wears glasses and has a scar on his forehead? Probably not, unless it’s a parody of Harry Potter, whom we all know and love.
You can certainly write a story about a young wizard who is based on Harry Potter, but you have to differentiate your character from Harry. Make the character a girl, give her a hearing aid instead of glasses, and come up with a memorable name that doesn’t immediately bring Harry Potter to mind.
As the book I was recently reading demonstrates, we also have to watch out for cloning characters within our own stories. For most writers, this is a bigger problem than cloning characters out of other authors’ stories.
Think about it: you are the creator of all the characters in your story. You might have based them on people or characters you know and love (or loathe). You might have conjured them from your imagination. But they are all coming from you: your thoughts, your experiences, and your voice.
While I’ve never mixed up two characters in a book I was reading before, I have noticed that characters who act, think, and speak similarly are common. And while a cast of characters who are similar to each other in every way imaginable doesn’t necessarily make a story bad, a cast of characters who are noticeably distinct from each other is way better.
Nature vs. Nurture
Cloning is the practice of making a copy of something, an exact replica. You can clone a human being (or a character), but once the clone comes into existence, it will immediately start changing and becoming different from the original. Its personal experiences will be unique. By nature, the original and the clone are exactly the same, but nurture (or life experience) will cause the clone to deviate from the original.
Here are some tips to make sure your characters are unique and not clones of each other or any character or person they are based on:
- Give your characters distinct and memorable names. Avoid giving characters name that sound alike. Don’t use names that start with the same letter and are the same length, and don’t use names that rhyme.
- Unless you’re writing a family saga, make sure your characters don’t all look alike. Try developing a diverse cast of characters.
- Characters’ speech patterns will depend on where they’re from, but individuals also have their own quirky expressions and sayings. Use dialogue to differentiate the characters from each other. Maybe one character swears a lot while another calls everyone by nicknames.
- Create character sketches complete with back stories. If you know your characters intimately, you’ll be less likely to portray them as a bunch of clones.
- To help you visualize your characters, look for photos of actors and other public figures that you can use to help your imagination fill in the blanks.
Are You Cloning?
The main problem with the book I mentioned at the beginning of this post was that there were two characters who were essentially functioning as a single entity, at least for the first four or five chapters, which is as far as I got in the book. The best fix for that problem would have been to combine the two characters into a single character, something I have had to do on one of my fiction projects that had a few too many names and faces.
I can’t help but wonder if the author ever bothered to run the manuscript by beta readers, and since the book was traditionally published, I wondered how the cloned characters made it past the editor.
How much attention do you pay to your characters when you’re writing a story? What strategies do you use to get to know your characters and make sure they are all unique? If you have any tips to share, leave a comment, and keep writing!
If creative writing is your passion, then you’d probably enjoy a career in which you could spend all day (or at least most of the day) pursuing that passion.
But creative writing is an artistic pursuit, and we all know that a career in the arts isn’t easy to come by.
It takes hard work, drive, dedication, a whole lot of spirit, and often, a willingness to take big financial risks — as in not having much money while you’re waiting for your big break.
When we think of people who make a living through writing, novelists and journalists come to mind immediately. But what other jobs are out there for folks who want to make creative writing the work that puts food on the table?
The Creative Writing Career List
Here’s a list of 20 creative writing jobs that you can consider for your career path. I’m not making any promises. You have to go out and find them yourself, but these are jobs that exist. You just have to look for them and then land them.
- Greeting Card Author
- Comic Book Writer
- Creativity Coach
- Writing Coach
- Advertising (Creative)
- Songwriter (Lyricist)
- Freelance Short Fiction Writer
- Creative Writing Instructor
- Legacy Writer (write people’s bios and family histories)
- Travel Writer (if you travel)
- Article Writer (write, submit, repeat)
- Video Game Writer (includes storytelling/fiction!)
- Personal Poet (write personalized poems for weddings, funerals, childbirths, etc.)
- Blogger (don’t tell me you don’t have a blog yet!)
- Creative Writing Consultant
Now, I’m not saying you’re going to make a whole lot to live on with some of these creative writing jobs but if you do what you love, the money (i.e. the success) just might follow. You’ll never know unless you try, right?
Do you have any creative writing careers to add to this list? Share your ideas by leaving a comment.
What steps do you take to get a creative writing project completed? Is your method sheer madness?
One day, many years ago, I was working in an office. The executives were having a meeting to discuss new procedures. It was a hot day and the conference room was small and crowded, so the door was open. As I passed by on my way to the filing room, I overheard my boss saying, “Melissa can handle that. She’s very methodical.”
Methodical. I tried it on and decided yes, it fit. “I am methodical,” I declared, and went about my business.
And it was true, too. I was organized to a fault, always looking for systems and processes that would streamline the workflow and make business more efficient and therefore more effective. The clothes in my closet were organized by season, length, and color. I didn’t have to flip through my hangers to find an article of clothing. Everything was neatly filed in its place.
Selling the Method
Writing gurus and mentors often want us to believe that there is only one true writing process. It usually goes something like this:
- Outline and research
- Rough draft
- Revise (repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat)
- Edit, proof, and polish
This is a good system–it absolutely works. But does it work for everyone?
Assessing the Creative Writing Process
I’ve been thinking a lot about thecreative writingprocess. Lately, I’ve found myself working on all types of projects–web pages, blog posts, a science fiction trilogy, and a children’s chapter book.
How do I tackle all these different projects without some kind of plan or system?
I’ve thought about the steps I take with my own writing and realized that the writing process I use varies from project to project and depends on the level of difficulty, the length and scope of the project, and even my state of mind. If I’m feeling super creative, a blog post or an article will come flying out of my head. If I’m tired, hungry, or unmotivated, or if the project is complicated, then it’s a struggle and I have to work a little harder. Brainstorming and outlining can help. A lot.
It occurred to me that I don’t have one creative writing process. I have several. And I always use the one that’s best suited for a particular project.
March to the Beat
One of my favorite sayings has to do with marching to the beat of your own drum. I like that saying because that’s how I walk–to my own rhythm. If I didn’t, then I probably never would have started my own business or believed that I could make it as a writer. In fact, I probably wouldn’t be a writer at all.
Some writers can sit down and pound out an article, a short story, or even a novel without ever planning or outlining. Others have to follow a strict writing process or they get lost and confused, tangled up in their own words.
For example, when I am involved in a copywriting or nonfiction project, I find that brainstorming and outlining are essential. I need to organize my thoughts and make sure I cover the subject matter thoroughly. But with creative writing projects, such as fiction and poetry (and even the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo back in 2008), I just start typing and let the ideas flow. Conversely, the NaNoWriMo project I did this year had a full, detailed outline.
Listen to Your Own Rhythm
We all start with interesting creative writing ideas and hope to finish with a completely riveting piece of writing.
That day I overheard my boss saying that I was methodical was a long time ago. Since then, I’ve loosened up my methods. Oh, I can still whip up a streamlined procedure and implement it. I have to do that for my own business all the time, whether it involves maintaining my client contact list or managing my quotes and invoices–using a system for that stuff is extremely helpful.
But my closet no longer looks like it’s maintained by Martha Stewart. It’s still pretty organized, but not by color and season. It helps to know when a system works and when it’s all hype. The first few times I tried to write a novel, I did so using the exact same writing process that I used for writing essays in college, and it simply did not work. It wasn’t until I totally changed the process that I was able to succeed and complete that massive creative writing project.
Writing processes are good. The reason our predecessors developed these processes and shared them, along with a host of other writing tips, was to help us be more productive and produce better writing. Techniques and strategies can be helpful, but it’s our responsibility to know what works for us as individuals and as creative writers and to know what will cause us to infinitely spin our wheels.
I Showed You Mine
…now you show me yours.
What’s your creative writing process? Do you have one? Do you ever get stuck in the writing process? How do you get unstuck?
When life gets hectic, it’s impossible to get your creative writing done. Inspiration might be knocking but the house is so full, you’re not sure you can open the door and let it in.
But what if all you need is sixty seconds?
We all have responsibilities to fulfill and obligations to meet. We’ve got bills to pay, jobs to do, children to care for, and pets to play with. The lawn has to be mowed, garbage taken out, laundry done, dishes cleaned; the list goes on and on and on.
How Do We Find Time for Creative Writing?
Creative writing happens when the muse is happily seducing a writer’s imagination–when new worlds magically appear on the page and when fictional characters seem more real than some of the people we know in our day-to-day lives.
Creative writing is one of those pursuits, that for many people, is a dream. Like music, dance, acting, and art, it seems unattainable. Like athletics, entrepreneurship, and presidential leadership, it seems meant only for the chosen few. Every day a writer is born. And every day, a writer gives up, overwhelmed by all the things in life that require time, energy, and attention.
Every day, another blog is abandoned, another novel shelved, poem left half unfinished. “I just don’t have time anymore,” a writer says, then deletes a file that was going to be the next great American novel, or crumples up a poem that would have inspired the next great world leader and throws it in the trash.
Don’t Give Up
What if J.K. Rowling had given up on her fantastical story? What if George Lucas had given up on his groundbreaking film? What if the Beatles hadn’t taken a chance on that new sound everyone was calling rock and roll? What kind of world would we be living in?
I almost gave up on my creative writing. For several years, I rarely wrote, other than the writing I had to do for work, which was technical or business writing. It was only by sheer luck that the company I worked for closed, forcing me to find some other path, and only by an odd combination of chance, drive, and a willingness to take risks did I return to my writing so that I could sit here years later amazed that now I make a living doing it.
And I’m willing to take the dream a little further, do a little more. Whether it’s this year, next year, or in five years, the dream is mine, and I’m not giving up on it.
Neither should you.
Make Time for Creative Writing
If you don’t have time to write, then make time.
You don’t have to sit down and write ten pages a day. In five minutes, you can jot down a few paragraphs. In fifteen, you can run off a page. Some days, you’ll get lucky and be able to steal an hour or two. Other days, you’ll have to crunch just to get a couple of minutes.
A Little Tiny Writing Exercise
A few years ago, I came across this website called One Word. It’s one of those sites you bookmark, then forget about but rediscover every few months when you’re cleaning out or surfing your bookmarks. Every time I visit, I use it (because it’s interactive), and by the time I leave, which is maybe a minute and a half later, I feed strangely refreshed and revitalized.
One Word gives you just that–one word. Then it gives you something else. It gives you time. You get sixty seconds to write whatever you want, inspired by that single word, that gift.
It doesn’t sound like much, but every time I’ve visited that site and cranked out a minute’s worth of words, I always feel good when I leave. Like my right brain just got a little massage and the rest of my body is thanking me for it. And whether it’s been hours or days since I last took time to work on my own creative writing, One Word always reminds me that my passions need to have a priority in my life.
It’s a lot like the way I feel when I hear an inspiring, uplifting speech that motivates and moves me, except at this site, the words aren’t someone else’s, they’re mine. Well, except for that one.
Feed Your Soul
Here’s the thing about creativity: It is food for the soul. It’s the one thing that has a guaranteed return on investment. The more creativity you spend, the better you feel, the more creative you become, and more nourished is your spirit.
People like us need to feed the fire to keep the passion burning. Giving up on your creative writing isn’t an option because if we give up, we dry up. When you feed your right brain, your whole body benefits, and when you feed the fire that is your passion, your whole life and everyone in it reaps the rewards.
So make some time, take some time, to write. Go to OneWord.com and write for just a minute (surely you can spare sixty seconds–how about right now?) or close all those windows and open up your word processing software or turn off the computer and pick up your journal and just write.
And then keep writing.
Here’s an age-old question: Is creative writing an art or a craft?
Artistically minded writers will say that writing is most definitely an art while those who who think more analytically will claim writing is a skill, a trade, and a business.
My answer is that writing can be either an art or a craft and usually, it’s both. You can approach writing armed with learned skills and an ability to string words together in a sensible manner, or you can approach writing as a purely creative endeavor and call it your art or your passion.
Both approaches work, and either one can lead to good, strong writing. However, the best writing is a hybrid. It’s both an art and a craft, a marriage between skill and creativity in writing.
Creativity in Writing
You read almost every day. Words appear on your computer screen, your television, on roadside signs, and product packaging. They’re everywhere, and they all make sense.
But every once in a while, you come across writing that simply dazzles you. Have you responded emotionally to the way a writer uses language? Have you ever put down a novel and remarked how impressed you were with the author’s ability to create realistic characters or a riveting plot? Have you ever read a poem and felt transported to another time or place?
That’s the magic of creativity in writing. It captures and captivates the imagination. It’s transcendent.
Creativity Tips and Resources for Writers
There’s an old, outdated belief that creativity is talent; it’s inherent. Some of us are born right-brained (creative) and others left-brained (mechanical, analytical). That’s only partially true. Writing can be learned as a skill, but so can creativity. Sure, some people have a more natural inclination toward creative thinking. But anyone can foster and nurture creativity.
So, how do you foster creativity in writing? Below are some tips and resources to get you started. Whether you’re creative by nature and want to enhance your creativity or whether you think you lack creative skills and want to build them so you can produce better writing, these resources will point you in the right direction.
- Marelisa Fabrega’s How to Be More Creative — A Handbook for Alchemists is packed with tools for fostering creative and innovative thinking. It’s one of my favorite creativity resources!
- Don’t want to spring for the e-book? You will after you peruse the idea-packed creativity section on Marelisa’s blog.
- Find out how asking questions and encouraging curiosity can lead to creative writing ideas.
- Head over to the Creativity Portal, where you’ll find tons (and by tons, I mean TONS) of creativity articles, resources, and project ideas.
- Nothing gets a writer’s creativity flowing like poetry. If you think poetry is relegated to tweens, academics, and literary elites, think again. Poetry can be raw and brazen and it will open your mind to new creative insight and strengthen your language skills. Read it, watch it, listen to it, and then try some poetry writing exercises.
Where do you go to turn up the volume on creativity in your writing? Do you have a favorite book, website, a quiet place in the woods or a quaint coffee shop in the city that you like to visit? Do you have any favorite creativity resources? Share your tips and ideas for fostering creativity in writing by leaving a comment, and let’s all get more creative!
Is successful and effective creative writing borne of skill or talent?
There has always been much debate about whether artistically inclined trades are a matter of learned skill or inherent talent.
On the one hand, there is the belief that some are born with an active and imaginative right brain and are therefore better able to manifest creativity. On the other hand, some argue that creative skills can be learned and mastered.
When it comes to creative writing, I believe that skill and talent work together. In fact, I would argue that almost every writer whose work is worth reading has some combination of both acquired writing skill and natural talent.
Creative Writing: Skills and Development
We are taught basic grammar and comprehensive writing in school, and each of us learns how to form a coherent sentence or paragraph by applying these teachings. We must learn our letters, and there is no artistic talent required to memorize a set of symbols that represent sounds. Throughout our formative years, we are educated in language, including reading, writing, and comprehension.
Some of us loved those classes. We were drawn to the written word, to novels and short stories, poetry and thought-provoking articles and essays. We welcomed the opportunity to build better writing skills.We trudged over to the school library during recess and experienced glee when the Scholastic newsletters arrived. Books! Stories! We absorbed them and they etched into our psyche until we too yearned to spin tales and started dreaming of the day when our own names would appear under a feature story headline or on the spine of a best selling–or dare I say–Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
Yet there were those who balked at the thought of opening, let alone reading, an entire book. They preferred math or science, or perhaps art, or maybe they’d rather park themselves in front of a TV or video game console. Their reports and essays came back with low marks and someone said they lacked talent, something we aspiring writers had in droves. But what is talent if not love of one’s craft?
When I graduated high school and was faced with the dilemma of what to study in college, I shunned the idea of majoring in English, because I was already a voracious reader and several teachers had called me a gifted writer as well. Why study something I already had a knack for?
But a few years later, when no other major felt quite right, I finally checked off the box for English with a concentration in creative writing. Skill and talent combined to drive this choice. I finally realized that the very reason I should study writing was because I was already good at it. By majoring in English, maybe I could become great.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. In the semesters that followed, I studied the classics and learned writing nuances from my instructors and peers, discovering subtleties that never would have come to my attention otherwise. I learned the value of editing and revising, and I learned the merits of voice and style. Thankfully, I was given opportunities to explore areas of writing I never would have touched on my own: proposals, screenplays, and chapbooks. I even learned how to master the creative writing process.
Creative Writing: Skills Plus Talent Equals Passion
I suppose artists, musicians, and other creative persons follow a similar path–a passion honed through years of learning and practice. When people suggest that writing cannot be learned, that grammar is unimportant, and storytelling or character development is the end-all-be-all of great writing, or that a writer’s creativity is magically manifested at birth, I am given great pause. For it is pride in one’s craft and true dedication that will result in truly wonderful writing: a seamless integration of love and passion, talent, and yes, all those mechanical writing skills that must be learned.
So what’s more important in creative writing–skill or talent? I say we need a healthy balance of both. What do you think?
Luke Skywalker is the obvious hero of Star Wars, so why do Han, Leia, and Darth Vader get all the attention? When I think about the characters from Star Wars, Luke is often the last one who comes to mind. It’s not that he’s utterly forgettable, but he doesn’t stand out from the crowd of characters who surround him, despite the fact that the story centers on him. The other characters easily overshadow him, even the characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.
All of the characters from Star Wars are iconic, but some are more memorable than others. What can we learn from iconic characters and how can we create unforgettable characters in our own stories?
Plot vs. Characters
Not all stories call for an iconic character. The Da Vinci Code has been criticized for its relatively uninteresting characters, but the story is not about the characters; it’s about an ancient conspiracy, a puzzle. The characters are supposed to take a backseat to the plot, and an iconic character might have distracted from the story.
We can compare The Da Vinci Code and its protagonist, Robert Langdon, to Indiana Jones, whose quests are fun but not nearly as deep or complex as Robert Langdon’s. We want to go on Indiana Jones’ adventure because we want to go with him. We take the Da Vinci Code adventure for the sake of the quest itself; any character could serve as a guide.
If you’re thinking about developing an iconic character, first ask whether it’s appropriate for your story. Great detectives, for example, may be interesting and likeable but they’re rarely iconic because in the mystery genre, we’re reading to solve the mystery more than we’re reading to spend time with a particular character. For example, I like Harry Bosch just fine but I didn’t read Michael Connelly’s books so I could spend time with Harry. I read to find out who did it.
That doesn’t mean big, riveting, plot-driven tales can’t include iconic characters. But it’s worth considering whether you want your character to overshadow your plot or vice versa. Sometimes, the best stories are a good balance of compelling characters and plot. They may not be what we’d consider iconic, but they’re riveting enough.
Studying Popular Characters
In film and literature, certain characters have captured people’s imaginations and won their hearts–characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Indiana Jones, and Katniss Everdeen became more famous than the authors who created them. So what is it that makes some characters unforgettable? Let’s do a brief study of a few iconic and popular characters from film and literature:
Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind): People keep telling me she’s an anti-hero, that she’s wicked and unlikeable, but I adore Scarlett O’Hara. Remember, she’s only sixteen years old when the story starts. Keeping her age in mind, her envious, arrogant nature is more understandable. She goes on to do whatever she must to survive, take care of her family, and keep her land. Surrounded by war and famine, Scarlett doesn’t have much of a chance to mature but eventually, she thrives. She becomes an aggressive, independent woman who takes charge of her own destiny in a time and place when women were generally submissive, passive, and dependent on men. What makes her iconic is that she goes against the grain, and in the film, she boasts a striking wardrobe and memorable catch-phrases (fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll think about it tomorrow).
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird): I’m not sure Atticus Finch is iconic but he’s definitely one of the most popular characters in literature. He’s a man who stands up against racism in a time and place where racism is the acceptable and preferable norm. Yet he’s admired and respected in his community despite the fact that he opposes their outdated, bigoted ways, which is not an easy thing to pull off. Like Scarlett, he goes against the grain, which is a trait we’ll see in many iconic characters.
Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark): I already mentioned Indie so let’s look at what makes him so iconic. Like the others, he goes against the grain. By day, he’s a handsome, refined professor in a tweed suit and spectacles. The rest of the time, he’s a daring adventurer who risks life and limb for ancient archeological artifacts. His iconic status gets a lot of help from his banged-up brown fedora and trusty whip as well his trademark wisecracks.
Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games Trilogy): Everyone else depends on a corrupt government system for sustenance but Katniss jumps the fence (figuratively and literally) to hunt and gather for her family’s survival. Her iconic status is boosted by the mockingjay symbol and her bow and arrow and her status as an icon is cemented when she plays the game in a way that fits her moral standards rather than playing it to pacify the government.
Iconic Characters Share Similarities
I once heard that the best stories are either about extraordinary characters in ordinary situations or ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. I’d say that most iconic characters break the mold; they are extraordinary and so are their situations.
We can observe similarities that make these iconic characters memorable. I would say they all deviate from social norms and expectations. Most of them have distinct clothing or accessories and memorable catch-phrases.
We can learn even more about iconic characters by asking questions and further studying them:
- Why is Batman more iconic than, say, Aquaman? Why is Catwoman more iconic than Poison Ivy?
- Who is your favorite character (iconic or not) in film or literature? What was it that made the character so compelling to you? Was it the character’s looks? Attitude? Backstory?
- There are popular characters, like Atticus Finch, and then there are truly iconic characters like Batman, Indiana Jones, and Katniss Everdeen. What’s the difference between a popular character and an iconic character? What makes one character popular while another becomes iconic?
Do you prefer larger-than-life, iconic characters or do you like characters that are subtler? Are your favorite stories plot-driven or character-driven? Can you think of any other iconic characters? What other similarities do iconic or popular characters have in common? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Sometimes when we sit down to write, the muse is in full effect and the words pour forth effortlessly. Other times we sit there staring at a blank screen, waiting for creativity to manifest. We wait and we wait.
Then, we wait some more.
Writer’s block is the state of being uninspired, but it’s just a state of mind, and that can be changed at will, which is a good thing, because when it comes to creative writing, state of mind is pretty important.
Years ago, when I used to draw and paint, I often listened to a particular mix of music. It was ideal background audio for making art, very inspiring. As a result, every time I hear the music from my art playlist, I get an urge to pull out my watercolor pencils and sketchbook because I have built a psychological association between a certain kind of music and a creative activity.
Can you see where I’m going with this? Just imagine how this concept can be applied to creative writing.
Creative Writing with a Talisman
“Talisman: anything whose presence exercises a remarkable or powerful influence on human feelings or actions.” (Dictionary.com)
In a sense, a talisman can be used to program your muse to come out and get to work–on cue. Imagine having the ability to command your own creativity, to sit down and engage in your writerly work and automatically trigger inspiration.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose your creative writing talisman: It could be a hat or a piece of jewelry. It might be something that sits on your desk, like a picture or a statuette. It can even be a CD or playlist (classical and jazz are great for writing). Choose a talisman that you won’t use in any other capacity except for your creative writing sessions, and make sure it’s not something that will distract you from the task at hand. Also, pick something you can store easily, but which is also accessible. Things that fit in your desk drawer or pocket are ideal. Also, try to find something that already makes you feel inspired.
- Charge your talisman: Don’t start using your talisman until your muse is in high gear. You should have it ready for when creativity strikes and when it does, pull out your talisman and focus on it for a few minutes as ideas bounce around in your head. Leave it out as you work on your creative writing during those times when you’re feeling extremely inspired.
- Believe in your talisman: If you believe in magic, you might say that you’re infusing the talisman with your creative writing energy. A more scientific explanation would be that you’re training your mind to associate the object with creativity, so whenever you engage the talisman, that creative energy is triggered again. You’re programming yourself.
- Use your talisman: Once your talisman starts putting out an inspirational vibe, use it whenever you’re stuck with your creative writing. You’ll know it’s ready because you’ll get the urge to write every time you look at your talisman.
- Keep your talisman charged: Even if months down the road, you’re feeling giddy with creativity and you don’t feel like you need it, take out the talisman. This will help keep it charged and maintain the psychological association between the talisman and your creative writing.
Do you have a creative writing talisman or some other ritual that you perform before, during, or after your writing sessions? Tell us about it in the comments, and keep writing!
We all make mistakes in our writing. The most common mistake is the typo–a missing word, an extra punctuation mark, a misspelling, or some other minor error that is an oversight rather than a reflection of the writer’s skills.
A more serious kind of mistake is a deep flaw in the writing. It’s not a missing word; it’s a missing scene. It’s not an extra punctuation mark; it’s an overabundance of punctuation marks. And these mistakes aren’t limited to the mechanics of writing: plot holes, poor logic, and a prevalence of bad word choices are all markers of grave mistakes that are often found in various forms of creative writing.
I see most mistakes as an opportunity to either learn something new or to make an improvement to a piece of writing. While mistakes can certainly be frustrating and rewriting to weed out mistakes can be laborious, each fixed mistake is a step toward a more polished piece of writing, and every time you resolve a problem in your writing, you become a better writer.
Common Creative Writing Mistakes
Here are some of the most common
mistakes opportunities I have seen in creative writing, including fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.
1. Dull Beginnings
Every once in a while I come across a piece of writing that starts of slow, then picks up momentum. Maybe you’ve seen this too: the first chapter of a book is boring or the first paragraph of a blog post is obtuse. Then it gets better–a lot better. Kudos to you for giving it a chance! I suspect that many writing projects start out with dull beginnings. As we write, we fall into the rhythm and pacing. We get to know our characters. The plot comes into focus. The great thing about writing is that we can always go back and rewrite. Don’t risk losing readers who scan the first few paragraphs and decide not to read the rest. Don’t count on reviews that say “Starts slow but gets better.” Take the opportunity to rewrite your opening and hook readers from the first sentence.
2. Unnecessary descriptions and details
I’m reading a book right now that is jam packed with a bunch of descriptions and details that I don’t really need. The story is great, so I’m trudging through it, but it’s not the best reading experience I’ve ever had. Readers don’t need to know every detail about a room’s decor or a character’s appearance. They don’t need a play-by-play account of every action that takes a character from point A to point B. Writing a lot of description and detail during early drafts can be a good thing; it helps us get to know our story world. But again, revision is an opportunity to scale it back. Leave room for readers to use their imaginations and ask yourself how essential each detail is to the main purpose of the piece.
Despite popular belief, verbiage is not a synonym for words or text. It specifically means an “overabundance or superfluity of words, as in writing or speech; wordiness” (source). Verbiage is not a good thing. It means you’re using too many words and the work could be more concise. Verbiage occurs for a number of reasons. Poets often resort to verbiage to meet meter requirements. Students use it to meet page-count requirements for their essays. Verbiage also happens when writers try to use a lot fancy words and language to make themselves sound smart. And almost all writers create verbiage in early drafts, especially if discovery writing is involved. Don’t spend an entire paragraph saying something that could be said in a single sentence. You’ll put your readers to sleep!
4. Redundancy and stating the obvious
Redundancy is when we say the same thing twice, although usually we say it in a different way the second time. For example, I am taking my car to the shop tomorrow, so I won’t be able to go anywhere because my car will be in the shop. The readers are told twice that the car will be the shop tomorrow. That’s redundant. Stating the obvious is, ironically, less obvious. I went to the store yesterday. In the store, there was a huge book display. The phrase “in the store” states the obvious. The text implies that the book display is in the store, so it doesn’t need to be stated outright.
5. Unnecessary or ineffective repetition
Sometimes repetition is a good thing. When we’re trying to teach through writing, repetition can help the reader better retain information. It can also emphasize a theme or symbol. The trick is to know the difference between effective and ineffective repetition, and this can happen with the content of a piece of writing or the language. The most frequent place you’ll see this is in first-person point of view where there are an abundance of sentences that start with “I” (it’s actually difficult not to use “I” frequently in first-person pieces). But other examples include using the same adjectives over and over (all the girls are pretty; all the guys are handsome; all the cars are fast) or repeating the same details and descriptions over and over (you only need to say she’s pretty once).
6. Failure to use spelling and grammar check and over-dependency on spelling and grammar check
I used to keep spell-check turned off because it annoyed the hell out of me. It was always trying to correct me, even when I was right or purposely breaking a rule. But I found too many typos in my final drafts, so I turned it back on. I especially appreciate the markup that spell-check provides, which makes it easy to catch and fix typos as they occur.
That doesn’t mean we can rely on spell-check to be our editor, especially not our professional editor. The fact is, most technology-based editors are highly flawed. Their dictionaries are incomplete (I often type words that my word processor doesn’t recognize but which are in most dictionaries). They cannot handle complex grammar. They are useless for correcting misuse of words and language. So yes, use the spell-check but don’t rely on it.
7. Filler words and phrases
Filler words and phrases usually occur when an action or idea is unnecessarily framed inside another action or idea. For example: I went the book store yesterday. I know I should have left my wallet at home but I brought it with me. The idea that the narrator should have left her wallet at home is framed inside of her knowledge. But the piece is in first person, so the reader already knows that everything she says comes from her thoughts or knowledge. “I know” can be removed to make the sentence stronger and more concise. Common filler words and phrases include I know, I thought, and I wondered. Can you think of any others?
8. Lackluster ending
This is the worst. You know how you feel when you’re reading a great story or article and you’re really into it, but then the end just sucks? I hate that. I still think these stories are worth reading because it’s all about the journey, not the destination. Having said that, lackluster endings are unsatisfying. When I come across them, I almost always get the feeling that the author was tired of the project, just wanted to finish it and move on, and resigned to a second-rate closing. Some people complain about endings where there are still unsolved mysteries or unanswered questions. That’s fine if there’s going to be sequel! Don’t disappoint readers by giving them a lazy ending.
Which Creative Writing Mistakes Have You Noticed?
Have you noticed any of these mistakes in your own writing or reading material? Are there any other common creative writing mistakes you’d like to add to this list? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment, and keep writing.
What is art?
People have been trying to answer that question for centuries, but we still don’t have a definitive answer. We know art is borne of creativity. It’s meant to impact whoever is experiencing it. And it comes from a place within the artist that we don’t truly understand.
Art remains a mystery, both in its definition and its origin. Why is art a cornerstone of every single culture on Earth? Why do some people flock to artistry while others prefer to sit in the audience? Who do people need art, whether it’s music, films, paintings, sculptures, dance, or literature?
Does Art Matter?
We all know what commercialism is. It’s the intent to make money, preferably, lots of it. Traditionally, art was safe from commercialism. Big business just wasn’t interested, and artists could freely create. The market was free and it decided who succeeded and who didn’t. Fine art rose to the top.
But once the money makers filled up all the shelves in the grocery markets and lined all the racks in the department stores, they turned to art, and they commercialized it.
Screenplays were streamlined into formulas. Big publishing houses tried to figure out which books would turn the fastest and easiest profits. Clear Channel bought up all the radio stations and started using bottom lines and internal agendas to decide which songs the public would listen to.
And artists took jobs at advertising agencies. Filmmakers created 30-second mini-movies called commercials. Songwriters penned jingles. Writers crafted slogans. And illustrators developed logos.
In a world driven by commerce, art became a commodity. Some artists cried out in protest, claiming that commercialized art was dumbing down the masses. The purpose of commercial art is not to get people to think or feel. It doesn’t care if it changes the world or makes a profound statement about humanity or nature. All it wants to do is get people to buy.
Fine Art vs. Commercial Art
Everything we humans create has some basic purpose. Commercial art exists to make money. Its motivation is revenue. Fine art exists because people need to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Its motivation is expression.
While the definitions of commercial and fine art are pretty clear, the lines between them are actually so blurry, it can be difficult to tell the difference. If you and I worked our way through the Times bestseller list in an attempt to classify each book as either commercial or artistic, I bet we’d disagree a few times.
So, can we define that gray area that connects yet separates fine and commercial art? Can we then apply it to our own creative writing?
Art, Commerce, and Creative Writing
Sometimes I talk to writers who have wild ideas about the stories they want to tell. Their imaginations are bustling with characters, scenes, and themes that are inspired, unique, and original. But they’ll say, “Nah, it’ll never sell.” And about once a week, I get an email from some college kid who tells me, “I think my story idea will be a bestseller.”
Is One Better Than The Other?
You have to answer that question for yourself. Personally, I love all types of art. I think sometimes the big money makers were genuinely inspired by something other than money. And occasionally, the art that was supposed to make a mint barely turns a dime. The world keeps on spinning.
When Michael Jackson was making Thriller, his goal was to create the biggest selling album of all time. I don’t think anybody’s questioning the artistic integrity of Thriller or Michael Jackson, and he completely surpassed his own ambitions with that record.
On the other hand, J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when she was at rock bottom. She had nothing left to lose, so she decided to do what she wanted to do and be happy with her art. Nobody could have guessed that Harry Potter would have found success beyond the sub-genre, children’s fantasy. But it became a worldwide phenomenon.
What Motivates You?
Artists like Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling are highly visible. We all know their stories, their motivations, and how they found success. But there are millions more artists just like them who haven’t gained international fame. Some are vying for commercial success. They want to be stars. Others want to express their visions. They want to share some piece of themselves with the world. All over the planet, they are making their art.
I wonder how many artists have contemplated their motivations. I wonder if you have. Do you give much thought to whether your work will make you rich someday? Do you continue to create because you simply have to? Or are you somewhere in the middle, hoping to be able to find a way for your creative writing to pay the bills while sticking to your vision?
I don’t particularly care whether a piece of art was motivated by love or money. If Michael Jackson’s playing, you’ll find me on the dance floor. And I’ve read every single Harry Potter book. My music, book, and film collections are a healthy mix of big hits and underground or counterculture favorites. When I’m in the audience, it’s not about what motivated the artist. It’s about how the art affects me.
But when I’m sitting at my desk writing a poem or drafting a short story, I care very much about the artist’s motivation.
So, what’s yours?