by Neil Everton
Sometimes the empty page or the blank screen can paralyze us. So here’s some advice from that wonderful Newfoundland writer and now Halifax resident Donna Morrissey: “Don’t agonize about or over-think the process of writing. Just get started. Get the story out.”
Tell your story to the page. Trust your intuition. The polishing comes in the re-writing. The poet Robert Graves once said: “There’s no such thing as good writing. Only good re-writing.”
And that’s vital when you only have 350 words to play with.
But before you start writing or rewriting, slow down. Think about the advice of Winnie the Pooh: “Organization is what you do before you do it, so when you do it, it’s not all messed up.”
Stare out of the window. Daydream. Bounce ideas around your brain. What do you want to achieve? What’s your purpose, and what style would suit that purpose?
Give yourself a framework on which to build your story. Make sure there’s a logical flow to the way you reveal information. Everyone talks about a beginning, a middle and an end. Here’s a variation that really helps me: hook, context, unfolding, wrap.
Thinking about a hook helps me focus on snagging the audience’s attention quickly. In our short-attention-span world, if you don’t grab them early, you may not get them at all.
Then comes context. It’s the need-to-know information that prepares us for the rest of the story. Keep it short. Too much of a history lesson can slow down your storytelling.
The unfolding is where the story blossoms. We really get to know the character and the setting, and delve into the character’s motivation and concerns. And this is where you need a dollop of magic sauce.
The magic sauce is conflict. The best stories are explorations of conflict. Not necessarily in the sense of a knock-down-drag-out fight. More likely in the overcoming of everyday obstacles. It’s the overcoming of obstacles that brings a story to life and engages your audience.
The wrap is where you pull all the threads together.
Now it’s time to write. Remember, the inspiration for your essay comes from a painting or quilt. But you don’t have to write about or describe the particular piece. Let it be the spark for your creativity. The story you want to tell may not perfectly fit with one of the pieces. That’s okay.
Show, don’t tell. Let your audience discover for themselves something about your subject. It could be in a quote, or a memory, or in the way you capture the passion of your character for a person or place. Specifics are always better than generalities for bringing a character or a setting to life.
Write for all the senses. Sometimes we focus on what we can see. Go further than that. What are the smells or the sounds that will paint an unforgettable picture of your character or location?
When you start to polish, strip every sentence down to its barest bones. Every word that is not working hard for you is getting in the way. Imagine you have to pay $1 for every word. Pretty soon you’ll start stripping out words that are not earning their keep.
Fall in love with the delete key. Start with adjectives and adverbs. Follow Mark Twain’s advice: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable.”
Verbs are your writing muscle. Strong active verbs push the writing along. Weak, passive constructions slow you down like a tired five year-old in a supermarket. Don’t settle for the first verb that pops into your mind. Find the verb that energizes your writing. Beefing up a verb can be much more effective than reaching for an adverb.
Any writer who has sold 350 million books is worth listening to. So let’s get some advice from the king of horror, Stephen King: “One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes. The pet is embarrassed and the person who committed this act of premeditated cuteness should be even more embarrassed.”
So keep it simple. If you found yourself floundering in the ocean at Queensland Beach, you wouldn’t yell “Your assistance is required due to my imperilled state.” If the single word ‘help’ is all you need, don’t dress it up.
Find your voice. Listen to how you talk to your family, or your friends. Try to capture that energy and that style in your writing. Be who you are, not who you think you should be.
Study the writers you admire. Read poetry. Good popular music is a great place to refine your writing skills. Good songs convey the maximum meaning with the minimum words. There’s no room for clutter. So if books on grammar don’t turn your crank, put on some music or listen to poetry.
Finally, don’t worry too much about the grammar police. Worry about making us feel something more than about splitting an infinitive.
About the author: Neil Everton started writing for a weekly newspaper at age 18 in an English coal-mining town. That led to a daily newspaper, and then to the BBC where he worked on news and documentaries. As assignment to the Middle East to cover the first Gulf War led to a meeting with CBC producer Halina St James, marriage and relocation to Nova Scotia. Since then he’s worked with Reuters, CBC, CTV and Global.