A Writing Assignment for the New Year

New year, new you. Heard that a million times? The beginning of January is a time when everyone feels compelled to examine his or her life—everyone but the cynics, who seem to be growing tremendously (at least on the internet). We all remember our successes from years past but hope to learn from our mistakes. Most importantly, we promise ourselves to make this coming year the best we’ve lived. And that is an inspiring aspiration, really: to make each year better than the last. It would give us something to keep on living for.

So I challenge you this week, or whenever you get the time, not only to write your resolutions for the year, but for life. A bucket list of sorts. But here’s the twist: it would be really fascinating for us to reflect on why we want to do the things we want to do. So a detailed “bucket list,” one in which you provide motivations and descriptions, is really an even cooler idea. And here’s the best part—be sure to leave plenty of space to go back and write how you completed each item and how you felt after doing it. It can become a journal of your life’s greatest achievements, something you can look back on one day and say, “Here’s what I dreamed, here’s why, here’s how I did it, and here’s how it made me feel.”

The project still alludes to “new year, new you.” But hopefully it has enough of a spin to remain interesting as you tackle this year with full force. Happy writing!

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Focusing on Writing: Tackling Writer’s Block

In today’s age, it’s really easy to get distracted. Constantly checking Facebook, catching just one more episode of The Office, going to the kitchen for a snack—we all have something to put off the inevitable formulation of words. And while writer’s block can be hard to overcome, the answer is almost never to procrastinate because putting off writing only allows the disease to spread. It’s easy to think, “I’ll be better tomorrow,” but when tomorrow comes, are you ever better?

Okay, so on rare occasions, you may really have something on your mind that is prohibiting you from writing well, or maybe you need to do more research, or maybe you’re tired. But once you deal with those problems, it’s straight back to writing. Otherwise, in my opinion, the best way to deal with writer’s block is to force yourself to write. It doesn’t have to be for the project you’re immediately working on. I actually have a journal I turn to sometimes when I have writer’s block with a particular piece, and instead I journal another story, or a poem, or about my day, or even a grocery list. The point is, I write.

Here are a few ways I keep from getting distracted and focus on writing:

  • Turn off the internet. This is an extreme, and I’ve really only done it twice. But sometimes I find myself constantly checking IMDb, or reading my e-mail, or posting pictures of my dog—isn’t he adorable though?
    Anyway, if you cannot keep yourself from the internet, unplug that router. “But what if I have to look something up?” you’re asking, I’ll bet. It’s called a mobile device. And with your internet turned off, you’ll be less likely to waste your data browsing randomly but instead only for important things really quickly—if you’re anything like me, at least, and living each month in fear that you’ve gone over your data limit.
  • Hide that mobile device. Often I put mine in the next room. It’s there if I need it, but it’s not within arm’s reach. I can still here if Ma is calling complaining that her dog peed behind the couch again. But I can’t reach it, so Ma and the dog will have to wait. Her dog is adorable too, I guess.


  • Write somewhere uncomfortable. I used to write in my bed, but it always made me so sleepy, and I just wanted to cuddle under the sheets and pop in a John Hughes flick. So now I sit on the floor with my legs under the coffee table in an upright position. (No desk for me. I’m not an extremist.)
  • Prescribe a writing time. I know you’ve heard it a lot, but it actually works. Now, not everyone can wake up at 4 a.m. to write (nor should you unless you’re Toni Morrison), but the writing time can be structured. I once read that Christopher Paolini treats writing like a job and will force himself to work from 8-5. I have no idea if that’s true because I think I saw it on Tumblr when I should have been writing. But anyway, working as a social media writer a good deal of the week, and going to school full-time, and taking care of a very needy dog, I don’t have a lot of free time, and if I do, it’s random. But I do my best to have a time to write. It’s not exact ever, but generally it’s in the evening when my boyfriend is still asleep (he works nights) and after the dog has been fed and had his evening walk. It’s not perfect, but it’s a system.
  • Reward yourself. I reward myself for quantity, not quality. I understand that not every time I sit down am I going to write something golden. But if I write something, I deserve a scoop of ice cream. No, really, I do. Often, if I’m really struggling, I’ll say, “Okay, Tim, four more pages and you can listen to three songs on YouTube.” I worry about the quality after I’ve enjoyed the three terrible Glee covers I regrettably listen to.

Do you guys have anything you like to do to make sure you keep on writing when the going gets tough?

Filling Out the Paperwork: Character Development 101

Those of you who follow Tim-Tips on Facebook and on Twitter may have seen a recent post about a lesson plan I found online. I thought the idea in the lesson was great and learned a new way to consider character development. I thought I would expand on that idea today to give us some new ideas for developing characters.

The lesson plan suggested having students create social media profiles for characters that they are developing—Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, whatever. The challenge is to answer questions such as, “Whom might this character follow?” or “What business contacts would she have?” or “What is his favorite quote? movie? book? TV show?” It allows the writer to consider everything from religion to political affiliation to the people with whom the character may be friends—or the people the character may have blocked.


I thought some other fun and innovative “forms” to fill out for a character might be an online personality assessment (take it as if you are the character), a medical history form, a job application, a driver’s license, or even a bio the character might write were he to star in a play. Doing something like this will challenge you to think of your character in new ways and elicit some details that may never be relevant to the story but that may help you come to know the character more fully.

Try it out!

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The Problem with “Suddenly” (and all of his friends)

Hello, faithful readers. I’m pretty sick—and have been for a good week and a half. The last thing I want to be doing right now is taxing my brain, yet here I am writing a blog post because I feel guilty if I don’t churn out something once a week. (The thought of bloggers who post multiple times a day makes me feel worse than the girl who tells me she’s just run a marathon as I’m eating a cupcake mushed into a glass of milk.)

Bleeding Heart Bakery Cupcake Eating Contest

So today I want to talk about what I’m coining “sequence adverbs” and why you should avoid them at all costs—words like “suddenly,” “then,” “next,” “subsequently,” and—dare I say it?—“all of the sudden.” Barring the last cringe-worthy expression, these words do have their places in literature. Just not often.

Think about the word “suddenly.” Really think about it. Most things that happen suddenly normally elicit some kind of reaction, yet lazy writers throw a “suddenly” onto the action and move on without explaining why the thing happened and how the character feels about it. The trouble with “suddenly” is that it just describes that there was an interruption in the sequence of events, but it leaves out crucial reasons and reactions.

Words such as “next” are even worse. Most stories read from start to finish, so the reader already assumes that what happens in sentence 2 occurs after what happens in sentence 1. As an author, you don’t need to say “Susan went to the store. Next she went home.” The order is self-evident. For whatever reason, however, writers will pepper their writing with “next” and “then.” Sometimes it may be to create a transition. Other times it may be to vary sentence structure. Many times it is just because the writing is confusing and cannot operate without further explanation, which indicates poor writing, not the need for a “then.”

These words are not without merit, however. Just be sparing with them, and be sure that they are necessary before including them. Do this, and your writing will read much more smoothly and satisfyingly.

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Some More Writing Prompts

About a month ago, we tried our hands at a few prompts. This week, let’s try out a few more.

  1. Write a holiday poem—Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be a winter holiday!
  2. Write a memoir for your favorite cartoon character.
  3. You receive a large box from UPS with no return address. Something is rattling around inside it. What happens when you open it?
  4. Come up with a descriptive word about yourself for every full calendar year you’ve been alive. Try to avoid generic terms such as “nice” or “fun.”
  5. Describe a fishing experience from the point of view of the fish.
  6. Try writing a sonnet. Not sure what a sonnet is? Check it out here!
  7. Create a newspaper for a fictional land that you’ve invented.
  8. Write about your most recent dream.
  9. Prepare the eulogy you would deliver for yourself at your own funeral (if that were possible, of course).

Happy writing!

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Plot: From A to B

A couple months ago, we talked about working backward to a plot, which is one of my favorite methods in developing plot. But as I stated in “Casting Call: Fitting Characters into your Plot,” sometimes I am—and surely some of you are—hit with sudden inspiration, and I know the beginning of the story and the “quest,” if you will (and I hope you will) the characters must take. I also often know how I want it to end. The middle part can be more challenging. There are so many options to get characters from A to B, so how do you pick which one to go with? You write them all, plain and simple.

Okay, so not really write them all. I’m not saying I write ten versions of my novel and then pick the best one (although if I had the time and the patience, that might be a good idea). But often when I’m struggling with the best way to get the plot to move from point A and B, I will review all the options and do brief outlines of all them. It helps me explore which option is most writeable and—more importantly—most readable.

These plot outlines are never elaborate. They are just a physical representation of all the jumbled mess that is going on inside my head. We’re writers, so we write. Even writing about how we’re going to write can be helpful. Things become much clearer, and much easier to compare and reference, when put on paper.

I actually had two alternative plots to a novel I wrote years ago called Stone of Emerald. (I wrote it as a sophomore in high school and detest it now. Not only has my writing improved ten times over, I also inadvertently ripped off the plots of Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia all at once.) The point is, the plot I chose (which still left a lot to be desired) was much better than the plot I originally planned to go with, but I would have never considered writing it had I not taken the time to analyze all the options available to me.

I swear by this method for every aspect of writing. If you take the time to consider all the possibilities, your story will be that much fuller and more realized for it.

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Speaking of Dialogue…

Dialogue is one of the major driving forces of your stories. It is how your characters communicate how they feel, what they think, and what they know, to themselves and to each other and, by extension, to the reader. But good dialogue can be incredibly tricky, and amateur writers fall prey to several common mistakes. Here are some tips to developing effective dialogue:

  1. Make it believable. Easier said than done, right? But a few simple considerations will help your characters’ words flow much more naturally.
    • For starters, think about how you and your friends speak with one another; it isn’t forced. In the same way, you shouldn’t force words out of your characters’ mouths just to get information across to your readers. There are much more genuine ways of getting vital story information across than having your character read off a laundry list of facts that he or she otherwise wouldn’t speak of.
    • Also, consider contractions. You do not speak as if you have not heard of contractions and thus cannot shorten your words. Neither should your characters. Contractions—and not just the can’t’s, won’t’s, and aren’t’s, but also the gonna’s and the dunno’s and the wanna’s—make speech sound much more casual, the way you and I might talk over pancakes. (I’m really hungry today.)
    • Model real conversations that you hear. They are typically not an even back and forth. He said, “A,” and she said, “B,” and I said, “C.” Instead, sometimes the dialogue is fast; sometimes the dialogue is slow; sometimes the speech is interrupted or sentences run over one another; sometimes there are silences; sometimes one speaker dominates; sometimes another speaker isn’t even listening. Sit for a while in a mall or at work and just listen to the conversations around you.
  2. Cut the monologues. Okay, sure, now and then a person will ramble on uninterrupted, so yes, an occasional monologue is fine. But think about the last time you let someone talk for a good five minutes without interjecting once. It is in our nature to insert our opinions or at least make remarks in response to what we hear. It is rare that someone will make it through one story without having to stop for the listener’s comments. It is just as rare that someone will actually finish the story in its entirety before the subject somehow gets changed once or twice momentarily.
  3. Pay attention to how someone says something. A lot of amateur writers consult the thesaurus entry for “said.” Please don’t. Characters that are belching or inquiring or howling or even smiling (and I’m still not sure how that works?) their sentences are distracting. On occasion, it is fine to have a “Quiet down,” Charlie snapped, but dialogue littered with “barks” and “coos” and “yelps” can become diverting. A simple “said” or “asked” will do the trick every time. And to add to that, too many adverbs or phrases describing how someone says something can become too distracting as well and will detract from the actual dialogue. So next time you have a character that “shouted loudly,” please remember that a shout is already loud.
  4. Be careful with dialects. I have a few caveats to using dialects. While they can be enriching and teach us much about the character, and while famous novels of all kinds (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example) have contained characters with dialects, dialects often bother readers. And when they are done by someone who does not actually speak with the dialect, it can just make your character seem unbelievable. Misunderstanding the subtle differences between a Savannah accent and a Memphis accent, for example, is enough to make your writing seem amateurish. If you’re not an expert on the area’s dialect, and if you can’t work it in without it being the main focus of the dialogue, then avoid it at all costs.
  5. Don’t clutter your dialogue with action. A lot of writers seem to think if they don’t update the reader constantly on how the characters are moving, then the reader won’t be able to envision the scene. But imagine this scenario: “I will go,” Thomas said, catching Cindy’s eyes as he stood from his chair, “if no one else will.” He looked around. “I volunteer to go.” Cindy shuddered. “I’m sorry, Cindy,” he added, looking one last time at his lover’s eyes, “but I have no choice.” The dialogue is incredibly interrupted by the action. Consider instead, Rising, Thomas said, “I will go if no one else will. I volunteer to go. I’m sorry, Cindy, but I have no choice.” He glanced one last time at Cindy, who shuddered in the corner. There is no need to break up the dialogue so much. The point can be made without the useless distractions.

Does anyone else have any good tips for effective dialogue?

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Incorporating the Setting

I apologize to everyone for this statement, but, to be blunt, today’s readers are lazy (myself included). Centuries ago, authors filled their stories with pages and pages of setting description, and the readers loved it. Reading the setting was like watching it come to life, piece by piece, with special attention paid to the patterns on the carpet or how the snow piled atop the tree branches. And while today some readers still enjoy that kind of description, most readers expect just a few sentences to root them within the action of the story.

When I write, I still want to get across my setting as intricately as possible. I’ve spent enough time imagining this in my head, haven’t I? So I want my readers to be able to imagine this place and this time as well. The challenge, then, is incorporating the setting into your story without simply describing it. Instead, don’t be direct. Let your characters experience the setting firsthand so that readers do so secondhand. You should interact with the setting rather than allow it to be a backdrop for your characters.

For example, take this bit of writing: “It started snowing as Maria walked down the busy street to school.” While informative, it is very direct, and it relies on the adjective “busy” to let the reader conjure an image of a crowded road.

Instead consider this: “Maria’s tongue was a net for falling snowflakes as she trudged to school down a street congested with honking commuters.” In this example, instead of stating directly that it is snowing, the reader can assume that since Maria is catching snowflakes with her tongue, then it must be snowing. And instead of telling the reader that the street was busy, the reader can infer that it is busy since it is congested and the drivers are honking.

When it comes down to it, paint the picture as succinctly but as accurately as possible. This is not a death sentence on setting because it is a vital component for any story; however, readers today are much more interested in plot and characters. A good writer will find a way to incorporate the setting into the actions of the story seamlessly, almost as if you’re slipping it in and the reader is none the wiser.

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Some Writing Prompts

I thought that this week, I would try something different. I have been so busy with work and school and caring for a very needy dog that I have hardly allowed myself enough time to work on my current project (a novella called Straw Bones). So I figured to get my—and everyone else’s—creative juices flowing, I would offer some writing prompts to try out. Feel free to journal about as many as you want!

  1. Try an “I am poem.” It’s a good way to tell someone—even yourself—who you think you are.
  2. You haven’t been in the basement for years. You even swore you’d never go back down there. But here you are, slowly descending the howling steps into darkness. What happens?
  3. Do a collection of haikus on your favorite TV show.
  4. Write a short story about a president who has just been briefed about the nation’s best-kept secret.
  5. Start a story with “Elaine knew that the balloons weren’t a good idea,” and end it with “They all slowly clambered out of the bathtub, dripping gallons of water onto the tiled floor.”
  6. Research a literary movement, such as imagism or romanticism, and try your hand at writing a short story (or even starting a novel!) in that style.
  7. Write a poem from the point of view of a falling snowflake.

These are just a few ideas to get you started. As long as the pen is moving or your fingers are crawling across the keyboard, you’re on the right track. Don’t worry about mistakes for now. No erasing or backspacing. Just write and see where your mind will take you.

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Casting Call: Fitting Characters into Your Plot

I don’t know about you, but sometimes, I’ll be sitting at work, or talking to someone that I don’t really care to listen to, or just eating a bowl of cereal while Facebooking, and BAM! I am hit with inspiration. I suddenly see a plot unfolding. My mind will stretch, and I’ll think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” or “Would it be possible for someone to…?” or “Would would happen if…?” and these wild thoughts of plots start flooding in. (Don’t worry, I still finish the cereal.)

Sometimes these plot ideas are so great, you just can’t let go of them. They will follow your brain wherever it goes, even if it is trying to hide (or sleep). When you’ve stumbled on a plot so perfect, you have to face it: you can’t pass up this opportunity.

So you have this perfect plot, and now you have to populate it with multifaceted characters. Easier said than done, right? A lot of times, just as I become excited about pursuing a plot, I hit a wall so big that it could span the city of Berlin (too soon?). I wonder, who the hell is going to fill this story? Why would this character be motivated to carry out this part of the plot? Would these two characters convey this message well? Why would this antagonist be involved with that protagonist? And I find myself faced with a gripping plot and no characters to fill it.

I have a solution that works pretty well for me. When I am not immediately struck by a plot idea but still want to write, I develop characters—in my head and on paper. If I see someone walking down the street that seems unique, I’ll journal about him. If the lady on the news seems intriguing, I’ll write about her. If my coworker two cubes over rambles on about something amusing, you can bet your ass I’m jotting it down. Over time I fine tune these characters until they leap off the page. And then I close the book on them.

I close the book until I need them—when that plot suddenly hits me and I need to fill it with characters. Then I open the book and have a casting call for all my created characters. They audition, so to speak, to be in my story. Their personalities and hopes and histories and fears (although they can be tweaked to fit the story’s needs) must convince me that they belong in the story. Of course, I don’t do this for every character a plot generates. Sometimes when a plot idea strikes, I immediately develop new characters to populate it. But in times of struggle, I always have my little journal of characters to audition for my story.

It’s definitely proven useful for me, but now I’d like to turn it over to you. Has anyone else had any useful exercises for filling your plot with characters? Feel free to comment with ideas!

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