Football season is here, and so I offer these suggestions to assist you in scoring your own “touchdown.” (For you non-pigskinners, “Pick Six” refers to a defensive touchdown from an intercepted pass.) My book is a narrative memoir, but I think these principles would apply to both fiction and non-fiction writing. Some of these tips come from others, and I pass them along certain that the originators would encourage it. A few of the ideas are mine. Perhaps some of these tips will be of help to you.
1. Buy the book Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. It is only about $9, and contains 50 tips that will improve your writing skills. It is a small book and a fun read. One good thing about this book is that you will realize that you are already using some of these tools, and reading this book will reinforce and validate your work thus far. Even better, you can pick and choose which tools to emphasize and adopt. The book can be read in any order you select. The reader doesn’t have to begin at the beginning in order to gain insight into these tips. Besides, can any of us really remember 50 of anything? Clark does a wonderful job of offering dozens of useful tools, and the user can consider and accept those of choice. Kind of like a great Asian lunch buffet.
2. I saw author Simon Winchester on television a few years ago, and he said he approached writing in this way: Idea/Structure/Writing. When I thought about it, I realized I use the concept without knowing it. I like to recall Winchester’s pattern as a reference if I find my writing becoming too convoluted or wrapped around the axle. Perhaps another way to state this idea is Theme-Form-Content. Sometimes it helps to get back to the basics.
3. Reader’s Digest used to have a story in each issue called “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met”, or something similar to that. I try to keep that thought in mind when I introduce a character. Every character in a story, even the minor ones, deserves to be drawn as richly as possible. Of course, minor characters will get less detail than major players, but every person in the story, whether fiction or non-fiction, needs the attentive effort of the writer. A character may not be unforgettable, or even likable, but both writer and reader should like the characterization of the person in the story. Give each his or her due.
4. Something I always think about is: How would this look on screen? We are a culture immersed in cinema and video. We can’t help ourselves. Our DNA leads us to visualize things. A lot of people have written or talked about this idea, so I’m not exactly breaking new ground here. Still, as a writer you can become a bit of a film director in how you set your “stage” within your story. Zoom in, zoom out, pan the scene, imagine your scene from odd camera angles, etc. The writer selects the perspective from which the reader will approach the story. Keep the visual in mind as you write. It’s always good to think “How would this writing look if it were made into a movie?”
5. Mike Wilson, an editor at the Tampa Bay Times newspaper, made a terrific point at a workshop I attended. Mike said that one of the best short stories of all time is the Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue. If you don’t recall that tune, written by Shel Silverstein, it starts “Well my Daddy left home when I was three, and he didn’t leave much to Ma and me, just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze. Now I don’t blame him ‘cuz run and hid, but the meanest thing that he ever did, was before he left he went and named me SUE!” The balance of the song is equally as colorful and descriptive. When you think about the tale within the song, you understand that Mr. Wilson was right. Storytelling just doesn’t get any better.
6. Details . . . details . . . details. This is also from Mike Wilson at the Tampa Bay Times. He sent a reporter to cover a small local story about a recent Lottery winner. The reporter got the facts, but something was missing. There was no oomph, no twist, no pizzazz to the story. The reporter kept asking questions of the winner, looking for interesting details. But, nothing was clicking. Finally, the reporter asked, “What were you doing when you find out that you had won the Lottery?”
“Okay, eating what? Lunch . . . dinner?”
“Hmmm, okay. What were you eating?”
“Uhh . . . cereal, I think. Yeah, cereal.”
“Okaaay. Do you remember what kind of cereal?”
“Uhh, yeah. It was, uhh . . . Lucky Charms.”
“LUCKY CHARMS ???”
That story ended up practically writing itself. Details . . . details . . . details.
Robert Clay Norman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in American Studies from the University of South Florida. His favorite authors include David McCullough and William Davis. Robert now lives and works in Tampa Bay, Florida, with his wife, daughter, and son. He is the author of Until the Wheels Fall Off: Life and Times in the 70’s California Motorcycle Club, which is available on Amazon.com in print and eBook. You can learn more about Robert on his blog.