What to do with writing scraps

As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. Here’s how to save those lovely scraps.

If you’ve been anywhere on the internet or Netflix in the last few years, you’ve probably heard of Marie Kondo and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. If you haven’t, Marie Kondo is an organizational consultant and expert as well as the founder of KonMari, a lifestyle brand. There are many facets to the KonMari Method™ of tidying up, however the premise is to only keep items that “spark joy” to promote a more mindful and peaceful lifestyle. 

The simple premise is so effective, it’s been applied to almost every industry including phone apps, food, and work spaces

Now I know what you’re thinking: this is going to be a post about applying the KonMari Method™ to writing. Good guess! However, today I’m heading the opposite direction. While I’ve read the The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and could dedicate a whole post to how shedding the excess has enhanced my personal life, I feel the opposite about writing. I don’t believe in getting rid of writing that doesn’t “spark joy”. 

Instead, I adhere to the write often and keep everything philosophy. As writers, we often write things that sound great in our head and fall flat on the page. It doesn’t mean these pieces are worn out socks that we should thank and toss. Instead, given the proper atmosphere or editing that piece can turn into a sparkly bundle of joy. 

So instead of deleting or shedding writing that doesn’t serve, try keeping it. Here are three ways to use your writing scraps. 

Add it to your story with a footnote

Write something that includes characters, settings, or plot points for a project you’re already working on? But not sure where in the timeline it fits? Or even if it fits at all? Instead of scrapping it, insert the piece into your project and include a footnote, highlight, different font color, comment–anything to distinguish that’s a TBD piece. Later, as you’re working through your editing phase you can decide if it stays, goes, or can be repurposed elsewhere. 

Bonus tip: if you’re working on Scrivener, you can always add the piece as a new document and then make a note in the title or on the corkboard that it’s TBD. 

Establish a Save for Later notebook

Like a good set of tupperware, consider creating a Save for Later or SFL notebook. This can be a paper or digital notebook–any place that can store a large amount of writing and is easily accessible. You can even get fancy and add tabs or sections to organize it by project, characters, setting, etc. Next time you’re looking for inspiration or that one sentence of dialogue is too good to leave behind, pull out your SFL notebook. 

Have a leftover night

Put that baked ziti away–I’m talking about word leftovers. Next time you’re staring at a blank page and not sure what to write, pull out your SFL notebook or other writing scraps and whip up a new recipe. Mix-and-match different scraps to create a new story; add something unexpected to a piece that’s flat; maybe edit and reheat something that’s almost there but not quite. It’s amazing how a little rearranging can bring a new dish…story to life. 

Have a collection of scraps and ready to dive into using them? Check out the Edit section for advice on revising and polishing. Go get your sparkle on.

KonMari Method™ is a trademark of KonMari Media Inc.

He said, she said: Writing powerful dialogue

Learn to write strong dialogue without using adverbs or verbs to modify said.

Several years ago, I participated in a Visiting Writers Series class at Butler University that focused on reading and analyzing the works of writers and poets visiting the school or local Indianapolis area. (The class name was very literal.) As part of the class, I had the honor of introducing Elmore Leonard during his lecture at Clowes Hall.

Myself and Elmore Leonard at Butler University

I could tell you some more about the introduction (it was terrifying and wonderful and I almost threw up) but the best part of the experience was the pre-lecture dinner where myself and a couple of other writers spent time with Mr. Leonard and learning about his craft. We went to the Naked Tchopstix in Broad Ripple and he told us about the tattoos he got while serving during World War II and the importance of writing every day. What stuck with me from that conversation was his advice to never use anything other than said in dialogue. No adverbs, no adjectives, no verbs. Nothing. Just he said, she said, they said, we said, I said.

At the time I nodded enthusiastically because who was I to disagree with a writing god? Later on, as I worked privately on my own prose I felt the advice didn’t work. How is the reader supposed to know my, the writer’s intent, if I don’t use sarcastically, quietly, loudly, scoffed, growled, etc. when writing dialogue? I couldn’t make them guess–that seemed cruel and unproductive. So I pocketed the advice and continued writing dialogue as I always had: peppered with clues about my intent.

Recently, I re-read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and came across the advice again.

“It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied,” and the like…Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition.”

(Strunk and White 75)

And it clicked. I, as the writer, am not supposed to tell my readers about the characters. The characters are supposed to tell the readers about themselves. HOLY HELL. This whole time I’ve been writing weak dialogue by using adverbs and verbs to forcefully drag my readers down a certain path of understanding.

Opening up the last chapter I worked on, I went through and cut every adverb and verb I could find. Which meant I was editing 95% of my dialogue. Confronted with so much slashing, I realized I was relying too heavily on the writing to tell the story instead of allowing the actions and dialogue to speak for themselves. Me, the writer, was interjecting in the story like an unwanted voiceover when I should have been an observer.

While burning and slashing all words ending in -ly or -ed it became clear I couldn’t just edit out adverbs and verbs to create good prose.

“This is good cake,” she said greedily, “I adore it.”

“Of course it is,” he said sneered, “I used to work in a Parisian bakery.”

Better without the adverbs and verbs but still not great. It took time and patience and lots of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-can-I-even-write-well? but I found some tactics to remove those life-draining adverbs and verbs to write drastically better dialogue. Here are my top three tips:

Connotation is your friend

If you’re not using adverbs to describe the way your character says something, then use the connotation of their words to convey their feelings. For example, “I like coffee” has a variety of meanings depending on how it’s said. The character could be ironic, sarcastic, enthusiastic, or anything. Instead of modifying the verb said try modifying the content of the dialogue.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I guess I like coffee.” She said.

Show don’t tell

Already modified the content of the dialogue as much as you can? Try describing what your character is doing before, during, or after they speak. Grinning, fidgeting fingers, or slamming a door are more telling than happily, nervously, or angrily ever were.

Original: “I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.

Revised: “I like coffee,” she said, picking up the sugar dispenser and holding it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

Play off the other characters

Tapped out on using connotations and showing-not-telling? Want to mix it up? Try omitting said entirely and allow your characters to play off one another. Whether responding directly to each other’s tone or indicating it by their response. Just make sure to set up the scene beforehand so your reader knows who is speaking as they follow the back and forth.

Original:

“I like coffee.” She said sarcastically.
“You don’t like coffee,” he scoffed, “order a tea.”

Revised:

She picked up the up the sugar dispenser and held it above her coffee cup for several seconds.

“I like coffee.”

“Stop being difficult. You’ve never liked coffee. Order a tea.”

Learning to cut adverbs and verbs from my dialogue was difficult and painful process. To be honest, I still catch myself trying to sneak some adverbs or verbs in after said. But if I want strong dialogue and a strong story, I need to drop my ego at the page and let the characters speak directly to the reader. Writers are a vessel for their stories. They shouldn’t interject their thoughts anymore than the paper and ink do.

Citation: Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style with Revisions, an Introduction, and a Chapter on Writing. Longman, 2000.

Magical Poetry Workshop

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. Grab your wands…pens, and join us for some magical poetry!

Brief outline for half-day poetry workshop. As with any lesson plan, feel free to modify as needed to fit your intended audience. So grab your wands…pens, and join us for some magical poetry!

Writing Genre

Poetry

Age group

Middle School

Workshop Activities

Reading models, structured exercises, editing/revision period, and group readings

Supplies and Materials

Printed handouts, paper, pencils, pens, markers/colored pencils, stage

Objectives

Students walk away inspired by the extraordinary and able to define magical realism and fantasy. Students are also encouraged to incorporate magic or fantasy elements into their poems as metaphors for real life experiences.

Group discussion

What do we like about magic or fantasy?

  • What do you specifically like about your favorite fairy tale/fantasy story?
  • What types of magical elements do you think are cool?
  • How do you feel after reading/watching a story with magical elements?

Difference between Magical Realism and Fantasy

  • Magical realism = a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements.
  • Fantasy =  fiction set in a fictional universe, often without any locations, events, or people referencing the real world.

Exercises

The Witch Wife or Belief in Magic

  • Read the poem out loud and discuss how it embodies every day acts (making dinner, gardening,) and makes them magical
  • Class will brainstorm 2-3 everyday tasks and then students will write a poem that turns that every day task into something magical
  • If students are stuck, encourage them to break down the everyday task into steps and write about each step as if it were extraordinary. E.g., tying your shoes. These long sleek snakes that tangle themselves around a bow.

Fairy Tale Logic

  • Read the poem out loud and discuss how it uses classic Fairy Tale elements to highlight real struggles.
    • Point out that it’s in Sonnet form
  • Students will choose a fairytale/fantasy story (can be the one they said at the beginning of the class or a different one) and write a list of the magical elements
    • E.g., Beauty and the Beast. Rose, talking candlestick, beast, enchantress, magic mirror, etc.
  • Once we have our list of elements, on the other side of the page brainstorm some problems from everyday life
    • E.g., bullies, trouble with homework, getting lost, etc.
  • Craft a poem that incorporates 2-3 magic elements from the list and 1-2 problems from your other list.

The Witch Has Told You a Story

  • Discuss how the poem takes a fairy tale and retells it in a unique way. This is from the witch speaking. Discuss how telling a familiar story in a unique way leads to deeper insights.
  • Choose favorite story and retell it as a poem
    • Consider changing the point of view, adding new magical elements, setting it in a different place/time period, adding a new or different problem/resolution.

Carried Away: Stream of Consciousness

Quick guide on using stream of consciousness in your writing.

Definition

noun; A literary style or technique in which a character’s thoughts are presented in a continuous manner uninterrupted by other characters, dialogue, or omnipotent observations. Typically devoid of standard punctuation.

Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash
Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash

Example

So they will have told you doubtless already how I told that Jones to take that mule which was not his around to the barn and harness it to our buggy while I put on my hat and shawl and locked the house. That was all I needed to do since they will have told you doubtless that I would have had no need for either trunk or bag since what clothing I possessed, now that the garments which I had been fortunate enough to inherit from my aunt’s kindness or haste or oversight were long since worn out, consisted of the ones which Ellen had remembered from time to time to give me and now Ellen these two years dead; that I had only to lock the house and take my place in the buggy and traverse those twelve miles which I had not done since Ellen died, beside that brute who until Ellen died was not even permitted to approach the house from the front…

–Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

Pros vs. Cons

One very big pro of this style is to give insight to the inner psyche of your character. By giving them free reign of the narrative you convey how their inner mind works and allow the reader to draw connections between seemingly insignificant events and content to form a more developed picture. For instance, does your character’s overuse of the word “fabulous” reveal a superficiality about the things/events they find “fabulous”? Great way to subtly splice open your character and lay their bones and nerves on the table for the reader.

Major con to this style is that it’s straight up difficult. Difficult to craft and difficult to control. It’s easy to get carried down the stream without any real content. Just because your character has the ability to say or think anything, doesn’t mean they should be allowed to. Your job as a writer is to choose what’s most important. Cut the rest.

Tips

If you’re exploring this style, try free writing for  a set amount of time (20-60 minutes will do it). Don’t censor yourself during this time–go with the flow. At the end of your set time, go back to the beginning and read. I recommend reading the whole piece through once (without editing), then answer these questions:

  • What’s the overall theme and feel to the piece? Is your character reflecting on a tragic/happy event? Are they worried, angry, nervous, exuberant, in love, etc.?
  • Next, what is the purpose of this section? What does it do for your story? Does it progress the action? Or provide necessary character insight?

With your questions answered, go back through a second time and start cutting anything that doesn’t fit the above answers. If your character is in love and reflecting on their current love triangle, it’s probably not the best time to mention how much they hate their neighbor for not sorting their recycling.

When in doubt as to whether or not something should stay, cut it. If you don’t immediately love it or feel like it fits, it has no place in your writing. Cut it. If you have a crush on it, save it for another piece. But if there’s no love it doesn’t belong. Better to have a succinct piece than something that causes your reader’s eyes to glaze over.

The Masters

The best way to learn anything is to study those who have perfected the skill. If you’re looking for inspiration or guidance, pick up one of these for your next read:

  • The Autumn of the Patriarch; Gabriel García Màrquez
  • The Sound and the Fury; William Faulkner
  • Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
  • Mrs. Dalloway; Virginia Woolf
  • Ulysses; James Joyce
  • On the Road; Jack Kerouac

Bibliography

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Valuable Writing Lessons from Game of Thrones

As a GoT fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the bandwagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

Photo by Kylo on Unsplash
Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

It’s difficult to be a timely publication and not talk about Game of Thrones. Whether it’s conspiracy theories or actor interviews or fashion commentary–everyone wants in on the game. As a fan and a writer, I can’t resist jumping on the wagon and adding in my own commentary. Which leads us to this week’s post–valuable writing lessons from our favorite show to hate: Game of Thrones!

The importance of flawed characters

Can you name one character in GoT that is completely honorable and unflawed? Even good ol’ Samwell Tarly has broken oaths and stolen books. That’s because George R. R. Martin and the writers at HBO have hit on an essential fact–stories with flawed characters are vastly more interesting and relatable.

We’re all in some way flawed and it’s much easier to identify with the character that spills coffee on herself vs. the character that prances through life saying and doing exactly the right things. So next time you’re developing a character, consider giving them a flaw. Whether a minor one like whistling at inappropriate moments or a major one like a compulsion to lie, flaws open up your characters to be authentic. Not to mention, a character flaw is the perfect opportunity to insert some conflict and context. That annoying whistling could reveal a character’s backstory or be the catalyst for their spouse to leave them…

No one likes a happy story

I can’t remember where I heard/read this, but someone at some point in my life advised that no one wants to read a story about someone else’s perfect life. #Preach. Think about it–no one likes inviting along that one friend who only talks about how perfect and great their life is. So why would you invite that one book to your bookshelf?

We enjoy stories about trials, sacrifices, and questions. We love these stories because they give us hope, encouragement, or maybe even real life warnings. And as writers, stories with hardships give our characters an opportunity and a reason to grow and change. Rather than staying static and perfect and boring for the remainder of the story.

So take a cue from Game of Thrones where almost everything goes wrong and some characters are literally pieces of their former selves–add some hardships. One good trick to introduce conflict is to identify your character’s greatest fear. Are they pinning all their hopes of socio-economic advancement on getting a promotion at work? Are they terrified of squirrels invading their house? Will they die of embarrassment if their crush finds out they don’t know how to correctly pronounce phớ? Once you have it, make that thing happen. Make it as dramatic or as subtle as you want and take us through how your character reacts and is molded by their worst fears.

There is such a thing as too much suspense

There’s no argument that suspension and tension are the motors that drive a story along. But let that motor run too long and you’ve driven your audience right off the story path. Take heed from George R. R. Martin, who is now 8 years behind the last Game of Thrones novel A Dance with Dragons. In fact, he’s left us in suspense for so long that HBO has commandeered the story.

Now I’m not saying that waiting too long to tell your story means someone else will tell it for you. But what I am saying is that if you keep your readers in suspense for too long, they’re going to drift away. Too much tension (with no climax) will leave your readers feeling unsatisfied and disappointed. Too little tension will leave your readers feeling bored.

So how do you find that perfect balance? Unfortunately there’s no magic formula. However you can try some of these techniques to help you pace the tension:

  • Add a time constraint (does this all happen in a week? A day? An hour?)
  • Up the ante by creating increasingly worse situations until the character is forced to deal with it
  • Create secondary sources of conflict that exacerbate the main source of conflict

So next Sunday, while you’re waiting to see how Dany and Jon take on Cersei, pay a little closer attention to the story. You might realize it’s a wealth of techniques you can use in your own work.

Interested in more tips for creating AND sustaining suspense in your story? Check out this great article from Writer’s Digest.