Six Tips for Writing Well (and You Can Still Write After Kids)

BlogHer Original Post

I use my blog as a place to experiment with my voice and how it changes based on my subject matter. Some posts are very straightforward and conversational, as though I'm passing a note in class. Some are more formal, structured as though I think I am writing a letter to the editor of The New York Times. Some start in medias res and are anecdotes leaving out tons of information to capture a moment, usually about my daughter. Some are structured like screenplays, complete with dialogue and staging directions. Some are storyboards with lots of pictures and captions, usually in a lame attempt at humor. It wasn't always this way -- when I started my blog I tried to be funny every day. Now I try to be funny only when the mood strikes me, because in retrospect I see that I am not one of those people who can be funny on demand. And that's okay! Though I'm always me and if you are very, very familiar with my writing, you may recognize my voice from post to post, I now realize it's fine and authentic and all that to bring forth the Rita I feel necessary on that writing day, not some static persona all the time. (Some people write with the same voice all the time, and they do it for entirely different reasons than I use variations on me on my blog, and it works for them!)

I don't only write on my blog, though, and I know many of you don't, either. Whether you're interested in a blog to book memoir, a cookbook, a novel, poetry, what have you -- any time you write anything is an opportunity to practice. Here are some more tips I pulled from Hopper's book and how they work for me.

Structure is always tied to the story, and identifying the heart of your piece will help you decide what kind of structure you need. - p. 150

One bit of advice I've given to quite a few friends working on memoirs is to think hard about structure before really getting started. I remember grief memoirist Claire Bidwell Smith (we read her memoir, The Rules of Inheritance, in BlogHer Book Club) saying she wrote her book twice before she realized she wanted to use the five stages of grief as her structure instead of chronological order or something else. It's a fascinating spin on structure, as she bounces back and forth between ages and timeframes from chapter to chapter, which forces the reader to focus more on the character than the plot. I myself have struggled with structure in my fiction because -- without an outline -- I tend to sprinkle too little of this character or leave that narrative arc hanging at maybe three-quarters of a rainbow and end up having to rewrite something twelve times instead of three.

Speaking of grief and heavy stuff, I liked the advice Hopper gives about creating emotional distance. I've had feedback from plenty of readers on more than one writing project that my work is "an unrelenting downer." YAY! Nobody wants to be dragged through hell with nary a moment of levity. Have you ever been reading a novel and thought, "Good GOD, if one more horrible thing happens to this narrator, I'll throw the book out the window." No? That's just me? Hmmm ...well anyway, here's a bit of advice if you're getting feedback that your stuff is just too morose:

Two ways to create emotional distance are with voice and tense. - p. 102

Hopper goes on to talk about past tense versus present tense. I didn't give tense a lot of thought until I heard a rumor that Suzanne Collins' editor made her rewrite The Hunger Games in present tense to make it riskier. I don't know if that's true or not, but the idea stopped me in my tracks. I find it easier to write in past tense, but I get it. If you're writing in past tense, the reader knows it already happened and you lived through it. Present tense is anyone's guess. So past tense can make things a little ... safer ... for the reader. Something to think about.

Finally, I wanted to pass along a great bit that I've found true for myself. What I don't have in talent, I make up in spades by being a ridiculous terrier about follow-up. I know plenty of amazing writers with buckets of talent who just don't have the desire to put themselves out there over and over and over for the next thousand times until someone says, "Yes, I'll publish this." It's a marathon, not a sprint. And look! I'm not the only one who thinks so:

DiCamillo says, "I decided a long time ago that I din't have to be talented. I just had to be persistent {...}." -- p. 191

Do you love talking about the craft of writing? Come to the panel I'm moderating at BlogHer '12! I'll be talking with Jennifer Armstrong and Susan Goldberg about turning blog posts into publishable essays at 10:30 am on Friday. I hope to see you there! If you have questions you'd like to discuss now, please ask them in the comments!

Rita Arens authors Surrender, Dorothy and is the editor of the award-winning parenting anthology Sleep is for the Weak. She is the senior editor for BlogHer.com.

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