I run a weekly club in Bangalore for beginning writers called Write Club. There we’re always trying to come up with short, pithy advice for the absolute novice to take his or her writing to the next level. A common situation I face every Saturday is a person coming up to me and asking: ‘What do you honestly feel about my writing? And how do I get better?’
This is what I tell the majority of them. If you put these two pieces of theory into practice, you will become a better writer in no time, whether you’re writing fiction, poetry or non-fiction.
1. Action is key. Not emotion.
Human beings work at three different levels: emotions, thoughts and actions. Emotions are driven by instincts, which reside deep in the limbic system. We have no conscious control over these. Often we realize we’re feeling a certain way after we’ve begun to feel that way. Thoughts are semi-conscious, which means we can control them to an extent. Action is the perhaps the most conscious level of the three. (For a more scientific explanation of the triune brain, see here.)
It helps the writer to stay for as long as (s)he can at this action level. Once in a while you can take a dip into the thought level and give us an insight into what the character is thinking. But as a rule, never, ever tell us directly what your character is feeling. The actions and thoughts, if chosen well, will automatically carry the feeling.
Trust your reader to get it. Readers are smarter than we think they are. Always.
Mrs Krishnamurthy turned and looked at the casket in the back seat. Chandler Bing was dressed in his favourite red Mickey Mouse shirt. That had been the first thing she had bought with Mr Krishnamurthy’s insurance money. Mickey’s eyes spoke to her and filled her with a cold, inner steel. I should do this, thought Mrs Krishnamurthy, for Chandler. He deserves nothing less.
So she opened the door, dragged out the casket, and carried Chandler Bing to the gate, where the man just stood and stared. With more confidence than she felt, Mrs Krishnamurthy squinted against the sun and said, ‘I need to bury my cat.’ A thin film of sweat accumulated underneath her gloves. She wished she could throw them away, but she was holding Chandler Bing, and there was nothing but wet mud all around her.
Here we see a short piece where we get actions and thoughts from the main character. Did I have to tell you explicitly that Mrs Krishnamurthy loved her dead cat?
2. A sensory experience is everything.
Your readers don’t want complex descriptions and plots and deep messages. More than anything, they want you to take them on a sensory experience. That means filling your scene with specific details of not just the sights and sounds, but also the smells and tastes and touches of your world.
From now on, before you write anything, spend five minutes in absolute, utter silence with your eyes closed. Visualize yourself in the place you’re going to write about. Make sure you engage all your senses. Then, after you’ve taken your dip, invite your readers along for one.
To train yourself in this kind of thinking, force yourself to perceive everyday objects with senses that you don’t naturally use with them. For instance, when you think of a rose, what comes to your mind? The colour red, perhaps? Or is it the smell? So now, close your eyes, block your nose, and feel the petals brush against your fingers. How does that feel? When you drop it on the floor, when you snap the stem in two, what kind of sound does it make? How does the sharp tip of a thorn press against the tip of your tongue?
You can play this game with almost everything. We all know what a jalebi tastes like, but when you break it in two, how does the juice flow out onto your fingers? When you bite into it, does it crunch between your teeth or is it soggy? Is the texture oily and reedy or is it soft?
Looking at things through senses other than those they’re made for will give you new, fresh images with which to write. And your readers will thank you for a wholesome experience.
These are the first two things I tell beginners at Write Club to improve their writing. Do you have any more tips that have helped you in your journey? If so, I’d love to hear from you. Please leave behind a comment telling me about it.
Image Courtesy: Brilliant.org