Ways to Improve Your Writing Without Actually…Writing

So, obviously the only way to become a better writer is to write. Regularly. But some days writing just doesn’t happen, for one reason or another. Maybe you are on vacation, or feeling really sick, or just feeling burnt out.

Stop feeling guilty or like you will lose ground. While this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence, it happens. Give yourself some grace. And then remember that there are other things you can do that aren’t actually putting a pen to paper that will still have a positive affect on your writing. So, in no particular order. Here we go.

Do some beta reading or critiquing. Sometimes, I think this works even better than writing to make you a better writer.

Read a book and pay attention to what makes it good or bad. Analyze the plot structure, the voice, the characters.

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Make a pinterest board with images to use for your book. Photos of your setting and people who look similar to your characters will help you make the details more vivid.

Read a book on craft.

Do some research for your book. Every book needs at least a little research.giphy (3)

People watch and write down little details about a person that bring them to life.giphy

Sit and listen to conversations in a crowded area to get a feel for how people talk and interact with each other.

Do something creative other than writing. Knit, garden, paint, dance. Whatever it is. It will fill that creative well that you need to draw from when you write.

Do some positive reinforcement for yourself. I know people who have taken headshots for their future announcement, written “I am pleased to announce blah blah blah” on a sticky note and put it on their computer, even bought the dress they will wear to their future book signing. When I was querying, I drafted my nudge email before I had an offer to nudge with. Do something to really visualize your future success and bring on the positive vibes.

Talk with someone about a book!

Go analyze some other kind of art and figure out why it speaks to you. Brainstorm how you can bring that into your writing.

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Go spend some time asking and answering questions on the SCBWI blueboards.

Go through PM and MSWL and make a list of agents to query.


I’m sure there are more. What about you? When you can’t write, what kinds of things do you do to make up for it?

Write Something That Will Change Your Life

I’ve been reading John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY. And let me tell you, that thing is stuffed full of so much good stuff for writing. Many things I was already subconsciously doing, but after reading about half the book now and keeping his “steps” in mind as I’ve gone into my new WIP, it’s really allowed me to address certain problems right up front.

I think one of the most important things he’s said, though, is near the beginning of the book. He gives a two step approach to developing a premise and the first step is this.


Truby goes on to say, “This is a very high standard, but it may be the most valuable piece of advice you’ll ever get as a writer. I’ve never seen a writer go wrong following it. Why? Because if a story is that important to you, it may be that important to a lot of people in the audience. And when you’re done writing the story, no matter what else happens, you’ve changed your life.”

Gosh, I love that! Mostly because it took me over three years of writing before I came to that conclusion myself, and then to read it in a craft book was a nice piece of validation. But I think he is absolutely right. You are going to spend at least a few months, a year if you’re like me, working on this story. And guess what? It might not go anywhere. It might stay stuck on your computer forever. But if you write something that changes you, changes the way you look at the world, changes your life, then it’s all worth it.

I don’t like to look on any of my writing time as a waste, even when it didn’t produce top-quality material, because it all taught me something. But I spend two years on a contemporary fantasy manuscript when I first began writing. And to this day, I can tell you the plot and all about the characters. But I still can’t truly tell  you what I was trying to SAY with it.

Because in the end, the best books, the ones you reread and carry around in your heart with you always have something TO SAY. Not in a preachy manner, and not as a lesson. But they speak to us because there is a message behind them. An idea the author wanted to explore. A dichotomy.

What you have to say won’t always be the same kind of thing. I’ve written two books and am currently drafting a third, since I figured out this life changing aspect of writing. And each of those books has a very different thing I was trying to say or explore in the story.

Book #1 – The give and take of love, friendship, and forgiveness is a kind of magic. A bit of grace without real explanation.

Book #2 – It is possible to be two seemingly opposite things at once. Living and dying, faithful and doubting, scared and brave.

Book #3 – Creating a community by attending to each other’s needs.

Now just so you know, books 1 and 2 are contemporary and number 3 is a light fantasy. Your genre doesn’t make a difference here. The highest fantasy can still explore themes important to a contemporary audience. Indeed, if you want your story to have staying power, it must resonate to people in the “real world.”

Now, writing something that will change your life takes practice, I think. I never discovered what I wanted to say with my very first book. It took three rewrites to figure it out with my second book. It took halfway through the first draft of my third book to fully realize it, and then finally, with this fourth book, I knew what it was before I started. And guess what? It has taken so much pressure off of writing this story. Because I know that everything has to eventually serve this greater purpose of showing the creation of community.

The thing was, I always thought I had a premise before. A premise to me was just a good, hopefully unique idea.

I want to write a fairytale retelling from the male POV! Boom. I started writing.

I want to write a book about grandma guardian angels. Boom. I started writing.

I want to write a book about a girl who might have a cancer gene. I waited. She has two possible futures. I should find a way to show that. Okay, then I started writing.

Finally, I waited and waited, and let my idea develop for a bit before writing. I should note this was because I had to finish another book first, not because I was actually growing wiser as a storyteller. 😉

I want to write a book about a fallen star full of wishes. Wait. Wait. But how do I make that important? What is important about wishes. Wait. Wait. If wishes just came true, we wouldn’t need to help each other, would we? Wait. Wait. If we weren’t helping each other, we’d live in isolation. Wait. Wait. And then I had a thought. This is about a neighborhood coming together. Building community is something I think about and talk about a lot. And so it was very natural for this idea to come to me. Because I’m already passionate about it. And because I’m passionate about what I’m trying TO SAY, writing this book doesn’t feel quite as hard, and it already has layers right from the beginning.

But I had to let it simmer and steep for a while. I had to ponder on it and also reach inside myself and ask, What is important to me?

Truby has two different exercises in his book to help you dig out of yourself what is important to you. What sort of ideas will change your life and be worth your time. I won’t give you those, I think you should buy the book.

But even if you don’t, I can’t recommend enough, waiting to write your story until you’ve gone beyond a premise that’s just “cool” and actually explored the question, What do I want to say?

For Love of Contemporary

When I was growing up, my favorite book was WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech. I can tell, by my memories of the book, that I didn’t truly understand all the intricacies of the story at the tender age of nine. And yet, something about it touched me so deeply and profoundly that I have always listed it in my top five favorite books.

There’s something special about Middle Grade literature, and even more so contemporary Middle Grade. There is this huge, enormous potential for empathy of characters in all sorts of situations, and yet, still an understanding, really, a necessity, for good to still win out in some way. Perhaps not a perfectly happy ending, but a hopeful one that leaves the reader with a greater understanding of the world around them as well as a greater ability to see the light and the good and the beautiful.

Harry Potter is wonderful. And I adored ELLA ENCHANTED. Every kid dreams of magic and flying and monsters, and all those fun things are part of Middle Grade lit too. And I have to hand it to the people who write fantasy, it’s not easy. World Building is hard. You people have amazing imaginations.

But I wanted to take a minute here to thank those authors who have made me pause at the beauty of the contemporary. The normal. The every day exquisiteness of the people and moments around us. The drama of those small, quiet choices that make all the difference.

Those moments may not come with explosions or magic words or portals to another world. But these moments are powerful. That decision to put down the bottle comes with it’s own war zone. The moment a new friendship is realized and opens up a whole new way of looking at the world. The right words spoken to a broken heart, can be more powerful than any spell.

These authors I love and respect take the turning point moments of our lives, letting go of what is no longer yours, jumping into the unknown, pouring your whole heart into something only to see it fail,and they turn them into works of art.

They fill the world with hope. Hope sprinkled into the little moments. The normal. The every day.

I’ve never lost a loved one to Avada Kedavra, but I’ve had my very last interaction with my best friend be negative, before she died. I’ll never be in a final battle between good and evil, but I can choose kind. I’ll never go on a journey to rescue treasure from dragons, but I’ve learned how to walk two moons in somebody else’s moccasins. And so, to all you writers of contemporary Middle Grade. Thank you. Thank you for instilling reverence, awe, joy, and most of all, hope, in your readers, by tucking all of that and more into everyday moments, and creating empathy, compassion and understanding.

You are my heroes, and I want to be you when I grow up.