Writing Tips for Novelists

I often get asked how I write best.  I think people expect me to say, “On an island, surrounded by palm trees, with soft music flowing in the background.”  The truth is, my brain is a glutton for punishment.  If I treated it to the island of palm trees, it would completely shut down every creative nerve I have.

But to back up, I thought it would be fun to give you a few insights into my writing life and style.  I consider writing as having two phases, the most important having nothing to do with pen and paper or laptop or actually writing.  There’s the “thinking” phase and the “typing” phase.  Most creativity comes, indeed most of the story is written, during the thinking phase.  That’s when you have a spacey look in your eye, when your family and friends notice you’re not answering their questions exactly right. That’s where the magic happens.  I need 70% of my writing to happen in this phase, or I usually know the story’s not ready to be penned.  This is where you let the inspiration flow.  Often it happens (because of the brain’s rebellious spirit) when I’m still writing something else.

I don’t know about other authors, but I find it is particularly important not to cage my brain.  Don’t outline furiously.  Let it flow organically.  I usually do minimal outlining (i.e., if I “outline,” I write about ten words in chronological order so I don’t forget the general flow) and only write specific lines down if the wording as I have thought it out in my head feels particularly right. Don’t get hung up on a particular story development or plot and sit there and dwell and dwell on it, whether you’re stuck or you’ve just had a grand inspiration.  If an idea comes to you that is particularly delicious, don’t overthink it and carry it to all of its natural conclusions.  You need to leave something to keep the spark alive.  Pull back.  It’s like not wearing out your favorite song.  Leave something to be explored. 

Taking good ideas that thrill you and fleshing them out should make up most of that 30% that’s left for the typing phase.  Thinking and typing happen simultaneously during a lot of the typing phase, and that’s when the juices really get to flowing and you take your story over the edge.  That’s what saves the typing phase from being drudge work.  Sure, you’re having to spend long hours in your chair writing out things that are already in your head, but if you save some of that deliciousness and let it unfurl during the typing, the story will excite you anew, and you’ll pound it out in a couple of months.

So what about that island of soft music?  No can do for me.  During the thinking phase, I do listen to music that inspires me, but once the typing phase starts, the room must be totally silent.  I also work best under oppression, or when my mind is supposed to be entirely devoted to something else.  Are you laughing at me yet?  For example, my first week of law school basically called for me to be a performing monkey/robot.  No time was allotted for me to do anything I wanted to do (barely even squeezed in a shower), and yet, in the spirit of rebellion, my creative juices flowed like never before, and I feel like I wrote half a book in my head.  Also, sometimes at church.  Yes, I know that’s naughty.  But there’s something about knowing you’re supposed to be concentrating on something else that makes creativity sparkle.

I also need total privacy.  if I felt like someone could see what I was writing, I wouldn’t write honestly.  If I asked for someone’s opinion, I wouldn’t go with my instincts.  And honesty and instincts are the very backbone of a good writer.  Now for a few more tips as you picture me writing away in a drab, silent room…

Tips:

-Make a Spotify or Pandora playlist for your book, think of the mood of the book, take that mood one extreme further, and reflect that in the music.  If your book is spunky, play really spunky music.  If your book is serious, go for Downton Abbey trailer material.  Get the idea?  Not all of the music has to be time/place appropriate, although some of that is good.  For example, there’s a Fleetwood Mac song that that reminds me of my Civil War couple, and that’s on their playlist.  But I also add in a lot of instrumental pieces to keep me grounded in the era.

-Have someone to bounce ideas off of when you get stuck.  Occasionally that person will have some brilliant idea to fix it all, but usually the answer is already within you.  You just need to tap it.  Make sure it’s only one or two people, though, and someone you trust implicitly so you don’t lose your honesty and instincts.

-Think about your emotions.  Are you feeling it?  If you’re not, your reader very rarely is, and you’ve gotten off track.  Go back and try to find where.

-Sometimes something as little as one sentence can throw your entire story off.  You’ve described something wrong, set the wrong mood… Don’t always look for huge things.

-For writer’s block: pray.  I mean it.  I’ve been there.  There are no quick fixes.  God will show you a way through when the time is right.  And you’ll probably learn something along the way.

-To stay true to a character’s personality, get an image of the character that is the essence of their personality, and keep bringing yourself back to it when you lose them.  For example, female lead in a candlelit room with vulnerability in her eyes. Male lead staring off into the distance, lost in his thoughts.  You get the idea.

-Write to glorify God.  You might think, “How can my small town rom-com glorify Him when it doesn’t even have a religious vibe?”  It can.  You would be surprised how creative He is.  Let Him take you to the next level.

Stop by soon for the playlists from my current work-in-progress!

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Tara Cowan Author

Tara Cowan is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain and Northern Fire. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel to historic sites, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel. To connect with Tara, find her on Facebook or follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_

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