Guidelines For Writing Practice

We all know how important it is to practice your writing every day, or at least almost every day.  The author Judy Reeves has some great writing tips in her book Prompts and Practices.  Some of them are similar to things we’ve already talked about, but there are some new things, as well, and it offers great advice to all writers, whether you’re practicing or working on something.  Here they are:

  1. Keep writing.  Don’t stop to edit, to rephrase, to think.  Don’t go back and read what you’ve written until you’ve finished.
  2. Trust your pen.  Go with the first image that appears.
  3. Don’t judge your writing.  Don’t compare, analyze, criticize.
  4. Let your writing find its own form.  Allow it to organically take shape into a story, an essay, a poem, dialogue, an incomplete meander.
  5. Don’t worry about the rules.  Don’t worry about grammar, syntax, punctuation, or sentence structure.
  6. Let go of your expectations.  Let your writing surprise you.
  7. Kiss your frogs.  Remember, this is just practice.  Not every session will be magic.  The point is to just suit up and show up at the page, no matter what.
  8. Tell the truth.  Be willing to go to the scary places that make your hand tremble and your handwriting gets a little out of control.  Be willing to tell your secrets.
  9. Write specific details.  Your writing doesn’t have to be factual, but the specificity of the details brings it alive.  The truth isn’t in the facts; it’s in the detail.
  10. Write what matters.  If you don’t care about what you’re writing, neither will your readers.  Be a passionate writer.
  11. Read your writing aloud after you’ve completed your practice session.  You’ll find out what you’ve written, what you care about, when you’re writing the truth, and when the writing is “working.”
  12. Date your page and write the topic at the top.  This will keep you grounded in the present and help you reference pieces you might want to use in something else.
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First Sentences

I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels.  They’re what pull you in to the story.  They set the tone for the entire book.  They’re like the entryway of a house.  They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.

While the logical thing would  be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things.  While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel.  Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.

Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  The reader’s immediate response is to read on.  Who is Giovanni?  Is he going to kiss her?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order.  Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement.  It’s brilliant.  Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.

Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”  Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies?  If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery.  This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.

Here are some other great openings.  Hopefully some of them will inspire you.

The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov

They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

The Blue Men by Joyce Williams

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

Gesturing by John Updike

She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.

Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo

Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.

Exchange Value by Charles Johnson

Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.

Judgment by Kate Wheeler

When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.

The Remission by Mavis Gallant

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller

Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.

The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt

The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.

Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell

These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.

Medley by Toni Cade Bambara

I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.

The Winter Father by Andre Dubus

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark

My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.

A School Story by William Trevor

Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.

Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro

I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.

Resistance

Here’s a quote from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield about resistance – one of the worst forms of procrastination:

If Resistance couldn’t be beaten, there would be no Fifth Symphony, no Romeo and Juliet, no Golden Gate Bridge.  Defeating Resistance is like giving birth.  It seems absolutely impossible until you remember that women have been pulling it off successfully, with support and without, for fifty million years.

Take that, resistance.