[Now SCRATCH those last two words!]
Guest Blog! Five-Minute Writing Tips by Kathleen Kaska
Kathleen Kaska recently sent me her Five-Minute Writing Tips, and I had to share them with you this National Novel Writing Month! I’ve enjoyed several conversations with Kathleen during interviews about her latest books (she has many), and I hope you’ll enjoy the videos of our visits (see below Kathleen’s tips). And so, without further ado, her helpful tips! (Time to rewatch Throw Momma from the Train!)
Don’t Be Like Larry Donner: Seven R’s for Removing Writer’s Block
Was the night . . . humid, moist, or wet? Is the right word on the tip of your tongue, but you’re tongue-tied? Do you have a great scene for murdering a condescending convenience-store clerk, but can’t get his body into the beer box without being seen? Have your characters developed minds of their own, barricaded themselves in a bank vault, and refused to make an appearance on your computer screen?
What do you do now? Start by deleting the words “writer’s block” from your vocabulary, then remember the advice of Larry Donner. “Who’s he?” you ask. Remember the movie Throw Momma from the Train, a spoof on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1951 thriller, Strangers on a Train? Throw Momma from the Train stars Billy Crystal as writing instructor Larry Donner and Danny DeVito as his overzealous student, Owen Lift.
The plot in both films is based on the theory that if you eliminate the motive, you can get away with murder. In other words, “You kill mine, and I’ll kill yours.” In Throw Momma, Larry wants his wife dead, Owen his mother.
The sub-plot in the spoof has to do with writer’s block. Larry has a severe case of it, which is magnified by the murder charge against him, but the basic lesson to his students is: “A writer writes, always.” So, take Larry’s advice if the words won’t flow and follow my seven “R’s.”
1. Resurrect: Work on more than one writing project.
If you hit a roadblock while working on a story, just move to another. Allow your creativity time to process what you have written. In the meantime, continue writing. I keep several projects in the works: a proposal, an article, a blog post, or even an old-fashioned letter to a friend. This allows me to log several hours a day of writing and feel like I’ve accomplished something.
2. Rewrite: Edit what you’ve already written.
As a writer, you may like to ignore the left side of your brain, but that petty and unrelentingly critical hemisphere is your friend. While the right side of your brain allows the creative stream to flow unencumbered by rules of the English language, you have to tidy up the result with the left.
I set aside my first drafts to let them settle. When the time is right, I let my left-brain do the dirty work.
3. Research: Spend more time gathering information.
Being at a loss for words might mean you’re out of ammunition. There is no better way for me to get those juices flowing again than to delve deeper into my subject, searching for facts and anecdotes that add dimension to the piece.
While working on my article “Digging for Ancient Treasure: Agatha Christie in the Middle East,” I read Christie’s book, Come Tell Me How You Live, a humorous account of her life with her husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. This autobiographical story gave me a new perspective and added a twist to my article.
4. Regroup: Join a writers’ critique group or enroll in a writing class or workshop.
I believe a good writer, like a good teacher, is always willing to learn. For me, groups and workshops increase my motivation and benefit my writing creatively and financially. Isolating myself with my thoughts and computer might be comforting, but I cannot live on my own words alone. I need feedback.
An effective critique group is made up of colleagues, not best friends, and objective criticism is the goal. Don’t go ballistic like Larry Donner did in the film when his nemesis (Momma) gave him the perfect word. “The night was wet” might be accurate, but “sultry” rolls off the tongue and adds more depth to Larry’s description, setting the tone for his story.
Learn from your peers. The day a writer feels that he/she has learned everything there is to know about the art and business of writing is the day that writer should hang up her pen.
5. Resolve: Solve problems that interfere with your concentration.
Well, at least make an attempt. You might not be able to convince your mother not to call during your writing time, or guarantee that your four-year-old won’t fall off his tricycle, but you can arrange and organize your day to ensure fewer distractions.
Maybe you can drop off your kids at your mother’s for the afternoon, turn off your phone, notifications, or even let your emails go unread. Just remove some obstacles so that your path is clear.
6. Read: Read your favorite author.
I have several books that I call my inspirational jumpstarts. They vary from the poetic prose of Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, to the comic dialogue of Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mystery series, to my favorite poetry book, Nine Horses, by Billy Collins. Reading a great book or story inspires me to write. Likewise, if I am writing an article and am having trouble with that first line, I peruse magazines and read the first sentences of a few articles. This gets my mind off what is not working for me and allows me to focus on what works for other writers.
7. Relax: It might be time to let your mind wander.
Watch Throw Momma from the Train. While your conscious self-relaxes, your brain is still at work processing behind the scenes. As in the movie, everything resolves itself in the end, given enough time and a change of scenery. Larry’s wife is found alive, so the murder charges against him are dropped; Owen’s mother dies a natural death, giving Owen the freedom he needs to become himself; and both writer and student publish a book.
The moral of the story: whether you are running from the law or hiding from your mother, no matter if the night is humid, moist, wet, or sultry, a writer writes—always.