“Writing is about telling the truth.” — Anne Lamott
When I started writing my first short story, I was reading Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
I’ve come across the book a couple of times already, but that was the right time to read it.
Anne provides the (beginning) writer with great insights, tips, tools, exercises, and anecdotes about the craft of writing. And she’s hilarious too!
The book can teach you more about the essentials of writing. Ranging from writing exercises, dealing with writer’s block to creating the first draft. Lamott also touches upon practical elements, such as building characters, dialogue, plot and scenes. In addition, Anne gives tips about the of from having your first draft and taking it to publication. She illustrates this all with wonderful anecdotes about her own writing journey.
At the time I read it, I just wanted to understand more about what it means to be a writer, dive into the practical stuff, and also learn more about writing as a profession.
These are the lessons I’ve learned from Bird to Bird:
1. On writer’s block and inducing creativity
For me, the most important tip Anne Lamott shared is to carve out some time every day to write, preferably at the same time. When you do this, you train your unconscious mind to kick in for you creatively. So instead of waiting for the muse to show up, you kindly invite her over every day at the same time.
Anne also touches upon writer’s block. I find this a difficult issue. I for one have never experienced writer’s block before. If I’m totally honest, I’m not sure if I believe in the concept. Sure, you can get stuck on a story, but what I usually do is write something else and get back to it later. Then that particular thing I’m stuck on gets to simmer for a bit in my unconscious. Usually, I’ll be inspired to continue later. Plus, it helps that I usually have plenty of ideas. Want to know more about how I make sure I’m never running out of ideas:
How to Always Be Able to Write a (Short) Story and Never Run Out of Ideas
My 8-Step Structure to Write a Short Story
When you’re stuck, Anne suggests writing about something you’ve experienced in the past to get the creative juices flowing.
Anne Lamott: “EXERCISE: Write about your childhood. Start with kindergarten. Then year 1, 2, 3, … Who were your teachers, classmates, what did you wear, who and what were you jealous of? Now branch out a little. Did your family take vacations during those years? Get these down on paper. Do you remember how much more presentable everybody else’s family looked?”
2. On your beliefs and point of view
“Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on.”– Anne Lamott
This lesson is related to avoid getting stuck or reaching a dead end. If you write about a subject you are interested in, something about which you care passionately, chances are you have a lot to say and you’re more likely to finish the story.
Anne Lamott: “You need to put yourself at their center, you and what you believe to be true or right. The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe are the language in which you are writing.”
“The purpose of most great writing seems to be to reveal in an ethical light who we are.” — Anne Lamott
Your reader will notice when you write about a subject matter you care about and he or she will likely be able to recognize pieces of his or her own life in what you have to say. So, be emotional in your writing, not subtle. Chances are you hit more nerves.
3. Shitty first drafts and abandoning perfectionism
I love to just go with it. Whenever I have my daily appointment with my muse, I just type. I don’t care about spelling, grammar or prose. I only care about the story that comes out and the journey my characters are being taken on. YOU JUST NEED TO GET SOMETHING DOWN ON PAPER. You can fix it in a second draft (and a third, fourth, etc.). Polish later.
In the book, Anne talks about perfectionism as the voice of the oppressor. Perfectionism can be your enemy when you get lost in the details. It is your obstacle in finishing the first draft. It can get in the way of playful writing. Make a mess, clean up later. You’ll be more likely to discover interesting new directions and insights with your story and characters if you let loose. And hey, your first draft is just for you. So only please yourself as your first reader.
“When I write, I feel like an armless legless man with a crayon in his mouth.” — Kurt Vonnegut
4. Creating a character
“Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them.” — Anne Lamott
I’ve approached creating a character in two ways:
- Let the character evolve and show its colors as the story progresses
- Build a character before you even start your story
The first approach I use when writing a short story, the second I use while working on my novel. Lamott describes the second approach in more detail in her book.
When you want to map out your character’s world, traits and beliefs, write it down. What are their habits? What is their background? Are they very expressive/emotional? What do they believe in? What makes them tick? What relationships do they have with family and friends? What is their profession? What are their mannerisms? Whom would they have voted for? What do they look like? Etc.
Sometimes you pour in facets of yourself or people you know. I do at least. Most characters are blends of me, friends and family. Sometimes even my perception of celebrities, politicians or just people I meet. Copy and paste tics, habits, and looks.
“Get to know your characters as well as you can, let there be something at stake, and then let the chips fall where they may.” — Anne Lamott
“The development of relationship creates plot.” — Anne Lamott
Here’s what Anne says in Bird by Bird: “Find out what each character cares most about in the world because then you will have discovered what’s at stake. Find a way to express this discovery in action, and then let your people set about finding or holding onto or defending whatever it is. But something must be at stake or you will have no tension and your readers will not tum the pages.”
The only thing I have to add to that is that you must make sure you invite the reader in. Why should they care about the journey of your characters?
Make sure your characters move forward, towards something. Traditionally there are three acts. A setup, a build up and the pay-off. This system exists for a reason.
Sometimes you have your ending in mind at the start. Sometimes you find your plot while interacting with your muse every day and scribbling away your first draft. Some character needs to have changed when you reach the end. “But whatever happens, we need to feel that it was inevitable, that even though we may be amazed, it feels absolutely right, that of course things would come to this, of course they would shake down in this way.”
I want to end this part with another tip from Anne Lamott about structuring a short story:
“A formula when writing a short story, which goes ABDCE, for Action, Background, Development, Climax, and Ending. You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot, the drama, the actions, the tension will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way.”
“Dialogue is more like a movie than it is like real life, since it should be more dramatic.” — Anne Lamott
Good dialogue moves things along and should keep your reader intrigued. In the book, a number of things are mentioned that are essential for good dialogue. The two that I found most important are:
- Mouth your dialogue, read the words out loud.
- Each character must sound different from the others; they must have a self in order to have an identity.
I’d like to add that I steal a lot. I listen in on conversations. Also from strangers. I watch how they talk. I make notes. It’s great.
One last thing you should do is study the greats, how do they do it? What’s your favorite book? Study the dialogues. (And while you’re at it, study scenes, plotting, tension, everything).
7. Proofreading and publishing
I explain more about my process for publishing my first short stories in a piece I wrote abouthow to ask for help when writing. I have a lot of people who’ve been kind enough to help me out and read my first drafts.
How to ask for help when writing
Proofreading your work and asking for help to create better work.
Anne asks one or two people to read her work before she sends a copy to either her agent or editor.
You have traditional vs. self-publishing. I haven’t walked the traditional route (yet). After I have finished my Xth draft based on the feedback of multiple friends (of which some are editors), I put my short stories on my own website or on Medium.
Lamott does explain more about traditional publishing in Bird by Bird. She states you first need to find an editor and an agent. Then, enter the publisher arena.
As a starting writer, I learned a lot from this wonderful and witty book. Anne Lamott teaches (wannabe) writers a lot about the craft. These are just my takeaways, but there are plenty more gems to find in the book.