Writing Mantras

I fell down today. Hard. I was running with my dog and popped my left ankle. Before I could correct myself, I fell down, sending a spray of dirt and pebbles flying. I ripped up my spandex leggings, bloodied both knees, and scared the dog half to death. A great start to the day.

As I limped home, I kept telling myself to act normal, just put one foot in front of the other. Almost there. Keep going. You got this. These little mantras kept fluttering around my head until I reached my house and tried to pull myself together. (The knees are still oozing as I type this).

When I write, I have little mantras I like to repeat to myself as well. I have them written down on the computer equivalent of a post-it note that hangs out on my desktop. (The freeware is called Stickies and it’s great for virtual to-do lists and other important notes).

Some of these I’ve dug up after reading writing books and blogs and some occurred to me during or after a revision. I’ve tried to note the source where possible, but I can’t remember them all – and some are so oft-repeated, they’ve become common knowledge.

FIND YOUR VOICE!!

Yeah, this one should be obvious since nearly every literary agent agrees that they want submissions to have a strong, unique, captivating, [insert vague adjective here] voice. I don’t know what my voice is, so right now I just focus on creating different voices for my characters.


Think precise to find the telling detail!

I’m guilty of generalities in a lot of my early writing. They also creep in during my first drafts, where I haven’t thought enough about what I’m trying to portray to find that one detail that encapsulates everything.

Externalize the internal to show not tell!

Ugg. I always need reminders to show, not tell. One thing I’ve noticed in my writing is that I can do more to show how my character is feeling by projecting their thoughts and emotions into actions. This isn’t merely saying “Their heart thudded in their chest” in lieu of saying “They were scared.” This is a challenge for me to find some action that illustrates both character and emotion. Say your character is an emotional eater. When she gets stressed, don’t say how her stomach’s in knots – describe her measuring out the flour, sugar, cocoa as she makes a batch of cookies to eat.

Let yourself linger to fully realize scenes!

I write short, sparse first drafts. When I start fleshing out my story on second and third passes, I need to remind myself to take the time to ensure the scene is fully rendered – just because I can visualize everything that’s supposed to be happening, doesn’t mean my reader can.

Metaphors must not sound false!

Depending on what I’m writing, I struggle to incorporate figurative language that doesn’t come off as trite. I don’t want to risk pulling people out of the story with a simile or metaphor that’s clichéd or just plain bad, but at the same time, a metaphor or simile that’s a natural outgrowth of character can be writing gold.

Remember compression, omission!

Sometimes you don’t need all that filler to go from Point A to Point B. A skillful sentence or two can make the transition a snap – emphasis on skillful. Similarly, leaving something out can be powerful as well and builds suspense. At an emotionally pivotal scene, not having a character do or say something can be more powerful than if they reacted. Remember, less is more.

To learn what’s wrong with a story, write two new ones and go back to the first one.

This is so true it’s painful. At the end of a revision pass, it’s so tempting for me to say I’m done. Once I’ve moved on to another story and go back to that first one, I sometimes cringe at the way I handled some of the story elements.You just can’t rush things.


It’s not what your story says but the questions it raises.

Don’t preach. Don’t tell your readers what to think. Instead, present them with thought-provoking scenarios and characters who must make choices.

Reveal description deliberately to demonstrate pov character and relationships around them.

I tend to write in 3rd person, and sometimes I just don’t go deep enough to engage my readers. So this helps me to remember that everything in a scene must come from a particular character’s filter of the world. Easier to say than to implement.

Remember Microtension in each scene.

I read this post from Donald Maas at Writer Unboxed and had a bit of an a-ha moment. You don’t need high action or drama in every scene to ratchet up the tension in your novel. The quiet moments should be just as powerful

Emotion must be present, believable, motivating…

When I write, I have the description, the stage directions, and the dialogue down, but I often gloss over the emotional intensity in my scenes. So I need to remind myself to include it and push the story forward.

Intentional writing, all the time.

Just what it says. Every word must have a purpose. When I revise, I must question every choice. It’s exhausting, and all too easy to say “It’s good enough.” But it’s usually not.


What is your story’s emotional destination?

I picked this up after listing to the Writing Show’s Short Story Endings podcast. Since I struggle sometimes with how to end pieces, this is one way to figure out just what I want readers to feel at the end of a story, and my answer often informs what I need to do to accomplish that.
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What do you need to remember when writing?
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4 thoughts on “Writing Mantras

  1. LOL, when I finally get in “the zone,” I need to remember to eat lunch!

    Do you read Angela Ackerman's blog? She does great posts on setting details. They are so good I think she should write a book on the art of creating great settings!

  2. Love this one: “To learn what's wrong with a story, write two new ones and go back to the first one.” That's terrific advice. I also like the intentional writing mantra. Thanks for sharing these!

    I agree with Sharon- When I'm in hardcore writing mode, I sometimes forget about lunch too until my growling stomach scares me half to death, haha!

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