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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nicole Baart's 5 Tenets on Writing

Though I’ve been writing nearly my whole life, I find it difficult to categorize all the things that I have learned along the way and condense them into advice for fellow writers. The truth is I don’t think there is a formula that works for everyone. What is groundbreaking for me may be ineffective for you. That changes the way I write forever may be something you immediately disregard. But I do think that writing is a journey that is far more enjoyable with traveling companions, and I love sharing the things that have helped me out over the years in the hopes that someone else may find inspiration.

The following are five tenets that guide my writing.

Stop self-editing the first draft

As a perfectionist, I spent many years crippling my own ability to write. I’d carefully type a sentence or two into a neat Word document, then spend the next five minutes deleting, subtracting and adding ideas, and second-guessing my word choice. It drove me crazy and I quickly became defeated. I was convinced I was a terrible writer because I couldn’t get more than a paragraph done at a time and even then I was dissatisfied with the content.

It wasn’t until I bought a brand-new notebook and a set of excellent pens that I discovered the joy of writing longhand. Suddenly, I wasn’t self-editing anymore--I was writing. I’d scribble ten pages in a stretch and then go back and edit later. It freed me as a writer, and more often than not I was pleasantly surprised by what my mind was capable of when it was allowed to roam free. I suggest that you do whatever you need to do to quiet your inner editor as you write your first draft. There will be plenty of time for editing as your manuscript unfolds!

Get to know your characters

When I taught creative writing, this was the one thing that I insisted on talking about nearly every day. I made my students do exercise after exercise delving into the personality traits, motivations, background, relationships, appearance, and even idiosyncrasies of their characters. It probably drove my students crazy, but after a few weeks their characters were as real to them as their friends. And when those characters became real to their young authors, they became real to readers, too.

I believe that you have to know your characters inside and out to make them true and compelling for your audience. It’s not enough to know hair color and occupation; you need to know this imaginary person as intimately as you know a close friend. What do they love to eat? What do they hate to do? Why do sappy telephone commercials make her cry? Why does his eye twitch when he’s nervous? It’s fascinating to really know a character because after a while he will take on a life of his own. You’ll find yourself able to know exactly how he would handle this situation or what he would say in response to that question because he is vibrant and animated and full of life. Not to mention fully believable.

Reveal, don’t preach

Everyone who writes has heard the saying: “show, don’t tell.” It is such an important concept to keep in mind as you write! When I read sections that I have written, I am constantly searching for areas where I have told my audience what is happening instead of showing them.

I believe the same holds true for any message that I hope to convey through my writing: “reveal, don’t preach.” If I interrupt the narrative to preach at my audience, not only have I broken the flow of the book, but I have also insulted the intelligence of my readers. My readers are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions. If I have any talent as a writer at all, I should be able to weave ideas through the narrative and hopefully take a stand for what I think or believe by artfully crafting it into my writing.

This is so hard to do! By no means have I mastered this concept. In Summer Snow, the sequel to After the Leaves Fall, my editor found a paragraph that was little more than a lecture. I was horrified to find it there and eager to ax the entire thing. As I continue to grow and mature as a writer, I am committed to never taking the easy way out by allowing my characters or my narrative to blatantly state some platitude that I think my readers should all adopt. My readers are clever enough to derive their own truth from my writing, and I am able to accept that it’s okay if we don’t believe the same things.

Find a writing partner

One of the best things that ever happened to my writing was the introduction of my writing partner. Though it was quite awkward in the beginning, over the course of five years our relationship has grown to the point where we can be totally, brutally honest with each other. Todd is my biggest advocate and encourager, but he also knows my weaknesses and limitations better than anyone else. He can see things in my writing that other people can’t, and he is constantly pushing me to further develop my gifts. I would be half the writer I am without his wisdom.

In warning, I believe a writing partnership is only beneficial if you are able to develop a thick skin. Sometimes Todd’s critiques hurt, but I have to be able to look past any criticism and understand that he is just trying to help me reach my full potential. More often than not, when I gain a little distance from the situation I can fully admit that his assessment of my work is right on. I can grow and develop, working through the problems in my writing in an environment that is both safe and supportive, but also real and honest.

Figure out what works for you and stick with it

I spent so many years of my life flip-flopping between different writing techniques and practices. Someone would offer advice about where to write or when, and I’d accept it as the gospel truth. Use a typewriter! I only got sore wrists. Write first thing in the morning! I have two small children so that is virtually impossible for me to do. Write a synopsis before you begin writing! I write best when I just sit down and do it, letting the story develop as I go. Keep your narrative straightforward! I’m a poet at heart and my writing is usually very rich.

The point is I didn’t settle into myself as an author until I discovered what worked for me in every area of my writing. I have my own unique style and it’s perfect for me--even if some of the things I do have been bluntly derided by books on how to write. Actually, I tend to avoid books on the art of writing because writing is exactly that: an art. You have your own unique style, your own needs, and your own inspiration. Figure out what you need in order to write well, and don’t ever let anyone tell you that you are doing it wrong.

Happy writing! May your craft be a joy, your words a blessing to all who read them, and your art a fragrant offering to your God.


  1. Thanks, Nicole. This is wise stuff. I love the process of getting to know my characters before I finally throw the frist draft onto the screen. That's where for me, the magic happens. :D

    And as for writing partners, I've got the best in the business.

  2. Thanks for such a workable boost to my writing endeavors. I enjoyed reading what you had to say; and I shall indeed continue to enjoy writing as an expression of who God made me to be.

    Cup o'joy
    and a fresh taste of the bread of heaven...


  3. So very true. Do what works for you. You trying all those techniques was I think something we all do, the important thing is to recognize what is a fit and toss what isn't. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom.

  4. Thanks for a great article. I really agree with the tenent "Reveal, Don't Preach." Revealing truth very often shows more truth than beating it over readers' heads.

    Good luck on your new book.

  5. Great advice, Nicole.

    For those of you who haven't discovered Nicole's books yet, go buy them now. I just finished the first one and immediately jumped into the second one. Her writing definitely is rich, and her characters are great.

    My official review, lol, will be on my blog in a couple weeks, but I couldn't resist giving her a thumbs-up now. :)

  6. Nicole - THANK YOU! You just echoed my misery with your thoughts on self editing. I've discovered that a keyboard and screen tempt me to focus on the technical part of writing, while talking out my scene or summary of my story to someone (or just talking to myself in the car) gets me past the techie obsession and keeps me moving forward. A different part of the brain clicks into gear. Maybe longhand uses the "artsy" side of the brain more.

    I appreciate your "permission" to see this as art. I DO read the how-to books so I understand all the important elements. I want to learn and am very teachable. But I am also beginning to find my voice and my own "art" as you say, and it's a personal matter of knowing where to begin crossing the lines.

    Thanks , Nicole - this is really helpful and affirming. Bless you!

  7. Thank you so much for the wonderful feedback! This writing advice was actually quite hard for me to articulate because I think it is such a personal thing... Anyway, I'm glad that parts of it made sense to some of you. :)

    May the Lord bless you and your writing!


  8. Thanks for the helpful tips.

    Is there a 'which' missing from the following sentence in the first paragraph?

    "That changes the way I write forever may be something you immediately disregard."


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