Successful writers write, rather than just think about writing, talk about writing, or plan what they’ll write when they get a cabin in the woods. Yet even accomplished writers sometimes get “blocked,” losing access to their in-the-zone writing mind. In his new book, Set the Page on Fire: Secrets of Successful Writers, publishing veteran Steve O’Keefe offers proven techniques and practices for jump-starting stalled ideas, honed during his many years of working in virtually every aspect of publishing. His innovative, often unconventional exercises will get you writing and accessing your own unique voice — a voice the world wants to read!
We hope you’ll enjoy this excerpt and writing exercise from Set the Page on Fire.
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Think about it. Almost all of us have the ability to see the moon most nights of the year. And this has been true throughout recorded history. What does the moon look like to you?
There have been thousands of references to the moon in literature and millions of renditions of the moon in art — possibly billions when you consider the number of children who have drawn the moon at some time during childhood. Every one of those drawings is different — unique. And any description of the moon longer than, say, fifty words is likely to be unique. When you try to tell me something about how the moon looks to you, and you keep at it for a while, you cannot help but tell me something about you, about how you see the world, possibly about how you see yourself in the world. That is the power of language — the power of expression.
If you give me only two words about the moon, it’s a little tricky to divine anything about your personality. Maybe it means you’re brief? We know a quarter moon and a crescent moon, a full moon and a new moon, a half moon, a harvest moon, a blue moon. Most of your readers will have well-established associations with those terms. At the simple two-word level, readers are not seeing your moon so much as one of their own, pressed into service in order to move along in the text. You have to be original to communicate much with a two-word moon. Maybe “fish moon,” indicating that phase between the third quarter and the new moon when the moon is shaped like a silver fish leaping from a black sea?
When you stretch out in your writing and give us the details of what you are seeing or hearing or feeling, you can’t help but be original. Your writing acquires personality, and that glimpse into your personality is the payoff for readers. We begin to see the way your mind works, and it helps us to get through difficult passages in your writing and extract a common line — the voice of you, the author.
Yes, readers can get a mistaken impression of you. They can be wrong when they try to intuit things about your personality from a simple description of the moon. But whose fault is that, the writer’s or the reader’s? Readers cannot help but build an inadequate impression of the author — no one can know you through your writing alone — because that writing is itself an abstraction, a distillation of the thought, and you are limited to expressing that thought process through a chintzy alphabet and some formatting tricks.
Readers may buy a book because of the promise, but they read a book because they are drawn in. They stick with it because they are anxious to find out what happens next. I don’t think there is any facet of writing that draws in readers faster and holds them more securely than an honest search for the truth.
You don’t have to be a blabbermouth to get your personality across while searching for the truth. You don’t have to write fifty-word descriptions of every insect that lands on your window. Your writing doesn’t have to be the literary equivalent of an MRI scan, exploring every millimeter of a very long trip. Some readers don’t go in for microscopic detail and want the author to keep going and to quit stopping to smell all the stupid flowers already.
Individuality does require clarity. An image clearly seen can often be expressed economically. Fish moon is only two words. Since I have already described it to you, I can say “fish moon” now and you know what I mean. In fact, I defy you to look at the moon some night when it is between the third quarter and the new moon, and not think of fish moon and somewhere in the back of your skull remember faintly the paragraph you are reading right now. It is just that easy to put a spell on readers.
Sometimes the most microscopically detailed writing is the most economical, too. When I’m editing books, I often wish the author would just give us an example and spare us the lecture. One well-wrought illustration of a bumblebee having sex with a buttercup can tell us more about the origins of the species than the collected works of Charles Darwin. The great universal truths are often revealed in their imperfect application to a particular situation. Show me that situation, and I will find the thread and run it through the rest of your economical prose.
Writing Exercise: Your Moon
What does your moon look like? You don’t necessarily need a notebook; write it on the back of an envelope or some other handy scrap of paper. You don’t need to think about it too much — just give me fifty words on the moon. Right now.
When you are finished rendering your moon, send it to me if you like. You can post it on my website and see what other people’s moons look like, or you can send it by email or snail mail — anonymously, if you want. Given a fifty-word description, and no cheating, I could have thousands of moons on my site without a single duplication. Isn’t that amazing! I’ll keep posting these as long as I’m receiving enough of them to keep it interesting. So why don’t you write about your moon right now, and send it to me tomorrow?
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Steve O’Keefe is an author, editor, and book-industry professional who has helped hundreds of writers move from brainstorm to bestseller. As the content director for Orobora, Inc., he has hired dozens of expert writers to produce a steady stream of articles, blog posts, and website content for major corporations and nonprofit organizations. A regular presenter at conferences and seminars including Book Expo, he lives in Virginia. His website is www.Steve-OKeefe.com, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpted from the book Set the Page on Fire. Copyright © 2019 by Steve O’Keefe.