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Recipe for Writing Success

(Photo by Engin Akyurt from Pexels)

I’ve always been a diligent observer…plunk me in the back of a classroom or public venue where I can take notes and learn from other people’s mistakes/successes, and I’m happy as a clam. With the birth of the internet, my search for knowledge intensified ten-fold; and then I stumbled on the writing profession, a career applicable to anyone with the ability to formulate a thought and record it.

It’s true. Anyone can write. However, I’ve quickly discovered that not everyone can write well. (It’s me. I’m the novice in question.) The saving grace for writers everywhere would be that just like any other skill, writing craft can be learned! Over the last two years, I’ve surrounded myself with people both a) more experienced and b) more accomplished in the writing world than I. Your greatest asset as an author is the advice of other writers. To absorb any advice, you have to listen with an open mind and heart, so that you can look at your own work as objectively as possible and see areas that may need improvement.

I’ve got a long way to go before I can confidently declare “I’m a professional writer”. That being said, I’ve compiled a list of essential ingredients for a successful story and I’d like to share this borrowed knowledge in the hopes some of you may feel inspired to cook up a delicious new story. The recipe for writing success starts with your willingness to learn. Adapt these ingredients according to whatever suits your taste, but be sure you include enough of a base that your story won’t fall flat. Without further ado, let’s take stock of the recommended book necessities I’ve noticed (according to writer blogs/published authors/literary agents a la Twitter)…

  • A healthy helping of character agency: Your main character needs to be the driving force of their own story. Interweave plot points using cause-and-effect thinking, with the MC at the heart of every important decision. Ask yourself “What would my character do?” and if you don’t know, maybe take a time-out to flesh out their backstory with a character interview or some writing sprints.

  • Balance of bold action, savory description, and punchy dialogue: Treat each page as a balancing act. You don’t want to over season any story element and drown out the other flavors. Physically, how do your pages look? Is there an even amount of description, dialogue, and forward momentum? Read your chapter aloud as another method for testing the balance.

  • Distinct character development: Have your characters been put through enough heat and pressure to shape noticeable change to their flaws or desires? As the “chef”, it’s your responsibility to transform the characters from crude, raw, and flawed, to a stable, satisfying, and tasteful individual. Make sure the end product is different from what you started with.

  • Own your tropes: Every ingredient of your story should be intentional. If you want to use tried and true tropes, don’t shy away after the fact. When you’re intentional with the elements you add to your story, everything will feel way more natural than if you second-guess your instinct.

  • Check for conflict in every scene: Every bite of your plot needs a kick. Whether internal debate or external challenges, be cognizant that each chapter serves a purpose and requires its own tension to build suspense. Suspense is always a useful tool, regardless of the overall genre.

  • Do your research: Some flavors don’t meld well. Take the time to educate yourself on the facts of whatever topic/location/genre you’re writing about. If your book includes a historical event, you have to spend enough time collecting knowledge so the text feels authentic. The reader needs to know that you’re informed on your subject if they’re going to trust you. Don’t feed them wasabi when you promised egg rolls. (lol Don’t mind me. It’s time for dinner, guys.)

  • Steaks….I mean, Stakes: Something has to be on the line so that your reader stays HUNGRY. Make sure your stakes are crystal clear and a heavy burden for your characters to carry. Success will taste so much sweeter when the MC triumphs against all odds.

  • Passion: Everyone knows that heart has a tangible effect on creative endeavor. If you don’t care about your work, the entire story will seem bland and uninspired. But if you are passionate about the task of writing, your emotions will shine through each letter and pull your readers in. Write stories you care about. Write what you want to read. Use your love of language to take your writing craft to the next level.

  • Eliminate filter words/narrator barriers: What’s the difference between a home cooked meal and a frozen dinner? EVERYTHING. A reader turns to stories for an escape from reality, so it’s the author’s job to shape the text to be as decadent and sensory as possible. Remove anything that creates a barrier between your audience and sensation. Words like heard, saw, felt, knew, looked, etc. singe your perfectly cooked story and leave a bitterness on your readers’ palettes. Here’s a resource for more information on filter words and how to avoid them:

If you’ve made it this far, I owe you a debt of gratitude, as words only have meaning if someone is around to read them. Pick and choose which of these writing ingredients appeal the most to you (or dump them all in a bowl and hope for the best). At the end of the day, you know the difference between a story that works and a story that doesn’t. You were a reader first. Return to your favorite books and pay attention to what makes them so darn tasty. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either, when you get in over your head. After all, “sometimes the most ordinary things could be made extraordinary, simply by doing them with the right people” (Nicholas Sparks).

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