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How can I improve my creative writing skills? I have many ideas for short stories but I feel as if my writing is very slow paced and not sophisticated enough. How can I integrate literary techniques into my writing smoothly without them appearing to be just "placed" there?

  • Have updated the title to better reflect the question. – Neil Fein Jun 10 '15 at 5:49
  • Don't forget to accept the answer you feel answers your question. If you have a better answer it's also OK (even encouraged) to answer your own question. – Wapiti Jun 15 '15 at 16:27
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You have lots of ideas for short stories. The way you get better is to WRITE THEM. Absolutely do NOT think about 'literary techniques'. Really good writers use literary techniques (the theory of which gets very fancy, using words like paraklausithyron, hysteron proteron, etc.) unconsciously. Really bad writers go out to write something 'literary' using 'techniques'. Just write your stories down in the most direct way you can. If you think one scene should come next but find yourself thinking about a different scene instead, write the one you are thinking about (you can change the order later). It is definitely true that the quality of your work could be improved, it is true for everyone. The way you improve your work is this:

  1. Write. The best material comes from experience. That doesn't invalidate genre fiction. If you have ideas for fantasy or sci fi, write them. If you are not sure which idea to pick out of many, pick the one that comes from experience.
  2. Take a break (a week give or take) then come back to the work and decide for yourself what works and what doesn't work. Ask WHY in both cases. Learn as much as you can. Try to rewrite it, make it better.
  3. Read other writers you admire who write like you wish you could, about things you are interested in. Learn from them. Copy, steal.
  4. Repeat forever.

(Finally -- you explicitly mentioned a problem with slow pacing. The way to fix this is to watch very well plotted films --- The Last Unicorn, The Matrix (only the first one), The Incredibles, Citizen Kane --- and notice very carefully how little time the films waste on transitions. The VERY MOMENT something new can happen, it does.)

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Pace

Go thru your text, preferably while writing it (to avoid extra work), remove everything and anything that does not make the story work better. Rewrite anything that is longer and wordier than is useful. Once you have done that, the story should have reached the optimal pacing for it. Only real way to be too slow is to have useless text, look for that and remove it, and you do not need to worry.

Obviously, reality is more complex and what is useful and useless will vary on a case by case basis, but the general idea is simple.

Sophistication

Not worth worrying (separately). The best level of sophistication is the one needed to tell the story with the fewest words. If a method allows to tell the story more efficiently, use it. If it doesn't, it is useless and you should ignore it. Being sophisticated is kind of cool, gets nice comments from critics and so on, but critics do not really buy that many books. Ordinary readers are interested about the story. There is no real value adding sophistication to it, unless it actually makes the story better.

And that is actually something that is best learned with experience. Once you gain experience as a writer, your stories become more sophisticated and the level of sophistication in your writing will rise organically to match. That is the correct order. Trying to learn cool techniques and then making the stories match will result in losing your natural voice and generally waste time.

Your mileage does vary

There is really no one true answer for matters of personal writing style. And, to be perfectly honest, I even exaggerated my own position on this. I did this because I figured what you really needed was a different perspective on the matter, so you can find your own solution, not a ready answer.

So take with a bucket of salt!

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Controlling the tempo of a story is a very important yet difficult skill to master. At first glance, you may be susceptible to the thought that it is because your writing contains too much information the pacing is poor. In reality, manipulating the pace of a story is a mental technique and has little to do with the number of words included. That is, if when comparing two stories that are 80k words respectively if we find that one story is quicker than the other, it is because the brain perceives one story as denser than the other. In regards to pacing, density is the foremost element to consider.

There are various tactics that an author can use to increase the density of a story. Jack Bickham suggests the use of scenes and sequels to accomplish this task. According to him scenes "are densely packed with action and dialogue and therefore fast reading." (Bickham, 1999) This is contrasted to sequels which he describes as thoughtful, extended and summary. Therefore if a writer finds their story is in dire need of acceleration they should include more dialogue and action. Conversely, if the opposite problem is determined to be true, an increase in the amount of exposition is warranted.

With respect to your last aspiration towards improving the sophistication in your writing, the only known remedy for that is reading. As you read your vocabulary and diction should ameliorate. But be careful to ensure that the level of language you employ matches the tone of the story and its intended audience. There are days when I would like nothing more than to bathe in a pool of obscure Norman influenced quasi-French English words such as accoil, septentrion and viand. That being said, I also understand that the majority of readers may not be familiar with such terms and may even question their legitimacy in spite of their formal inclusion in the English lexicon.

Bickham, J. (1999). Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure. Writer's Digest Books.

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I love automatic writing and journaling, specifically with The Artist's Way. I find that both of these techniques allow me to open up my creativity and get directly to the root of what I'm trying to write. Additionally, when stuck, I will visualize what I want to write, and then write descriptions of what I'm looking (seeing in my imagination).

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First, slow-paced and unsophisticated aren't necessarily bad qualities for a story. You need to value your own writer's voice --otherwise you're likely to end up sounding like a poor imitation of someone else. There are many technically proficient writers whose work is derivative, trendy and forgettable. If the underlying story is strong, having a idiosyncratic personal style becomes a positive rather than a negative --it distinguishes you from the crowd.

With that said:

  • Pace: If your work is overly slow-paced, it probably just needs to be edited more rigorously. Wait until you're done with all the writing, and then go back through and remove anything that's boring or that doesn't serve the overall narrative.

  • Sophistication: If you have a specific technique you'd like to pick up, you'll need to practice it until it is enough a part of you that you can deploy it naturally, and as needed (versus sticking it in where it doesn't belong).

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