Little arm hairs raise on end. Bumps form on my skin, desperately struggling to retain its warmth. It’s freezing in this room as I type away on the computer. I want to be in bed! If only that guy standing next to the refrigerator hadn’t asked me to write a ninja writing guide. This one’s for you, Thomas…
1. Have something to say before you write.
Did abuse in your life start your fire to bring healing to women? Do you love soccer more than any sport in the world? Does political drama make your blood congeal and fester? Can fart noises bring us world peace? Decide what fuels your passions and plan to write about it. Even better, make sure it’s something that someone else cares about. Once you’ve done that, don’t think about it for a while. Clear it from your brain. Now you’re ready to write.
2. Start out with a powerful opening.
Any one will do. The key is to grab the reader’s attention long enough so that he or she greatly desires to find out what comes next. It doesn’t even have to be about your subject matter. You can pick the first exciting image that comes to mind. Really. Try it! Just write down whatever pops into your head. It’ll get you started.
3. Connect the first sentence you wrote to the topic you want to write about.
Your brain will figure it out. I always prove this to the students in the workshops I teach by taking one of their introductions and then challenging them to give me any topic to connect to it. They love throwing out the most contrasting topics, and I love quickly writing a sentence that links the two together. As long as you have an image-rich introduction, you’ll be able to grab an image from it and use it to compare or contrast another image by your subject matter. Kids learn this in 5 minutes, so don’t try to prove me wrong.
4. Use specific facts
Specific facts satisfy the analytical part of your reader’s brain, confirm in their minds that you know what you’re talking about and allow them to focus on connecting with you emotionally. If you don’t use enough facts, you’ll sound like a vapid beauty pageant contestant or a manipulative politician. If you use too many facts, your nasal voice will scream “Poindexter know it all” and cause eyes to sleep deeply and dream of some interesting writing.
5. Use interesting verbs
Interesting verbs jolt a reader’s eyes wide and flood their senses with attentive joy, while big adjectives overload and confuse the mind with too many, non-specific, organic, difficult-to-process electrical, synapses. If you want to resurrect the dead, massacre the living or soar the heavens of imagery, embrace verbs.
6. Don’t say everything that comes to your mind.
If you do, you’ll pry butterflies from cocoons and kill your audience’s imagination. Great writers know what to leave out and let the reader figure out the rest. I don’t have to describe the minutiae of John F. Kennedy’s smile or Charles Manson’s eyes to bring their respective charm or murderous intent into your room. One small mention connects all your feelings about them to the story and gives your thoughts license to paint in the blank spots of canvas. Let your passion and life lessons boil underneath your writing and draw your audience to discover the mystery that churns beneath the surface.
7. Connect the end to the beginning with added evidence of transformation.
You score extra points for making it an even more powerful mental image than your opening. Every great speech or piece of writing does it. From the Gettysburg Address to I Have a Dream to Ich bin ein Berliner, great writing and great speeches end with a powerful mental image that refers to the beginning and goes beyond it. It’s part of our desire not only to participate in a journey, but accomplish something through it, even if it’s not positive.
8. Edit what you wrote.
You haven’t finished yet. It didn’t come out perfect the first time. People who think that are idealistic morons who will aspire to mediocre writing. Even God wrote the ten commandments twice (although to be honest Moses broke the first ones, necessitating the 2nd draft). You should find plenty of opportunities to remove unnecessary words, replace boring words with exciting ones, improve your work’s rhythm and cut out whole sections, if necessary. If you can’t find the courage to be that harsh with your precious masterpiece, get someone else to examine its attributes and save you from exposing your rough draft to the piercing stares of a critical world.
If you really want to take your writing a step further, find one activity that allows you to assemble a whole out of more parts than a formula can define, and then find a different activity where spontaneity and improvisation cause you to do things outside your comfort zone. James Michener prescribed ceramics and rhythmic dancing, in Chapter 10 of his book, This Noble Land. Cooking and funky white boy dancing both unwittingly preceded my writing explosion. Whichever ones you choose, don’t just think about them. Some things you can only discover while in the act.
This may not qualify as The Ninja Writing Guide, but it will improve the words you glue on a page. No qualifications will prepare you for the actual steps of risk you face. But taking them puts muscles on bones, skin on corpses and brings armies to life that can change the world.
I get goose bumps just thinking about the power of words. It’s either that, or I’m just freezing in this room, and I need to go to sleep.