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This blog was featured on 05/19/2018
Tips from Tayari Jones: How to Write Like Crazy
Written by
She Writes
May 2018
Written by
She Writes
May 2018

Tayari Jones is the author of Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and most recently, An American Marriage, a 2018 Oprah’s Book Club Selection. She is regarded among the literary elite, wrapping up the 2017-18 academic year as the Shearing Fellow for Distinguished Writers at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Her She Writes fan following is fiercely enthusiastic, so we rounded up just a handful of the no-nonsense wisdom she’s shared with us throughout the years. Her honesty and vulnerability as a writer will inspire you as you dive deeper into her posts and discover the depth of her commitment to the craft.

“It’s among Tayari’s many gifts that she can touch us soul to soul with her words,” says Oprah Winfrey.

We couldn’t agree more.

On Characters:

Our stories need conflict. In fact, fiction thrives on it. If your story is populated by strong silent types, or if your characters tend to leave the room when things get hot, it may be time to ruffle some feathers. Sometimes this takes great writerly courage, but Jones offers some invaluable advice in her post Become an Instigator:

“Don’t worry about being a drama queen. Amp that conflict, just to see what will happen. And what may happen is that you may wake up your sleepy story and give it enough energy to sprint to the finish.”

“For my own work, I actually employ a more dramatic device. A friend and I act out the missing conflict. It’s amazing how much potential conflict another person can come up with off the top of her head.”

Naming characters can be tricky. One’s name can provide a quick snapshot into the context of birth, so whether naming a character or writing memoir, names are a great place to begin.

“My name, Tayari, is a Kiswahili word meaning “she is ready” or “prepared,” Jones shares in The Art of Naming Characters. “My family, by the way, is not from Kenya. We are from the American South. So right from my name, you know that I was born in the 1970s to parents who were high on post-civil rights optimism. What you don’t know from my name is anything much about the woman I am today. This is because the name is a way to tell you where I come from, but not who I am.”

When choosing a name for a fictional character, do so thoughtfully. It should be a clue to the character’s background.

“One easy rule to remember is to avoid characters whose names start with the same letter. Jessica, Janet, and Joanne will run together in the reader’s head. But keep in mind that there are also families of names that will have the same blending effect. Josh, Mike, and Rob are almost the same name both in syllables and in tone. In later drafts, I often change the name of minor characters just to add a little texture.”

On Your Title:

The title of your book is a first impression, so it’s critical to make it a good one.

That’s a lot of pressure when your book is still in progress though, right?

“Come up with a working title so you will have something to say when people ask you, but think of it as a placeholder,” Jones advises in Titling is Serious Business.

“Don’t fall in love with a title until you see it printed on the book. Ah vanity! It’s very easy to become infatuated with a title and this can affect your process. I have heard writers say that knowing the title helps them to stay focused, but staying focused could actually undermine your efforts to write the your best story.”

On Revisions:

“Self-censorship isn't an exact science,” says Jones of memoir in her post titled Censor Yourself Later, If At All. “While you're making sure not to write anything that will offend your parents, you may also be holding back some important emotional truth that will make your story rich and insightful. Don't block the creative flow. Write it all. Every detail that occurs to you. Until it's published, it's private, so be honest, frank, and free.”

So how does one go about this?

Jones recommends starting by examining your fears. Are you struggling with shame about what you may be revealing about yourself? Are you worried that you will betray the confidence of a loved one? Figure out exactly what it is that you’re afraid of and decide if this fear is reasonable.

Next, step away from the piece for a while. Walk away. Let it sit. When you return, read through carefully and ask someone close to your situation to read it too.

“Consider your loved ones' feelings,” says Jones. “Don't let them steal the show, but consider.”

On Rejection:

In a post about coping with rejection, Jones shares the words of Edan Lepuki, about a book she wrote and wasn’t able to publish:

"Lastly, these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn — and being stubborn and being desperate."

In short, you have to learn when to let go.

“The best way to cope with rejection is to write something else,” Jones encourages. “After all, you would have to do that anyway. If your book is snapped up by your dream publisher and you sell foreign rights all over the world, what would you have to do next? Write the next book. No matter what happens, the next step is the next book.”

So go do that.

On Imagery:

Jones’ 10 Second Writing Lesson challenge is a simple exercise that can result in more vivid imagery within your story. Give it a try and celebrate your aha moment!

(Photo credit: USA Today Oprah Winfrey, left, with author Tayari Jones. (Photo: Victoria Will))

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