Writing Tips: How Do You Get Excited About Writing?


If you’ve taken a writing class before, you probably have a love-hate relationship with the workshop model. Nearly every writer I know appreciates and admires this time-tested method of delivering critique, while also harboring some qualms with it. Common complaints about workshop include annoyance with the fact that workshop discussions sometimes descend into arguments about irrelevant minutiae as well as the very legitimate concern that the workshop model silences already marginalized identities

I, too, have a love-hate relationship with workshop. One of my personal qualms is that when you’re in a workshop, it’s all too easy to start catering to the taste of your classmates. That is, if you’ve noticed that your workshop leader and fellow students heap accolades on a certain type of fiction, you might find yourself writing that type of story. It’s only natural: writers need praise like a plant needs water, and so we might find ourselves, consciously or not, writing to curry favor with our peers. 

Sometimes, this phenomenon can be positive: it can push us out of our comfort zone and encourage us to try new things. For example, I entered my MFA program at NC State primarily interested in writing fantastical-inflected and weird fiction. But after finding myself in a workshop composed of many talented writers of realism, I decided to try my hand at non-speculative writing as well, and ended up having fun and producing some stories that I was proud of. 

But even so, you sometimes hit a point where you just want to silence all the feedback, all the critiques and comments and outside pressure and opinions and just get back to what made you fall in love with writing in the first place. You want to transform back into that weird teenager staying up late every night to write a novel about Victorian girls who had sex with ghosts (we were all this person at some point, right? Right?). 

So how do you do that? Ted Chiang, one of my instructors at the Clarion Writers Workshop, frequently advises his students to “give voice to your astonishment.” To examine the world, to figure out what you find most incredible, or horrible, or fascinating, and write about it. Presumably, if you are excited by your topic, your excitement will shine through your work, and others will be excited about it too. 

I think this advice is a great starting point. For a practical take on how to accomplish it, consider this exercise from Kelly Link, another of my Clarion instructors.. She told us to make a list of elements of fiction (tropes, characters, plotlines, types of narration, anything, really) that we liked in our favorite books. Then, she said, anytime we found ourselves stuck, or bored, we could return to our list and reverse-engineer something that excited us. We could write the book that we wanted to read. 

Just for fun, here’s an incomplete list of my favorite elements in books:

  • Female narrators who share their darkest, weirdest, or most sinister thoughts

  • Gothic milieus

  • Books that span decades of a female main character’s life 

  • Ghosts

  • Castles

  • Books that take place in a space where girls or women are sequestered together, in, say, a boarding school or convent

  • Dark secrets

  • Curses

  • Historical fiction written in a stylistically intriguing manner (like Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night)

  • Any YA book about historical girls with secret magic powers

  • Secret magic powers 

  • Humor 

  • Teenage girls causing problems

  • Razor-sharp, misanthropic narrators 

  • Moody landscapes

  • Obsession

  • Female friendships that are codependent, supportive, toxic, or all of the above

  • Books with unusual, inventive prose

This advice isn’t only for people who’ve been writing for awhile and want to reinvigorate their love for fiction. This exercise can also help you start out if you’re at the beginning of your writing journey. It can help you figure out what kind of a writer you want to be and what kinds of stories you want to tell. 

So what’s on your list of favorite tropes in books?