What Dr. John H. Watson Can Teach About Writing

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By Erica L. Ruedas (pinupgeek)

“Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations.” —Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange

Dr. John H. Watson is the fictional biographer of Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories and novels. Dr. Watson (and his creator) always spun the tales of deduction and reasoning into stories that mesmerized the Victorian public. Even against the criticism of his friend, Watson continued to write his stories, and when Holmes finally took up the pen to write one or two of his own tales, he was forced to admit that, for all his analytical mind, he had to create a story to interest his readers.

The Sherlock Holmes stories have inspired countless other fictional detectives and mysteries, and are still being rewritten and re-imagined, over one hundred years after their original publication. What is it about the stories penned by Dr. Watson and his creator that have made them last? Why do readers keep returning to them?

Background Image: givingnot/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Tell a Story

First and foremost, Watson was a storyteller. While Holmes may have preferred to focus on the science of the cases, Watson knew his readers wanted the romance and thrill, and he gave them just that. In each story, he painted a picture of the visitors who climbed the seventeen steps to 221B Baker Street, from what they were wearing to their emotional state when they arrived. And when a case called for action, Watson pulled no punches, giving detailed accounts of a dangerous boat chase or a tense stakeout, as well as concluding dramatically with the capture of the criminal and explanation of Holmes’s deductions.

As a writer, give your readers the big picture as well as the small, and allow them to feel the thrill, romance, fear, even the mundanity of the situation. Give them enough information to see the scene in their head and keep them on the edge of their seat, eager to turn the page to find out what happens next.

But don’t tell them everything. Sometimes what the reader can imagine is more interesting to them than what you can come up with. Watson often referred to other cases, dropping tantalizing clues to stories that were never published or giving just enough hints so that his contemporary readers could try to puzzle out the real-life counterpart to a client or villain. You may know about everything that happens in your world, but you don’t have to present it all to the reader. Drop a reference here and there, and let your reader imagine the rest.

Be Prolific

Dr. Watson alludes to many unpublished cases in his stories. One of the reasons he gives as to why he never published them is that the results were too mundane or unsatisfying to provide any interest to his readers. Even though he faithfully chronicled every one of his companion’s adventures, he carefully picked the stories he chose to publish, sharing only the ones he knew would make good stories.

Not every story or novel you write will be a masterpiece. Some of them will have unsatisfying endings, others will have boring characters, and still more will just stop and have no ending. Every writer has a couple of stories that just didn’t work, no matter what. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to write it. Every word you write is practice for the next one, and even if that piece never sees the light of day, you still had the practice for writing something better. But what do you do with all those unpublished stories?

Watson had a tin dispatch box in the bank vault at Cox & Co., where he kept all of his case notes. Create a special place for all of your work, whether it be a folder on your computer’s desktop or a special box in your closet. Instead of leaving them there, though, make a regular date with yourself to go through them and handpick the best ones to polish and send out into the world.

Create Lasting Characters

Dr. Watson not only created an intriguing star for his stories, but a standout supporting cast. Most readers can immediately recognize the rat-like, unimaginative Inspector Lestrade and the long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson, who in turns worried over and was antagonized by her eccentric tenant. Even the smaller characters, such as The Woman, Irene Adler, who once intrigued Holmes with her cleverness and is often cast as his love interest, or the nefarious Professor Moriarty, the shadowy spider behind London’s criminal scene, have their own unique personalities and quirks that make them memorable.

Each of your characters should have a story. For your main characters, this means writing a history for them. What events occurred in the characters’ lives that got them to the point where you start your story? The reader may never get to see that history, but remember that every character is the star of their own show.

With your background and one-scene characters, you don’t have to create as elaborate backstories, but have an idea for what they want out of their lives, and out of their interactions with your story. Writing a character with no purpose to his or her life will make for a flat character. Give them a purpose for their own fictional life. By giving each of your characters a reason for existing, you make them more real and more memorable to your reader.

Live your own adventure

Dr. Watson wasn’t just Sherlock Holmes’s biographer. More often than not, he was found right next to Holmes in the thick of danger, often lending a hand or his trusty service revolver to aid in the capture of a criminal. He didn’t just write the adventures; he lived them, and his perspective gave his stories more interest to readers.

As a writer, you can’t spend all your time imagining at your desk. Sometimes you have to go out into the world, and have an adventure. You don’t always have to write what you know, but you’ll hardly have anything to write about if you don’t have a few adventures now and then. While following the world’s only consulting detective around may not be practical or even safe, there’s plenty you can do, starting by just stepping out your front door. Experience life, and then go home and write about it.

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Beyond NaNoWriMo: Writing Challenges for Everyone

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Every October, the internet buzzes as thousands of writers start thinking about characters and plots in anticipation of National Novel Writing Month. Meanwhile, others start grumbling about why they won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo. We’ve all heard these complaints (or uttered them ourselves):

  • “I’m too busy in November.”
  • “I write, but not fiction (or novels).”
  • “Real writers write every day, not just in November.”
  • “I don’t like the shitty first draft approach to writing; I prefer to take my time.”
  • “I’ve already finished a novel. Now I need to edit (or sell) it.”
  • “50,000 words isn’t a novel.”
  • “50,000 words? I could never write that much.”
  • “I should finish what I’ve started before I start something new.”

And so on. I hear you. NaNoWriMo may be the oldest and best known online writing challenge, but it’s not for everyone. Maybe you’re new to writing and the challenge is just too intimidating. Maybe you’re a seasoned professional and you don’t need an intense month-long challenge to spur you to write. Whatever your rationale (or excuse), it’s okay. But just because NaNoWriMo isn’t right for you doesn’t mean you should disregard writing challenges altogether. In recent years, a variety of writing challenges have sprung up, making it possible for just about any writer to find a challenge to suit.

So what’s a writing challenge? Like a contest, a challenge sets out parameters for participation, but unlike a contest, anyone who completes the task “wins” and the only prizes are personal satisfaction (and perhaps a badge to display on your website). A challenge is also similar to a resolution, but its goals are more specific and concrete. Its main allure is that it’s a communal endeavor as well as an individual one. Each participant is in charge of her own fate as she works toward the goal, but at the same time, all participants, who are each working toward the same goal, agree to support and encourage each other in their efforts. Challenges build community.

While just having a concrete goal to work toward can be motivating in itself, working toward it with a group of people doing the same can more so, because all those doubts you have about your ability to succeed are mitigated. Not enough time? Wait, here’s someone with even less free time than you. If he can do it, why can’t you? Hit a wall? Well, that happened to a friend last week and she wrote about how she got through it. And the same is true in reverse. A challenge gets you out of your own head—fretting about yourself and what you can’t do—and into the space of encouraging and supporting fellow writers. And that helps you focus on what you can do.

Finally, writing challenges put writing into terms that non-writers can understand. And this is where a challenge can be of value to even the most self-motivated writer. You may well be disciplined enough to write without needing a challenge. But how accommodating are your friends and family? If finding time to write is a constant battle, if your family and friends just don’t get why you’re always staring at that screen, if they’re always nagging you to do something else when you’re trying to write, a challenge can be the perfect opportunity to get them on board.

Participating in a writing challenge for a writer is much like participating in a running event for a runner. Suddenly you’re not out there on your own “just writing.” You’re working toward [specific goal] with all these other people who are doing the same thing. It makes what you’re doing real for the non-writer and it allows you to say to those who would sabotage you (intentionally or not), “I must write today in order to reach [specific goal] by [deadline]. When I reach [specific goal], we’ll celebrate. Until then, bear with me and don’t forget to cheer me on!”

Beyond NaNoWriMo: Writing Challenges for Everyone


Picture Book Dummy Challenge
Founded by the #kidlitchat administrators (@kidlitchat) in 2011.
Challenge: create and submit a picture book dummy over 25 weeks.
Aimed at: author/illustrators, but “writers who are not artists can benefit from portions of the dummy exercise, and illustrators without an original manuscript can use the process to create a dummy portfolio piece.”
Hashtag: #PBDummy


National Novel Editing Month (@NaNoEdMo)
Founded at nanoedmo.org in 2003; moved to nanoedmo.net in 2007. Meet the NaNoEdMo staff.
Challenge: spend 50 hours editing a novel during the month.
Aimed at: people who completed NaNoWriMo and now want to edit their novels.
Hashtag: #NaNoEdMo

is National Poetry Month.
Created by the Academy of American Poets (@poetsorg) in 1996:

National Poetry Month is a month-long, national celebration of poetry established by the Academy of American Poets. The concept is to widen the attention of individuals and the media—to the art of poetry, to living poets, to our complex poetic heritage, and to poetry books and journals of wide aesthetic range and concern.

National Poetry Writing Month
Founded by poet Maureen Thorson (@maureenthorson) in 2003.
Challenge: write 30 poems in 30 days.
Aimed at: poets and anyone else who wants to write poetry.
Hashtag: #NaPoWriMo

Script Frenzy (@scriptfrenzy)
Founded by the Office of Letters and Light (the people behind NaNoWriMo) in 2007.
Challenge: write 100 pages of original scripted material in 30 days.
Aimed at: individuals or writing teams of two people who want to write a script.
Hashtag: #scriptfrenzy

is National Short Story Month.
Created by Dan Wickett (@DanWickett) in 2007:

While the poets of the world have shrewdly united to have April be National Poetry Month every year, creating a fair amount of attention for their craft, we (proverbial) here at the EWN have decided that we sort of like concentrating on one form for a lengthy period of time, so we’re declaring that around here, May will be Short Story Month.

Hashtag: #ssm[year] (e.g. #ssm2012) or #nashostomo

National Picture Book Writing Week
Founded by Paula Yoo (@PaulaYoo) in 2009.
Challenge: write 7 first drafts of picture books in 7 days (May 1-7).
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write a children’s picture book.
Hashtag: #napibowriwee

Story a Day
Founded by Julie Duffy (@StoryaDayMay) in 2010.
Challenge: write a short story every day in May.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write short fiction.
Hashtag: #storyaday or #storyadaymay

Note: these are two separate July novel-writing challenges.

July National Writing Month (@julnawrimo)
Founded by Reannon in 2004.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 31 days.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to try a NaNoWriMo-style challenge in July.
Hashtag: #JulNaWriMo

July Novel Writing Month (@julnowrimo)
Founded by Robert Watson in 2005.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 31 days.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to try a NaNoWriMo-style challenge in July.
Hashtag: #JulNoWriMo


Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge
Founded by Laurie Halse Anderson (@HalseAnderson) in 2008
Challenge: Commit to write for 15 minutes a day for the entire month of August.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write: “You can write fiction, non-fiction, memoir, or poetry.”
Hashtag: #wfmad


Toasted Cheese’s Mini-Nano Challenge
Founded by Theryn Fleming (@theryn) in 2011.
Challenge: Write 5,000-words of fiction in September.
Aimed at: people who want a NaNoWriMo warm-up and those looking for a less-intimidating alternative
Hashtag: #TCmininano

is Picture Book Month.
Created by Dianne de Las Casas (@storyconnection) in 2011:

In October 2010, the New York Times published an article that declared “Picture Books No Longer a Staple for Children.” It set the children’s book world on fire and it set me on fire. In September 2011, I had the idea to create a campaign, an international initiative designating November as Picture Book Month.

Hashtag: #PictureBookMonth

National Novel Writing Month (@NaNoWriMo + @NaNoWordSprints)
Founded by Chris Baty (@chrisbaty) in 1999.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to write a novel.
Note: NaNoWriMo has a Young Writers Program (@NaNoWriMoYWP) for people aged 17-and-under and school groups, which allows them to set their own word count goals. Teens 13-and-older who want to participate in the 50k challenge can register at the main site.
Hashtag: #NaNoWriMo

National Playwriting Month
Founded by Dorothy Lemoult in 2006.
Challenge: write a 75-page script for a stage play in 30 days. Note: no screenplays.
Aimed at: individual playwrights, as an alternative to NaNoWriMo
Hashtag: #NaPlWriMo

Picture Book Idea Month
Founded by Tara Lazar (@taralazar) in 2010.
Challenge: create 30 new picture book ideas in 30 days.
Aimed at: picture book writers, as an alternative to NaNoWriMo
Hashtag: #PiBoIdMo

National Novel Querying Month
Founded by Tracy Buscemi (@TracyDawn2802) in 2011.
Challenge: send 1 query to 1 agent every day for 30 days.
Aimed at: writers with complete, polished manuscripts they are ready to send out.
Hashtag: #NaNoQuerMo

Academic Book Writing Month (@PhD2Published)
Founded by Charlotte Frost (@charlottefrost) in 2011.
Challenge: write a 50,000-word academic book in 30 days.
Aimed at: academics, as an alternative to NaNoWriMo
Hashtag: #AcBoWriMo


100 Words (@100words)
Founded by Jeff Koyen in 2001.
Challenge: write exactly 100 words a day, every day, for one month
Aimed at: anyone who wants to participate in “an exercise in disciplined creativity.”
Hashtag: #100words

Toasted Cheese Daily Writing Prompts
Founded by Toasted Cheese (@toasted_cheese) in 2002.
Challenge: use the daily prompt to jumpstart your writing.
Aimed at: anyone who enjoys the challenge of writing in response to a prompt.
Hashtag: #TCPrompts

National Blog Posting Month (@NaBloPoMo)
Founded by Eden Kennedy (@MrsKennedy) in 2006. Now run by BlogHer (@BlogHer).
Challenge: write a blog post every day for a month.
Aimed at: anyone who wants to blog daily.
Hashtag: #NaBloPoMo

One-Sentence Journal
Founded by Gretchen Rubin (@gretchenrubin) in 2006.
Challenge: write one sentence each day about what happened that day.
Aimed at: people who want to keep a journal/diary, but find the idea too daunting.
Hashtag: #thehappinessproject

Inkygirl Wordcount Challenge
Founded by Debbie Ridpath Ohi (@inkyelbows) in 2009.
Challenge: write 250, 500 or 1,000 words a day, six days a week.
Aimed at: writers who want to commit to an achievable writing goal on an ongoing basis.
Hashtag: see Debbie’s list of Twitter “slow chats” for hashtags you can use.

750 Words (@750words)
Founded by Buster Benson in 2010.
Challenge: write 750 words (the equivalent of 3 pages) each morning.
Aimed at: writers who want to journal in the spirit of The Artist’s Way‘s morning pages, but online. Note: All entries made on the site are private.
Hashtag: #750words

Final Poll Results