Category Archives: Writing Tips
by Morgan St. James
There is nothing more boring to read than a scene with no oomph. Can you feel the surroundings, does your heartbeat skip right along with that of the victim or the woman in love? Or have you created a set of paper dolls in a cardboard house?
If you can’t feel the scene, it’s a sure bet that your readers can’t. So, what to do?
Start with thinking about the cover. Authors don’t have a lot of control over this aspect of a published book, because it’s in the hands of the publisher and/or art director unless they are self-published. Still, the cover is what communicates the wonders that are sandwiched between the front and back. Providing a concise synopsis and some physical descriptions help the artist to communicate with the reader.
The cover is a big help in setting the scene. For example, if it’s a funny book, does the cover say funny, or does it portray something entirely different? Although big name authors’ books will sell on the strength of their name alone, a compelling cover is invaluable for mid and small list authors.
Think of it as “framing” a mental picture
It certainly doesn’t stop at the cover. When creating scenes, frame a mental picture that includes surroundings, how the person sees it from their own point of view, mental reactions, weather, clothing…anything that helps flesh out the scene as though you are the production designer for a movie. That doesn’t mean to describe everything in minute detail, but put yourself in that person’s head. Picture being in those surroundings before writing.
If the scene is meant to evoke true emotion, does it?
Cardboard scenes almost read like technical manuals in a way. In other words they are generally incapable of touching the reader’s emotions. On the other hand, scenes that spring to life can trigger laughter, tears, excitement—whatever the scene was designed to do.
When I was writing some for my highly emotional book “Betrayed.” even though I knew the story, I found tears trickling down my cheeks as I wrote some of the intense scenes. I could feel my surroundings as surely as if I actually was the protagonist in Chicago in 1956. Others who read the book referred to tearfully reading parts of the manuscript.
Beyond surroundings that can be felt, make sure dimensional people populate your world of fiction.
When I was an interior designer working with model homes, I created fictional families to live in these homes, so I could design to their demographics. They had the attributes of the profile buyer the developer described and targeted, but they had also had their own quirks, desires, preferences and style. Maybe the husband was an avid golfer and the wife participated in charity work. The son was a car enthusiast and the daughter was a cheerleader. All of that was reflected in the surroundings I created with artifacts and memorabilia. The house was my palette for painting their lives.
How to create a realistic scene.
Imagine this: Tires screech as the driver desperately applies the brakes. The car skids on the rain slick street. Branches brush the windshield when the out-of-control vehicle jumps the curb. Can you feel it? If you were in that car, would you have time to notice things? Smell the burning of the brakes or feel the panic of loss of control. You better be able to if you want the reader to feel it.
Put yourself in the picture.
Play with being there. Write some sample scenes and share them with friends or fellow authors. Do they sing? Maybe they are over-descriptive to the point of being an information dump. Analyze, fine tune and learn. Pretty soon your readers won’t be able to resist turning the page.
Want More from Morgan? Check out her website here!
By Richard Warren
Stephen King once said that “writing is a lonely job.” It certainly is, just you and the pen or keyboard. Unless you are a true loner, it is important to have contact with other people regularly. Though any human contact is helpful, connecting with others who understand what you do can help you maintain your sanity. Fortunately most cities and towns have writers groups where you can socialize and network with other writers while you enhance your knowledge about various aspects of the craft and business of writing.
Groups range from a handful of writers meeting in a coffee shop to large national organizations such as the Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, etc.. Some groups may cater to a specific genre while others are more general. Some groups are great for those just starting out with others being geared to more experienced writers. Search for a group that offers what you are looking for, if you aren’t sure what that is go to different groups until you find one that feels right.
You will discover many different formats as you explore the groups. Some are created more for socializing and networking, others are geared toward education and will usually feature speakers on various writing related topics, groups exist that deal primarily with craft and writing techniques and still more focus on critiquing the work of their members. Attend the group or groups that offer what you need or want the most and see if they will be a good fit for you.
To get the most out of any group you should get involved. Offer to help out or join the volunteer team. This will allow you to get to know more people and increase your own visibility within the group. Being involved may also allow you to have a voice in the direction of the group. Your role in the group may also open doors for you in the local writing community as you become known as an active participant rather than simply a spectator.
Perhaps the most valuable benefit of joining a group is the connection you are able to make with other writers and people in the literary community. You may be able to find a mentor or a sounding board for your ideas and will probably make new friends. That’s why it’s important to feel comfortable and welcome in whatever group you choose. So find one or more local groups and join but remember, the more you put into it the more you will get in return. It’s a wise investment.
By Diane Taylor
As a Las Vegas retiree who is also a free-lance writer, my job is to “pitch” stories to editors. Where do I find stories about individuals in Las Vegas? Sometimes in the most unusual places.
The nail salon on Mother’s Day was where I found a favorite lady of Las Vegas. The nail person mentioned “Happy Mother’s Day” to me and because I am not a mother, I corrected her noting that if I am a mother, it would be to two beagles.
The lady in the next chair said something like, “Me, too”. (Both of us were somewhat bothered at the assumption we were mothers…without asking….but I digress.) The lady in the next chair and I started talking and I discovered she had a great life story – early airline stewardess in the days where young women were single, of a certain weight and wore stockings with seams that had to be straight)., married three times, lived in Europe, cared for “the love of her life” during his final illness, now plays golf regularly with a new gentleman friend, is happy and positive, has a puppy…. and was past 80, but looked like 60.
Another time, I was playing bingo (for another story) and started talking with the middle-aged lady across the table. She relaxes with bingo, she said, because she travels so much. She didn’t look like a traveler, so I kept asking questions. Turns out this woman was retired military and had started a consulting business inspiring young people to stay in school, work hard, etc. She did travel constantly, hired by big companies to speak to employees. I never would have guessed. I lost at bingo, but got a story idea.
Las Vegas poker tables are another story hotbed. Low-limit games are social, and the opportunity exists to chat with neighbors. A man and wife at one table told me about their business, cleaning grease out of the traps used at fast food restaurants. They had a very interesting story as to how their business came to be, their philosophy of taking on numerous small businesses rather than one large customer and how they inexpensively recruit employees (Craig’s list).
Time spent at local entertainment venues on open mic nights introduces audience members to all kinds of possible stories. Every entertainer has a story, even stories of overcoming serious illnesses to take the stage again.
I was in the waiting room at St. Rose Hospital when I met a lady waiting for a husband’s surgery results. We talked, and I found out that in her 50s she discovered that the man she thought was her father wasn’t. Devastated at the news, she then went on a quest to find out about her real father. With the help of the Internet and many hours work, she discovered her real father had died, but she met and established relationships with two, now beloved, half sisters.
At the same hospital, I had lunch in the lunchroom when seating was at a premium, so I sat at a table with three other people. I asked who they were and discovered they were hospital chaplains. Knowing nothing about chaplains, I asked a few questions and was so fascinated that later, I pitched a story about chaplains at that hospital, and that, too, became a story.
Busy freelancers, of course, have stories assigned to them and also are given story recommendations from friends (and PR professionals). But talking with strangers is also a great source. And it’s fun, too.
My father was a great salesman. He often said that most folks like talking about themselves.
All you have to do is ask.
“You must know the rules like a professional in order to break them like an artist.”
That quote is from Pablo Picasso. I figure that if he doesn’t know art, nobody knows art, so it is obvious from that sentence that the rules are important. But, what are those rules, exactly? And how do I go about breaking them?
Let’s start with what the rules are. I have a set I follow. I’ll bet you do too. Tell you what I’ll do. I’m about to list my rules, so I’ll list yours as well. There is a link at the bottom of this post. Click it to send me a copy of your rules. No joke here, I intend to post other people’s rules here as well, with whatever attribution you provide. That’s at the end. Right now, on to My Rules.
- Only write stuff that you want to read. This seems obvious, which is why it took me a lifetime to figure it out. Plenty of others have said the same thing, in so many or more words. Trust me, this truly is Rule #1. But it begs the question, why do you want to read something?”
- Know why you like a story. This is obvious even to me. Here’s what I think, generally, makes people like a story.
- Because it’s a good story
- The protagonist is likeable, a regular decent sort of person.
- The protagonist wants something, not something unreasonable in the grand scheme of things, just something, anything really.
- The protagonist goes after what he or she wants.
- The protagonist gets into unbelievable trouble trying to get it, almost killed, maybe.
- The protagonist almost goes under, but in the end he or she triumphs and there’s a happy ending.
- Just because you like that sort of story
- Show, don’t tell your story.
- Feelings, goals, motivations, conflicts, actions, history, well everything.
- If you don’t get that, read more. A lot more. And get a critique partner or three.
- The use of passive voice is to be avoided at all times.
- Superfluous modifiers are just really very bad.
- Everybody is an expert on comma use, so you don’t have to be.
- One, two, three, and four is how a proper Brit would write a list. That third comma is the famous “Oxford comma.”
- One, two, three and four is how Americans list. No Oxford comma.
- Every other rule about commas has advocates for and against its use. So, see above.
- Always observe proper grammar, spelling and syntax. Or perhaps I should write that it is perfectly to know proper grammar, spelling and syntax. The last sentence adheres exactly to conservative rules of English construction. It sucks, as you can see. So I break that rule virtually all the time and write line such as “the rule is to perfectly know . . .”. Because, of course you can split an infinitive! It consists of two words, you twit! But I know the rule about split infinitives, and how to avoid them, well, perfectly? Okay, as closely to perfect as my sloppy self can get.
- Use a critique group, beta readers, whomever you can to read your work before you publish. If you write romance, have people who like to read romance do the work. If you write mystery, get mystery fans to read it and critique it. If you write, well, you can probably see where this is going. A group of professional writers, which includes professional writers who have never been paid for writing yet, doesn’t have to consist of people who all write one genre, or even all who write fiction or non-fiction. It should, however, consist of people familiar with the rules.
Those are my rules. But there is one overriding rule that trumps every single one of them. It is:
Write a Good Story or Article and People Will Read It
If you’re a writer, you’re an artist. Like Pablo said, an artist breaks the rules. So, what rules do you break? That’s a little vague. What I mean to ask is, what are the rules of writing according to yourself? You can click right here to email me your set of rules. A Word format document would be excellent, or a plain text document, but I can work with a PDF or anything that my computer can display (highlight, copy, and paste, don’tchaknow? I truly will post your list of rules, so make them good. And entertaining, if possible, since I am of dubious maturity. If you’d rather leave them as a comment, please feel free to do that as well.
Want more of Steve? You can check his blog at stevefey.com, or look for him on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
By Morgan St. James
The word “syntax” has several definitions relative to the English language and grammar, but the one that popped into my mind is from the Bing Online Dictionary.
Organization of words in sentences
The ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural elements in phrases and sentences. The syntax may be of a whole language, a single phrase or sentence, or of an individual speaker.
When things go wrong
I was listening to an audio book by one of my favorite authors—a New York Times bestselling author, no less. All of a sudden, there it was—the dreaded double-meaning syntax. The narrator said, “The two men sat down quickly in suits and ties.” Um, excuse me. Am I to picture these two fellows wandering through a men’s department in Nordstrom or Macys, then quickly plunk themselves down on a pair of chairs as they reached the Suits & Ties Department?
With apologies to an author whose following is huge, and an undoubtedly highly regarded editor, it seems it should have been something like “The two men dressed in suits and ties sat down quickly.”
The result of poor syntax or arrangement of the words in a particular sentence can definitely create confusion and in some cases are also quite funny.
Years ago, mixed up placement was something I was guilty of as an author. Then my sister Phyllice, trained as an editor, brought it to my attention when we began to write the Silver Sisters Mysteries. All of a sudden, misleading sentences jumped off the page and I found myself acutely aware of them in other author’s books as well.
Somewhere in the recesses of my memory, I recalled a song with the line “Throw mama from the train a kiss, a kiss.” The phrasing was such a good illustration of today’s topic that I looked it up on the internet. The song, actually called Mama From the Train (A Kiss, A Kiss) was recorded by songstress Patti Page in 1956 and reached #11 in Billboard’s Top 100. The songwriter, Irving Gordon, said the song was about memories of his deceased mother, whose Pennsylvania Dutch-influenced English lead to quaint phrasings. Playing on the misdirection, there was a movie with Danny DeVito called Throw Momma From the Train. However, DeVito’s character would really have liked to do what the title suggested and throw his shrew of a mother off a real train!
As I searched, I found some real gems.
- The dealer sold the Cadillac to the buyer with leather seats.
So was that buyer wearing leather pants or what?
- They saw a fence behind the house made of barbed wire.
Now that would have been a neat house for one of the three little pigs.
- The waiter served a dinner roll to the woman that was well buttered.
Except for the use of ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ maybe the woman had a unique way of wiggling into skin-tight jeans.
- Joan piled all of her clothes in the hamper that she had worn.
I wonder how much attention she attracted as she walked down the street.
Pennsylvania Dutch sentence structure also yields some winners. Here are two:
“Only people with cars that live in dorms should be allowed to park in those lots.”
“Where one parent would be quiet, polite and conservative the other parent would drive up in a black Trans Am full of arrogance and conceit.”
The point of all this
Make sure your sentences and phrases are ordered in a way that makes sense. You don’t want people secretly asking questions like the ones above.
Want More from Morgan? Check out her website here!
One of the biggest challenges writers face (that is before finding an agent, finding a publisher, editing to the publishers specifications and then marketing the crap out of your manuscript) is finding the time and the motivation to write. It seems like a grand joke that the universe plays on us. If we have time to write, our minds are as blank as freshly driven snow that hasn’t been peed on yet. But when we finally have the motivation, the inspiration and the focus… we can’t find the time.
Whether you are caring for a family, climbing the career ladder or just trying to make ends meet, finding time to hit the page can be a challenging venture. Here are a few suggestions. Skip the evening news and use that time to write. I can sum up what you will miss: the economy sucks, another pedestrian got hit and tomorrow will be sunny with a chance of spontaneous combustion. If you have already cut television out of your daily routine, maybe use your bathroom time. No, I’m not suggesting you stop doing that, but maybe bring a small laptop in there with you. Just make sure you don’t answer any Skype calls. If none of that appeals to you, perhaps just train yourself to write while other things are going on. Kids playing on the floor? Write. Lunch break at work? Write. Dinner in the oven? Write.
But what about finding the motivation and the inspiration to create a story from thin air? This is something that I myself am struggling with right now. As a committed practitioner of Yoga, I recently picked up a book called The Journey From The Center To The Page by Jeff Davis. He suggests approaching your writing practice as you do your yoga practice – with a clear intention. Instead of sitting down in front of your computer and waiting for a white clad muse to pop out of your USB port, you need to ask yourself “What am I writing for?” Are you looking to sort out personal problems, make peace with an incident in your past, entertain your reader or create a fictional world for your characters to play in? Whatever the reason, discovering why you write should inspire you to do so. No muses required.
Once you’ve set an intention, take a few deep breaths to settle into the practice of writing. You can even bust out of a few yoga poses to prime your body and your brain. Once you’ve done your breathing exercises, sit down at your computer and write something. Anything.
Davis suggests beginning with a 3-60-15 schedule to ease yourself into a regular writing practice. This means that for the next 15 days, you will write 3 times per week for 1 hour a pop. In the scheme of things, this is nothing. I am committing to this “trial period” to get my writing practice back on track. Will you join me?
Morgan St. James www.morganstjames-author.com
Pitfalls can easily trip you up, but you need to recognize them to avoid them. After all, you can’t hit a target you can’t see. If you want to be farther off base than a foul ball, just keep thinking that your book will be so irresistible to an editor, publisher, agent or reviewer although there may be a few flaws they will snap it up anyway and assign their best editor. Some aspiring authors even daydream of the possibility of a bidding war because it’s theirs will be such a hot manuscript. Whoa! Time for a reality check. You may be approaching a pitfall.
As unfair as it might seem, even a tiny number of grammar, punctuation or usage mistakes often raise a brilliant red flag faster than you can say “But…but…but…” Here are four typical pitfalls along with some easy techniques for sidestepping them. There are certainly many more, but let’s start with these.
Semicolon or comma? For a very easy test, ask yourself if the part of the sentence set off by the comma can stand on its own. Does it have its own subject and verb? If so, use a semicolon or depending upon the pace of the scene, opt for two separate sentences. Short punchy sentences give the impression of fast-paced action. Some authors hate to use semicolons, and I’m one of them. I use semi-colons sparingly or not at all because they tend to stop the action. Although it seems like a small thing, knowing the difference results in a more polished piece.
Match subjects with verbs Matching plural verbs with plural subjects and singular verbs with singular subjects is often a real challenge. Look at some of your work through the eyes of a stranger. Are you guilty of being a “mixmaster?” Here is an easy test:
Is this right or wrong: Only one of the celebrities are accepting Carrie’s invitation to a hot party.
All you have to do is delete “of the celebrities” to see that “are” should have been “is”. Only one is accepting Carrie’s invitation to a hot party.
Wandering words The word “only” is a good word to use as an example. Some words just meander all over the place. They wander through the manuscript and pop up in places where they have no business being, when they should do sticking to the word or words they apply to like crazy glue.
Try this: I’ve only written two of the seven articles so far.
This mini faux pas shows up so often, editors are apt to skip right over it. However, just try moving the word “only” to see how it affects the meaning: I’ve written only two of the seven articles so far. Or, maybe better yet: So far I’ve written only two of the seven articles. As the word “only” moves around, the feeling of the sentence definitely changes.
“Unique” is a unique word. The way some people use this word sets my hair on fire! These days the word “unique” seems to pop up everywhere, and it is misused to the max.
The definition of unique is and always has been one of a kind. If there were a Unique Detection Squad, the UDS (for short) would make a fortune just by issuing misusage tickets. Books, newspapers, radio, TV—nothing is safe. Those extraneous modifiers lurk like burglars waiting to grab the loot.
How often do you see descriptions like this: most unique, completely unique, absolutely unique, highly unique and this word that should mean one and only augmented by so many other modifiers? Surely you get the picture. If there is only one of this unique object or attitude, how in the world can it be anything beyond unique? Don’t be responsible for making an editor grit their teeth. Just drop the inapplicable word. Unique is “unique” and needs no superlative.
For more tips & tricks visit Morgan’s blog