Archive for the ‘#writingtips’ Tag

Discover Writers Can So Outline!   3 comments

There’s a myth that you are either a plotter or a pantser as a writer.

Plotters outline. They know where they’re going before they even start. Many of them know exactly each step they’re going to take in the journey to THE END before they write the first word. They are generally plot-driven. Occasionally, they might deviate from their intended course if a plot element presents itself that must be included, but they like order and so any deviation is a carefully-thought-out deliberate choice.

Pantsers thrive on spontaneity and discover. They tend to be character-driven. After introducing themselves to their characters, they let the characters navigate. Discovery writers seek to be surprised by the words as they fall from their fingers, discovering new insights about their characters and their world as they go along. At best, they sketch a few guidelines in advance, maybe have an idea of what the end point will look like, but generally, they don’t want to be constrained by an outline.

Related imageI am definitely a discovery writer when I draft. Even writing a series where I know what the change points of each book are going to be, I generally don’t want to know how my characters intend to get there. That would be boring and I suspect self-defeating. It would feel too much like work to me and a large reason why I write is to entertain myself. If you can produce a good book that way (and who am I to argue with the likes of Stephen King), more power to you, but I prefer to allow my creativity to take lead. I get a better draft that way.

But that doesn’t mean I never outline.

What? How can I say that? You’re either an outliner or a discovery writer. You can’t be both. Right?

I outline after the draft is finished.

Writing 100,000 words for a book is often a series of sprints. I tend to work on a scene at a time. I don’t always work in chronological order. Sometimes I work on scenes later in the book before I work on scenes at the start of the book. I may sketch out a few guideposts in advance, maybe identify some oncoming conflict, but overall, I let the characters lead me through their lives and tell me their story.

When I complete a draft, I then write a chapter-and-scene outline of the completed manuscript. This is where plotters are frowning in confusion. Why would I do that? It makes no sense to them.

Bear with me.

I’ve just written roughly a 100,000 words that are like a puzzle that still needs to be fitted together. I need to step back and see how that puzzle looks when all the pieces are put together, and a scene-by-scene outline lets me do that. I assign one bullet point per scene, and then I can see the whole puzzle in a few pages.

Where are the rises and falls, where is the climax, where is the inciting incident or incidents, where is the resolution? Is there a ton of backstory, delivered too early? Is there not enough conflict?

Image result for image of a road mapWhen you look at your book from a macro perspective, you can see big-picture flaws like abandoned plot threads, unnecessary scenes, missing or unbalanced elements, the place a faulty ending really began to go wrong, etc. I use different highlighting to note these types of problems on my outline so I fix them early on.

It’s easy for rewrite to become about fixing wording, grammar, punctuation and countless other details. Those errors need to be fixed before publication, but that’s proofreading. Why do that if you might later delete the entire chapter? Evaluating your manuscript via a scene-by-scene outline helps cut out some of that superfluous editing of words and commas.

I have a friend who actually prints out her outlines and cuts them up by scene to pin to a big corkboard, but I prefer to do my moving around on the computer. What if you moved the gas station scene to the next chapter? What if the father’s backstory went after the funeral instead of before? What if you cut chapter twelve, except for the fight?

Where are you heavy or light, long or short? Is your book dark except for a couple of humorous scenes? Okay, but did you realize all those scenes were within a few chapters of each other? Is your book almost all loud moments? Is it too quiet throughout? A big-picture view is invaluable in making these determinations.

Once you see an outline you like, you can revise your manuscript with a plan in mind.

By outlining after writing, discovery writers can draft in the manner that allows our creativity to lead while still making use of the organizational benefits of outlines. Also, you’re not locked into your original outline. You can revise the outline after each major revision, then take a step back to see how things look through a wide-angle lens. Your characters will thank you for the freedom you’ve given them, and your readers will be grateful for the extra steps you took to ensure your story works on every level, big and small.

And, finally, there’s a last advantage to this. If, like me, you give your chapters titles, your outline makes a handy way to do the table of contents. I’ve had author friends complain that this is an annoying process of going back and forth between the written chapter and the front matter and it was for me the first time, but then I recognized I could do the TOC in the outline and it eliminated all that bouncing back and forth. I could just run the two documents and go back and forth between them. I intend to borrow my son’s computer for a night to do this with two screens this time around. I suspect that’ll be so much easier.

You learn as you go along as a writer, and I have certainly had plenty of lessons.


Posted September 14, 2017 by aurorawatcherak in writing wednesday

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Was   Leave a comment

No matter how much time and energy we authors put into querying agents and editors (or conversely learning the ins and outs of self-publishing) it’s all wasted if we don’t have a polished piece of work. One way to make sure your book is the best possible product is to brush up on your nuts-and-bolts writing skills. This also saves money in editing fees.

Image result for image of past perfect tense

I’m pretty sure everyone has been in a critique group, had a beta reader, or listened to a creative writing workshop where somebody lectured you about avoiding the word “was.” We are routinely told to eliminate all forms of the verb “to be” from our prose.

Well-meaning mentors tell us “was” is “passive,” so we must avoid it at all costs, along with adverbs, run-on sentences, and naming all of your characters the similar names.

These experts were repeating “The Rules” they heard from their own critique groups, beta readers, and workshop leaders when they started writing.

Sometimes “The Rules” are wrong.

This particular rule has good intentions, but shows a lack of understanding of grammar. The verb “to be” has many functions in modern English and some have nothing to do with the passive voice.

I’m old enough that I actually received an education in English grammar, but I think it may not be a major focus in most schoolrooms because I find a lot of writers have not been taght the basics.

Past tenses in English

  • Simple Past
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Continuous (or “Progressive”)
  • Present Perfect
  • Past Perfect (or “Pluperfect”)
  • Past Perfect Continuous.

Some of these tenses are created by using various forms of the verbs “to be” and “to have.” They’re called “auxiliary verbs” (sometimes helping verbs) when they are used this way.

Simple past:

I threw up.

Present Perfect:

I have been throwing up since I ate that chicken.

Here an action starts in the past and comes up to the present.

Past Continuous:

I was throwing up when Mrs. Smith arrived to invite me to tea.

A continuous action in the past gets interrupted by the simple past. “Was” is necessary to create this tense with the verb “to throw up.” “Was” in this auxiliary function has nothing to do with the independent meaning of the verb “was” meaning “existed in the past.”

Past Perfect:

I had threw up right before she came to the door.

An action happened in the past BEFORE the past of the story. “Had” is the auxiliary verb that creates this tense. This is different from the stand-alone meaning of the verb “had” meaning “possessed in the past”.

Past Perfect continuous:

I had been throwing up for hours.

An action happened in the past over a period of time until it got interrupted by another action. The verbs “to have” AND “to be” are combined with the primary verb “to throw up” to make this tense.

These tenses have nothing to do with the Passive VOICE

Throwing up was caused by chicken.   In the passive voice, we use forms of “to be” when the object of the verb becomes the subject of the sentence.

Or, as my college English professor would say:

The passive voice is avoided whenever possible by good writers.

Then, just to be confusing, we have the Subjunctive MOOD.  (Sometimes called the “Unreal Conditional” tense.)

If I were smarter, I’d have brought my own lunch.  

It also uses the auxiliary verb “to be”. Are you starting to see what a multi-purpose word “was” is? The word “were” doesn’t put us in the past. It tells us he’s not actually smart.

But what about this?

If I was even smarter, I’d have shot my uncle instead of the bear.

This is incorrect grammar, because the subjunctive uses “were,” not “was.”

So “was” should be eliminated here, right?

If you’re aiming for grammatical prose, absolutely, but if you’re writing fiction, it’s probably just fine. You don’t want all your characters to sound like college professors.

What does this all mean?

Sometimes “was” and “were” are absolutely necessary for meaning and by no means “passive.”

I was just sitting there when the bear mauled me.

This means something different from:

I just sat there when the bear mauled me.

Eliminating “was” changes the meaning from “the bear mauled me with no provocation,” to “I didn’t react when the bear mauled bit me.”

However, your critique group didn’t steer you totally wrong when they told you to be wary of “was.”

This isn’t because the word is always passive, but because it can be part of lazy sentence construction.

Beginning writers tend to write flabby sentences like this:

There was a squirrel sitting on the picnic table and he was eating my peanut butter sandwich. He was looking at me like I was nobody to be scared of, so I decided it was time to get my shotgun.

That can be cleaned up by using simpler verbs:

A squirrel sat on the picnic table eating my peanut butter sandwich. He looked me in the eye without a speck of fear. I went for my shotgun.

That’s easier to read and gives a stronger, clearer image.

Another note on past tenses

Most readers say they prefer reading a book written in the past tense, but writing in the past can be difficult when you decide to do a flashback. Yes, you could just not write flashbacks, but sometimes the story absolutely requires one. That’s when you go into the past perfect tense. But you don’t have to stay there, because it sounds awkward.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he had run into a gang of squirrels who had attacked him with giant acorns.

Actually, you only have to use the past perfect (the “had” construction) once or twice to introduce the flashback, then continue in the simple past and readers will automatically adjust.

He hated squirrels. Last summer, he had been walking in the park when he ran into a gang of squirrels who attacked him with giant acorns.

It’s all in the distant past, but we know that without all the extra “hads.”

Sometimes it’s best just to trust your readers.

So, when you’re doing your edits, a search for “was” in your manuscript can help clean up your prose, but we’re not looking to eliminate “was” because “was” is “passive” because that’s a clunky use of grammar. Maybe we’ll look at passive voice in the near future.

First Chapters   Leave a comment

Let’s face it: first chapters are hard.

Other writers know what I mean. You sit there staring at the first page … the blank computer screen … trying to figure out how to start.

When writing your first draft, you’re writing for yourself—getting to know your characters and their world. You should let everything spill out on the page free of your inner editor’s censorship. You have to get it out and onto the page.

The Willow Branch: Book 1 of The Daermad Cycle by [Markham, Lela]Revision is a different story. There’s a whole lot that ends up in that first-draft chapter that was extraneous info-dump that needs to be cut, but not deleted, because you can enrich the story later by scattering it through the book.

You’re going to end up with an opening chapter that’s much different from the one you started with. It’s possible your entire original Chapter One may end up being one of those darlings you have to kill.

I usually write the final draft of my first chapter last. That’s because I won’t know exactly what needs to be in there until I’ve got the ending all polished up, but I didn’t know that when I first started writing.

An ideal first chapter should do the following things:

1) Introduce the main character(s) 

Most writers start with an opening scene involve the protagonist on the assumption that whoever the reader meets first in a book is the character they’ll bond with. They don’t need to know a huge amount about the MC right away, but they need to know enough to care. We probably need to know gender and approximate age, but most of all, we need to know the emotions the character is feeling in the scene—preferably something the reader can identify with.

Here’s how I started Life As We Knew It:

She stood before the safe, one hand beckoning, the other holding the cloth-wrapped bundle. Her face hid behind the veil, but her large dark eyes were sad and angry. Shane slid up the wall, bracing himself in the corner, scrubbing tears from his stinging eyes with the heels of his hands. Time had come.

It had been years since he’d thought about God, let alone prayed. His heart had been certain that there was no god. Yet a verse floated up from some long-forgotten Sunday School.

… your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

“This is my kingdom come,” Shane whispered. “What I earned on earth and in heaven.”

Her eyes demanded his obedience and his legs complied. The locked safe was no deterrent as he knew the combination. Guns on the right, clips on the left. The 9mm felt light in his hand. Unloaded! He always unloaded when he came home from a trip. The clip slid easily home and the gun felt right. Heavy. Final.

She stood to his left as she had that night, clutching the bundle to her chest. Shane raised the gun as if to fire at her, but then turned it, put the barrel up under his chin, deep in the curve of his jaw and pulled the trigger.

I haven’t used any description of the protagonist, but we can tell he’s

  •  male
  • someone very familiar with guns
  • distressed about something to do with a Muslim woman
  • has some religious knowledge, but is not religious himself
  • is suicidal
  • and we can infer from the clues that he was probably a soldier in the Middle East

We can also identify with his distress at dealing with a horrific memory. My brother tells me that he HAD to KNOW what was coming in the paragraph that followed. And that’s what makes Shane a powerful character and gives a shove to the first chapter.

2) Make us care enough to go on a journey with that character. 

This is trickier than it sounds. What makes us care? There’s no formula and no one thing will work for every reader in every genre.

Agents and editors are always telling us they want a “sympathetic” protagonist, but that doesn’t necessarily mean somebody you’d like to have as a friend.

Shallow, narcissistic Scarlett O’Hara has fascinated readers for nearly a century. Would you want sociopathic serial killer Dexter Morgan as your best friend? Sherlock Holmes frequently drives John Watson to distraction. Even Jane Austen’s Emma is tart-tongued.

You don’t have to present us with a protagonist as flawed as those characters, but perfect characters aren’t that much fun. Characters need to have weaknesses. I led with Shane’s weaknesses in Life As We Knew It because those weaknesses make his strengths all the more powerful.

You can’t please everyone all of the time. Some readers like a kick-ass-first, ask-questions-later character, while others prefer a more thoughtful, honorable hero. It will depend on genre and tone. It’s probably best of avoid an arrogant, whiny victim “hero”. A hero needs to be brave in some way, so let us see the potential for that right away.

3) Set tone. 

You don’t want to start out a romantic comedy with a gruesome murder scene, or open a thriller with light, flirtatious banter. You want to immerse your reader in the book’s world from the opening paragraph. Since novelists don’t have music and visuals to set the scene, we need to use words to convey tone.

Long descriptions of weather or setting aren’t in fashion these days, but broad descriptive strokes can offer a lot in terms of setting the mood of your story. In Mirklin Wood, I set the mood with a rainstorm of epic proportion that makes it clear that magic is imposing a negative effect on the physical world. It conveys a heavy, oppressive mood that draws the reader into the world of Daermad.


4) Let us know the theme. 

If you’re going to be dealing with a particular theme, you don’t want to hit readers over the head with it. Foreshadowing  can provide hints from the first sentence.

Look at how William Gibson began Neuromancer, the novel that defined cyberpunk: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Gibson lets us know from the get-go this is about the dark side of technology.


In Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns she begins by setting the stage:

Winter came early to the city that year. Josiah Davidson, emerging from the subway, his arms loaded with schoolbooks, shivered in the dank.November rain that blew icily against his face and sent a trickle down the back of his neck. He didn’t see three boys in black jackets and moved out of a sheltering doorway and stalked him.

You know right away we’re dealing with an urban environment, adverse weather and threatening thugs.

5) Let us know where we are.  

Readers don’t need a ton of physical description, but they need to know what planet/historical time period we’re in.


World building is absolutely critical in science fiction and fantasy, but in the first pages limit it to the absolute necessities and fill in the details later. Most new writers tend to tell us way too much about their fantasy world up front. You want to tell us just enough to allow us to picture the scene that’s taking place, but not bog down the action.

6) Introduce the antagonist.

An antagonist is someone/something that keeps the protagonist from his goal. You may think that an antagonist is not necessary if you’re writing a romantic comedy, but there is a difference between an antagonist and a villain.


An antagonist can be a whole society, an addiction, a judicial system, or anything that might thwart a hero from achieving his goal. A particular villain embodied as an individual Big Bad doesn’t not need to exist in a many plots, but something has to trip up your protagonist in order for his/her story to be interesting.

7) Ignite conflict.

We need conflict not only in the opening scene, but we need to see an over-arching tension that will drive your plot.

In the Hunger Games, the burning question in the opening scene is who will be chosen for the games. But the larger conflict is with the Hunger Games themselves. When the conflict of the opening scene is resolved, we still keep turning pages because of the underlying tension from a bigger story question—how will Katniss survive?

Conflict does not have to mean an actual battle. In fact, starting in the middle of a battle can be awfully confusing for a reader. It’s better to start with something like the heroine preparing for battle by stealing her brother’s armor after her father forbids her to fight.

8)  Give us a goal: tell us what your protagonist wants.

Readers need to know pretty early in the story what your hero’s ultimate goal might be. In The Willow Branch, we know that Padraig’s ultimate goal is to find the One’s True King. In Life As We Know It, the ultimate goal isn’t stated, but you can infer that Shane wants his family to survive the apocalypse.

The ultimate goal doesn’t always show up in Chapter One, but we do need a goal in chapter one that will lead to the ultimate goal. Shane has to survive his suicide attempt if he’s going to save his town and family, for example.

9) Present an exciting, life-changing inciting incident.

This incident has to cause something to happen that will propel us to the next scene—and the one after that—and through the entire book. Think of it as the explosion that launches the rocket of your story.

This one is easier for some genre writers.  If you’re writing a mystery, you can find a dead body and the story is off and running. In a romance the female protagonist meets the object of her future affections and absolutely hates him, vowing to keep him from whatever his goal might be.

In other genres, it may be tough to get the inciting incident close to the opener. I couldn’t end the world as we know it in the first chapter of Life As We Knew It, because I needed the readers to care about the characters and I couldn’t figure a way to do both at the same time. Just remember, most readers aren’t going to admire your lovely prose until you’ve got a story going.

10) Introduce the other major characters. 

“Major” is the key here. Don’t let minor characters upstage the hero in the opener. You’re probably better off without any minor characters in the opening scene. We’ve got so much stuff to cram in there, we don’t have much room for the maid/sentinel/pizza deliverer character who opens so many dramas.

The Willow Branch operates in two time periods. In the first scene of the past timeline, Prince Maryn is killed, leaving Lord Deryk, who is a major character in that timeline. In the first scene of the present timeline, I introduce Padraig and Ryanna, main characters of that timeline. I needed to enter a minor character, a seer whose prophesy sends Padraig on his quest for the king, but pretty much everyone else in the opening chapter is faceless and voiceless because they aren’t all that important to the future plot.

I like colorful characters and they show up from time to time in my books, but I try to keep these minor players out of my opener, so that readers don’t end up expecting them for the rest of the series when they will only be there for that brief time.

We have all ready a bestseller or a dozen that doesn’t follow these rules. Don’t ever take something I suggest as a hard and fast rule because what works for me may not work for you. These rules are suggestions. If your prose are so mesmerizing the reader doesn’t notice that you info-dumped them in Chapter 1, lovely. Most writers, however, are just not that good.

If your opener doesn’t do any of the above suggestions, just try this experiment. Ignore chapters 1 & 3 and look at Chapter 3. Does Chapter 3 give you a better beginning? Start there. Then feed readers the info from the first two chapters a little at a time later on in the book.

Posted December 28, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in writing wednesday

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Deep Point of View   1 comment

Hey, writers. Perhaps you’ve heard that deep point of view is all the rage. Agents and editors want it and readers, supposedly, are begging for it.

Deep point of view is intense. It not only represents the sights, sounds, and actions filtered through a point of view character, but goes deeper into emotions and the character’s unique worldview. The character owns the page and the author becomes nonexistent, which allows the reader to live vicariously through the actions, reactions, and emotions of a character.

Image result for image of deep point of viewIf you’re like me, you don’t instinctively know how to go deep.

The key to deep point of view is understanding the rules, the tricks, and the tips for getting deep and then using deep point of view to empower your story.

Make your tags disappear

While speech tags clarify a speaker, they are blips on the deep point of view radar, reminding the reader he is reading and not living a story. In deep point of view tags are often replaced by action, body language, voice description, and emotion.

Replacing your tags makes the story feel genuine. How the words are said and the actions behind the words act as subtle cues to reveal more about a character, his emotional state of mind and the story.

Consider the more familiar distant point of view. A character is upset about something:

“Let’s not talk about it,” he said.

You really can’t tell much about the character’s state of mind. He could be serious. He could be lying. He could really want to talk, but wants to be convinced. We just can’t tell.

In a deeper version on distant point of view, the character might say:

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, shredding the napkin.


Shredding the napkin gives a clue that whatever he doesn’t want to talk about is upsetting him. However, that he said isn’t only a blip, reminding the reader he is reading. He said also becomes redundant. Reading rules tell us that if dialog is in the same paragraph as the character’s action, then the action character is also the speaker. You don’t need both.

But we can go even deeper:

“I don’t want to talk it.” He tore a long strip from the edge of the napkin, turned it 90 degrees and tore another strip from the new edge. He did this repeatedly until a pile of paper curlicues rested on the tabletop.

This POV tells a lot more. The character is focusing on something other than the person he’s talking to. He’s creating a mountain between them. Time passes in silent contemplation. It sets a mood and a pace.

Make your thought  and sense words disappear

Everyone tells you to get rid of those filter words, but they rarely say why. Thought and sense words are telling words. They pull bac the curtain of author string-pulling. They also create a distance between character and reader. They are disingenuous to the “real life experience” of deep point of view.

Most of us never think I’m thinking or I’m wondering if I’ll get a raise. If you’re truly in deep point of view, your character won’t either. He will think. He will wonder. He will see, hear, feel, but he won’t add the filter words. He’ll just do it.

In the distant point of view, a character feels the pain shoot through his gut and wonders if he was going to die. The reader remains distant. He hears what the character’s thoughts are but doesn’t feel what the character feels. He doesn’t think what character thinks. He is told about these feelings and thoughts and as a result there is a filter between the reader and character … hence, they’re called filter words.

Deep point of view would put the reader inside the character’s head.

Pain shot through his gut, and he clutched his stomach. This was it. He was going to die.

There’s no thinking or wondering. The reader knows what’s happening and is pulled in deep.

Understand your POV character

This is the best trick at all. The writer knows their character better than anyone else. We know our character’s voice, their favorite phrases, their unique worldview, their body language and their trademark rabbit-chases. Make use of that. Sit down with your character and see if you discover anything new.

How does she carry herself? How does she walk? What chair would she chose? How does she sit? Note her body language. Think about what this is telling you about the ‘who’ of this person.

Is she approachable? Will you dive into your questions or ease into these questions? How does she make you feel?

Ask her the following questions and write down her answers. Try writing the answers in her voice, capturing her words, her phrases, her syntax, her unique world view. Pay attention to her body language as she speaks.

  • Who are you?
  • What do you want more than anything?
  • How far would you go to get it?
  • Why is what you want so important?
  • How do you feel about the people in your life? This could be story time people or past people. Both will reveal a great deal about the ‘who’ of the character.
  • How do you feel about the people in your life?
  • How do you feel about yourself?

Understand your POV character’s worldview


A worldview is shaped by experiences and expectations of self, life, and society. In any given situation a person/character brings those aspects to life in facing a new situation. How he will face or describe each situation or place will be colored by his worldview.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago, my husband and I went to dinner with my sister-in-law in Boston. He and I had two distinctly diffrent experiences that night based on our different backgrounds.

I was thoroughly captivated by the city — the colors, the tall buildings, the lights, the crowded sidewalks … it was a thoroughly fun experienced until we neared the MTA station and a group of about seven men were hanging around in the shadows. The man sitting out in the light asked Brad for some change and he reached into his pocket and realized that he didn’t have anything to give him. Suddenly, the dark shadows moved toward us and for a moment, I thought we were going to die.

Brad, having grown up in New York City, actually spent most of the evening with his head on a swivel, concerned about the dark corners and people who had absolutely no sense of personal space. As we approached the MTA, he saw panhandlers … not thugs. And when he realized he didn’t have any money to give them, for a moment, he thought he might have to fight for our lives.

He looked right at the leader of this squad and said “I don’t have any money, but you really want to let us go.” At that moment, I felt the energy of the little plaza turn. The leader of the panhandlers had his power taken away and somehow Brad became the commander because he knew that projecting an image of the willingness to go kamikazi would be enough to scare away a group of panhandlers.


My worldview was one from a society of politely armed individuals. Muggings are rare in Alaska because you never know who is concealed carry. We worry more about bears and wolves. My husband exists quite happily in this environment, but once in the big city, he dredged up his more jaded, paranoid persona and viewed many of the exact same things completely differently than I did.

Similarly, each character comes to a page with a particular worldview and by knowing that worldview you can manipulate the reader’s emotions and reading experience.

Keep in mind there are many more ways to explore deep point of view and there are many reasons to break the rules. That’s the great thing about writing. There isn’t just one way to tell a story. Explore the tips and tricks, discover more and then use what works for you and your story.


Posted December 21, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in writing wednesday

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Stupid Writing Rules   1 comment

In seeking content for this blog, I started looking at what others have suggested for writers … and this weird mocking voice started in my head. Some of these “rules” are … uh, comical because they’re the exact opposite of what professionals consider to be good writing. Just because a writer has a particular bad habit that they don’t want to give up doesn’t mean they should advise others to copy them.

One blog suggested not to start a story with a dark or scary beginning. “You should begin with the hero at home in a lovely bucolic setting before you douse them in tension or tragedy.”

Think Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado changes her reality or Bilbo at Bags End before the dwarfs show up. Both of those books were written more than 50 years ago, before the advent of Amazon’s preview feature.

You might have noticed, if you read my books, that my main character’s home is sometimes a dark and scary place. Shane stuck a gun in his mouth in the opening scene of Life As We Knew It, book 1 of Transformation Project. Prince Maryn died in the opening scene of The Willow Branch, book 1 of Daermad Cycle. Peter is in a very dark place at the start of What If … Wasn’t. A YA I’m working on begins with a vicious beating.

Clearly  I don’t follow this advice. Why not?

Readers want action or emotion right away, otherwise they move onto the next book and never pop for yours. As much as I love writing just pure beauty on the page, I want someone to read my book and that requires writing some visceral for them to hang their interest on.

“Always start with a prologue.”

Sometimes a prologue is a good thing, but most of them are just extra frippery. They play better in some genres rather than others — epic fantasy, historical saga, space opera — I have one at the start of Book 2 of the Transformation Project, Objects in View, because it serves to remind readers of what has happened so far. A lot of experts consider prologues to be old-fashioned and unnecessary, and they may well be right. I wasn’t altogether convinced the Objects needed a prologue, but I wanted to play with one, so I did.

“Don’t put contemporary references in fiction because it will date the book.”

While we all hope someone will still be reading our novels 10 years after their publication, that’s not really likely. Brand names, celebrities and current events add a sense of authenticity to contemporary literature that readers can relate to. Cultural references anchor your story in time. If your main character’s dad has a hissy fit over the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election, it provides historical context and also tells the reader a lot about your character’s father without having to labor the details.

“Novels should not contain contractions.”


Yeah, that one dumbfounded me. Supposedly the writer heard it from an “editor”. (Note to self, vet freelance editors very carefully). If you follow this editor’s advice, every character in your novel will sound like Henry Standingbear in Longmire. While that’s an endearing quirkiness for one character, it will irritate readers who speak English as a first language. Everybody uses contractions, unless there is a compelling reason they don’t.

“‘Said’ is boring. Use more energetic tags like ‘exclaimed’, ‘growled’ or ‘screamed'”

I was taught this also, both as a creative writer and as a journalist, but that was more than 30 years ago. There’s a movement today not to use dialogue tags at all and, if you’re not using them much, “said” becomes invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself and away from the dialogue.

Mostly you can eliminate tags altogether except for where they’re needed for clarity. If you need something to show the character was upset, cold, fatigued, angry … whatever … try showing it in action rather than with a dialogue tag.

“You have to head-hop if you have more than one character in a scene.”

I don’t know where this advice came from because good writers don’t tell us what everybody in a scene is thinking. That’s confusing to the reader and negates the fact that the POV character cannot read minds. Most of us are reliant on our ability to read the reactions of other characters. We see life through our own eyes and none other. We figure out what’s going on by reading body language, facial expressions, and then hearing dialogue to let us know how key characters are relating to the action.

The exception is a story told from an omniscient point of view, which is not the same as head-hopping. Omniscient POV uses a god-like voice that knows everything. You’ll often see it in high fantasy using a “bard’s” storytelling voice. It can work, but it’s really hard to pull off.

“All internal monologue must be put in italics.”


A variant on this is “all memory must be in italics“.

I do it, so I subscribe to this rule, but it’s not traditional. It came about in mid-20th century pulp fiction. Because I think the inner thoughts of a POV character are important, I use italics to highlight them without confusing the readers.

Some experts say italics are on the way out. There are agents who say in their guidelines that they won’t read anything that is italicized. Writers are encouraged to use “deep third person” point of view that allows for inner monologues without dialogue tags. I’m going to write something about that soon.


So, while this is sort of rule and there are benefits, it’s not a hard and fast rule.

“Never use sentence fragments and characters should speak and think in proper English.”

I combined that from two bits of critique I picked up on the Authonomy website when it was still running.

Wow! I hold a Master’s in journalism and don’t speak in complete sentences all of the time. I don’t use perfect grammer either. Classic writers like Jane Austen and Shakespeare allowed their characters to speak in fragments.

When you write a novel, your aim is to to present realistic characters, not impress your third grade teacher. Do you think a fictional 5-year-old should sound like a university professor? Does that smack as authenic to you?

Nobody uses perfect grammar when they speak. Not even Ph.Ds. I’ve worked with a fair number of Ph.D.’s in my working life. Trust me on this.

The rules for writing fiction are very different from the rules for writing a scholarly essay. If you confuse them, you’re going to end up with a pompous, boring mess.

“Never use the word ‘was’ because it’s passive voice.”

Actually, it isn’t always.

Passive Voice: “The book was read by me”. That sounds pretentious in most circumstances, but sometimes it has a reason, so don’t eliminate it entirely.


Past Progressive Voice: “I was reading the book when it said the word ‘was’ is taboo.”

You mess with the timeline if you change the construction to “I read the book” instead of “I was reading the book”.  There’s really no way of rewording this sentence so that it doesn’t sound clunky. This is the best construction for what you’re trying to say.

Yes, doing a search for “was” is a handy tip for self-editing. It helps to weed out passive construction (when it needs weeding.) A “was” search can also pinpoint lazy writing habits like starting descriptive passages with “there was.” Ofthen there is a stronger verb you could use to make a more interesting and tighter sentence. But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the word ‘was’. People go way over the top with their hatred of the past tense of the verb “to be.” If every sentence in your book is an active voice sentence, the book will read stilted. A little bit of passive voice here and there provides variety.

“Never read other writers while you’re working on a novel because you will copy those writers.”

Really? So, if I read Tolkien while I am writing my epic fantasy, I’ll ooze Tolkien-quality words onto the page? Cool! This will save so much time I would have spent practicing good writing skills.

My art teacher back in college set us to copying the masters as a means to learning from them. Picasso learned to paint by copying the masters. Check out his Blue Period paintings sometime.

No, we shouldn’t strive to rip off the masters of literature, but a new writer could learn a lot by writing to story in the style of Faulkner or Jane Austen … or Stephen King, who says that we should spend half our “writing time” reading.


There’s nothing wrong with writing rules, but they should make sense and we shouldn’t follow them so slavishly that we don’t know when to break them

Stay Tuned for Writing Wednesday   Leave a comment

Interview, of course, and a writing article. I think I also have a book sale.

Motifs   Leave a comment

Image result for image of quilt motifI think most novelists don’t really consciously use motifs in their writing. We’re much more familiar with allegory and metaphor. I think there are writers who deal with these literary techniques in a wonderful fashion. I openly admit that I’m not a huge symbol gal. I love to read what other writers create in that vein, but it’s just not my thing. But, motifs … I can handle those. In fact, they naturally work their way into my writing.

Motifs are symbolic elements packed with inference. They can be a word or phrase, a concept, an image—just about anything that can be repeated with significance and symbolism. 

Using motifs in writing fiction is one of the most powerful and evocative ways of imparting your themes in your novel. Few authors use them, and fewer use them well. My favorite novels of all time are ones that use motifs beautifully throughout their narrative because these elements weaving through the stories tend to stay with me for months and years after I’ve read the book.

Image result for image of quilt motifThink of a motif as a splash of color that you are adding to your story palette—a very noticeable, specific color that appears from time to time and that “blends in” beautifully with the overall picture you are painting. Did you notice that I just introduced a motif in this discussion by using the concept of color to emphasize my theme?

Motifs can be an object, an idea, a word or phrase, a bit of speech—and you can combine these in your novel to create richness, anticipation or poignancy. In Transformation Project, for example, I include a phrase that the characters often bring up. In Daermad Cycle, it’s usually an object that has some link to the history of Celdrya.

thewillowbranchWillow branches have multiple meanings in Celdrya. Among the Kin, the wise ones carry a diamond willow walking stick as a symbol of honor while the Celdryans see willows as a source of healing. Thus, both elements play in the series. The first book is called The Willow Branch for a reason. Padraig, a healer, is the “willow branch” sent into the kingdom to try to heal the fractures. Ryanna receives the honor staff of diamond willow as her charge to enter the search for the One’s true king. The book titles in the series have double meanings. Book titles are a great place for motifs and allow you to tie it into your book’s theme.

Motifs can bring cohesion to a story. An object can symbolize important qualities. In the movie, Up, balloons represent freedom, the need for release. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the bird comes to represent the idea of innocence. To kill one is to destroy innocence. This ties in beautifully with the book’s themes and plot involving guilt vs. innocence. After Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds” and at the end Scout voices that hurting Boo Radley would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird.” Perhaps the most significant use of this motif is the scene in which Miss Maudie explains to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That Jem and Scout’s last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly. I’m sure Harper Lee used this motif very deliberately.

So as you plot out your novel, or more likely when you tackle your rewrite, think of two or three motifs you can weave in, then go back through your book and place them strategically. If you can somehow use the motif in your title, even better. And if you can think of motifs that parallel and/or enhance your overall theme, you will have a book that will be unforgettable. Pay attention as you read great novels to see if you can spot the motifs the author has used. You will be surprised how you will start seeing them if you pay attention and look for them.

Posted November 16, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in writing wednesday

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