Category Archives: How to Write

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how to start a novel

How to Start a Novel: Literally

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When I discuss how to start a novel in this post, I’m not talking about serving up namby-pamby inspirational go-juice or a step-by-step tool-heavy walkthrough. I’m talking about a quite literal start: crafting your opening line.

The first sentence (or paragraph) is one of the most pivotal parts of your novel, the thing that begs the readers’ attention and draws them into your tapestry of words, binding them firmly to the rest of your story. With the average reading attention span coming in at a scanty 8 seconds, if your prose doesn’t give them cause for pause, they aren’t going to stick around to the end.

In playing around with the beginning of my next novel, a supernatural Viking saga, I did a bit of research on good openings. What I found was both illuminating and disappointing. Apparently, there’s quite a range of opinion on how to start a novel, and some of it doesn’t resonate with me. Let me start by using examples I found worthy:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”  —Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

“They shoot the white girl first.” —Toni Morrison, Paradise

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“It was a pleasure to burn.”Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I could give you oodles more, but I won’t. Google them if you feel compelled. Instead, I’ll supply some touted as fantastic examples of how to start a novel, but which I find lacking. Here goes:

“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no. But that was not the reason for the phone call: his mother was gone.”My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

“The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking over the footlights of an empty auditorium.”Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

When he was nearly thirteen my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. — Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Do you see the difference between the two sets of lines? In the first set, you have a question, a hunch, a “things that make you go hmmmm” moment. While plenty of writing coaches see setting context and introducing a narrator’s voice as strong openings, I think those literary tools aren’t as engaging.  They’re not stinkers for opening lines, but for me, at least, they don’t herald a foray further into the story.

Okay, so what? Where does a budding novelist go from here? I like to stick to the methods that take the reader by surprise or wallop them upside the head. You’ve only got 8 seconds–your story has to strike fast and sink its teeth into their gray matter before they can get away. Try these ideas:

How to Start A Novel

Make ‘Em Want More:  Tantalize with incomplete knowledge. The first line from Middlesex does this well. You read the passage and “What the . . .?” pops right into your head. You can’t figure out how it can be possible to be born twice, and as both a boy and a girl, but you sure need to find out. Only reading further will cure the insatiable itch to find out how it’s done.

Make A Bold Statement: Toni Morrison takes a bold bludgeon to your sensibilities with the opening line of Paradise: “They shoot the white girl first.” It’s a grand combination of incomplete information (who is shooting whom and why?) and a bold statement. A white girl: The addition of a racial element makes the statement even more impactful and in-your-face.

Use Juxtaposition for Effect: Ray Bradbury does this with his opening line from Fahrenheit 451. It’s not until you read further that you realize the narrator isn’t talking about feeling sexually frustrated (or fulfilled), but about the burning of banned books by a totalitarian state. It gives the reader a peek into the mind of evil by contrasting “pleasure” and “burn” for maximum effect.

And Greatest of All

All of the above contain an element of the first device: incomplete knowledge, which I consider the best tool for opening lines. If you need to start a novel with a bang, including this literary device in the opening line does the trick. You can use it along with context or narration emphasis if you wish, but even alone you’ll have a reader magnet that will short circuit that 8 second attention span and pull them in.

See you on the next page!




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character traits

Character Traits: First Steps to Authentic Voices in Your Story

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Character traits are used to describe how characters act in a given situation and illustrate the type of person they are for your reader. Writing characters with a strong, well-defined set of traits will catapult them off the page and into your reader’s minds and hearts.

In fact, these personality elements are so critical that I usually begin development of a persona with a handful of adjectives I feel most clearly represent my character’s demeanor. These details can focus on the good, like benevolent or clear-headed, or lean to the negative, like cowardly or miserable.  Remember, in life no one is entirely good or entirely bad, so if you want  characters to feel real, it’s a good idea to mix them up a bit.

I tend to start my list of character traits with an odd number of descriptors. That way, if I’m writing about a mostly positive person, I structure their basic personality with two or four positive traits then throw in one or two negative ones to add balance. For example, here’s a list for Dorn, a character from my fantasy novel whose character traits trend positive.

  • Honest
  • Law-Abiding
  • Kind
  • Compassionate
  • Rigid
  • Smothering

Notice the two negative ones I added in are magnifications, or reversals, of some of his positive traits. For example, in the story he’s a real rule-follower and has a reputation for integrity and honesty. But sometimes doing the right thing requires bending the rules, and that’s when his law-abiding nature becomes rigid and inflexible. Same thing with his character traits of compassion and kindness; he can go too far and overwhelm other characters with his need to care for them.

Some writers feel traits should be in balance, that is, for every positive, a negative. I disagree. I’ve never met anyone in real life that had an equal number of bad character traits to good ones. Something about that ratio seems contrived and forced. I also think this type of balance would make it difficult to determine what a character would do in an extreme situation, since they are neither mostly good nor mostly bad.

Character Traits Lists for Writers

It’s easy to think of common traits like loving, evil, grumpy, biased, or playful. Sometimes, though, pinpointing more precise traits can help you flesh out your character’s personality more fully. The more detailed you can get, the clearer you can write. Here are links to my favorite character trait lists. See what you can interesting traits you can find for your next character!

Ongoing Worlds


Please think twice before using a character traits generator to devise your next character. While these may seem fun, they are completely random and won’t give you the well-thought-out personality you want to develop for discerning readers. Instead, decide if you need a more positive or negative character. Then, choose an odd number (at least three) of strong traits that exemplify these attributes. Finally, determine how you can amplify, mirror, or reverse them to provide one or two counter-traits. Let’s try this for a negative character. Here’s a list for my character Tayvar:

  • Immature
  • Rebellious
  • Impulsive
  • Brave
  • Resourceful

As you can see, Tayvar might be a handful to control at times. But it turns out that when the chips are down, he’s able to pivot effortlessly and maneuver through a crisis because he doesn’t have any preconceived notion of rules and he’s willing to think on the fly. His impulsiveness becomes bravery and his rebellious nature inclines him to be creative and resourceful.

Got any characters you need to create? Try this formula and let me know how you like it.

See you on the next page!



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character development superpower

Why Character Development is Your Superpower

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You may be surprised to know that you were born with a superpower: character development. I can see you rolling your eyes already — stop it! Creating characters is something so easy, so natural, that you may have forgotten your knack for it. So, let me clue you in to how to reawaken that sleeping power and put it to work.

Characters have many roles in fiction. Some draw the story around them like a cloak; they’re the center point of narrative and dialogue. Others provide a counterpoint to a main character, allowing you to contrast traits and aspects through comparison. Still others are available to move the plot along from scene to scene or act as a metaphor for some timeless lesson, as Darth Vader represents the isolation and eternal sorrow that comes from doing great evil. However you use them, characters are a pivotal device in your writing. It’s important to get them right.

That’s a lot of pressure, and part of why character development makes some writers cringe. They get tangled up in details, psychology, physiology, timelines and background details and tire themselves out before they’ve begun. I know, because I once felt that way about creating new and powerful characters for my stories. Until I discovered the one thing I’d long forgotten.

How to Use Your Character Development Superpower

When I shifted my perspective using my superpower, I realized just how easy it is to create compelling characters. Are you ready to learn the secret of easy character development? Are you sure? Here it is:

You are a character. Use yourself.

Start by creating characters modeled on your own personality. Then, use your emotions, your strengths, weaknesses, fears, conflicts, secrets, quirks, and idiosyncrasies to bring one of your characters into life. You have intimate knowledge of your backstory, the niggling doubts your character harbors, the secret fascinations, and his or her Achilles heel. You know what makes this one tick because you are this one.

Once you get the hang of cloning yourself, or parts of yourself, you can turn up your character development superpower another notch by snatching characteristics of best friends, siblings, parents, and anyone else you know well. Remember that phrase, “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel?” I’m pretty sure this is why someone penned that warning. A word of caution: Borrowing traits and quirks is okay; writing a person so clearly into your story that they or their loved ones can recognize them is not. You can get in trouble. Big trouble. And unless you want to end up writing prison characters exceptionally well, you should stay away from obvious clones from the real world.

After you’ve fleshed out a few characters in this way, you’ll be able to pull physical attributes from one person you know, the personality of another, the backstory of a third and so on. This combining will help keep the source of your characterizations under wraps, too. Soon, you’ll realize there’s an entire world filled with mix-and-match characters just waiting to be brought to life. Character development won’t be a chore — it’ll be an adventure. Like Dr. Frankenstein, you’ll have the ability to create from scratch a character of your own design. As he says:

“I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.”

So unleash your superpower onto the pages of your next story and create a character so lifelike they walk right off the page into your readers’ minds. You can do this!

See you on the next page!

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writing productivity hack deadline

Using These Every Week Can Increase Your Writing Productivity

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Is your writing productivity the pits? Are you working on a writing project you feel is never going to get finished? If it’s possible to rule a situation like this, then call me Queenie. I have a fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for, let’s see. . . over twenty five years.

That’s not a typo. I’ve hauled this half-completed manuscript through four states, nine houses, and raised three kids to adulthood — all without finishing. It’s a feat not everyone can accomplish, yet sadly, many of us do.

While you may not have experienced quite the same amount of,er, lag time, with your writing productivity as I have with my novel, you probably have a story, novella, novel, article, or collection that’s been in production for more than it’s share of time.

Recently, I got some great advice from a book on time management called The Five Second Rule by Mel Robbins. In it, Mel takes notice of the interesting phenomenon I’ll call work inflation. That is, work expands (or contracts) to fit the amount of time you give it.

For example, if someone says, “Hey, can you write an article about industrial laser diodes for DiodeWorld magazine?” you may put it on your list and “get to it when you get to it.”  You might take two weeks to write it, or two months, depending upon how fired up you are about writing about industrial laser diodes. But if the editor says on Monday, “Hey, can you write an article about industrial laser diodes by Thursday?” Wham! You write your article in three days. Amazing.

I should have figured this out for myself. After all, when I pitch stories, most editors ask me when I can deliver the final product. I set a deadline and do the work with ease.

The Simple Truth About Writing Productivity

When you don’t have an editor, magazine, publisher, or agent to set your deadlines, you must set them yourself. Otherwise, as with me and my fantasy novel, you may spend years spinning your creative wheels.

Who needs spinning wheels? Not me. I dusted off the old manuscript (and it’s so old that I have a hard copy and a copy on a floppy drive that is unusable) to finish up this project once and for all. I’ve got about 80k words written, but this all needs to be retyped into my current software before I can revise and finish the second half. I’ve tried this before: I’ve started retyping it several times, only to get distracted or bored before making much headway.

This time determined to succeed, I followed Mel’s advice and gave myself a deadline. I decided that it should take me no longer than three weeks to finish the typing portion. I faithfully log the number of pages typed each day so I can have a visual reminder of where I am in the process.

This time, I’ve made honest-to-goodness progress; I’ve typed more than half of the manuscript with a week and a half left, so I’m ahead of schedule. Having this deadline has given me a clear goal and seen me get further in a week and a  half than I have in over twenty years — hooray!

If you’re a writer who works from home, setting deadlines is a great way to keep yourself on track for specific projects and increase your writing productivity overall. And let’s face it, the more you write, the more writing you have to sell. The more you sell, the more well-known you become and this can only do good things for your career.

As I’ve played with this technique, I realize setting shorter deadlines is the way to go. If I had it to do again, I’d break my manuscript into thirds, with each one being “due” within a week. That way, it seems more manageable, less stressful, and each completed goal will give me a burst of accomplishment that can speed me on the way to the next milepost.

However you decide to use them, deadlines are a must-have tool for the prolific writer’s arsenal. What’s your next project deadline?

See you on the next page!

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trying to get published

How Trying to Get Published is Keeping You From Writing Success

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Besides being cute and cuddly in an uncoventional way, Yoda, the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, has words of wisdom for everyone, even us writers. Famously, he told a struggling Luke Skywalker:

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Writers trying to get published should heed these words. Print them out, write them in your bullet journal, slap them on the edge of your computer screen on a sticky note. If you can see the wisdom behind the obvious in Yoda’s short admonition, you’ll be so much closer to writing success.


Because “trying” is a nebulous non-action that exists somewhere between doing and not doing, just like Yoda said. A post by Michael Hyatt referenced famous inspirational coach Tony Robbins asking a woman to “try and pick up a chair.” Every time she picked up the chair, he told her she was wrong; she was picking up the chair, not trying to pick up the chair. In a rebuttal to Hyatt, author Marcy Kennedy says that’s all wrong: sometimes all you can do is try. Her reasoning is that some things are beyond your capabilities. One of the examples she uses is this:

I’m 5-foot-2, and I’m strong for my size. But if you placed a 1,000-pound chair in front of me and told me to lift it, I couldn’t do it. I am physically incapable of lifting something that size alone.

This is true. I couldn’t lift a 1,000 pound chair, either. But knowing this, I wouldn’t bother trying. Yoda’s point is that you’re either all in or you’re wasting your time. He’s telling you to be bold, be clear, and be confident. Don’t hide behind the smarmy comforts of “try” because it will get you nowhere, just like Marcy if she tries to pick up the 1,000 pound chair.

Are you trying to get published or are you getting published? Trying to write or writing? It doesn’t matter if you haven’t reached your goal yet, you’re in the process of getting there. Every page of your manuscript takes you one step closer. Every submission to a publishing house, agent, or writing contest is taking you nearer to that goal. You’re not trying, you’re doing.

Why Trying to Get Published Doesn’t Work

Trying is a word that promotes weakness.

Anyone who’s ever made a request of a friend or coworker and gotten the answer, “I’ll try,” knows what I’m talking about. More often than not, those two words are a polite way of saying, “No.” Don’t say ‘no’ to your writing career! Say ‘yes’ with actions that take you closer to the prize. Don’t worry about magnitude: You’re getting there if you’re taking any steps in the right direction. Even rejections are moving you closer to your goal.

Remove the word ‘try’ from your vocabulary and see what happens. Chances are, you say it a lot more than you think you do. When you use it, that word is sending a message to your subconscious that you’re not succeeding. After all, you’re ‘trying.’  It’s like driving in down the middle line of a two-lane road. If you move to the right, you’re okay. Move to the left; still okay. Drive in the middle? The next vehicle will mow you down. And that ultimately means you’re going nowhere fast.

Every writer knows the power of language. Use the language that will move you, not keep you in limbo. Don’t derail your writing career before it’s begun. Write. Get published. Start now.


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learning to edit

Learning to Edit: Simple Guidelines for Better Writing

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Learning to edit your own work is one of the most important things you can do for your writing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s recommended to always have your work edited by a professional editor before setting it free into the world. But tightening your prose ahead of this step will help you look more professional and help you learn to write better.

There are many kinds of edits. Arlene Prunkl, a professional editor, has a wonderful explanation of all these on her website.  After your work is complete, go back through your document and check for properly placed page breaks, punctuation, margins, links and so on. Here are two resources to help you determine correct manuscript format. The first is from an editors’ blog, the second is from William Shun, a writer is his own right. He has formatting resources for short stories, poems, and other literary devices as well as novels.

The crux of my post today centers on copy and line, or stylistic, editing. Most editors don’t lump these together, but I do. Copy editing is concerned with proper grammar, spelling and sentence structure and line editing concerns sentence structure and style. Those attributes are difficult to separate, in my experience, and I’ve spent years as a professional editor. Learning to edit your copy and structure will provide a window to your natural writing style and help you pick up on repetitive errors.

For example, while editing my work, I found there are two things I  do often that impede my writing. The first is using passive voice and the second is being too wordy and using filler words that don’t add value to my prose.

Learning to Edit

Not everyone is a grammar or style wizard, especially if you’re new to writing. Don’t worry, tools like these can help. Here are three I recommend.

Grammarly: This tool requires a subscription, but if you’re a new writer it may be worth it. It scans grammar, spelling, and plagiarism and makes suggestions to help you rewrite concisely. That being said, it also makes mistakes. It’s often misunderstood a word within one of my sentences and suggested an inappropriate replacement.

Hemingway Editor: I love Hemingway! It counts your adverbs and recommends maximum usage, checks for passive voice, looks for places where you can simplify phrases, and scores your writing by grade level. You can write within the application and then edit or copy and paste your text from another document. There is a free version, but I recommend you pay the $20 and own it.

Passive Voice Checker: Here’s another free tool. This site offers grammar and readability checking as well.

Recommended Editing Format

When learning to edit your own work, stick to a logical plan of action.

First, run spell-check on your document. This is free and easy with any word processing program you’re using. It won’t catch homonym mistakes (there/their), though, so be on the lookout for those as your complete your other edits.

Now, run your text through one of the helpful tools I’ve outlined. Here’s a screenshot of part this blog post before going through Hemingway. The blue is adverb use, the green is passive voice, pink is complex phrasing, and yellow and red are hard to read passages. Compare it with the actual text, above.

After you’ve cleaned up your text using recommendations from one of these editing tools, put it aside. Let it rest for a day or two or even three so you can look at it with ‘fresh eyes’ the next time you read through.

This time, you’ll read for style. Do the sentences flow? Do they transition well from one to the next or are they abrupt? This is a personal thing, but if you’re a reader as well as a writer, you’ll be able to tell if you’ve got the rhythm right.

Finally, perform  your proofreading. Do another spell-check. Look for punctuation errors. Adjust the format as necessary: Use proper margins, line spacing, and headings.

That’s It!

You’re done! The more often you use the tools, above, the more you’ll begin to notice the mistakes you make on a regular basis and be able to avoid them. Your writing will get tighter, cleaner, and more compelling.

Don’t forget to use a professional editor after conducting your own edits. Their input is invaluable. They can double-check your copy/line work, add developmental or structural comments, and make sure your manuscript is putting its best face forward to an agent, publisher, or your reading public.

See you on the next page!

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strong vocabulary

4 Ways to Develop Strong Vocabulary: A Writer’s Guide

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When writers lack strong vocabulary skills, they miss opportunities to create compelling writing that pulls readers into their story and keeps them there. Do your word skills need sharpening? Don’t worry if your English teacher skipped the memorization and quizzes. It’s easy to take matters into your own hands.

Before I share some resources for building a fantastic word set, I’d like to show you a little example that will demonstrate the importance of having a rich and varied vocabulary.

Why a Strong Vocabulary Creates Writing That Works

The Inuit people have at least 100 words for snow. Why? Snow is such an important part of their culture that nuances among types of snow are extremely important. There’s snow that doesn’t stick (noontla) and snow that is crusted on the top (tlacringit). There’s wet snow, dry snow, slush, large flakes, packed snow — you get the idea. Each word to describe snow ascribes to it a slight difference from other types of snow. Not only does this wordsmithing allow for distinguishing between different states and uses for snow, but it makes snow, in general, a hell of a lot less boring.

Let’s take an English word and try to “snowball” it–that is, see if we can find some strong vocabulary words to put variety in our writing. I’m going to use the word “red”.

There’s a red wagon. 

Awesome, a red wagon. But what if you now have a red horse hitched to it? And the driver of the wagon is getting over a hangover? And he’s also wearing a red rose in his riding jacket?

The chestnut mare swished her tail as she waited for Gareth to finish hitching her to the cherry-red wagon. Gareth was moving slowly, his bloodshot eyes reflecting the crimson of the rose he’d tucked in his lapel-button this morning. As the sun glowed russet through the soft blush of blossoms in an early-blooming tree, a scarlet bird shrilled a tune, making Gareth’s already inflamed head hurt even more.

All of the bolded words are synonyms for “red”. While some, like “inflamed,” are not used to replace the word red per se, the synonym still helps the reader get the impression of redness. If you wanted to create a scene that made a reader feel heat or anger, using a lot of “red words” would help you.  And at least your sentence wouldn’t read like this:

The red mare swished her tail as she waited for Gareth to finish hitching her to the red wagon. Gareth was moving slowly, his red eyes reflecting the red of the rose he’d tucked in his lapel-button this morning. As the sun glowed red through the soft red of blossoms in an early-blooming tree, a red bird shrilled a tune, making Gareth’s already inflamed head hurt even more.

See the difference? Okay, on to the resources!

Resources for a Strong Vocabulary

Easiest: Read more. Word choices, language nuances and grammar skills are all improved through voracious reading. Get to it!

Easy: your local thesaurus. Free online.

Fun and Games: Here’s a list of 7 mobile apps that will help you have fun and learn words at the same time.

Interactive: will help you get up to speed fast with its adaptive learning game. Account required, but it is free.


The next time you’re feeling lackluster, give Bored Panda and Buzzfeed a break and try one of the websites or apps, above. Or, you know, pick up a book by a fellow writer and give it a read. What you learn will surprise you!

See you on the next page!


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 Click the cover below to start reading!

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dumbing down

The Dumbing Down of Literature

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Dumbing down is the deliberate oversimplification of intellectual content within education, literature, cinema, news, video games and culture in order to relate to those unable to assimilate more sophisticated information.

The phenomenon has plagued the literary community for decades, and even more so in recent years when fast news and byte-sized information bits are the order of the day. Many schools across our country are no longer teaching spelling and writing is relegated to personal narrative. I have three graduating seniors in one of the most acclaimed school districts in the state of Texas. They have written nothing but poetry and personal narrative in English class from sixth through eleventh grade. They’ve never written an expository essay, a literary critique or, God forbid, a research paper, replete with footnotes.

And vocabulary? That’s where the dumbing down is most prevalent. I remember memorizing page after page of vocabulary words throughout my school years. Did I ever use the word “pulchritudinous” in real life? Of course not, but I do know what it means. And by knowing that, I can also discern what other words with the root “pulchrit” might convey, as well.

Language is fascinating, so why do we seek to tone it down at every turn? There are some compelling arguments for dumbing down speech, written or otherwise. Have you ever read a legal document with it’s “wherewithals” and “soforths”? Feast your eyes on this example:

As stated heretofore, the landlord’s conduct created, caused, and resulted in serious bodily harm and massive injuries, to wit: a broken and mangled left leg, lacerations to the aforementioned leg, and several broken digits on the foot attached to said leg, in witness whereof was the spouse of the injured party.

Huh? How about: “The landlord broke the injured party’s leg in front of his/her spouse”. It’s quicker to read, easier to understand, and less likely to be misunderstood.

The aforementioned (heh, heh, couldn’t resist) example is the reason why I’m okay with some elements of dumbing down. For example, I hate to use the word “utilize” when “use” is simpler, cleaner, and, in my opinion, more explicative. Can you imagine someone in an emergency screaming “Utilize your oxygen mask! Utilize your oxygen mask!”? No, because use gets the job done quicker and with less chance of misunderstanding. But too much focus on language simplification means we risk taking variety and nuance out of our spoken and written word.

Dumbing Down Fiction

Today’s fiction is an unfortunate victim of literary simplification. But just as the classics (e.g, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment) may have seemed clunky and slow to our school-aged selves, some current fiction has the same effect on today’s technologically distracted and internet-connected youth. The public’s tastes are changing and literature, like other art forms, must change with the market and the times. This is why no one writes like Dickens any longer.

Still, as a writer I think it sad that some beautiful words will fall by the wayside if this trend continues. If most college freshmen are reading at a 7th grade level, we have no choice but to write to be understood. It’s not for us to pontificate on the finer points of language, but to expand our readers’ horizons with tales that take them on fantastic journeys of the mind.

But in my opinion, if they learn a few new words on the way, that, my friend, is a pulchritudinous thing.

See you on the next page!

By the way, this post scored 57 in the Flesch Reading Ease test, which is considered fairly difficult to read. Here’s what that means:flesch reading test


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good writing simile

The Art of Simile: Making Good Writing Great

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Description that brings a clear picture into a reader’s mind can make the difference between good writing and great writing. As writers, we’re often tasked with describing a single thing many times. Using the same description makes for lackluster prose, and importantly, bored readers.

One tool is to use similes to punch up the descriptive power of your writing. A simile is defined as a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid (e.g., as brave as a lioncrazy like a fox ).

Sounds easy, right? It is, if you pay attention to some simple rules:

Don’t use common similes if you can avoid it. “Crazy like a fox” comes off sounding trite, not descriptive.

Don’t use the same simile more than once in your writing. You’ll sound like a broken record.

Regarding #2, above. I quit reading Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series because I didn’t want to hear him describe Pitt’s “opaline green eyes” one more time. While the phrase “opaline green eyes” does not constitute a simile, it does make for repetitive reading when you encounter it more than a few times. Some writers fall into the trap of using the same simile to describe an object more than once. Don’t do it!

Good Writing to Great: The Simile

Let’s work through some examples. Say I have two characters in a book who have the same dark, piercing eyes. Also imagine that those eyes are in some way important. Perhaps they link them as beings from another planet, members of the same family, or creatures of untold power. Whatever the case, I can’t keep saying “dark piercing eyes” over and over. Some common similes that jump to mind are:

  • Dark as night.
  • Black as velvet.
  • Deep as a well.

All good writing, but rather drab. Sometimes I can come up with amazing similes of my own, just by using my creative chops. Other times, not so much. Here’s a method to help you be more creative for those “other times” when your similes are falling flat.

Prepare for Success

Successful similes come from having a variety of choices. Make a list. What words might describe something dark? Use a thesaurus if you want, it’s not cheating.

  • dark —-charcoal
  • murky—–pitch
  • overcast—–raven
  • inky——sable
  • lightless——ebony
  • void——sooty
  • black——stygian
  • somber——starless
  • soulless—–slate
  • deep——-pitch
  • fathomless——obsidian

Now free-associate objects, situations, weather, landscapes, flowers, animals, people, emotions, etc. that might also be called dark. Do this quickly, there is no “right” or “wrong”, you’re just exercising creative muscle.

  • abyss—–well
  • funeral—–heart of a witch
  • crinoline—–tuxedo, top hat
  • coal——stagecoach
  • dahlia—–ocean at night
  • mine—–ace of spades
  • depression—–ebony wood
  • sadness—–lightning blasted tree
  • evil—–hearse
  • crows—–diamond
  • ashes of a dead fire—–pearl
  • gangrenous limb—–elf-forged sword
  • rotted tooth—–cave
  • panther—–swamp at midnight

Final Steps

Now use these words and phrases as a springboard to more clever, impactful, and descriptive similes.

  • His eyes smoldered, as cold and dark as coals in the ashes of a dead fire.
  • Her eyes were stygian wells of blackest pitch.
  • Her dark eyes sparkled like a moon-kissed ocean at midnight.

Of course, once you have a good beginning, you can embellish even more creatively by expanding your simile.

Her eyes were stygian wells of blackest pitch. Their cold gaze lingered, immersing me in a feeling so dark, I couldn’t extricate myself from it.

See how the sentence after the simile carries the characteristic of a “well of blackest pitch” to the next level? One is “immersed” in a well, making immersed a perfect verb to use here. Pitch is sticky and dark, so it makes a great descriptor for a doomed feeling that can’t be shaken off easily.

Now you try. Also, if you make your lists on the computer, you can keep them for future reference. You’ll be surprised at how many times you need the same adjectives for your descriptions. Start turning your good writing great right now!

See you on the next page!




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author intrusion

Intruder Alert: How to Stop Author Intrusion in Your Prose

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Author intrusion can be subtle or hit-you-upside-the-head obvious. As a writer, it’s easy to forget yourself and begin poking your nose in your characters’ business. As editors of our work, it’s important to recognize signs of an author break-in and self-correct when we can.

What’s author intrusion? It’s when the writer’s beliefs, knowledge, or opinions get into the mouths or actions of one or more characters. Here’s what it’s not: It’s not third person omniscience. Third person omniscience is a literary device that allows an all-knowing narrator to share insight that no other character has. Now, if that all-knowing narrator starts sounding a bit like the writer, then there’s a problem.

good and evilAuthor Intrusion: Issues

It’s difficult to separate yourself from your characters at times. After all, you are your characters. You’ve created them from the bottom up and infused them with whatever essence they have. But they should be a diverse bunch, in most cases. Not every character should have the same political, social, or religious philosophies. If they do, you’re intruding and readers can tell.

If your characters are all extreme about one topic, or make a character holding a dissenting opinion look especially dim or comical, your story reads more like a personal rant and less like a tale of warring factions or opposing views. Many stories showcase divergent ideals, emphasizing one over the other, without sounding like there’s a personal agenda being flouted.

Author Intrusion: Language

I remember reading Under the Dome, by Stephen King and finding it odd that almost every character in his small, rural-ish town had a potty mouth. Now, I’m not offended by blue language, but it seemed odd that even the local grandmas were cussing up a storm. Then, I remembered attending a lecture by King right before his novel, Misery, was released. He ranted on about being censored for language in his books but, he said, “that’s how people talk.”. This may be how he talks. It might be how his family talks. But it’s not how everyone talks, and that little bit of his personal style seeped through his novel in a way that even a reader could notice.

It’s not just word choice that matters, it’s style, too. Some authors, including me, prefer a formal writing style. I tend to use a lot of “I am” instead of “I’m”, forgoing contractions in my everyday writing, even though I don’t speak that way. I have some characters that are formal and it’s okay for them to speak that way. But it would be weird to have a teen character in a story set in 2017 state, “I am going to the football game. Would you like to go?” He’d be more likely to say, “Dude. Going to the game — wanna come?” or some variation. Point is, don’t let your language come out of your character’s mouth!

Author Intrusion: Research

I’m a research nut. I research everything — it’s just my nature. As a writer, though, you want to make sure that your copious knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t seep into your story in the wrong places. For example, if you’re writing a novel set in Victorian times, it’s important to understand a Hansom cab was considered the sports car of Victorian carriages, and that an upper class lady would not be seen in one because of its “racy” reputation. It’s another thing entirely for the gentleman owning the Hansom cab to understand how it works, how it’s maintained, or pretty much anything about it, other than perhaps the cost.

Some characters may have to have specialized knowledge: Scotty, the engineer from Star Trek, needs to know exactly how the warp drive functions to fulfill his role in a believable way. However, while Mrs. Harrow, the aging matriarch of a family who owns a salt mining business in my novella, Salt in the Blood, needs some business savvy to look after the family investments, she doesn’t necessarily know the technical details of salt mining.

What to Do?

Besides the tips mentioned above, try Method Writing to help keep your characters true to themselves. This skill is your first defense when tackling author intrusion and can keep it from happening in the first place. After your story’s written, make sure to have beta readers or other editors read through it to catch other instances of intrusion and don’t take it personally when they point out areas you need to clean up. After all, they’re readers, too. If you don’t have someone to look over your manuscript, at least let it sit for 48 hours to two weeks before revisiting it with “new” eyes. Removing author intrusion will make your writing more appealing to readers — something every writer strives for.

See you on the next page!



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