Friday, February 15, 2008


Prospector or Procrastinator?

by Sharon Mortz

I am writing a play – my first -- and as a new writer, I am a naïve enough to hope it will be produced. One reason I have so much faith is that I live in San Francisco where there are more theaters than Chinese restaurants. There are the big, electric, star-studded productions in huge, regal theaters as well as medium-sized, lower priced, but still excellent theater. Since I started my investigation several months ago, I’ve discovered small theatres that seat 15 to 20. This is where I’ll start my play pandering.

I was editing my play this morning, when I took a break and picked up The Writer magazine. I have a backlog of “how to write” magazines and I encounter a new, sparkling idea every time I peruse one. Like a pan handler discovering gold, I read and sift through pages. Am I a prospector or procrastinator? This morning I stumbled upon an article that suggested inscribing bits/phrases/words from an article/play/story in progress on 3X5 cards and play cards. Shuffle and deal then fill in the interstices. I love twists in my stories and my shuffling netted a surprise ending that I don’t think the audience will predict.

Another practice to loosen creativity is the “wild and stuffy” exercise. I love this idea. It’s freeing. Set a timer for four minutes and write as stiffly and prudishly as you can. Four minutes of genteel pomp resulting in exceedingly stuffy. When the timer goes off, set it again for four minutes and write wildly, loudly and outrageously. Obscenities are allowed. My pen goes wild and I release anger, passion and furious fervor. When the timer goes off, go back to restraint and respectability.

For fun, I may go through my magazines and cut out words in various fonts, paste them on paper like a movie ransom note and see if new ideas emerge. Could this be another twist in my play?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008


All Words Are Not Equal

By Sharon Mortz

I have always loved words and enjoyed writing that challenges my vocabulary. Words are like pieces of an intricate puzzle, and when I write, I fit them together. Since my youth, when reading, I’ve recorded or “yellowed” words with which I was unfamiliar. In junior high, we were assigned vocabulary words to be defined and used in sentences. I tried to make each sentence a little story. I could have taught a class on run-on sentences. But all words are not equal.

I still have a tendency to write long, convoluted sentences. Now, as a freelancer, I’m challenged to shorten my sentences and use simple, concise language. My current writing teachers all admonish me to reduce “big” words and cut wordy sentences.

Factoid: Racecar, kayak and level are palindromes i.e. spelled the same whether read left or right.

Writer’s Digest offered an interesting analogy that has helped me understand the necessity of concise writing and the relative importance of parts of speech: writing is like an automobile. Verbs are the engine, nouns are the passengers and adjectives and adverbs are tails fins, hood ornaments, bumper stickers and other decorative paraphernalia.

If concise is good enough for Hemingway, it’s good enough for me.

Factoid: Dreamt is the only English word that ends in the letters “mt.”

Below are some ways to put your writing on a diet while increasing the flavor.

• Excise empty intensifiers: these are the adverbs that I now eschew like a dieter eschews sugar: extremely, very, absolutely, unusually, really, particularly. These words are acceptable in conversation but water down writing.

Factoid: Stewardesses is the longest word typed with only the left hand.

• Some adjectives are just “nice” and add nothing to the sentence. Example: The beautiful sunrise warmed the hills. In this case, beautiful adds nothing. Use the “nice” test.

Factoid: There are two words in the English language that contain all five vowels in order: abstemious and facetious.

• Sometimes adverbs can be replaced with verbs and that will energize the sentence. Example: The sun was intensely hot could be converted to the sun scorched the skin.

Factoid: Lollipop is the longest word typed with only the right hand.

• One of my big problems is “he said” plus an adverb. I usually want to add loudly, softly or some other “ly” word to the “he/she said.” If more is needed, the first lesson I learned as a writer applies: instead of telling the reader, show the reader with action. For example, “he said vehemently” could become, “he said, pounding his fist on the table.”

Though lean and mean is better writing for the novice, if I attain any writing stature, I will know how to write wordy, convoluted sentences that I prefer. I only hope I get paid by the word!

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008


Improving a Story

By Sharon Mortz

I never finish a story. I may metaphorically type “The End” and even submit it to contests and magazines but it’s never really finished. I am always looking for ways to improve whatever I write. Every story is candidate for review and rewrite. I let the words simmer and go back to them days or weeks later. Time doesn’t usually improve my writing but a fresh look often reveals ways to improve a story. I can beef up the language/dialogue, add analogies (I love rich writing though all my teachers say tone down the vocabulary – that’s another blog) or cut some of the mindless drivel. Or I can change the entire course of the story.

I recently entered a story in a contest and opted for the critique they offered. The judges specified ten areas that they reviewed in judging the entries. Now I use these ten points as guideline for each story as I look to improve. The ten points are From Seven Hills Writing Contest.

1. Mechanics: Do word count and format conform to contest rules? A story can be automatically disqualified if the rules are not followed.

2. Hook: Is the reader drawn into the story from the beginning?

3. Narrator: Does the narrator (first person) come across as interesting and complex?

4. Other people/animals: Are they revealed in significant detail?

5. Technique: Is there a balance between showing and telling?

6. Language Use: Is the writing fresh and free of clichés? Does the choice of words keep the reader embedded in the story? Does the writer rely on adjectives and adverbs instead of strong nouns and verbs?

7. Dialogue and Narrative: Does the dialogue sound natural to the people and situation. (I’ve found this a challenge in play writing. I have a tendency to make everyone sound the same. Someone from the ghetto speaks differently that a Harvard graduate.) Is there a proper balance between dialogue and narrative?

8. Settling: Does the reader know where and when the story takes place? Can you see, fell, hear and smell the setting. (I have at times ignored setting.)

9. Mood/atmosphere: Does the writing capture the memory in enough detail to evoke a specific emotion in the reader?

10. Outcome: Is the significance of the memory in enough detail to evoke a specific emotion in readers?

One of my favorite outcomes is a surprise ending. I sometimes plan the surprise but an even better strategy for me is to add a surprise after the story is complete. Then it’s a surprise to me too. I brainstorm for days to come up with the most unlikely but believable surprise.

Another of my favorite ways to improve a story is to add suspense. Some suggestions: 1) Describe the character making the character’s happy go lucky and then introduce his/her worst fears. One has to be subtle about introducing their worst fears or the reader will figure out what’s coming. 2) Use the setting to incite terror. Add a cold stone staircase or cobwebs. 3) If things are going well, throw in a dead body or frightening impediment to their goal.

Now for my surprise ending. My blog appears on January 9 – my birthday.

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Monday, December 10, 2007


My Inspiration

By Sharon Mortz

I’ve always known that I should write but didn’t start in earnest until my daughter’s death. Without that impetus I’m not sure I’d ever have started. But with a compelling reason--grief--I began pouring my feelings out on paper. But six years later, I face the challenges that every writer faces--composing, editing, publishing and marketing. One of the major challenges is new subject matter--inspiration. Inspiration is everywhere. But I’ve recently had an epiphany and discovered a couple of new sources.

Conversation and mundane matters: This is not new or unique but it’s ubiquitous so I mention it. Every conversation (including those overheard), billboards, advertisements, signs, or well you get my drift, is a potential kernel that could burgeon into a story. I’ve become better at listening and storing tidbits but to be safe, I carry a small notebook and my scandisk so I can record the scraps. These bits make starting the writing process easier and sometimes I find something new and fresh buried in the drivel I produce. No matter what, I keep producing, drivel or not.

Dreams: During a period of self-discovery, I began recording my dreams. Life has curdled my dreams, and though I may require a shrink, in the meantime, I have stories in the Steven King genre--questionable sanity but inspired.

Cartoons: Another bolt of lightening--I’ve never appreciated cartoons until recently under the tutelage of my grandson. I discovered that cartoons have a layer of adult humor. I find it freeing.

Walk: When I get stuck on a project, I let my project simmer like soup and go for a walk and voila new ideas surface from the cauldron. When I return to writing and stir, it is clear what is needed to spice it up.

But it is the Holiday season and my inspiration this month is Christmas--the “real” meaning of Christmas not just Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Though I have to confess that I was out at 6:00 am the Friday after Thanksgiving, shopping even before my turkey had digested. I give thanks for malls and credit cards.

My hope and prayer for the season is peace--if not world peace then peace in our cities and homes. I hope for fewer guns and clenched fists and more eggnog and ho ho hos!

In the alternative, there’s always shopping.

Sharon Mortz

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