Thursday, June 12, 2008


Fitting in Writing Time

We writers often discuss this, finding time to write. It's not so bad when you're single and childless, except when you give in to procrastination, which even the best writers do at times. If writing were as easy as sitting down and churning out an endless stream of words without pause, many more books would be written. Maybe. Once you add in family obligations, day jobs, children and outside stresses, finding this time becomes more difficult. Some find it impossible and give up altogether, watching the years pass as their dream of publishing a novel or book of poetry fades away.

There is something we can do, even in the midst of chaos, to complete our short stories, our book of essays or our novel. One page a day. That doesn't sound like much, but pages, like pennies, do add up. Even on your busiest day, instead of giving up on writing because you're too tired, too stressed or uninspired, just try for that one page. In a month, you'll have 30 pages. In a year, 365 pages.

On those days when you have more time, you can spend them going over what you've already written. You can edit and polish and try to make it perfect. Instead of viewing the task of completing a book as huge and insurmountable, you can break it up into single sheets of paper that aren't as intimidating. One page a day will yield something tangible and complete one day. When you break it down like that, it almost sounds easy, doesn't it?

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Challenge Yourself With a Short Story Today!

Some writers dream of Oprah announcing their novel as her next book club selection. Others fantasize the day they accept the Pulitzer Prize. Few authors daydream about receiving two contributor copies after having a short story published. Yet, writing short stories can improve your writing skills and increase your marketability.

The following is a section of an article I wrote about short stories that appeared on the Tickled by Thunder website a few years ago. Here are three reasons why writing a short story might help you become a better writer.

Writing short stories gives you a sense of completion. Writers often complain, “It took me years and years to get my novel just right.” Novels are like spaghetti sauce, simmering for days; whereas short stories are like the noodles—boiling and ready in twenty minutes.

One of the benefits of writing a short story is the amount of time it takes to complete. You might sketch out a rough draft after three sessions at your computer. Then you set the story aside for a few days before revising and editing. Next, you present the story to a friend or critique group to get other opinions. You again revise and edit, add those finishing touches, and—Voila! You have a completed story. This process takes weeks instead of years.

Getting anything published is hard work. You must be dedicated to rewriting, rewriting, and more rewriting. You have to research the market, learn proper manuscript format, and write a brilliant cover letter. Getting a short story published is like playing a good game of miniature golf—it’s not as easy as it looks, but with knowledge, skill, and practice, you can do it. Getting a novel published is like playing professional golf —it’s much more difficult and fewer people do it.

Let’s look at Writer A and Writer B. Writer A has never published anything and has worked on his fantasy novel for three years. He is finished and looking for an agent. In his cover letter, he writes an exciting summary and a convincing argument of why his work is different from other fantasies. In his closing paragraph, he has nothing to write for previous publications. The agent is not impressed.

Writer B has also completed her first fantasy novel, which she entered into a contest and won first prize. She has written several short stories and had a few published. In her cover letter, she lists her previous writing successes. Remember an agent or editor needs to make money off your book. If no one has read your work or published it, why should someone take an economic risk on you?

Speaking of money, sometimes you get paid for shorter pieces. A lot of magazines pay in copies, but some do give you a check. And the best news about submitting a short story is you don’t need an agent. Editors deal directly with you.

You can use short stories to strengthen your writing skills. Maybe you need to work on writing realistic dialogue or fitting all five senses into your descriptions. Perhaps you want to use flashbacks but can’t seem to make smooth transitions. Or a friend, who critiqued your opening chapters, said your main character was typical and boring.

Try working out these problems in a short story, focusing on improving those particular weaknesses. For example, if you are having trouble with dialogue tags, write a short story where two characters discuss their daughter’s murder. Practice putting action before or after your dialogue instead of using the word “said.” To solve your typical characters problem, create a new character, listing his unique qualities, and then write a short story about him. See if this method works for you before you change your entire novel.

Write in different points of view or in first person instead of third. If you admire someone’s writing style, you could try a similar story. If you take risks, attempt various styles or voices, and focus on your weaknesses, you will grow as a writer.

Happy Writing!
Margo Dill

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Saturday, May 10, 2008


Do They Get It?

If you live with people who aren't writers, but "get" your writer's lifestyle, consider yourself lucky. If, on the other hand, you're like many writers whose family and significant others don't really get it, you're in the majority.

Do you hand your husband or wife your latest short story to review, a story which took you two months to write, edit and polish to perfection? Do they read it and then say, "That's nice, dear" before going back to the TV/newspaper/garden? Does that make you want to scream, "But reread that fourth paragraph! Look at how skillfully I've used flashback there! And what about how I described the old man? Just look at that!"? Instead of screaming, many of us quietly take our stories, our carefully crafted babies if you will, and look at them with a pride only a parent can feel.

They don't get POV, foreshadowing, a turn of phrase that gives us goosebumps. They don't understand why we huddle over a keyboard that doesn't dole out rewards or praise, or why we'll jump out of bed at 3 o' clock in the morning to jot down sudden inspiration. They can't quite see all of the nuances that separate a mediocre story from a masterpiece. They just don't get it.

But if they're still willing to put up with some of the more well-known writers' idiosyncrasies, if they love you anyway, they can't be all bad.

After all, I don't get why my husband has to visit Home Depot every.single.Saturday.morning either.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008


Bucking the Trends

It never fails. Once a Harry Potter-like phenomenon hits, dozens of YA books about wizards and magic follow. Some are successful, while others fall into literary oblivion. A huge chick lit book is made into a major motion picture with Hollywood's hottest stars slated to star in it? Expect chick lit to fill the bookshelves in the next year. This is what happens when trends hit the publishing industry. A lot of new writers will get excited and want to jump on the latest bandwagon, prompting scores of them to blindly send out queries and/or manuscripts, explaining why their book is better than the current bestseller.

This is not always the best approach and here's why:

1. Publishing is a slow business: By the time a writer gets a final draft of a manuscript finished, it could be at least six months to a year after the hot new trend debuts. (If it only takes one month to churn out a "polished" manuscript, there's small chance it's really polished.) Once you start on the querying road, it could be another six months to a year before you get a "yes" from an agent or publisher and then another year or two until the book is actually published. Guess what? The trend is probably dead by then.

2. The trend is not really your style: Say the trend is romance with a quirky heroine; she swears like a sailor and chain smokes, but is really kind to puppies and elderly ladies. If this is right up your alley, it'll show with each enthusiastic word you put on paper. If you're more the crime scene analyst type who's trying to catch the latest serial killer and you force yourself to write about the quirky heroine, chances are she won't ring true and you'll hate every word you have to write about her.

3. Many agents aren't interested in the latest trends: While some agents leap onto the latest bandwagon, some are more concerned with writing that will last the test of time, writing that will become the next generation's classics. The last thing they want to see is the next Narnia chronicle; they want a hero who readers remember long after they close the book.

Instead of spending the next year or two of your life hoping to publish a book whose premise will be outdated and tired by the time readers get their hands on it, spend it crafting a book whose characters you love, whose story is true and whose trend is timelessness.

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Friday, January 25, 2008


A Great Writing Resource from a King

By Margo L. Dill (

Out of the hundreds of writing books that line library and bookstore shelves, my favorite, and the one I actually use, is Stephen King’s On Writing. And my love for his writing book does not stem from my love for his other work. I respect and admire him as an author, but frankly, his tales give me nightmares. I love his writing book because it is honest and funny and practical. Any writer of any genre can use this book to improve his or her craft!

One of the reasons I love his book is because it is an autobiography as well as writing advice on the craft. The autobiography should be inspirational to all of us who complain and hate “our day jobs.” Whenever I am whiny about not being a full-time writer, I try to think of King and his description of doing laundry for a seafood place. I won’t go into it for those of you possibly eating while reading this blog, but let’s just say, being a little tired from working with kids all day is a piece of cake compared to King’s job before he was famous.

But his writing advice is what makes me open the book again and again. It is what makes me share the book with my friends and critique group members and now, all of you. Two of his tips have stuck with me and have worked their way into most of my writing as well as the editing and revising advice I give to my Editor 911 clients (Editor 911 is what I call my small freelance editing business). The first is to use adverbs sparingly (even though I used an adverb right there.) King believes, and I agree, that some writers rely on adverbs to convey their message instead of using stronger verbs or nouns or even dialogue. He gives several convincing examples of how adverbs are really not needed. He also makes the wonderful point that when you do use an adverb every once in a while, it makes an impact on your reader and doesn’t get lost in a sea of adverbs. Of course, he states this point with several humorous examples and in a more poignant way, so check out his book to learn from the master.

The second piece of advice he gives also makes it into my writing, especially into my current ya novel. He says when he reads a description of a character in a novel, he doesn’t need to know what they are wearing. He can open up any clothes catalog to see people and their outfits. He wants to read descriptions that make a picture of the person in his mind with whatever clothes he wants to put on that person, unless the clothes are EXTREMELY important (such as the case of Monica Lewinsky’s dress.) He wants descriptions, of course, but again, I’m going to refer you to his book to find out how to do this!

I hope you will check out his book, which is also available as an audio book, so you could actually listen to it on your commute back and forth to your day job. That way, your free time can be spent putting his advice to work on your latest manuscript.

Happy Writing!

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Sunday, December 09, 2007


Making Manly Men

By Valerie Fentress

I don’t know if you ever did this when you were younger, or last week at your sister’s wedding, when your aunt bugged your cousin about when she could be mother of the bride, but we women make a list of what our Mr. Right will look like. Often having features of Brad Pitt, Antonio Banderas, or Johnny Depp, while also being sensitive, enjoying the arts, and would describe the perfect date as a picnic under the stars telling you how your beauty out shines every star in the sky. Okay, maybe this is a little too mushy, but you get my point. We as women sometimes want certain characteristics in the men in our lives. But if you’re writing for a male and female audience, sometimes these ‘Mr. Rights’ qualities can seem a bit flamboyant or stereotypical.

So how do we as women make it sound like our men are really men?

Well we have to ask, what makes a man a man? Dangerous question I know, but worth asking if you’re going to spend a lot of time talking with or through a male character. When I set out to write my current work in progress (WIP), I made the decision to make the protagonist male, a risky task without a Y chromosome. So the first person I went to was my husband, and I asked him what makes a man a man? Well his first answer was a bit below the belt, but once I got him on characteristics this was his list:

• tough
• take charge
• act first ask questions later
• competitive
• hands-on
• reliable
• rarely emotional
• logical

Whew…that last one got me. I think I need a Kleenex. Okay, so this is a general list, but most men at least have more than one of these qualities. So how do we turn this into a realistic character in our novels?

For starters, I think reading books by men writing in your genre is a good place to start. Watching how they write their dialogue, expositions, and the actions of their men is a great tool to use. I try to make notes on sentence structure, commonly used words, and how that is different than their female characters. But once again we run into the problem of men writing as men. So what general trends can we apply to our male characters?

First, think about the most recent conversation you had with a male of our species. Did you notice anything? If you listened in you probably picked up on the fact that they didn’t say much, and what they said was without fluff. Few adjective or adverbs, just too the point, here ya go, no beating around the bush. How does that compare to the male characters in your WIP? Does he have a plethora of expressive words, or just down to basics, noun + verb = sentence. Of course your male character’s vocabulary does depend on many other factors when developing your character, but in general a guy is going to use few descriptors and keep to the action.

Also, as a general rule, men use more contractions in everyday conversations than women. If they don’t have to speak it out they won’t. Once again hitting on the action based, don’t beat around the bush attitude. Sometimes I think if women didn’t have the need to express themselves verbally, men would still be grunting in caves. (Sorry boys)

Now that we’ve gone over what comes out of manly mouths, we need to look at what goes on inside their heads. Make sure the safety rope is tied tight, and we’ll pull twice is if gets to hairy in there. In comparison, women are emotional creatures, not to say that we all cry at the drop of a hat, but our emotions drive our feelings, actions, and thoughts. Silly old boys are less likely to wade through their emotions or think about how and why they are feeling a certain way. They are more likely to speak and act first, and run out their ‘emotions’ on the treadmill, or in the business of work.

The greatest literary example in my mind is Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. For chapters upon chapters, he talks down the Bennett family and then out of nowhere suggests that it is logical for him and Lizzy to get married. He gives very little thought to the emotional implications, just a straight up, direct thought to mouth. This same manly quality can be seen in the movie, Father of the Bride, when Brian gets Annie a blender for their anniversary. ‘Annie likes shakes, so I’ll get her something to make shakes.’ Just simple 2+2=4, when we women know it more like, 2+7-3+12/3+4-6 is greater than or equal to 4, if not more complicated than that.

The great thing about male characters is they are able to balance out the female characters in your story, able to act, fix, and empower. That is why you rarely find a novel without a hint of female or male influence in the plot or back story. That is how women and men were made, to compliment and support one another. So when writing thoughts and words for our male characters, it’s important to keep the above things in mind. Writing manly men into our novels can be complicated, men are not simple creatures, they are just, as John Gray put it, men are from Mars, and that’s what makes them men.

Happy Writing

Valerie Fentress

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