December 28, 2008



The New Year's tradition we love to hate.

The promises we set out intending to break.

The whole process seems like an exercise in futility. Yet, every year we promise ourselves to lose weight, get organized, quite a bad habit, acquire some healthy ones.

For a writer, the New Year means forgiveness for 365 days of false starts, pages that wind up in the trash can and ideas that get trashed in our minds. This is the year we will finish the book. This time around we will write 2,000 words a day or devote three hours a night on our story. By 2010 we will be published.

All lofty goals. And all obtainable.

The trick to success in writing is breaking down the process into small accomplishments. If a writer says, “I'm going to write an 80,000 word manuscript,” the number hangs overhead ready to crush dreams. But, if a writer says, “I will write three pages a day,” suddenly the numbers don't seem daunting at all. Two books a year could be written sticking to that resolution.

The following small promises are for serious writers only.

1. I promise to put writing at the top of my “to do” list. If I let it drop down to fourth or fifth on the list, it becomes a “never.”

2. I will not be disappointed if my writing isn't brilliant every day.

3. I refuse to feel guilty for taking away time from other activities in order to write.

4. I will take notes on everything. Even if I feel awkward about carrying around notebooks and scribbling scenes in waiting rooms, in restaurants or other public places, I can capture descriptions of people around me with accuracy.

5. I will respect the creative process. Short cuts makes for sloppy writing. If a scene isn't coming together, I won't skip it. I will work through the words.

6. Writer's block? I'll sit myself down and look at the problem with complete honesty. No excuses. I won't get defensive, but will try to understand what's holding me back. I will take control.

7. I will make sure I get enough sleep. No staying up half the night because the muse is working overtime. A tired mind loses creativity. Instead, I will let my mind ponder, not worry, about the plot and characters. I'll wake up refreshed and ready to write.

8. I will be open to criticism, but remember: only my name will be on the finished manuscript. I may take suggestions to heart, but my instincts have the last say.

9. I will read books actively, not passively. I will look for authors who use words creatively and study how they craft sentences.

10. Finally, I will always be passionate about my story, my characters and the world I imagine. They are my creations. I will believe that what I'm doing is important enough to do follow all of the above resolutions. Happy, productive New Year!


December 21, 2008



By Dorinda Ohnstad

Every element of writing is important, but in fiction writing some techniques are more critical than others. Point-of-view (pov) is one element that can make or break the reader’s experience. Since writing should ultimately be about creating an enjoyable experience for the reader, mastering pov is essential for fiction writers regardless of their genre.

Generally, a scene should be written from only one character’s point-of-view. This means that the scene unfolds while we are in the head of that character. We get to see, feel, and hear everything from that character’s perspective. It enables readers to get to know the character intimately and provides an increased immediacy with the action that is going on in the scene.

Conversely it means that the scene should not show anything that the pov character knows nothing about, nor convey information from the wrong perspective. A scene that incorrectly moves outside the character’s pov jilts the reader from their reading experience. It creates a “hey, wait a minute” moment. Which, just to be clear, is not a good thing. Once we draw readers into a story, we want to keep them riveted. A writer accomplishes this by staying true to the pov established for the scene.

When I first started studying the craft of writing I thought all was well so long as I followed this simple rule. Did the pov character see what I just showed? Check. Did the pov character just hear what I just had the reader hear? Check. Did the pov character feel the emotion I just wrote was felt? Check. You get the point; but, the truth is that pov isn’t that simple.

What do I mean? Scenes are written from the point-of-view of one of the story’s characters. How that scene is written should be vastly different depending on which character is the pov character. What is important to point out about a particular scene will be different depending on the pov character, who is essentially telling the reader what is happening. In addition, how that character feels about the scene will be equally different. Word choice, sentence structure, pacing, and other writing elements will be different depending on whose voice we are hearing the story through. In other words, a scene told by one character will not feel the same as a scene told by a different character. After all, they are two totally different individuals, with different world views, personalities, vocabularies, life expereinces, education, etc.

Let me give an example from a scene (which was made much stronger through the wonderful editorial advice of fellow writer Sunny Frazier) in my current work-in-progress No Will, a legal thriller. My novel is told in third person pov through the use of multiple character points-of-view. This is the first seven paragraphs of a scene told from the pov of a private detective with a rather sullied personality.

* * *

Eddie Canton lived for the dirty pictures.

He adjusted the surveillance equipment while he waited. The heat inside the old flower delivery van was ten degrees hotter than the air outside. August in South Dakota. Fuck. He wiped his face with the front of his wife-beater undershirt hanging damply on his body. It smelled of BO. When he pulled the cloth away, Lover Boy’s corvette was sliding into a parking spot.

On monitor one, the subject entered the living room. Before long, he was pacing over the parquet floor of the condo. “She’s making you wait, buddy,” Canton said between bites of a stale ham and swiss hoagie. The subject was screwed tight today, tension showed in his face and jerky movements.

Canton killed time by checking to make sure that the monitors were in position. Kitchen: check. Bathroom: check. Bedroom: check and double check. All systems go at the Arlington Arms. Where was the main attraction?

He was happy his client wanted proof. Spying on middle-aged, out-of-shape, homely women paid the bills but they didn’t feed the libido. Jillian Hill was different. She was as hot as the centerfold in the well-used Playboy open on the seat next to him. A woman who made his business a pleasure.

The powder-blue Mercedes finally appeared in the parking lot and Canton felt the rush of adrenaline surge through his body. Time to get down to business. He shoved the last of the hoagie sandwich into his mouth and tossed its crumpled wrapper. It joined a dozen others on the floor. He wiped mayonnaise from the corner of his mouth with the back of one hand, smeared it on his pant leg, then leaned back in his chair to wait.

This was gonna be better than any triple X-rated movie at the Tomcat Club.

* * *

Notice that not only does the scene ensure that everything is true to the selected point-of-view (everything here is something either Canton, sees, does, hears, feels, smells, thinks, etc), but its word choice, rhythm, interior dialog, character actions, etc. tell you a lot about this character. Eddie Canton comes to life in this scene as a result. That is the magic of using point-of-view to its fullest potential.

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December 17, 2008

Bah Humbug!

Made you laugh, didn't I?

That's a good thing to do this time of year. We all need a little laughter mixed in with this joyous but trying season.

So the bad news is that due to unfortunate circumstances Jackie was unable to post this weekend. And the good news? Well I've stepped in to lighten your day (I hope). And what does this have to do with writing you may ask. Just follow me and you will see.

The holidays are a stressful time and most of this stress is produced by a conscious decision. You decide to do a little shopping (a lot), eat a little too much (a lot), spend a little too much money (a lot) or even spend a little time with the family (never enough). The month of December goes by so fast and in the flurry and stress of the to do lists as long as Santa's we forget the joy and happiness that is the hopeful finial result of all the hard work. Why can't we be happy every day? What can we do to ease the stress and turn up the happy?

Exercise a little: take a walk around the block (even if the sun don't shine) and with all that oxygen going to your brain go home and write about what you see, hear and smell.
Talk to family and friends: this is the time of year for reminiscing and when your sister (brother, mother, friend) reminds of that awful or embarrassing time you did something you would rather forget, remember it and use the idea of it for a character in your writing.
Remember family traditions: do you open gifts on Christmas eve or Christmas morning or do you have a special recipe that has been handed down to you or one that has become your new tradition. You can use these special treasured (carved in stone) traditions to form the internal basis of conflict for your protagonist.
Use your curiosity: This time of year our level of anticipation increases and like little children we wonder what could possibly be in that big box under the tree and we also wonder what our neighbors could be getting in that big delivery van that just drove up? Give this streak of snooping to a character and you are on your way to a mystery.
Take a nap: when all the hussel and bussel of the season has you worn down I find the best thing to do is nothing. It will all be there when you wake up and if you are a dreamer like me any chance to sleep brings dreams and sometimes you forget them and sometimes you remember so remember to keep paper and pen close by when you wake. Sweet dreams.
So if you love to write then I hope all these ideas will turn up the happy.

December 7, 2008

"Respect" by Amy Leasure

One thing I've heard a lot lately from writers is that they get frustrated with their work and throw it away using various methods of destruction including, but not limited to: burning, shredding, ripping, and tossing.

You know in t.v. shows when someone says something really foul or offensive in a restaurant and the music stops and everyone turns around and gasps? That's precisely how I feel when a writer tells me they throw away their work.

Wood is for burning, guitars and mozzarella cheese are meant to be shredded, pies are meant to be ripped apart ferociously, and basketballs are to be tossed. Not your writing.

When someone says that they threw away their work it tells me that they do not respect what they are writing. Maybe not everything you write will be of literary quality, but the IDEAS that lead to your writing are valuable and deserve to be respected, by you. Once you destroy the words that came to you after your idea, you may never remember or be able to recall that idea again. Something you wrote ten years ago may be exactly what you need today. By destroying your work, you aren't valuing the time set aside in your life that it took to write those words.

Ideas change the world. You hold, on paper, ideas that may be able to change the world...if you keep them.

Let's take the example of the poet Sylvia Plath. Even though Sylvia took her own life via the kitchen oven, she did not destroy her own work. The woman valued and respected her work even when she couldn't value her own life.

I personally store all of my work in a really pretty Fuji water box in a deep filing cabinet, or special pieces in hat boxes with my love letters. I keep all copies of peer edited work that has been workshopped until I edit the piece to my satisfaction. I value what others have to say about my work. I may notice a trend in what people are telling me needs work, so in the future I can understand and remember that I have a trouble area and I might need to work harder in one area, or pay closer attention to what I'm doing with another.

Even if you aren't a sentimental paper collector like me, there are ways to store your writing electronically. In fact, I suggest storing them in several ways concurrently.

  • The first way to store an item electronically is on your computer's hard-drive.
  • The second thing I do is email a copy of my work to myself. Yes, you can email yourself. All you have to do is insert your own email in the "to" field of your "compose message" box. Sometimes I even send the copy to two of my emails. When attaching a file, I also "copy and paste" a copy of my text in the body of the email. That way, if there is a problem with the attached file itself, you still have your writing in the body of the email. You may have to go back through and re-do your format, but sending your email as both text and an attached file virtually assures you you will have a safe copy of your work.
  • If you aren't the type to keep scraps of paper around, you can use a scanner to "upload" pictures of your writing and keep it in digital format. That way, you can feel safe to toss your original copies to save space. Back these files up in several ways. I carry around a USB stick in my purse that holds copies of my work, in case my computer is lost, if I get drunk some night and decide to change my email password and can't remember the next day (I've done this before), or if God-forbid, my home or belongings ever catch on fire.
  • Lastly, if you think you have something of value that someone may want to steal or copy, mail a copy of your work to yourself via the post office. Do not open the letter. Keep it in a safe spot (safety deposit box or other fireproof area). If you ever end up in court defending the copyright of your work, a judge can open the letter in court and know you are the original and first writer because of the postmark. I've only done this once in my life, and that was when I was in college. I wanted to "copyright" a philosophy paper/theory that I wrote because I thought I had an idea that was really original and innovative. I haven't found the need to do it with any other writing, but that is always an option if you are nervous about your work.

I'm going to end with a somewhat separate thought: I think it's important for those of us in workshop settings to value and respect other people's work and ideas. Even if you don't like their work, it is important not to intentionally hurt their feelings (I'm not saying lie if their work needs work, I'm saying use constructive criticism). Torches are for welding and summer tiki parties. Don't mentally set fire to someone's ideas when they bring them to a workshop. They are sharing a very intimate part of themselves and obviously value and respect your opinion.

Your words and your ideas are powerful. Writers' get rejected enough, they don't need it from their peers.

It's a respect thing.