Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Should You Write While On Vacation Or Chuck It?

It's vacation time for Ken and me. We are getting last minute things done today, getting the house ready to be put in good hands, and heading for Kansas City where we'll stay tonight near the airport. We're flying to Germany tomorrow to begin the first leg of our Grand Circle tour in Hamburg. Then off to Berlin for a couple of days followed by a week on a river ship on the Elbe RiverThis is an area of Germany that we have not visited before. We finish in Prague at a hotel for the final two nights. We've been on Grand Circle tours several times and have always been very pleased. Never came home with a complaint and always recommend this group to friends.

I am taking my tablet with me in hopes of keeping up with email and maybe posting here occasionally. No promises on that score as the internet connection on the river ship is not always good. Plus there is the matter of little time available. But I'll try, so do check and see if there is a new post now and then. I'm not a pro at using the tablet, my laptop is far more familiar to me, but it's also much more to drag along, so the tablet it is.

Which brings me to today's topic--do you write while you are on vacation? Or do you put writing aside completely until you return home? One of the reasons for writing while you're away from home is that the places you go, the people you meet, the things you see all prove to be inspiration for your writing. Time, however, is the big enemy. Do you want to give up precious relaxation and fun time to write? Will you remember all the things you felt inspired to write about when you get home?

If you can't, or don't want to, write while on vacation, at least jot down some notes. Make them more than a word here and there or you won't have a clue what they mean when you're back in your home again. If you have a quiet interlude while you're traveling, you may want to spend part of it writing. I'm guessing that, if you make your living by writing, then you are happy to shelve it completely until vacationtime is over. But if you're a hobbyist writer, like me, and feel inspired by some magnificent place you're in, you may very well write something.

One thing I do write daily when we are on an overseas trip is a journal. When you're moving around from city to city and cramming as much activity into a day as possible, it's all too easy to forget the reaction and emotions you've had later on when you're back home doing routine things. I've found that keeping a daily journal helps me to capture my emotional reaction or to note some specific history that I might well forget two weeks later. I also like to remember bits and pieces about the people we meet in our tour group. Many are unforgettable and a few are ones you wish you could forget. Fortuanately, there are usually only one or two like that. Even so, they can help you form a character in a story later on.

It's fun to read the journals I kept of trips taken over the years. I don't read them often, but occasionally I need to check a fact about something I'm writing and will refer to them. Once I start reading a journal, I tend to keep going and end up reliving our trip.

I've also had several personal essays published that are based on places we've visited. I'm not a professional travel writer but I can bring something of interest to armchair travelers and those who also enjoy going to new places.

We'll be home on August 9th, so until then--I'll pop in when I can.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Characters Are In Your Hands

Think of the millions of people who inhabit the earth. No two are entirely alike. There may be similarities but we're like those snowflakes we learned about in childhood. Every one is different. 

As a writer, that leaves you with about a zillion choices when you are developing a character in a story, a poem, a personal essay or memoir. If it's fiction, your creativity comes into play. If you're writing about an actual person, then your memory and observation is what you rely on and perhaps interviews with others who also knew the person.

Let's look at the fictitious character first. There's more than one way to create a character. Some writers make lists for each character, marking physical description, history, emotional side, motivation and even more. The list serves as a guide when putting the character into a story. It helps the writer determine the actions of a character. Why did Melinda neglect to give George the message from Oscar? If there's a list that tells all about Melinda, then the reason is clear to the writer. I'm guessing that it is writers who are 'organized' people who make lists like this. It is also helpful in allowing the writer to get their own mental picture of the character.

Another method is to let the character lead the writer. Introduce the character in the opening pages of a novel or opening paragraphs of a short story and then let the character move on his/her own. Let them guide you to where they want to go. Sound crazy? Trust me--it does happen. Character development in the middle grade novel I wrote several years ago worked exactly that way. My main characters showed me the way.

If your character suddenly does something unexpected as you write, something that doesn't fit into a slot in that list you made, it's OK. You can change a character anytime you like during the writing. They aren't immovable until the book or story is published. If you do change in the middle of the stream, be sure you go back through the earlier pages to check whether this change should be noted earlier, as well. You can't let you character have a severe allergic reaction to shrimp in chapter 14 if you've had her eating at an all you can eat shrimp buffet in chapter 3.

When writing creative nonfiction, you are a little more restricted because you're writing about actual people. If you're working on a memoir, the list exercise can still work. Start with your Aunt Jane's physical traits, then her quirky habits, her emotoinal makeup, her history and possible motivation. Making these lists will get the character firmly in your mind. I think that sometimes memoir writers concentrate more on the events in their lives and less on the characters that drove these events. Give them equal time. Both are important to your story. 

I've only touched on the topic in this post. Google character development for writers and you'll find many, more detailed articles. 

As a writing exercise to limber your creative muscles today, try writing a paragraph or two with a character having the traits listed below, then add more of your own choosing.Do this with lists of your own making on a frequent basis. Consider sharing with our readers.

1.  bald man
2.  false teeth
3.  intense deep blue eyes
4.  rail thin
5.  80 years old
6.  retired railroad worker
7.  father of 6
8.  lives in a nursing home 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Putting Those Sentences Together

Most of you know that I belong to an online writers' group that requires both submissions and critiques to retain memberbship. Members are aksed to do two crits for each submission they make.

I love getting feedback on my submissions but I also enjoy doing the critiques and reading the critiques of others, as well. Reading and doing critiques on a regular basis has given me a good eye for sentence structure, phrasing and the kinds of words we use. Active verbs versus passive, dialogue, parts of speech and how they come across to a reader--all this and more.

Some of the problems I see are:

1.  too many passive verbs
2.  sentences that are overly long
3.  too many incomplete sentences
4.  awkward structure
5.  cliches
6.  Beginning multiple sentences with And or But
7.  Unnecessary words
8.  Overly formal language in dialogue

There are probably others but this is a long enough list for now. Becoming aware of these problems is step one in fixing them. If you're guilty of any of the items listed above, don't worry. You're in good company because every one of has done one or more of them when you write. Hopefully, we catch a good many in our editing.

Let's take a quick look at what we might do for each problem:

1.  passive verbs:  Go through your story or essay and mark all the passive verbs, then try to replace as many as you can with an active verb. It's a real boost to your writing and thus for your reader, as well. Active verbs provide more visuals for the reader.

2.  overly long sentences:  When you see a sentence that seems quite long, read it aloud. It might be difficult to get to the end without stopping to take a breath. If you must do so, your sentence is definitely too long. Have you put too many phrases into it? Can you easily make two sentences from the long one?

3.  incomplete sentences:  It's alright to have an incomplete sentence occasionally if it's meant to illustrate what was previsouly said. An addendum of sorts. Do it too often and it becomes a glitch. I couldn't think of examples to illustrate my point. Only two or three. The incomplete sentence in the example does relate to the previous one and the reader 'gets it.' But do that over and over and you're in trouble.

4.  awkward structure:  This often happens when you write one of those overly long sentences that has lots of clauses and phrases interjected. It can also happen when you place words in a place that makes the reader frown in wonder because the clarity of the sentence has suddenly dimmed. Clara threw her leg over the top rail of the fence and skinned it as she climbed across the fence made of rough wood so that it scraped her leg. Now, that's a bit contorted, isn't it? It might read better as Clara skinned her leg as she climbed across the rough, wooden fence.

5.  cliches:  Many of us use them because it's often the way we talk to family and friends. It's also a lazy writer's gimmick. It's much easier to pluck a cliche from the air than to think up something original. I know, because I'm very guilty of doing this myself.

6.  And or But:  It's alright to do this once in awhile but if you do it regularly, it begins to appear with a red flag waving. There is one school of thought that you should never, ever begin a sentence with these words. I say, do it but strictly limit the amount you use it.

7.  unnecessary words:  This is another very common error. When I started writing, I was chastised by the group regularly for committing this sin. Having this error pointed out on a regular basis upped my awareness level and I began to watch more carefully when I wrote and edited my work. Words like just, very, really are not needed. Ha! I almost wrote not really needed. See how easy it is to use a word that doesn't add to or make the sentence a better one?

8.  formal dialogue:  I wrote a post last week on this topic. Remember to have your characters use contractions as they would in the real world. Make the speech too formal and it doesn't feel real to the reader.

As important as plot is to your story, remember that the way you write your sentences and paragraphs is of importance in getting that story to your reader in the clearest, most interesting way.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Writers As Readers


I've said it many times on this blog (and elsewhere) that I firmly believe that a good writer must also be a true reader. As you can see by two of these quotes, Stephen King is of the same thought, as are many successful writers. Among the many writers I know personally, there is only one who claims she dislikes reading and seldom pursues it as a pastime. Is she a good writer? Yes. Is she a high paid pro? No. Is her reading habit the reason? I can't answer that one. Could be or perhaps not. 

Even so, I still urge anyone who wants to write to also be a voracious reader. As we read the work of others, we not only enjoy the book but our mind is tuned-in to the way the book is written. Often, it's a subconscious thing but we do it. 

One thing to be cautious about is to be careful not to mimic a favorite author in style and/or voice. Read many authors but develop your own style, find your own voice to use in your writing. 

What would you add to this list as a reason to read?

1.  To be entertained
2.  To acquire knowledge
3.  To spend time quietly and alone
4.  To escape from everyday routines and cares
5.  To observe how others write

I'm sure some of you are thinking that you have little time to write and even less time to read. My answer to that is that we create time to do both. Of course, there are some life situations that are going to stand in the way of both activities, but not at all times forevermore. I take a book with me when I'm going to be in a waiting room at a doctor or dentist's office. I use to read when using public transportation in a large city. I read in the evening rather than watch TV. I read in bed to relax before going to sleep. I snatch 10 and 15 minutes through the day to read. We all waste parts of our day. Some of that time could be for reading. 

Last, but far from being least, on today's topic it that I hope all parents will do whatever they can to encourage children to develope a lifetime habit of reading. I know it doesn't work with every child. I had one who loved to read and one who detested it. But guess what? At about age 42, he suddenly discovered the wonderful world of reading. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Since yesterday's post centered on beginnings, so it seemed fitting to talk about endings today. Finishing a project brings mixed emotions. Elation, of course. But it might also make a writer feel a bit sad.

The characters they'd been living with are suddenly out of the picture. If it's a novel, the writer has been in touch with these people for a long time. Maybe he's happy to finally have them out oif his hair but he just might start wondering how they're doing. Anyone who has written fiction knows that the characters feel like real people.

I think a writer needs a little time between the ending of one writng project and the beginning of another. We're just not ready to jump in and begin again immediately. Don't wait too long, though. Delaying a new project becomes easier and easier as time goes on. So give yourself a moderate amount of time and then get moving.

We end entire projects but we also have to end individual pieces of writing. Whether it's a short story, a novel, a personal essay, a how-to article or a poem--it needs a proper ending. It is just as important as the opening hook. Maybe more because it's the final impression you leave with your readers.

Have you ever read a book that you really enjoyed until the end because the end fell flat? There was no satisfaction for the reader. There may not have been a pulling together of all the rest of what had been written. I've occasionally read a book that leaves me with more questions than answers at the end.

Many writers try to use what is said at the beginning to bring the piece full cirlce at the end. That's one technique but not the only one. Some like to give the reader a surprise, even a shock, at the conclusion.

One of the best books on writing that I've read is written by Nancy Kress and is part of the Writer's Digest series. The title is Beginnings, Middles and Ends  Click on the title for the Amazon page on this highly rated book. I noticed this is a newer edition than the one I read quite some years ago. Looks like maybe I should check into this newer one.

Today, I've mentioned two types of endings. The one where you finish an entire writing project, ready to move on to the next one and the actual ending section of whatever it is you're writing.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Beginnings  First steps  Paragraph one  Initial chapter   Seed of an idea  
Number one line   A start

Any one of the above phrases will tell you that today's post is going to be about beginning a new writing project. Earlier this morning, I was reading a freewrite Random Word submission of someone in my online writers group. It involved a lot about what is happening in her personal life right now. As I read, I thought to myself that she must, must, must write a memoir book. She lives in another country, has had a most interesting life that has had more than its share of difficulties. Besides that, she writes like an angel. I wrote to her telling her she needs to give serious thought to writing a memoir book. I'll be her cheerleader from start to finish if she takes me up on the challenge and begins this new project.

Beginning a new writing project is exciting and also a bit daunting. Another member of our online group is a translator working on a memoir book for an Iranian woman. She began with both enthusiasm and apprehension. Just recently, she submitted a chapter by chapter outline for our group to critique. Fascinating material which made us want to read the entire book, chapter by chapter when she subs. Not a great many people will start a huge translating project like this one.

But there are plenty of other types of writing projects waiting for you. If you look at those phrases above, the one that suggests the first requirement is seed of an idea. After all, we must have that before writing anything. We may need to do some research before we begin the actual writing. Some of us will make a detailed outline before beginning the actual writing while others will plunge right in and let the story guide them as they go.

Besides the excitement of starting a brand new writing project, there's also some concern. We know that openings are important, that they must hook the reader in a hurry. More so today than ever before. We're in the do it immediately kind of life because time is our enemy. Or so it seems. What if you write five pages today on this new project, then read them two or three days from now and think they are absolute drivel? Hey, it's gonna happen more often than not.

It doesn't matter. That 'drivel' you've written gave you a beginning. It isn't set in concrete. It can be revised in any way you like. You can make the revisions right away or wait until you get to the end and go back and redo the whole thing. Personally, I like to work chapter by chapter on a large project, so I'd rewrite chapter 1 so I'd know where I'm heading in chapter 2. If it's a short story, you might write the entire piece and then revise. Same with an essay or article.

The important thing is to begin a new project. As soon as you finish and submit to an editor or publisher, start writing something new. It's true that there is magic of beginnings, as the poster above states. It's fresh and new and the road ahead is empty waiting for you to fill it. How can that not be an exciting time?

When you have an idea for a new project, are you eager to begin? Do you have a routine way for beginnings? Or is each project started in a different mode? What do you think about beginnings?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Write About Neighborhood Kids of Yesteryear

This poster was on facebook this morning. Ten little words opened a floodgate of memories for me. Probably for you, as well. 

It doesn't matter whether you grew up in suburban subdivision, a city apartment building, or on a country road where your folks farmed. We all had neigborhood kids that were a part of life in our growing-up years. Farm kids may have had to go a little farther to play together, but I'm sure they managed just fine. My own children grew up in a neighborhood filled with kids of all ages while for me, it was a concrete play area in the back of our large apartment building where I could always find companionship.

We went to school with those same neighborhood kids, too. We spent time together in scouts or 4-H or Sunday School classes. We walked to and from school with many and later, we waited for the bus that would take us to high school. We knew who got teased and who did the teasing. We knew who we could count on for help if we needed it. We knew which neighborhood kid made us laugh the hardest and the one who irritated the heck out of us. 

You don't forget them even after decades have passed. If I asked you to make a list of the kids in your neighborhood where you grew up, I bet you wouldn't have to hesitate to find those names. They'd be there in a flash. And then you might think about what they looked like. Was there one with freckles? Always messed-up hair, the nicest or the worst clothes of all the kids? Did you have one that won every game, every time? Was there one who cried easily? Another you called a Mama's Boy? 

Now that you've made a list, whether actual or mentally, could you write a memoir piece about those kids? How about writing something like this for part of your Family Memories book? Maybe you can write a personal essay about those kids showing life lessons you learned from them. There were good times but we probably all could write about a tragedy that hit one family in our neighborhood--a small one or something so big we all had a hard time dealing with it. 

Neighborhood kids is a great topic to inspire you to write something today. Start with a freewrite. For those who don't know, a freewrite means you use the two words neighborhood kids and write as fast as you can. Write whatever pops into your mind. Go in any direction. When done, you should have the bones of a possible essay or even the base for a fiction story.