Monday, September 22, 2014

Words and More Words

Several years ago while reading a favorite author I found him using the same phrase in a dialogue tag. I can't even remember what it was now, but it kept popping up, enough to be distracting. By the end of the book I found myself wondering why he or an editor had not caught that. It was so obvious and he was a best selling author too.

It didn't keep me from buying his next book, but it did bother me when I remembered what I had noticed in the last book and here it was again -- the same word. Surely he would have found something else to use. Or not use anything at all. Yes, we all use "said," but that is natural and it is one of those words we don't notice.  If we say a character "grinned" on the other hand every time a character says something we are probably going to notice. Again, it is time to have the character do something else or don't write it at all.

As writers we probably all have crutch words we find ourselves using over and over. I have to watch out for things like "just" or "nearly." I'm not sure why but I keep throwing them in. I even put in "sure" more often than I should. I've learned now to go through and look for my crutch words and remove them or rewrite the sentence.

This is a long way around getting to the point that we need to pay attention to the words we use. I am teaching a class on short story writing and one of the points I keep trying to make is that when a writer is involved in short story writing you must be more precise with your words. Last year at the Tony Hillerman Conference in Santa Fe, a friend and I had a chance to chat with best selling author David Morrell about writing short stories. He told us he like writing short stories because they made him learn to be more precise in his words. They made him look for different, simpler ways to say things. And most importantly they made him look for just the right word to use to make a point.

This weekend my sister and I played a game with our ten year old niece, where we have to say a word that starts with the letter of the last word given. It's a simple game, of course, but when you have to come up with a bunch of words starting with "e" or "k" or "h," it makes you start thinking.  And just as when I'm writing, I found myself coming up with the same words (and getting shouted down -- "you already used that") so I had to be creative. 

And I will remember that exercise next time I sit down to write. Look for different words, remember different words, celebrate new words and look up things you don't know or search for just the right word, as David Morrell suggested.

But at the same time, I must issue a warning to be careful of the words you chose.  I remember a book once where an author used the word "thrummed." Wow, I thought the first time I saw it. What a unique way to say what a woman is feeling inside. Then I found it again, a little later in the book. By the third time I found it, I was no longer thinking, wow, I was thinking lazy or confused. The word was no longer unique. It wasn't a normal word and while I might skip over "said" and maybe even one too many grins, I was going to remember something as different as "thrummed."

Words can be your friends or they can be your worse enemies when they aren't coming. But keep looking for the best ones. They are out there!

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Making Your Setting Work

Setting is one of those elements that all writers know they need to include in a book, but often it gets either overplayed or totally ignored. I am a big believer in making a setting unique and making it come alive for the reader but doing it in a way that places the reader in the story along with your characters. It isn’t necessarily easy to do, but I always try to make that happen as I write.
Rigid rules for writing can be boring, but here are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you deal with setting.
  1. Bring in all the senses.
  2. Don’t overwhelm with setting
  3. Keep it consistent
  4. Be true to your time period and place
  5. Don’t do a detailed description in the first paragraph but get it in there
    Okay, so how do we do all those things?
 Bringing in all the senses has to be the first thing to consider because those senses are what places the reader into that certain location.  Not long ago I was travelling through New Mexico and stopped in a small town and stayed overnight. In the cold October morning I got up to continue my long drive across the state and when I came outside I smelled wood burning. It hit me that was something you never smelled in a big city like Denver, and it took me back to days in my small Colorado hometown. People burned wood regularly and especially in the morning. It’s something you might smell in a mountain town in the winter too, but this was unique in the morning and it was a product of this small town where there were no worries about air pollution. The other thing that hit me was the quiet. There was no sound of a freeway or hum of traffic. I used that in my heroine’s point of view when she realizes how quiet it is – something she wasn’t used to.

The worst way to bring in setting is to overwhelm the reader with long paragraphs that over describe a location or to write it as a laundry list, as though that is what is needed. Instead I like to bring the setting in by letting the character feel where he or she is. Mystery writer John Sandford does a wonderful job of showing cold Minnesota days and nights through his characters and how they are dealing with the frigid temperatures. Consider that as you write your setting. Is she wearing a heavy parka to ward off the morning cold when she goes outside to warm up the car?  Is she sweating in her thin blouse in the steaming Florida afternoon?  How does the setting affect the character? Is her skirt dragging in the mud as she navigates a muddy drive? That all shows setting as part of the action.

Once you have placed your reader in the location you should work to keep it consistent. That doesn’t mean you aren’t going to have a cool day in the middle of summer. Even that could affect your characters and make them either complain about the weather or get out their winter sweater. But don’t wander away from the time period with slang that is years away from becoming common. I know some of the rules for writing historical romances have loosened when it comes to speech patterns for today’s reader but that doesn’t mean the women of those long ago days said things like, “Shuuut up!” 

That caution also speaks to being true to your time period.  I recently had a student who named a female character a very current and popular name. It sounded great but it was a male name and it had its origins in a certain profession back in the middle ages.  No female would have been named that back then. If you are writing in a certain time period, you should research it and know it well enough to know when you might be making that sort of mistake. Such a misstep can pull a knowledgeable reader out of the story. I’m not that knowledgeable about the Regency period, but I  knew immediately that the name was a mistake.

The final problem goes back to what I mentioned earlier. No one these days wants to begin a book with big long paragraphs of description. Today’s reader is looking for action and you can still combine action with the setting without bringing in long paragraphs that set the scene.  

If he is on the run, where is he running? Through a swampy bog where he the fetid smell threatens to overcome him and he can feel the damp air soaking his shirt? Where reeds are smashing him in the face, or mosquitos are buzzing around him while he listens for the sound of his getaway launch?

Is she waiting to pick up her daughter at school and running the heater in her car while watching for her child’s familiar red coat? And when she sees it, someone else is wearing it. Now she has to zip up her coat as she gets out of the car to go find her child.
Both of those scenarios can use the location and setting as part of the action and you can do that too.  Make it come alive as you would your characters. Take your readers there and let them battle the elements or enjoy the luxuries of your setting.     

Monday, September 1, 2014

Teaching is Learning

by Becky Martinez
For years I never considered myself much of a teacher, though I now teach writing classes on a
regular basis at places such as Savvy Authors or I present workshops at conferences, such as the recent RomCon14. I did spend years as a newsroom manager and it always made me feel good when a reporter or producer would come up to me –after having started as an intern under my guidance—and tell me how much they learned from working with me. I felt proud—proud for them because you don’t succeed without hard work.
I still enjoy that sort of affirmation. Recently at a conference I had one of my former online students come up to me and introduce herself to me. She wanted to thank me personally for what she said was a great class that got her going in a totally new direction.

To me that is one of the high points of being a teacher—knowing that you’ve helped someone. And I think that is one of the reasons I enjoy teaching. I have another student I helped with mentoring and she still emails me every so often with writing questions. She signed a contract not long ago and her latest question was on marketing. I feel good that I can still answer her questions and assist her in her goal of becoming a published writer.
But I have to be bluntly honest about the main reason I enjoy teaching. I have decided I’m a born student. I love to learn new things. I love to take tests, I love to feel the joy of trying something new or learning to work in a new field. Some things I know I might never excel in – I was never a born scientist or mathematician, but I still love to study astronomy and the stars and visit science and space museums. I’ll never be much of an artist, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to learn about art, and trying to dab some paint on a canvas every once in a while.

So that brings me back to teaching. I love to teach because I also love to learn. And teaching helps me in that regard. When I have classes to write or teach, I find myself involved in plenty of research. If I’m going to teach about characters, I have to study them myself. I need to not only get to know my own characters, but study the works of others and see how they make their characters come alive on the page.

I have to study plotting to see what works and what doesn’t. Reading a book becomes more than just enjoyment. It also becomes an educational exercise to see how an author accomplished that successful story. I need to look at pacing and beginnings and endings. Again, I get to be a student in order to teach.

And as a teacher I always find that my students teach me things too. Someone always has a question or two that gets me thinking and makes me either learn something new or illustrates a different way of accomplishing their writing goals.

I’ve never been the sort of teacher who can force my ideas on someone or tell them to learn all the rules and then force them to follow them. I’ve always looked at others as unique individuals who had their own talents and I like to think that I teach by showing people how to take their special skills and apply them to their work. 

And that interaction is another reason I like to teach. There’s a big wide world out there and I think I’ll always be a student who wants to learn more, and then teach about it… and then learn some more. Part of being a good teacher is a being a good student too.

As a teacher and student, this month I will be presenting several lists of writing prompts to help writers on any level -- from beginners to intermediate to multi-published in this blog. If you have favorite ways to getting new story ideas or coming up with characters or plots, please email them to me at and I'll share them along with my own thoughts. 

This week I will begin teaching a class on Pacing your Novel at Savvy Authors and next week Sue Viders and I will teach a class for Savvy on taking your stories from Ideas to Plots.  I will also be teaching a class on Writing Short Stories for Colorado Romance Writers this month.

Getting off to a Fresh Start

At the beginning of every new year don’t we always look at different ways to start off fresh? We want to make our resolutions or set goals ...