Rules: Broken but Never Ignored

The following story regarding a live creative writing group I ran years back is not a transcript, although I have related it so many times that what appears in quotations is probably darn near to the actual words spoken. In any event, it’s close enough to get the gist of the event.

About 20-or-so years ago, I operated a live creative writing group in a northwest suburb of Chicago. We had seven members who met every Wednesday. One week a young fellow brought a poem that included the phrase: “blue stone lamp.”

When it came time to critique his poem, a female member offered a few positive comments, but when she came to his “blue stone lamp” line she asked what it meant, what it referred to. She admitted, somewhat shyly — as if she felt kind of stupid for not getting it and maybe everyone else did — “I have no idea what the phrase blue stone lamp means.”  Every other  member looked at one another nodding in agreement. I know it was one of the things I had meant to ask about.

Quite literally, it was as out of place in that poem as if one had changed the Marine Corp song to:

From the halls of Montezuma
To the Shores of Tripoli
Blue stone lamp
On the land and on the sea.

It just did not fit and seemed unrelated to anything else in the poem. It looked like a cut & paste error of some kind.

Anyway, the writer responded simply: “It’s a blue stone lamp.”

The girl replied, “But why is it there? What does it mean? It doesn’t seem to relate to anything else – just kind of plugged in there.”

The writer’s response: “It’s a blue stone lamp.”

As group leader, I asked permission to interject and said: “Yes, we understand that you say it is simply a blue stone lamp, but since the poem doesn’t seem to be about lamps or stone or even light, we are puzzled as to why you chose to include a blue stone lamp in the poem and in that particular line.

The writer responded: “It’s a blue stone lamp. It’s just a blue stone lamp. It’s no big deal; I just wanted it to be there.”

I replied: “That’s fine. We’re not saying you don’t have a right to include whatever you want in your poem, but you presented it for critique, we took the time to read it and consider it, and the “blue stone lamp” phrase has all of us puzzled so we’re asking.

The writer’s response: “It’s just the way I wanted it. I don’t have to explain why I put it there, it just is.”

No one else cared to offer critique.

What happened in this case is we had a writer who believed simply because he wrote something that it belonged. It was his “darling” and he refused to even acknowledge the possibility that it needed attention, clarification. In  fact, by his tone it was clear that he took our confusion over the phrase as an affront to his writing abilities.

He never returned to the group.

“Rules,” as they relate to writing, do not exist to make every piece of writing identical; rather, knowing a rule makes it possible to write more easily, more correctly and more understandably while also allowing us to more effectively break those rules to achieve various effects, without adversely affecting our work.

One fundamental rules of writing is: Kill your darlings.

Kill your darlings means that if a word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, page or even an entire chapter that you really-really-really love and worked really hard to compose doesn’t further your piece, doesn’t make sense to readers, you need to revise, reduce or cut it altogether. It doesn’t belong in that piece of work. Save it for something else.

The aforementioned “blue stone lamp” might have been a peachy element in some other poem, but it did not belong in the piece being critiqued yet the author refused to acknowledge its damage to the work.

Rules, or conventions, or mainstream acceptable methods — however you choose to name them — do not mean every single piece needs to be written precisely the same way. They are not meant to make all written works into cookie cutter copies of each other. Rather, rules are a framework around which your unique fabric is stretched.

However, when we decide to break a rule or convention it is best to have a solid reason for doing so. For example, it’s generally accepted that starting a sentence with “But” is incorrect form, yet there are times when it serves its purpose. You might, for example, want to begin every single line of a poem with “But” to give the piece a fun feel or to act as a kind of chime or ticking of a clock. Knowing the rule about but at the beginning of line lets us know that although we are using it in a piece we know it is not the norm; we are doing it for a solid reason, not simply because we are ignorant of the rule.

Another such example might be a poet who, knowing that the beginning of lines in poems generally tend to begin with capital letters, decides to use no caps in the poem at all. They are not ignorant of the convention, they simply feel that ignoring that convention in this poem adds some extra something to the piece. Poet e.e. cummings, for example, used all lower case letters in his name, ignoring the convention. Yet he used the conventions of capitalization in other elements of his work that showed that his use of lower case in his name didn’t mean he didn’t know the rules. In fact, if you look at the structure of some of his work you’ll see myriad examples of rules tossed out the window. Take his poem “Buffalo Bills,” for example.

Buffalo Bill’s
by e.e. cummings

Buffalo Bill ‘s
        who used to
        ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
                                                       and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

Just look at the lack of caps, except the title and names, the displacement of lines, the use of “onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat” to give a rapid-fire sensation.

Clearly, cummings knew the rules and conventions, as other of his work follows them quite nicely, but knowing the rules and conventions empowered him to know exactly how to break them effectively.

Simply put, if we ignore rules and conventions simply because we want to, it is likely that much of our work will appear as if we didn’t know those rules and conventions. The trick is to know the rules so that when we break them it clear that we know the rules but have broken them as part of artistic license

As I stated in past posts, if a writer intends to write exclusively for his or her own pleasure, that’s great. They can write it however they wish and no one will ever know. If, however, a writer seeks critique of their work they must accept that most writers in a critique environment are there to learn and grow as writers. The expectation is that work presented for critique is shared because the author wishes to know its strengths and weaknesses. Broken rules and conventions tend to be among those weaknesses. Ignoring them simply for the sake of ignoring them and feeling they don’t apply to us is no justification in the mind of a critique partner for such lapses. There must be a valid reason, one that furthers the work in question in some way, to break rules.

I liken this to publishing a book. If you present a work to a publisher, an editor will point out flaws and ask you to address them before they will publish your book. If you take the position that changes are unnecessary because that’s the way you want it, your remaining options include publishing online, a vanity press, an e-book or to not publish at all. However, few readers will read through much of your work if it appears you don’t grasp the rules, even fewer will recommend or buy your work. If that’s okay with you, alrighty then.

In a critique setting, if you expect others to spend time reading your work and offering opinions, you owe it to the people who are dedicating time to your words to try to improve and to not use the excuse that because you’re not interested in publishing that none of that stuff matters. If none of it matters, if you don’t care to improve because you don’t intend to publish, why should anyone devote time to offering suggestions?

If you are one of those with no intention of ever publishing, there is one way to participate in a critique group without creasing your creative license. you could simply let members know, directly and up front in each work, that you present it purely for reading and wish no feedback, or you could note specific feedback you’re looking for. Be aware, however, that many critique group members will not likely appreciate being asked to serve purely as an spell checker or grammar/punctuation cop. Fewer, still, will have patience for complacency and an unwillingness to improve all aspects of a piece.

The old saying, “Rules are meant to be broken,” is probably more true in creative writing than in any other area of life. Although rules can be broken, they must first be understood and never arbitrarily ignored.

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A Leviathan of a Trilogy

My recent foray into the world of Steampunk has left me energized and eagerly awaiting Cherie Priest’s next installment in her Clockwork Century series, Ganymede, due out Sept. 27, 2011; Tor Books.  Meanwhile, I decided to explore other titles in the sub-genre and discovered the Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld.

Westerfeld is the author of five science fiction novels as well as three young adult series: Midnighters, Uglies, and The Leviathan Trilogy which is the subject of this post. You can find out more about the author at his Scott Westerfeld Web site.

Whether or not you are a Steampunk or science fiction fan, Westerfeld’s Leviathan and Behemoth are rock-solid examples of how to not only present rich characters, they could easily serve as educational aids in how to fictionalize historical events as well as how bits of science can be used to create believable elements that never existed but… just maybe… could?

  In Leviathan, the first book in the series, we are introduced to the story’s two primary characters, a young Austrian prince on the run and girl posing as a boy in order to join the British Air Service in Victorian England. The action plays out in fictionalized WWI Europe where war pits Darwinist England, and its “living” genetically-engineered weaponry, against the Clankers (Germany) and its mechanized military.

So brilliantly does the author present his story elements that any disbelief as to the possibility of the characters, history, creatures and machinery evaporates in a cloud of Victorian steam.Even the author’s “tweaks” to history, although substantial, seem more like they’d been gently molded rather than bent into shape with a crowbar.

For an audio taste of Leviathan check out Westerfeld’s illustrated You Tube trailer: Leviathan Trailer.

The second installment in the trilogy, Behemoth, carries Prince Alek and Deryn (Dylan Sharp) deeper into their adventure, complete with the deep lexicon, vivid supporting characters and creative engineering that made Leviathan a non-stop read.

As I stated earlier, you don’t need to be a Steampunk aficionado or a science fiction junkie to not only enjoy but learn from these novels. Both are fun, rich stories whose fabricated elements are so believable that you’ll forget they are pure fantasy. If you’ve ever wanted to fictionalize history, create compelling characters, generate fictional life-forms from scientific reality or create gadgets to help your characters in their adventures, Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy will point the way. Just remember your safety restraint after you’re under way.

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Steampunk Priestess

Just finished reading my first ever Steampunk novels — that is, unless you count Jules Verne — and feel absolutely inspired! The two tiles are “Boneshaker” and “Dreadnaught,” by Cherie Priest.

Ironically, just two weeks earlier I completed and submitted a short Steampunk story that I wrote for a Writer’s Journal contest, not realizing there was an actual sub genre dedicated to my story theme. What fun to discover that it actually fit somewhere!

When I was a kid, my best friend and next door neighbor passed hours beneath his porch pretending we were space travelers, seafaring characters and adventurers of all kinds. Not a single toy or prop were involved; instead, we imagined every single element of our travels and carried with us an imaginary stash of gadgets tucked away in an equally imaginary drawer beneath the imaginary control panel of our imaginary vessels. No matter what danger befell us, our drawer held the answer in the form of brass gadgets powered by steam or other power sources that mimicked the machinery revealed in Jules Verne’s many novels. Although we had not yet read the books, being only in the 6-8-year-old range, we’d read some of it and seen enough photos in books and scenes in movies to imagine just about anything.

Later, when the Wild Wild West hit TV, I counted the days until I’d see what new spring-loaded, steam-powered gadgets Artimus Gordon would cook up for Agent West and himself to foil that week’s nemesis.

Still today I marvel at Verne’s vision and ingenuity and coming alive whenever I see a vintage dirigible and marveled as Dr. Loveless wheeled around in his steam-powered wheel chair in the 1999 film The Wild Wild West.

Ms. Priest brought it all back for me in these installments of what she calls her Clockwork Century series. The series currently boasts four three novels: Boneshaker, Clementine and Dreadnaught, along with a story titled Tanglefoot which is available free online at Subterranean Press. A fourth novel in the series, Ganymede, has a scheduled release date of Sept, 27, 2011.

Mind you, I am not a zombie person; I tend to avoid zombie stories like… well… the plague. Yet Priest’s inclusion of humans who become zombiefied when exposed to “the Blight” added an intensity to Boneshaker and Dreadnaught that gnawed at me even after the books were closed. They are rendered that well. Not sure whether these creatures exist in Clementine, which I have yet to read, but it’s my guess that they do. Sadly, I can’t find a copy available anywhere but my local library, and even those copies are out on loan. Patience, Bill…

If you’re looking for adventure that is almost certainly different from what you generally read, I recommend you give Cherie Priest or something else in the Steampunk realm a try.

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Gone in a Blink, Literally

Years ago I heard a story of an author who had just completed her novel and, just days before her manuscript was due at her publisher, suffered a catastrophic computer crash and lost the entire book. She had not yet printed a hard copy; there were no floppy backups.

Back then, when computers were just becoming popular as tools for writers, crashed hard drives and lost work had not yet become a widely known possibility. Computers were supposed to be safer than paper – Drinks couldn’t be spilled on them, dogs didn’t pee on them or eat them, the data stored on hard drives would last for eons. Over time, virtually everyone has either suffered or knows someone close who has suffered data loss of one degree or another. I know of more than a few folks whose entire collections of music, photographs, audio books or creative writing efforts have been lost in the blue screen of computer death.

Today, even with such disasters a recognized fact of computer life, it’s astounding that the majority of people I speak to fail to retain copies of their work outside of their computers. When I ask whether people have backups of photos, writing or other files the answer I get most often is: “Oh, yeah, I really should do that soon.”

Sadly, soon is often too late for many people.

Writers come in many flavors: Professionals, aspiring amateurs and casual scribblers. But no matter where you fit in the writing ranks your work is an important part of you that deserves protection. Once lost, it can never be recovered. Why pour so much passion into pulling words together then not see to their safety?

Creating backups is such an incredibly simple process, yet I’d wager the majority of writers either don’t back up their work or do it so infrequently that they have no idea how far back their last backup was performed. How and what you write plays a big part in how frequently you should save your work in some alternate form.

If you are a novelist, it’s insanity not to save a backup copy to an alternate (preferably an external) hard drive not only every day, but if you write for hours on end do it several times during each session. A crash in the midst of those two fresh chapters could mean you’ll have to rewrite every word, and you may not feel the same passion that gave you those ideas when you try to rewrite them. It’s also a great idea to save to a thumb drive at the end of each session. I like to save my backups as completely new, dated files. This helps to identify at a glance which file is newest and when it was created.

Even if you’re not a pro, your work is important. If lost, you’ll kick yourself; I promise. So while multiple backups every day might not be necessary for you, depending on the quantity of work you produce I recommend backing up your new work at least once every day, and that you keep at least two backups of your previous work in digital form as well as a hard copy of every piece of work. Personally, all of my work exists on two different external hard drives (in addition to one on my PCs drive), another copy on a thumb drive, and another copy of every poem, story and article I have written is saved in printed and stored in a binder. I print and immediately save copies to my external storage devices whenever a new piece is completed. Keeping a three-hole punch or stack of page protectors (my personal favorite) handy makes sure your pages don’t pile up and get lost. I also find that keeping a hard copy makes it far more likely that I’ll revisit my work and read it from time to time; it also allows visitors to see what you’ve been up to lately. I also copy my “Writing” folder to a CD/DVD twice each year, keeping one in my desk and the other at my daughter’s house.

It only takes a few seconds to create a digital backup, and a little paper to keep a hard copy.  Aren’t those untold hours of work and imagination worth those few seconds?   And while you’re at it, why not back up those photos, tunes and other files at least once each month. If your computer crashes it’s a minor hassle to restore your operating system, but a simple drag-and-drop to restore your data. It’s an absolute nightmare trying to recreate lost data, a likely impossible nightmare.

Backup now!

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Why Exercise?

Whether you’re an accomplished writer or just starting out on your wordly path, there will be times when you either run out of ideas, are looking for something different to write about or simply looking for a diversion from your regular writing routine. Having a rich supply of creative writing exercises at the ready makes it easy to feed all three of these needs.

For more than twelve years, our Writerspark creative writing group has posted almost daily writing exercises.  To date, our 3,452 individual exercises have sparked thousands of brand new stories, poems or short scenes that would not have existed otherwise. Although our members would have certainly been able to write compelling work without our daily prompts, having prompts available assured something fresh to write virtually every day.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of a creative writing prompt is that prompts help to rekindle our creativity fire when it is smothered by writer’s block. I doubt there’s a writer who ever lived who hasn’t hit that moment when, for some inexplicable reason, ideas simply won’t come. Writer’s block is as likely to strike the moment we sit down to write as it is mid-way into a new novel, and when it does it can kill the creative urge and leave projects unfinished. Having a diversion can take your mind off of your current project and stir your creative juices.

Although we are not aware of this process, our minds are capable of working on a great many processes simultaneously. However, when writer’s block strikes, our thought processes tend to short circuit as we focus all of our energy on trying to force thoughts to come. I imagine this to be like trying to get hundreds of people, each with a separate purpose, to rush through a single door at once. The doorway becomes impossibly clogged and no one gets through. Sitting down to work with a writing exercise for a while allows you to ignore that doorway until you have a reason to attempt it again.

Rarely will a writing exercise relate to the writing project that has us stuck; still, the act of writing about anything at all during these blocked periods not only keeps us writing but allows that part of our minds that is still working on our original project to invisibly process information without being forced. This relaxes those pathways and allows them to work more efficiently. More often than not, after a brief period spent writing on an unrelated subject you’ll find ideas are freed up and you’re back at your project.

Another benefit of exercises during writer’s block is that the exercise itself will often spark new ideas for your current project. I’ve often found fresh settings, characters, plot lines or images for something I’ve been working on while writing through an exercise seed. For me, these moments are like opening the little 10-cent surprise package back when I was a kid.

Exercises are also a great way to launch an entirely new piece of work. Even if you’ve got the most fertile imagination on the planet, writing exercises can generate totally unexpected pieces of work that help to energize your creative spirit. Perhaps your favorite genre is romance that take place in a city setting, but then you encounter an exercise that introduces a country general store. Suddenly you’re out of your city setting and a fresh romance ignites between the country clerk and the widow just passing through.

Finally, whether you’re blocked or have piles of great ideas ready for pages, working a daily writing exercise allows you to have plain old fun with writing with no expectation whatever about a finished product. Although I’m no fan of cliches, the old saying “All work and no play…” is just as true for writers as it is for bankers or auto workers. If all you do is focus on writing for specific purpose your work can become stale. Exercises are a great way to recharge and have fun between projects. Exercises are not only a source of fun, you’ll likely find whole new writing projects that you never imagined.

Whether you are a Writerspark member or get your exercises elsewhere, I urge you to work a fresh exercise as often as possible. Thousands of exercises are also available in our 1,000 Days in Writerspark exercise series at our eStore. Versions of all three volumes are available for just $2.99 each for Kindle, nook or as PDF files.

Exercise your muse today. You’ll be glad you did.

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Adjectives Suck…

Adjectives suck the energy from your prose.

Well, maybe not always, but much of the time.

We touched on the concept of “show, don’t tell” in a past discussion that dealt with the importance of concrete nouns and active verbs. Another way to make sure our images remain strong is to minimize our use of adjectives and adverbs.

Although both of these modifiers have their place in prose, it is always best to use strong enough nouns and verbs so that modifiers are unnecessary.

The idea is to make your prose as touchable as possible. Active verbs, concrete nouns, similes and metaphors will get the job done. Unfortunately, writers often turn to adjectives instead of taking the time to craft images that stand on their own.

Take a moment and consider the following National Geographic image by photographer Jason Whitman. For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on the clouds.

Lightning Storm; National Geographic

Lightning Storm; photographer Jason Whitman

In trying to relate this image in prose we might write something like: Low black clouds gathered in the distance.

While that gets the image out there, a far more powerful way to show the clouds would be to use simile or metaphor, while also eliminating the adjectives “low” and “black,” like this: Clouds gathered like battle smoke in the distance.

In the second example the “battle smoke” simile suggest blackness and lowness, while also introducing destructive power. Note also that no adjectives or adverbs are used.

We could go a step farther and present the image in present tense to make things more immediate and add even more power: Clouds gather like battle smoke in the distance.

Of course, while present tense makes things more immediate not every story lends itself to present tense. Still, it can be a powerful option.

You could even give the clouds themselves power with: Clouds gathered for battle in the distance.

Modifiers are not all bad. They are valid prose elements and do serve a purpose. For example, if your story has minor supporting characters or setting elements, it might be useful to say “He considered her a beautiful woman,” to express one character’s perception of a minor female character. Since it is the main character’s perception that is important and not the actual physical attributes of the minor female the adjective “beautiful” takes nothing away from the image.

If, however, “beautiful” were used as an adjective to describe a primary character readers would have no idea what she actually looked like. “Beautiful” is far too subjective a term to give readers something concrete to see; beauty means something different to each of us.

Adjectives are also acceptable when seeded in amongst other more vivid images within a piece, even when they relate to primary characters or setting elements. Capture as many of the key elements as possible using solid nouns and verbs then plop an adjective in here and there for less important elements.

For example, using the image above, once you have set the strongest possible imagery in place to show that setting, you might add “The ground grew suddenly cold.” Since the clouds and the threat they bring are key to this scene, the fact that the ground is cold might not be all that important but may come in handy later on. That said, the fact that the ground grew “suddenly” cold actually adds an air of something unexpected happening. So in this case the adjectives actually add strength instead of weakening the imagery.

Mark Twain put it simply yet eloquently when he wrote “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable.”

While you may find some adjectives and adverbs useful in your writing, it is always a good idea to examine every single instance for ways to eliminate them. Some will stay, some will go. But at least you’ll know that each one that remains is there to further your story.

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Volumes 1, 2 & 3 Now Available!

All three volumes of  our 1,000 Days In Writerspark series are now available for purchase for nook™, Kindle™ and in PDF format.

Click the eStore button above or click eStore to select your format and browse our selection.

Each eBook is crammed with 1,000 individual writing exercises that will not only give you something to write about when writer’s block strikes; they’ll have you writing more lean, vivid prose and poetry than you ever imagined possible. They are true discipline builders.

At only $2.99 each — that’s less than a fraction of a penny per exercise — they’re the best and probably least expensive investment for your creative passion.

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Your Second 1,000 Days in Writerspark Uploaded

Just completed work on my newest eBook, Your Second 1,000 Days in Writerspark:  One Thousand Tight Writing Exercises, Volume 2.

Kindle, nook and PDF versions have been uploaded and should be available for purchase within the next 24 hours. All three versions are priced at only $2.99.  At less than a penny per exercise, these eBooks are one heck of a deal!

Meanwhile, to purchase Volume One, click the WP eBook Store link above or click here to purchased for Kindle, nook and as a PDF.

Stay tuned…


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Opening Sentence – Your Story’s Billboard

Want to lose readers before you’ve had them? Write a truly weak opening sentence.

Uninspired beginnings suggest that entire books or stories are equally uninspired. If the author doesn’t care enough to make things interesting, why should you be interested in reading it? It’s that simple.

Think about your own experiences with reading. How many times have you picked up a book in a bookstore, read the opening few sentences and decided against purchase based on a truly awful first sentence or two? The rest of the book may well be a masterpiece, but if you can’t get past the first few lines you’ll never know. Beginning sentences are the billboards that get readers interested in the product. Billboards that don’t instantly make you curious and want to know more won’t sell much product. It’s the same with first sentences.

Let’s take a look at some truly grabber first sentences from a few literary classics.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

“I am an invisible man.” – Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Who wouldn’t want to read more about a guy who steps right up and declares “I am an invisible man?” Who wouldn’t want to know more about a place where clocks are “striking thirteen?” And how can times be both the best and the worst? – Such opening sentences not only grab our attention, they do so in a way that immediately has us begging to know more.  And so we continue reading.

I don’t care how well written and gripping your story is, without a wiz-bang opening sentence few readers will read far enough to find out how good the work is. With thousands of new books hitting shelves and eReaders every month, the need for grabber openings has never been greater. Your powerful beginnings are why readers will choose you over other authors.

Take a look at this simple line from one of the stories in “The Best American Short Stories of 2010”; Mariner Press.

“By now you have gotten several letters from me and this will probably be the last”;  PS, by Jill McCorkle; The Atlantic.

Although this sentence is simple and straightforward, these 15 words leave readers wanting answers: Who wrote the letter? To whom was it written? Why should the recipient know “by now?” Why were several letters necessary? What was in those letters? And, finally, why might this letter be the last?

Just as with the classic examples mentioned earlier, McCorkle draws readers in with the promise that many questions will be answered, if only we keep reading. And she fulfills that promise.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in much of the fiction I’ve been asked to critique is weak first sentences.  More often than not, rather than lead readers in with questions or some interesting revelation, many writers lead in with descriptions of settings or characters.

For example: He was a tall man, more than six feet by most estimates, with a handlebar moustache and spectacles.

While these are all fine details to help readers see this character, there is nothing here that makes us want to know about him. Nothing to make us curious.

However, consider the same story started like this: Lucien would commit murder tonight, and his great height, handlebar moustache and spectacles would each play their part.

Example two leaves us not only startled that a murder would be committed by this character, it gives the character a name, leaves us wondering who he’ll murder and why, and leaves us puzzled as to how his height, moustache and spectacles might play a role? Readers are hooked.

Another element common to work with weak beginnings is that stronger beginnings are almost always buried within later paragraphs. Writers spend much time stage setting with descriptions only to reveal dramatic elements later. In the above example, the story might have started with descriptions of the character followed by details about the area where he lives, and only later would the fact that he’d be murdering someone be revealed. But if readers stop reading at the introductory details they may never get to the murder.  You need a billboard right there at the on ramp that makes them slow down and get excited about the journey. Without one, they’ll simply drive on.

I challenge you to revisit some of your past stories and examine their opening sentences. Are they weak? Are there lines later in the story that would make better openings? If your openings are strong, could they be made stronger?

Rather than making your openings just places to start, make it a point to devote a good chunk of time to crafting first sentences that really grab your readers’ attention. After all, no strong openings, no readers.






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Not Writing Writing

Most people — I’d wager even most writers — tend to think of writing as the act of sitting at a desk and putting words onto pages with a pen, pencil, typewriter or word processor. While this might be technically correct, the act of composition is only a fraction of the overall writing process.

In reality, people who consider themselves more than occasional scribblers write constantly — Not in the pen to paper sense, but in the sense that they continually consume information that eventually emerges in written form. For writers, our experiences live again within the written works we produce.

Most of us drive a similar rout to and from the places we visit regularly without giving the things along that route a second thought. Unless something truly unusual happens along the way we rarely even remember the trip. We’ve seen it all before. But have you ever turned your head 90 degrees and glanced momentarily out the car window at something that caught your eye? Sure you have. And in that instant whatever it was that drew your attention became monetarily crystallized amidst the blur on either side of you. The drug store was no longer a random storefront but an early 1900s structure with a “Going out of Business sign, a jumble of backing boxes in the window and a steel grate across the plate glass to ward off criminals.

To a mere mortal, these observations might be little more than a monetary distraction; to a writer, however, these observations are not only reveal a potential setting for a story but a collection of images that bring the big questions that fuel all stories: who, what, when, where and why? Our everyday act of observing is, in fact, writing.

Learning to absorb more from every experience will greatly impact the quality and quantity of your work. In that sense, experiencing is writing.

One of the most important tools for good writer is keen powers of observation. Without the ability to store not only the facts of the images we experience but the feelings they evoked at the time, a writer becomes nothing more than a stenographer typing out facts. While this might serve to some degree in the world of non-fiction, fiction and poetry require a deeper sense of the world around us.

Writers must learn to observe everything, consider nothing too trivial to note. To that end, I can’t stress strongly enough the necessity to carry either a note pad or pocket voice recorder everywhere – and I mean everywhere – you go. Not all of us are blessed with the gift of total recall, so a note pad or recorder help assure that our daily experiences and observations are available later for writing. Make it a habit upon return from every outing to transcribe our observations in some sort of journal or computer process. Chances are you’ll not need most of what you observe for today’s story, poem or essay, but if you fail to store them in some retrievable manner they won’t be available when you need them either.


The following are a few suggestions of how to observe as a writer.


Let’s say you’re alone and driving to visit a favorite casual restaurant. You’ve done this many times, but today it’s different; you’re going to experience the visit as a writer. Here are just some of the things about which you might take note:

The Drive: Was the route rural or urban? Were roads in disrepair? Any celebration announcements along the way? Signs of urban decay? Predominance of particular ethnic or age groups? Anything at all that strikes you as even mildly of note should be noted.

The Immediate Area: What structures are near the restaurant? What is their building style or condition? Any signs of note? Does the restaurant simply blend in as almost unnoticeable? Any details of note about the restaurant itself?

The Restaurant layout: How long has the place been in business? Is it family operated or is it a chain? Does the door open inward to suggest a possible fire code violation? Any signs on the door? Is there a lunch counter? How many seats at the counter, and what style are they? How many tables or booths? Are booths along several walls or off to just one side? Is the place self seating? Is the kitchen area visible? Is there music playing? What sort of artwork is on the walls? Signs? Floor covering? How are the walls treated? Old paneling, out-of-date wallpaper or paneling? Or is the place unusually decorated? Is there an oversize moose head on the wall? How does the place smell? Are the menus brief or unimaginably extensive?

People: How many waitresses are there? What style of uniform, if any, do they wear? Are their outfits neat and pressed of unkempt? How many patrons? How are they dressed? What ager range? Ethnic makeup? How are any children behaving? How is that harried mother coping? Any conversations overheard? Loud laughter. How would you describe the service you receive? Is the owner out greeting customers? Is he a character who lends a special flavor to the place?

While we’re on people, try to capture key details about individuals. Imagine what they might do for a living or what they might be saying.

Food: What kinds of food do they serve? How is the pricing? How did it taste? Is there some special that seems forever to be on the menu? Is there something they prepare exceptionally well or incredibly badly?


If this seems like a lot to take in for just one visit to a restaurant, it is. At first, you’ll need to remind yourself what to look for. You may even take a checklist of details to make sure you don’t miss something. In time, however, your brain will soak up this information (and more) without you even being aware that it’s happening. You’ll take your seat and realize it’s an embarrassingly 1970s structure, overcrowded, smelling of ham, a yellowed porcelain menu sign above the kitchen opening, a lunch counter with eight, red swivel stools, the waitresses all wear black scruchies, patrons are almost all college age, the moose head is in fact on the wall… All of this will eventually be captured wthout even writing it down or recording it, but it takes practice. I recommend noting this stuff in your notebook just in case, no matter how solid your memory might be.

While the main exercise above involved observations about a restaurant in also involved a sub exercise about people. Similar observational examples might involve an automotive service station, a hair salon, school, police station or any number of places. The idea is to learn to truly experience and not merely momentarily populate the spaces we visit. The details and sensory images about the places, people and accessory elements of these places will make our writing come alive just as if our readers had visited these places with us.

Learning to notice and bring home the commonplace of our everyday lives becomes, for us, another form of writing.

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