First 1,000 Days Now Available in PDF!


All three Writerspark creative writing exercise eBooks are now available for Kindle, nook and as PDFs at our eStore:

Original Post:

I have heard from a number of writers who do not currently own Kindle™ or nook™ eReaders but would still like to purchase Volume 1 of our Writerspark exercise collection.

With that in mind, I have created a PDF version and a means to purchase and download the file.

Links to purchase the Kindle™, nook™ or PDF versions are available via our WP Bookstore link above or by clicking

Stay tuned for Volumes 2 & 3…


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“Your First 1,000 Days in Writerspark: One Thousand Tight Writing Exercises, Vol. 1″

I’d like to announce the eBook debut of our first in a series of eBooks that will share the more than 3,400 exercises that I created for my Writerspark online creative writing group.

Volume one, which contains our first 1,000 exercises, went on sale this morning, priced at just $2.99 (U.S.) — That’s less than a penny per exercise!

Don’t let the low price fool you. Each of these brief exercises is designed you make you think about the commonplace in new ways and to do so within word counts that you may, at first, believe impossible to achieve.  But you will.

Current versions are available for Amazon’s Kindle™ and Barnes & Noble’s nook™. Here’s where to find them:

Click to order for Kindle

Click to order for nook

Pick up a copy before they’re all gone! — Oh… wait… it’s an eBook. Well, pick one up so you can get started creating those 1,000 fresh pieces of work!



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Start Styling!

Are your Word documents in style?

Don’t worry, that question will make sense in a few minutes.

Over the past 12 years I have amassed a collection of more than 3,400 individual writing exercises that I created for submission to my Writerspark creative writing group. Each new exercise was then added to the growing Word document in which they were stored.

Since posting these brief inspirations required little in the way of fancy formatting, I made do with some bole text here, a smattering of italic there, and cared little for visual impact as long as they were stored safely.

Wind the clock ahead to two weeks ago, when I made the decision to publish my exercises as a series of eBooks so that writers outside of my group could benefit from them. Yikes! Over 3,500 haphazardly formatted text that I’d have to format before I could publish!

Needless to say, Kindles™, nooks™ and other e-Readers don’t play nicely with haphazard. They like things tight and tidy. So I spent one week trying to convince myself that formatting that mess was actually doable, and the better part of last week in disaster recovery mode:  creating and applying MS Word styles to every one of my first 1,000 exercises, swapping in some of my own photos to replace those to which I no longer had rights, and addressing duplicate entries, typos and sundry other flaws. However, setting the font and paragraph styles consumed the greatest amount of time. But I got ‘er done.

What I learned from this nightmare was that although I may not intend to publish something that I write today, that doesn’t mean I won’t find some reason to publish it in the future. So rather than fight the reformat battle some time down the road, it’s a far more simple task to assign word processor formatting from the very beginning of each document, which with Microsoft Word means applying Styles.

The nuances of Word Styles are beyond the scope of this article; however, what I can tell you is they are really not all that complicated. They appear either at the top of your Word toolbar and, for the most part, come with names that are ridiculously straightforward:  “Heading 1” formats whatever your main heading is, “Heading 2” formats a subheading under that; “Heading 3” the heading under Heading 2, and so on…  In addition, there’s a Style for Body text, Emphasis to emphasize words or sections of a piece, and scores of other styling elements.

Why not simply use the Bold, Italic, Underscore, Font type and Font Size buttons to format text?

The answer, in short, is flexibility.

If you use the simple formatting buttons to enhance your text, each word, phrase or paragraph that you set this way is done individually. That means that if you later decide that some words that were set in italics should actually be in bold, you’ll need to return to every single word and reformat the change. Imagine having hundreds or even thousands of pages that required similar changes.

Styles, on the other hand, allow you to change every element to which a particular style was applied by simply modifying that style.

Say, for example, you have three hundred pages that contain 30 chapters, each chapter with a unique Chapter title. As you created your document, you decided to use the Heading 2 Style, which comes set to the Cambria 13 point font. Later, while proofreading your manuscript, you realize that those chapter titles would look far better in Arial 14. If you had formatted each heading separately, using the Font and size buttons, you’d have to find each of the 30 titles, highlight them and change the attributes individually. However, since you had the forethought to apply Styles during your document’s creation, you need only right click the Style selector, select modify, set that Style to Arial 14 and click “Ok.” In an instant all 30 chapter titles change to Arial 14. Done!

Choosing and applying Styles from the outset allows you to make wholesale changes to documents, no matter how large, in matters of seconds rather than days or weeks. Another nifty benefit of Styles is that they allow you to experiment with different appearances without the need to wade through pages of text to make the desired changes. Want to see what three hundred pages of body text would look like in Century Schoolbook instead of Times New Roman? Click! Modify your Body Style, click “Ok,” Voila! Don’t like it? Click “Undo” and you’re back where you started.

That’s not all – You’re not stuck with the Styles that come supplied with Word; you can create your own or rename Styles and save them with your document. Word’s original Styles set remains totally intact, while your saved document opens with your desired Styles front and center in the Styles area.

Whether you’re composing a short story, a poem or even a series of recipes, applying Styles from the beginning, and using the same styles consistently whenever you write similar documents, assures you that should you ever decide to pull them together and publish as a collection your formatting will be cohesive and ready for submission or eBook conversion.

If you want to avoid the turmoil I experienced over the past two weeks, start styling.




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Objectivity: Your Most Powerful Writing Tool

All writers can benefit from having someone to critique their work, whether that work is poetry, fiction or non-fiction. We writers tend to view our work as either nearly infallible or severely flawed. We’re a fickle breed. Thus, an objective second pair of eyes is indispensable to unearth our mistakes or confirm our achievements. Note the stress on the word objective. Although best friends, spouses, siblings or parents may be capable of offering unbiased critiques, we dare not rely solely on them for objective criticism. After all, they love us. They don’t want to dash our dreams of literary immortality.


How do we find people who will offer honest assessments of our work?

For the sake of this discussion, we’ll assume that you are not already a famous, published author. You are, as are most of us, a creative writing junkie who seeks to improve your work.

For the novice or even the long-term writer there are several ways to procure those extra eyes to read and critique our work. These include joining a live creative writing group, participation in an online writing group, attending writing workshops, taking creative writing classes or paying an editor for their services.

While hiring an editor might be a viable option for a more seasoned writer with at least some modest success with publishing shorter works, the reality is that most of us can ill afford the expense simply to hone our craft.  That’s not to say that hired editors are a bad thing; it’s just that paying for advice is best left for that time when you feel quite confident you are near that magical time for paid publication.


Writer’s workshops and retreats are another great paid option. The pages of Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Writers’ Journal magazines regularly announce workshops that last anywhere from a few hours to several days, many presented by major names in the writing field. Enrollment in these events can range from around $100 to many hundreds of dollars. There have even been cruises dedicated to creative writing seminars.

Are these seminars worthwhile? As with anything else that comes with a price tag, value can vary widely. A good rule of thumb is that seminars hosted by major universities tend to be credible and worthwhile. It’s unlikely that such institutions would lend their prestige to a venture that isn’t reputable.

Although online connection with other writers is invaluable, there is nothing more beneficial to a writer than live interaction with fellow writers, especially fellow writers who have published! You’ll not only get real-time feedback on the project writing you do at these seminars; you’ll get real-world tips on how to publish and learn how the presenters landed contracts. Almost as important, you’ll find out from all the other writers there that you are most definitely not alone.

Still, whatever the venue, it’s a good idea to do a little leg work to find out more before handing over the fees. Online writing groups are great sources of feedback, since there’s a good chance that at least someone in the group will have attended seminars in the past. The magazines that advertise these events will also sometimes run features on the events or print letters from readers offering pros and cons on their experiences. Just don’t go in without at least having looked into the events.


f a paid editor or seminar isn’t right for you at the moment, a live writing group is your next best option for objective criticism. Such groups usually meet anywhere from once a week to once each month, and the meeting environments vary greatly. I have seen croups meet at libraries, churches, coffee shops, people’s homes, in parks and even in corporate cafeterias. One thing they all seem to have in common is their memberships tend to be relatively small. In my experience, active members tend to range between four to about ten or twelve.

Why join a live group? Well, the basic human desire for personal interaction aside, live groups offer real-time critique by several individuals with different perspectives, and they do it either free of charge of for modest dues – dues that generally cover donuts, coffee and photocopies of each others work. Deep friendships frequently form through such groups, and the fact that you meet live leaves the option of remaining after meetings or meeting separately on other days to dig deeper into our work. Live groups also offer the intangible and sometimes magical element of being surrounded by other humans who get us that often spurs us to be even more creative.

You can inquire about local writing groups at local libraries or bookstores. The online organization may also reveal groups dedicated to writing. But if you can’t find a group, you can always start your own. Simply post a flyer at your local libraries and bookstores asking for interested parties to meet at some designated public time and place and you’ll likely draw at least a couple of initial participants. Don’t be disheartened by a low turnout; first meetings rarely draw crowds, but it has been known to happen. But those curious first few will likely spread the word, bring friends and help you focus on group goals. You’ll have a beginning.

One word of caution: Although you are the one initiating the group, do not try to own the group. Nothing can kill a group faster than a leader who isn’t willing to allow the entire group to shape its goals. It is certainly desirable to start your group with a set of guidelines as to what you envision; however, you must be open to input from fellow members. Some ideas may not be acceptable to the membership, other ideas may be things you would never have considered but which will add tremendously to the success of your group.


Perhaps the easiest way to become connected with fellow writers is through an online creative writing group, such as our Writerspark group hosted by Yahoo Groups. There are literally thousands of such groups spread across the social networking landscape. There are groups dedicated to poetry, rhymed poetry, free verse, short fiction, flash fiction, novels, romance… If there’s a genre or sub-genre, there’s an online group dedicated to it. Just type the words “creative writing,” “poetry,” “fiction” or some other word relative to your area of interest and you’ll be flooded with potential groups. From there it’s simply a matter of joining and seeing which groups are a good fit for you.

One word of advice that I give to anyone looking for a decent online group is that they look for one that has been around for a few years is moderated. What is a “moderated” group? Simply put, a moderated group is one where someone – usually the group founder – takes an active role in watching what happens within the group. Moderators have the power to set basic group guidelines and then take action against members who break those rules. Rules that may require action might include posting advertisements (spam), attacking other members, drawing members away to other groups, posting materials that are against group rules, etc. Actions taken might include a stern private admonition; being placed on “moderated” status, which means that member’s posts must be manually approved by the moderator before the system posts then to the group; or the member could be removed from the group entirely.

The purpose of a moderator is not to play god with the group. Moderators exist to keep the group on topic and at maintain the peace. A good moderator helps provide a safe environment wherein writers can share free from fear of attack. Odds are that if a group is moderated and has remained viable for several years they are doing something right.

Another important thing to look for in an online group is the number of members it has attracted. While thousands of members may seem to spell success, it may not necessarily be right if it’s your first foray into the world of online writing groups. For one thing, if a sizable percentage of those thousands of members actually participate every day, wading through the flood of messages may be near impossible for a newbie. It takes some time to get to know whose work you’re interested in critiquing and for others in the group to learn whether you’re worth their efforts. Over time, your brain will learn to spot the names of people you’ll connect with, but it is impossible for you to read, let alone critique, several hundreds of messages every day, or for the others to all critique you. There’s also the issue of the moderator being able to adequately monitor so many posts.

Smaller groups – say, groups with memberships under a few hundred – tend to me far more manageable. Since only about ten percent of group members tend to participate on a daily basis, moderating 30-40 people is a relatively simple task. With a lower number of regular participants, you’ll have less to read and have a better chance that others will quickly start to read you. Smaller groups also tend to be more hospitable toward new members than are larger groups. With less to read, you’ll be better able to compose a more thoughtful critique to more authors; likewise, others will be better able to give your work more consideration.

If, after a while, you don’t find a group that’s a good fit for you, or if you feel you’d like to launch a group of your own dedicated to some unaddressed facet of writing, starting your own group is as simple as naming the group and declaring it open.


Whether you pay an editor, attend seminars, join a local group or sign up with an online writer’s group, getting prompt feedback on your work from others reveal your strengths and weaknesses. Sure, it’s great to hear those close to you rave about what a gifted writer you are, but without those objective eyeballs to give it to you straight, you’ll never grow as a writer and you’ll be in for a world of disappointment if your supporters turn out to be wrong. Connection to fellow writers is among your most powerful creative tools.


Stop back next week for a discussion about how to benefit most from live or online creative writing groups.

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It’s What You Know

There’s a fundamental bit of writerly wisdom that suggests that in order to write compelling or even marketable work you should “Write what you know.” Unfortunately, many beginning and even not so beginning writers take this to mean they should write about themselves. While writing about yourself might be therapeutic and even mildly entertaining to folks close to you, the world will likely not share your enthusiasm about you.

The true meaning of write what you know is to weave our personal experience into our work while not necessarily writing about ourselves.

One of the all-time champions of write what you know is author Ernest Hemingway. Whatever you might think of the man personally, his writings are replete with actual experiences from his life that have given birth to some of our greatest American literary treasures. Let’s examine a couple of examples.


In The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway puts his love for the Caribbean and sport fishing to work. Notice how his experience with the various natural elements that are commonplace to a deep-sea fisherman brings even this simple scene to life:

They sailed well and the old man soaked his hands in the salt water and tried to keep his head clear. There were high cumulus clouds and enough cirrus above them so that the old man knew the breeze would last all night. The old man looked at the fish constantly to make sure it was true. It was an hour before the first shark hit him.

See how the fisherman keeps himself alert by dipping his hands in the cold water, how he reads the clouds and the breeze, how he has to remind himself that he actually did catch his prize, and how he remains aware of sharks. Only someone who has experienced these elements and this dedicated a fisherman could bring readers so deeply into this character’s world.


Likewise, Hemingway’s experience as a WWII medic makes A Farewell to Arms a powerful and unforgettable blend of war and romance. The following excerpt shoves readers headlong into a reality that virtually every soldier who has faced death and hardship knows.

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Without his actual wartime experience, it is doubtful that the author could have captured so profoundly the start resignation of this reality.

Note that in neither of these stories does Hemingway write about himself. Rather, he takes his observations and experiences of war and sport fishing and fictionalizes them to create characters and events that, although they may have actually existed somewhere and at some time, are mere fictional inventions designed to helps readers experience what he experienced in story.


Just today, I was working on a story based on an element one of our Writerspark members suggested. I had called for members to post a pet peeve, and one suggested: “People who tailgate instead of driving in the fast lane.” I ran with it and an entire story developed almost spontaneously.

The story begins with a man still angry about his unexpected divorce driving in a car, then closes with a potential romance with someone from his past. The story unfolds rather quickly and the response from those who critiqued the piece was unanimously positive.

What made the story come so easily and so fully in a way that brought reader appreciation? It was real. Well, not real real, but its elements were genuine and written in an everyday tone people can relate with. While I never drove around and got in an accident that resulted in a romance, I have experienced unexpected divorce, I have driven around grumbling about it, I have been tailgated at night, I have been in accidents, and I have met women from my past to whom I have been attracted.

Here’s an excerpt that contains some of the main character’s thoughts as he is driving.

WARNING: This excerpt contains raw language.

European? The bastard wears fucking Capri pants, carries a goddamn purse, and that makes him European? Faithful for 14 fucking years, no smoking, no drinking, no gambling, no drugs, no abusive behavior, great provider, surprises all the time and she leaves me for that… that… whatever the fuck he is?

My personal experience with divorce gives me keen insights into the kinds of thoughts that can run through a person’s mind in the aftermath of such emotional trauma. While the thoughts in this excerpt are not my personal thoughts, they are representative of the kinds of thoughts a divorcee would experience and are presented with what I believe is a realistic tone. Without my experiences, I would simply be guessing at what a recently divorced person might think and likely not come off as believable.


If you’re reading this, it’s a safe bet that you’re a writer. It’s also a safe bet that you’re trying to improve your craft. Over the years I have spoken and corresponded with a great many writers, and one common theme that comes up over and over is how to make our writing more real. Dissatisfaction with the lack of realness in our prose seems an almost universal concern. In reading a good amount of work that seemed to lack realism or believability, it seemed clear in almost every case that the writer was trying to write about things with which they were not intimately familiar.

A writer cannot believably relate sexual intimacy id they have never experienced sex; a writer cannot believably relate being bombarded for hours in a foxhole if they’ve never intimately experienced being in battle; a writer cannot believably relate exotic gardening if they have no experience with gardening.

That’s not to say that solid research and immersion into subject we have never personally experienced can’t result in believable work. After all, no one has been to an actual planet beyond Earth yet untold believable science fiction stories have been written. Still, even though such stories include alien worlds, creatures and technologies, much of what they contain becomes real if we consider that experience with desolate terrains can be turned into other worlds; that observations of the animal world coupled with human behaviors can be turned into alien creatures; and that understanding the predictions of future technologies can generate ideas of nonexistent alien technology.

In depth research coupled with observations of real world elements can and does constitute experience when it comes to composing fiction. It’s tricky, takes a keen imagination and a firm grasp of any science or uncommon elements to pull off believably. Still, as valid as research is to forming the basis for a story, nothing, not even good science fiction can exist without genuine personal experiences.

Take the Star Wars novels for example. Without the universal father/son conflict with which virtually all of humanity has experience, the basic plot could never exist. — So, too, with the bond between brother and sister, the connection of comrades in arms, our human hunger for freedom, as well as the reality of the powerful forever trying to dominate the weak.

While Star Wars never really happened, and the people and places we experience in those stories never existed, our shared experiences with the human elements as well as our current connection to technology make these stories real for us. So while George Lucas never visited Tattoine or a Death Star, he is a human being and brings his human experiences to his characters to make them real. His technology becomes real because he makes it recognizable: light sabers are swords, the death star is the future’s tank, the star fighters are futurized military fighters.


Although you may not wish to create a future world, your personal experiences can be put to use in innumerable ways to create almost limitless story possibilities. Your long wait in a grocery line can become a wait in some post-apocalyptic food line. Your observations of an elderly woman on a park bench, coupled with life with a newly-widowed grandparent could bring a story about aging and loneliness to life. Virtually every single thing you have or ever will see or experience is food for a believable element within your fiction. The trick is to pay attention to life and never underestimate the value of a single experience, good or bad. It’s all food for fiction.

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Simile: Like Writing With A Camera

In the short story “Donkey Greedy, Donkey Gets Punched,” author Steve Almond, Best American Short Stories of 2010, the character Oss has a gambling problem. One night, upon his arrival home, his wife confronts him after discovering his addiction. When she tells him she would have understood, the narrator reveals Oss’s internal reaction:

He didn’t want his wife’s understanding. He had enough of that already. He wanted her indignation, her censure, the stain of his moral insufficiencies tossed between them like a bet.

Oss, rather than being understood, which comes with the known outcome of forgiveness, would prefer his gambling problem be “tossed between them like a bet.” He’d prefer the outcome of the discovery, and by extension the potential status of his marriage, to be matters of chance coupled to gamesmanship as had been so many hands of Texas Hold’em.

This seemingly simple simile, “tossed between them like a bet,” reveals the depth of Oss’s addiction as well as his inability to accept understanding or forgiveness.  Oss, by the way, is a psychoanalyst.

Two additional examples of strong simile, this time in musical lyrics, are found in the following segment of the song “Drops of Jupiter,” by Train.

Now that she’s back in the atmosphere
With drops of Jupiter in her hair, hey, hey
She acts like summer and walks like rain
Reminds me that there’s time to change, hey, hey
Since the return from her stay on the moon
She listens like spring and she talks like June, hey, hey

Although a large portion of this tune uses celestial images as metaphor for a former partner’s having left to explore a different life’s path, the two lines in bold are similes that highlight the way his partner now acts upon her return.

In the line “She acts like summer and walks like rain,” although there are no concrete images present we get a strong sense of how she moves purely from our own sense of what summer and rain are like, and for each of us that image might be different.

For me, summer is a vibrant time of getting out and enjoying sunshine and warmth, therefore the woman becomes (in my mind) vibrant, full of sunshine and warmth.  Likewise, for me, rain seems an element that cleanses and refreshes; there’s also the playfulness of just dancing in the rain, as well as the fluid nature of flowing pools of rain water.  Therefore, her walk becomes a promise of freshness, fluid, cool and playful.

Similarly, the line “She listens like spring and she talks like June” suggests that she listens and hears everything with a crisp freshness that spring brings while speaking with the excitement and energy of summer’s start.

As you can see, simile uses images that tend to be general in nature but universally known. Letting readers know that some element of our story or poem is “like” something they are already quite familiar with helps make that element immediately recognizable and personal. The result is an image that is revealed in far fewer words but that is far more powerful to the reader.

Think of similes as snapshots placed within a line of prose. The thing you are relating is “like” what is in that photograph. That photograph is stored in your readers mind as a memory of something familiar.

Just as with metaphors, caution should be observed in not plopping too many similes in a piece. It is also helpful to keep similes close in nature, as with the Train lyrics we examined where the similes were all connected to seasons. This is especially true if two or three similes are to be placed relatively near to one another in a piece.

With practice, using similes will become automatic. You’ll begin to think of everything as “like” something else and these images will find their way into your work. It’ll be like writing with a camera.

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To Metaphor Or Not To Metaphor

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines metaphor as follows: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).”

Metaphors serve two basic functions: First, they convey elements of stories or poems in ways that almost any reader can relate with. Second, they add poetic depth that makes reading more enjoyable and more memorable.

In William Shakespere’s “Hamlet,” the lead character delivers the famous “To be, or not to be” monologue (universally known as Hamlet’s Soliloquy) which is replete with metaphors.

Here’s the first, and most famous, segment:

To be, or not to be–that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep–
No more–and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep–
To sleep–perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.

In their literal sense, “slings and arrows” are weapons of war; however, The Bard uses them as metaphors for the difficulties in our lives. Indeed, the remainder of that opening sentence considers that we might “take up arms against a sea of troubles,” meaning we can go to war against life’s problems and possible win out.

Why not just name real life troubles instead of using the “slings and arrows” metaphor? Simple, since we are all familiar with the concept of war and the agonies war presents, the use of war to represent our daily struggles magnifies those troubles in a way and to a degree that naming actual problems would never reach. Further, by using his weaponry metaphor, Shakespeare turns daily troubles into enemies and the universal us into warriors – Basically, he suggests that we are all in this together; we fight a common enemy: Our “sea of troubles.”

The next sentence presents another metaphor: “sleep” to represent death. The death metaphor is actually prefaced with the words “To die,” which set up the rest of the metaphor: “to sleep – no more – and by a sleep we say we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

In other words, when we die we no longer sleep in the usual sense, but in death’s sleep our troubles are over: “we end the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks the flesh is heir to.”

The death metaphor continues with “To die, to sleep – To sleep – perchance to dream…”

This is where sleep (death) is pondered, Hamlet wondering whether death is in fact all that final?

The death metaphor closes with “For in that sleep of death what dreams may comewhen we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” Here we reach a conundrum: Although death will end our mortal troubles, the unknown that comes after death might be even worse.

Two powerful metaphors, weaponry to represent our troubles and sleep to represent death, allow just 117 words to make our troubles and the solutions to them far more powerful than any direct discussion of individual troubles could be. These metaphors serve as poetic elements that add depth to the situation and make it more enjoyable to read than standard prose.

Seriously, would you prefer Shakespeare’s presentation or this:

To exist or not, that’s the question:
Whether it’s better to shut up and take it
When you get parking tickets
And someone cuts in line at the store,
Or get angry and start beating people up.

Weaving metaphors into your prose and poetry will not only help your writing become more vivid, it will do so in fewer, more powerful words that add poetic depth.  Hamlet’s soliloquy also comes with a bonus: Alliteration. The use of all those “s” words in the following passage adds additional depth along with a smoother reading experience:

“… suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.”

Putting metaphor to work in your own writing is actually quite simple. All it takes is a little imagination to see everyday things as something else: life as seasons, a person as a car, a book as a person… And if you’re a creative writer we can assume that you’ve got plenty of imagination.

Let’s compose a few sentences and see how metaphor might help to make them more powerful.

Basic sentence: My marriage ended.
Metaphorical: The sun set on my marriage.

Basic sentence: The page of equations looked like a jumble to me.
Metaphorical: A sea of equations churned before me.

Basic sentence: She seemed nearly invisible.
Metaphorical: She’d become a ghost.

These are just a few examples to illustrate how common sentences can be made more vivid and rich through the use of metaphor.

Be careful, though. Metaphor is a powerful tool that can be overdone. Including metaphor in every sentence or even every paragraph or page could water down their effectiveness (metaphor intended). Better to stick with one metaphor throughout a piece than confuse things with too many.

True, our Hamlet example used two metaphors, but those two were used to convey a tightly connected concept: Is it better to fight against our troubles or to die? “To be or not to be?”

Although you can certainly get by without using metaphors, why would you want to? Consider how memorable those lines from Hamlet are, even if you can’t recite them verbatim. The recognizable nature of Shakespeare’s metaphorical images make this soliloquy both easy to relate to and memorable. Aren’t those qualities you hope comes through in your work?

In my experience, creative writers who avoid metaphors in their work tend either to not fully grasp the concept or have difficulty creating good metaphors. If this is you, trust me; you’ll get there. It’s all a matter of practice and studying the use of metaphors in other work.

A clever metaphor is no substitute for good story, however.  Just because you’ve got a metaphor that no one on the planet has ever considered, doesn’t mean your story or poem will work. But a well thought out and placed metaphor can definitely enrich an already solid piece of writing.

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April 8, 1999, 1:29 a.m….

April 8, 1999, 1:29 a.m., I pressed the Enter key on my tired old keyboard and brought Writerspark to life. Eighteen hours later I posted our very first exercise:

Exercise #1: Write 100 words or less (story, essay or poem) which contains these elements — Thunder, watermelon seeds, a shred of cloth.

Why so much time between inception and that exercise? Simple, I had no clue what I wanted our group to be! – Not fully, anyway.  I knew there should be exercises, but what kind(s)? I knew there should be writing submitted based on those exercises, but what type?

After puzzling over those questions for the better part of the day, I concluded that the exercises should be simple, based on simple elements; I knew the work submitted should be relatively short pieces, to make it easier for members to read and offer critiques; I also knew those pieces should be creative in nature (nothing academic or technical), which suggested poetry, short fiction and possibly even creative essays.

A few other elements of online group activity also needed to be addressed: Should I open the group to anyone who wanted to join? How closely should I moderate? Should membership be invitation only? Should there be participation requirements? What about rules?

The result of those latter questions was an open membership that required moderator (my) approval and a moderated period for all new members. Our “rules” were simple:

  • No spam or sales pitches.
  • No arguments or posts that in any way attacked or insulted the group or other members.
  • Critique the work of others at least in balance with what you submit.

Today, with nearly 3,400 exercises behind us, that formula seems to have been the right one, at least for our group. Although I have had to make the difficult decision to remove a few members over the years for either spamming or attacking other members, it is a testament to the members we have attracted that during our 12 years in existence such incidents quite literally can be counted on one hand.

Other decisions came along over the years, one of which was whether to maintain our Yahoo presence of relocate to another group platform. Two such moves were attempted during those early years, each of which proved that despite Yahoo’s many shortcomings, the Yahoo platform seemed the best overall fit for what we do as a group. Sure, there are other venues that offer various bells and whistles that Yahoo doesn’t, but what Yahoo does offer is a stable, consistent foundation for group activities. So here we remain.

Over the years, Writerspark has dabbled in various word games and shared various creative swaps by mail (I still have the postcards and bookmarks above my desk). We’ve even had a few goes at collaborative stories that we called “Rotation Stories.” Although these activities were fun and helped to bring us even closer together as a group, we have never lost our fundamental focus on creative inspirations, meaningful critique and growth as writers.

Since my return a couple of months ago, I have worked to not only update our old off-Yahoo Web presence but have done so on a hosted server with our very own domain:  That has long been a goal of mine. In addition, I have launched Writersblog, a hosted WordPress based blog that will be devoted to various aspects of the writing craft. Writersblog is located at

I will attempt to have something new posted to Writersblog at least on a weekly basis, and I invite you all to stop by, have a read and feel free to leave comments. I also invite you nose around both locations and offer suggestions. They are works in progress, and I’ll be adding and updating content as I learn more about WordPress and Web design.

We’re not a large group (as of this writing we have only 115 members), and that has been by design. Unlike today’s Facebook trend to collect hundreds of friends like they were baseball cards, my opinion has always been that a few active members is better than hundreds of lurkers or folks who take and never give. In my opinion, a relatively low number of active members make reading and offering quality critiques far more likely, the suggestions more substantive. After all, who could possibly offer anything meaningful on hundreds of submissions? This decision has likewise seemed to be the right one for our group.

While only a small percentage of our overall membership tends to be active, we manage to generate incredible work, offer insightful critiques and even toss in a debate or two along the way. Some of our members have been around from those very first days and never fail to make new arrivals feel welcome and worthwhile, no matter the new member’s skill level. Many of you are responsible for keeping Writerspark alive during my recent and lengthy absence. These things, more than anything else, are what make a group “successful.” Indeed, I count as the greatest success of Writerspark our ability to not only attract quality writers but quality individuals. It is what makes us more than an online group; it makes us a family.

I want to thank all of you for being the creative energy that has made Writerspark a source of ideas, meaningful insights, thoughtful interaction and friendship for the past twelve years. As always, if you have any ideas that might add to our usefulness or thoughts about what we are already doing, feel free to drop me a line.



© Bill Weiss, Writersblog – 2011

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Revision: Exquisite Pleasure?

So you managed to get all those words onto your page — Your masterpiece. The story poured as freely and as powerfully from your imagination as water over Niagara Falls, each syllable electric! Your work is finally done.

Well… actually… it’s not.

Many writers, especially beginning writers, believe that getting their story or poem onto a page is what writing is all about. The reality is that this is only the beginning. Sure, they squeezed their story out of their heads and into written form, but all they’ve really done is to allow their fingers to act as stenographers for their brain. The brain told them what to write and they wrote it. They created their first draft.

The initial version of a piece of writing is called the “first draft,” the first of what will likely be several drafts – perhaps three, four or scores of drafts. Subsequent drafts are derived through the process called revision.

Why revise?

Ernest Hemingway put it this way: “The first draft of anything creative is shit.”

While that first draft is an important, crucial part of the process, it is far from the polished manuscript or page it needs to be for publication or even for casual public display.

Hemingway’s observation doesn’t mean that all first drafts are lousy stories or rotten poems (although they could be); he simply meant that our initial offerings will be flawed, probably badly flawed both grammatically and as far as the overall story or poem goes.

First drafts by even the most skilled writers contain numerous spelling, punctuation and general structural errors. These structural errors might include such flaws as incomplete sentences, run-on sentences or paragraphs that start and end badly. All of these elements are easily addressed through careful editing; however, these grammatical repairs are only a small part of the overall revision process. The greatest challenge lies in revising the story itself.

Why not just be extra careful to avoid these mistakes during the initial writing?

Another bit of wry writing wisdom whose origins no one seems to know addresses this question: “Allow yourself to write shit.”

This does not mean that we should sit down and intentionally write garbage; it means we should give ourselves permission to write freely. Allow yourself to shut off that internal self-editor and let your story flow onto the page.

But isn’t that sloppy?

Yes it is sloppy. It’s an absolute mess in most cases. That’s why first drafts are called first drafts.

Author Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith said this about writing: “There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

If you’re going to open veins onto white pages it’s bound to get ugly. While it’s easy to spill the words onto those pages, it’ll take work – lots of work – to clean up the mess.

When we free ourselves to write crap we’re telling ourselves that it is more important to get our ideas onto pages than it is to focus (for now) on the mechanics of writing: Spelling, punctuation, sentence structure. These can be addressed during revision. If you allow your internal self-editor to wrestle over every comma, misspelled word and sentence structure while you’re composing that first draft, that draft may appear more refined but it will likely lack the energy and story elements that it might have had if it were allowed to flow freely. Better to get what’s in your head onto the page as freely as possible and fix any mistakes later. After all, without your creative idea there I no story; there is no poem.

What’s the difference between editing and revising?

Although there may be overlap between these two distinctly different processes, they break down something like this.

Editing is generally thought of as the process that addresses fundamental issues of spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence and paragraph structure, as well as issues regarding going over the word length set in a publisher’s guidelines. Back in the good old days when editors actually edited, these are the issues they were paid to either fix or point out to their authors.

Revision, on the other hand, generally involves rearranging, cutting and adding words so that the story itself is revealed in a more coherent and polished manner than we are able to produce in rough, early drafts. Anything that doesn’t further the story or enhance the imagery in a poem is cut out.

Can you revise while editing? Sure! Can you edit while revising? Absolutely! – The reality is that the two terms have become almost interchangeable these days, but strictly speaking, what we writers do before submitting work to the outside world is most often called revision.

Okay, so where does one start the revision process?

There are as many methods of revision as there are authors. Some begin by correcting spelling and grammar issues; some go straight for strengthening the story itself. Even within just these two directions there are those who allow software to attack their spelling and grammar issues, while others hack through them manually; there are those who strengthen their story one paragraph at a time, while others take the work as a whole and keep adding new material for a while. Which process you adopt will come with practice.

As I mentioned earlier, addressing structural flaws like spelling and punctuation is a relatively simple process. If you’re using a computer word processor, you can allow spell-check to run and  switch on the grammar guide; these will spotlight most problem areas in your initial stage. After that you must read each line carefully to uncover any words the software missed, like “too” where you meant “two,” “there” where you meant “their.” It’s a laborious though simple process.

If you’ve fixed your spelling, grammar and your sentences are complete, what else is there to do?

To answer that, let’s look at a few more quotations that speak to revision:

“I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.” ~ Truman Capote

“I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” ~ Dorothy Parker

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov

When Capote speaks of “scissors” he’s talking about cutting out anything that doesn’t belong in the story – every unnecessary scene, every superfluous word, every phrasing that drags out a sentence. That even goes for words, phrases, sentences or paragraphs that you consider incredibly witty but that don’t in some way add strength and depth to your story. William Faulkner referred to this latter point with the phrase: “Kill your darlings,” darlings being those seemingly indispensable elements.

Dorothy Parker and Chekhov touch on another element of revision; that’s the process of taking individual words, sentences and paragraphs and cutting as much dead weight as possible while filling in spaces with more vivid, active, tangible prose. Here’s where we change things like “He went to the store” to “Ted skateboarded to the butcher shop,” or “Mary wore a shiny barrette” to “Mary wove her auburn hair into pigtails, each adorned with the jeweled butterfly barrettes her mother had left her.” We revise stagnant, nondescript elements into images that help readers to better experience our story, sometimes cutting things shorter, sometimes adding elements, always with a keen eye to enhancing the story.

How do you decide what to change?

Determining what needs to be changed is perhaps the most difficult part of the revision process. With so many words on so many pages, the task often seems impossible. In fact, many writers never get beyond the first draft and therefore never publish precisely because they fear this aspect of revision. But the only way to get it done is to begin.

Let’s take a look at three readily available means for discovering what needs to be changed.

Read your manuscript over several times. Read once or twice just to familiarize yourself with the flow of your first draft.  Follow that with more reading, this time with pen in hand to mark up the pages where things need to be changed. Should a new paragraph begin here? Mark it. Is that image weak? Circle it and make a note about why it was circled, along with any initial ideas for change. It’s a painstaking process, but an absolutely necessary one. And you’ll do it all over again after you’ve completed your second or even third draft.

Another method is to read your pages aloud to yourself, perhaps armed with a hand-held voice recorder that will allow you to later hear yourself read and that can capture any suggestions that might come to mind as you read. Once again, it’s a painstaking process that will require that you not only read your entire story aloud but listen to it again later. But reading aloud does something that reading silently does not. When you read aloud, flawed sentences, words or phrasing becomes instantly evident in that it will cause your reading to pause or stall altogether. Your mind tries to wrap itself around lines that don’t make sense, words that don’t seem to fit. Reading aloud to yourself often finds mistakes that may not be made apparent any other way.

Finally, if you have a willing friend, you can ask them if they’d mind reading your story aloud to you. Armed with a spare copy, you mark spots on the page that seemed to cause problems for the reader. It’s also helpful to introduce a voice recorder so you can listen to it later, but keep the recorder out of view so your reader doesn’t become self-conscious.

Although these three methods work well, there is no substitute for a good editor – I mean a real editor who will not simply say “This sucks” or “This is great,” one who will work with you to point out flaws and suggest alternatives. If you have a friend who happens to be a writer, you can ask them to assist. But make sure your friend knows what kind(s) of help your looking for. It’s important that they know how in-depth or how general you wish their input to be. Where you might simply wish to know if the story made sense or had any major flaws, they may dive in deep and unearth every structural flaw, every out-of-place punctuation mark, every incomplete sentence and even every missed chance at alliteration.

If you don’t have a willing writer friend to help, you may need to shell out hard cash for a professional editor to help refine your work. (How to find an editor goes beyond the scope of this piece) That’s one reason it is crucial that you learn how to do as much revision work yourself. If you believe that you can simply mail your first draft off to a publisher and their editor will fix your mistakes for you, you’re in for one heck of a disappointment. Not only will they not perform your editing for you, they’ll likely not read beyond your first flawed page. Today’s publishers want as close to finished work as possible.

Whatever process you choose for revising your work, revision is a necessary evil of writing for publication. There is no escaping it. However, the more you do it the easier it will become over time; in fact, it can even be a pleasurable experience.

Author Bernard Malamud put it this way in his book, “Long Work, Short Life”:  “First drafts are for learning what one’s fiction wants him to say. Revision works with that knowledge to enlarge and enhance an idea, to reform it. Revision is one of the exquisite pleasures of writing.”

© Bill Weiss, Writersblog – 2011

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Don’t Lose Your Voice

A recent critique session raised an interesting question:  How can a writer integrate elements of critiques into their work without losing their unique writing “voice?” More to the point, can a writer change things based on a critique and still have the end product read like their work and not that of the person who penned the critique? The  answer: Absolutely!

A brief discussion of voice is necessary before we continue.

Voice, as it relates to creative writing, is an often misunderstood term, and for good reason. Voice has been used to define various elements of the craft. Some define first, second or third person narratives as voice; it is also applied to “passive voice” and “active voice”;  then there is the unique narrative signature or style of the writer, that collection of narrative elements that signal to readers that these words are from this particular writer. This latter description of voice is the one most writers think of when they think of writing voice, or style.  It’s the definition we’ll concern ourselves with here.

When we speak to someone with whom we are closely familiar, even in a velvet dark room, our spoken words tells that person who we are. They recognize our voice, having heard it many times in the past. It’s the same thing with a writer’s voice, or style; however, since the author is writing words on a page instead of speaking them aloud, it’s the way words have been put together rather than speech that tells readers who wrote those words. Bits of your personality, conversational style, personal beliefs, politics — everything that makes you you shows up in one way or another in your writing and identifies your words as your words, your voice.

It’s this arrangement and selection of words that lets readers distinguish between words written by Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck or you.  If Hemingway had written “The Grapes of Wrath,” although it might have been the same story it would have been a totally different book. The same is true if King had written “A movable Feast” or Steinbeck “The Shining.” Although the stories might have remained the same stories we all know, the books would be totally different due to the switch in creative voice. It’s impossible to know whether any of them would have been nearly as successful without the unique voice of the authors who created them as we know them. Interesting to think about though!

Where does voice come from?

Virtually every book I’ve read on the subject accepts that voice is a thing that develops differently for every writer from birth through maturity. Childhood environment, family interactions, education, life experiences, favorite books and the people we’ve met all play a part in shaping our writer’s voice. Since your life was lived differently from mine and mine different from the kid next door, we each evolve a different writing voice.

Although life in general forms the foundation for our voice, there’s more to voice than simply having lived.  Even before we took our first conscious step to write a piece of fiction, we had a way of writing.  Some of us wrote long, flowery passages; others composed factual narratives; still others wrote mostly dialogue.  It’s what we felt most comfortable doing. As we matured, read more, wrote more, our comfort zone began to expand to encompass new experiences as well as rules for writing whatever genre we decided to pursue.  We were fine tuning our voice.

If you’ve been writing for a while, you’ve no doubt developed a fairy solid voice. Writing has become like driving a car with which you are completely familiar. No need to look at the radio buttons to switch stations; the act is automatic.  Even with this familiarity, however, there may still be gadgets in your car whose purpose you must discover; you must still be attentive to the road; you must still observe driving rules; you will constantly improve your driving skills; there are still new places to travel. If you’re serious about your writing, the same road to continual improvement must become an integral part of your writing routine. Voice alone doesn’t guarantee success, but your unique voice just may help you sell a manuscript one day.

Writer’s groups, classes and seminars are usually designed to help writers to improve their skills in some way. It is generally assumed that if you are a writer you already have a voice. The trouble is that many writers fail to recognize that the assistance they receive in such groups is not meant to change their voice, it is meant to shed light on various flaws. These groups seek to share elements of writing that can improve your work within your personal voice.  Unfortunately, some writers believe critiques are attempts by other writers to make everyone’s writing just like theirs.  This is rarely the case.

The root of this misconception lies in one simple reality: We are all unique.

When I offer a criticism of a piece of work I am writing it in my voice, as I see it. If I offer a revision idea, I am offering it in much the way I would write it if I had originated the idea, but with an eye toward what I believe the author was trying to achieve.  My goal in doing so is not to say my way is the right way; it is to illustrate that there are less wordy, more vivid ways to accomplish the same goal. The idea is that each author must consider the relative merits of criticism, implement what they like and discard the rest, but do so within their own unique voice. If the critique suggests that 50 words can be cut and offers an example as to how, the author can disregard that suggestion or find ways to cut words that fits their style. Critiques are not rules (although many may cite writing rules), they are mere suggestions.

There is no such thing as a good or bad voice.  Embrace yours. Nurture it. There are enough genres and stories to tell and retell to embrace virtually any writing style.  But when it comes to creative criticism, remember that the goal is to improve your writing within your voice. It is essential that you remain true to your voice while constantly seeking to improve your writing.



© Bill Weiss, Writersblog — 2011


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