Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Hint: Let the Door Swing Shut

Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, visited our local writers’ group via Skype this month. She’s one of the nation’s most successful and respected YA and children’s authors, so we were grateful for the opportunity to chat with her. One of her many great responses to our questions included:
“It’s okay to pull back... You can just let the door swing shut.”
She referred specifically to sexual abuse in YA books, but I think we can apply this to horror, mysteries and thrillers as well: You can just let the door swing shut.
Essentially, this lets us put the gore on the back burner and concentrate on story and character. It sounds elementary, but I’ve tried to read a lot of work recently by writers who clearly don’t get it. Couldn’t finish the stuff. I’ve been spoiled by good horror, and I can’t go back.
Anyway, it’s not a reactionary idea. I’m not suggesting that we can or should return to simpler, less gory work. I’m saying it’s okay to sweep the gory details off your workbench so you can focus on what’s really scary: your characters in trouble.
Those characters teach your readers to be scared. A tightly integrated character whose actions conform to the internal logic of your work can have your readers terrified of a shoebox. Flat, weak characters, on the other hand...well, we've all read it.
There are many benefits to letting the door swing shut:
1) It puts the reader’s imagination to work. Maybe they’re scarier people than you are. Let them fill in the gaps, as long as you’re ready to deliver in the long haul (see #3).
2) Hints of gore, hints of greater horror behind that door, can draw your reader forward. This is called suspense. I spell it out because many writers whose work I’ve tried to read recently seem unfamiliar with the concept. If you know how to build suspense, you are among the new elite.
3) You can always add it in later…when it will count. Consider gore like profanity and use it sparingly for maximum impact. REMEMBER: If your story has hints of gore, you have to pay off. You have to write the abattoir, it has to be integral to the plot, and it has to be a direct or indirect threat to your protagonist. And then you have to twist the plot to scare your reader even more because in the long run, mere gore does not suffice.
 4) Postponing the gore to put your readers’ imaginations to work, build suspense and really make that gore count has another advantage: it takes you a little bit above the fray. There are a lot of young writers out there who were raised on torture porn. You couldn’t compete with them if you tried. You can’t outsplatter splatterpunk; it’s been more than two decades since Clive Barker wrote The Hellbound Heart, and that train has long since left the station. You can’t out-CSI CSI; the autopsy scene has lost its shock value (unless the coroner finds … a bassoon!). Instead, you can luxuriate in the knowledge that when your well-crafted story requires gore, you’ll fall back on years of your own writing discipline to give it exactly the nasty touch it needs to keep your readers turning those pages.
In the meantime, do yourself a favor. Read the classics at Danse Macabre this month, and if you don’t own The Bride of Frankenstein, buy yourself a copy. You’ll be glad you did.
Happy Halloween!
James Kendley has written and edited professionally for more than 30 years. By day, he is an educational software content wrangler. By night, he is senior editor of Danse Macabre , Nevada’s first and finest online litmag. Reach him at . Visit Danse Macabre by clicking here.
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Friday, October 28, 2011

Fear of Censorship

Publishing a novel can put the fear of God into a writer, particularly when the book addresses religious subject matter. When I conceived my novel, Glass Halo, I wanted to write about a priest because ordained men seem inherently interesting characters vested in mystery. My great-uncle was a monsignor; and as a cradle Catholic, all my life I’d known priests—not, of course, in the Biblical sense.

But in Glass Halo, my protagonist—Nora Kelley, a stained glass artisan—does come to know Father Vincent DiMarco in the Biblical sense. I never intended to debut with a bodice-ripper. I endeavored to write a book about vocation, conversion, and higher love.

In my original manuscript, lust between Nora and Vin went unconsummated. My literary agent had high hopes for my manuscript. Many editors expressed admiration for my style, but disliked my story, consistently complaining that my book lacked a pay-off. They wanted my characters to fall into the hotbed of fornication.

I held out. So did my supportive agent. But after several years and several dozen rejections from major publishing houses, she insisted that if I wanted to sell my book, I’d need to add sex to the mix.
I agreed that if I found a scene warranting the characters’ caving in to a taboo roll in the hay, I’d add carnal knowledge. But the dirty deed would need clear motivation.

I wrote a brief lovemaking scene that then required rewriting the last portion of my manuscript—not without trepidation. I feared selling out my original authorial intent. I feared the sex scene would shame me and anybody associated with me. I feared turned-on characters might turn off readers. I feared readers’ assumptions that I had coveted thy neighbor’s pastor.  And I feared trespassing on the Catholic Church’s moral high ground.

When editors wanted even more sex, I opted to publish independently. I never set out to emulate Anais Nin, but I decided to stick with my most recent draft, which seemed a stronger story.

To assure I hadn’t committed heresy, I consulted half a dozen “professional” Catholics. I enlisted as readers my pastor, a permanent deacon, a Jesuit priest, two monsignors, and a longtime consultant to the dioceses of the United States. All six readers assured me I hadn’t endangered my immortal soul. Nor was I setting a precedent: Graham Greene’s character had gone all the way. All my expert Catholic readers were men. Several gave me blurbs for my book jacket.

But, as I feared, when I submitted my book to the Catholic Fiction Writers’ Guild for their Seal of Approval, they rejected Glass Halo. These readers happened to be women. They thoughtfully commented on the literary quality of my writing and the “titillating” nature of my novel. Yet they could not recommend my title for Catholic bookstores.

Disappointed, I accepted their criticism, but decided against their advice to rewrite Glass Halo with a Church-approved ending and publish another edition. I discerned possibilities, but I feared a rewrite with my main characters reverting to hand-holding would never ring true. To retell the story would be bearing false witness because Nora and Vin had crossed the line. There was no going back on my words.

I opted instead to move ahead and focus on finishing my next novel, Only Wild Plums, which, I fear, contains its own strains of controversy.

But fiction reflects life, and life includes controversy. The title Glass Halo reminds readers that we humans fall into frailties. If we have haloes, they’re delicate as glass. I wanted my novel to present a priest as a human being fraught with all the complexities of most men. I drew characters sympathetic despite shortcomings.

Fear shackles Nora. She’s afraid of life, and with reason: She suffers post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from horrific domestic violence. She’s scared to love again; even frightened to work again, given that glass played a role in her shattered past.

Vin, too, wallows in fear—primarily fear of his primal instincts about Nora, not the first woman he’s drawn to despite his priestly vow of celibacy. Frustrated, Vin drowns his dread in alcohol, which only results in more anguish.

As the author of Glass Halo, my lingering fear is that I wrote a book too mainstream for some Catholics, and too Catholic for some of the mainstream. But in the end, Glass Halo garnered glowing reviews, was named a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize, and taught me an indelible lesson: Publishing demands courage.

Glass Halo is available through,, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores everywhere. View the book trailer here and read an excerpt here.

Colleen Smith--based in Denver, Colorado—studied fiction and poetry writing in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her new book Laid-Back Skier offers a light-hearted look at alpine skiing and life’s ups and downs. She contributes regularly several publications and art-directs communications materials.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

…is fear itself.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt uttered those immortal words in his 1933 Inaugural Address. While they then applied to his country in the throes of the Great Depression, they can have numerous other applications, among them to writers who have been intimidated by the iron hand of traditional publishing.

Under the wings of that old and revered industry, unknown authors were transformed into household names, and best sellers sprang forth from mediocre works—with the help of competent editors. Then as now, however, these were the exceptions; most hopeful writers who submitted manuscripts received form letters rejecting their work. A privileged few got personalized responses, and a tiny minority went on to be published.

Writers pour heart and soul into their work, only to have their hopes crushed by rejection after rejection. The keynote speaker at a seminar I attended a few years ago suggested that we toughen up; he said, "Our books are not our babies." Really? I have yet to work with an author who has severed herself from her work. That umbilical cord typically remains intact throughout the writing process and often well beyond, and those rejection letters hurt. Then, when they keep coming, they begin to generate fear—fear that our work isn’t good enough, fear that we aren’t good enough, fear that we will never realize our dream of being a published writer, etc. Those same fears, on the other hand, helped to generate the environment out of which grew the new world of publishing. Today, independent/self-publishing rivals the old system and the old ways. Once considered the illegitimate child of the industry, it now is coming into its own as more and more independently published authors’ works are being recognized as worthy of a serious read.

For the first time, we control what we do in the industry that once exerted total control over us and our publishing future. Franklin Roosevelt had the right idea: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And what would that fear be now? That our own short-sightedness in not taking every necessary step to make our books stand out in excellence in the re-invented world of publishing would limit our opportunity for success?

What are your fears about publishing? Do you feel your opportunities for publication are better today than they have ever been? How have you handled your fears about becoming a published writer?
Linda Lane writes, edits, and publishes books. She supports independent and self-publishing by responsible writers who strive to make the new face of publishing as revered as its counterpart from generations past. Visit her at

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Twitter - Do not be Afraid of the Little Blue Bird

In keeping with our theme of "fear" leading up to Halloween, I decided to write about my fear of Twitter. Well, maybe not exactly my fear. More of my "oh, my gosh, what am I supposed to do" reaction to the social site when I first joined.

I was reminded of that at a writers' workshop I attended this past weekend in Pittsburg, Texas. Yes, Pennsylvania, there is another Pittsburgh and we do spell it differently. Pittsburg is the home of the Northeast Texas Writer's Organization (NETWO) and they do a terrific conference every spring, as well as these periodic day-long workshops. There are a lot of writers in the area, and many others make the 100-mile trek from the Dallas Metroplex to attend the workshops, so there can be up to 50 attendees. Which is pretty good for a rural area with towns of less than 4,000 people in a 50-mile radius.

At this last workshop, of those nearly 50 folks, there were only three of us who used Twitter. One of the presenters, Rusty Shelton @rustyshelton, said he was accustomed to speaking to writers who are not Twitter savvy. That was quite tactful of him to avoid saying that writers of a certain age are probably not drawn to this little blue bird. And that is true. Of the attendees there, most were over 50, and one woman flat-out declared that she would not be on Twitter no matter what Rusty said.

For those just starting out, Twitter can be a little scary. There are days that I am still overwhelmed by the number of tweets that pop up in even just a few minutes. And unless you know how to interact with people and how to use the hashtags and mentions, it can end up just being a stream of tweets on your page.

Rusty Shelton from Shelton Interactive, a digital marketing agency, said that next to a blog, Twitter is the most important tool for a writer to gain exposure on the web. He likened Twitter to a cocktail party, where people mingle and talk about current events and other things of interest. It is not a place where you would go up to a group of folks and say, "Hi, I'm Maryann Miller, and I just wrote this terrific book."

Well, maybe you would, but people would run from you. However, if you just go up and join in the conversation, someone may find you interesting enough to ask what you do.

Another fear of Twitter, and other social sites, is that they can be a great time-suck, but we can manage that if we stay focused and only spend as much time on them that fits for our schedules. Mystery author, Elizabeth Spann Craig, has a lot of good tips on how to balance the writing with social media, and I suggest you check out her blog, Mystery Writing is Murder.

After listening to Rusty, I am feeling more comfortable with Twitter and have decided that it can actually be fun. And Rusty did say that what we are doing in terms of online promoting should be fun, not drudgery, and what we find more drudgery than fun should be dropped.

Another tip Rusty shared was to be careful of what you post on Twitter. Later that day I saw this Non Sequitur cartoon in the newspaper. People are gathered at a new grave site and the headstone reads: "I think it's her butt that makes the pants look fat! LOL" The widow says, "Well, not his very last words. His last words on Twitter." 
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten nice reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly. One Small Victory, is a top seller in the mystery bestseller list at the Amazon Kindle store. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. She will stop playing with her horse and work, honest.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Memoirist's Great Fear, Part 2

My inability to ask my friend for permission to write about him in my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, (read part one of this post here) made me realize something: I was willingly participating in yet another standoff.

My memoir puts forth two: the ten-hour police action born of my husband’s stubborn determination to die on the farm of his dreams with his family intact, despite my divorce proceedings against him; and the twelve-year standoff born of my own stubbornness to face down his act by adhering to our decision to raise our sons there. My summer home friend had also been ending a long relationship at the time Ron died, and our deepening friendship was both life-affirming and misunderstood by everyone involved—perhaps most importantly, by him and me. The pain Ron’s suicide caused him eventually eroded our friendship in a way that kept him from talking to me for 12 years. A whole new standoff began.

I could no longer perpetuate the problem. We'd once had a strong base of friendship and we were still alive—and since Ron's suicide I'd believed that where there's life, there's hope. I would break our interpersonal silence.

So I got his cell number from his sister, dialed, and when he acted like it had been only yesterday since we spoke, I did what any brave-hearted woman would do: I lied.

“I’m writing something for the boys, about Ron’s suicide, and I was wondering if you might come over so I could pick your brain on a few details,” I said. Okay it wasn’t completely a lie—if the project is never published, it might be just for my sons after all.

“Sure,” he said, sounding for all the world like the compassionate man I remembered him to be. He said he’d call me later in the week to set up a time. And I’m thinking, yeah, right.

He called. He came over. We sat in Adirondack chairs overlooking the lake we both love.

“I brought you here under false pretenses,” I blurted. I am not the world’s best liar.

“Before we get into that—how are the boys?”

His humanity and our interpersonal connection ultimately affirmed, I was able to tell him that I was actually writing this memoir for publication. And why. And that he was the only obstacle standing between me and its completion. I explained my concern about his family and why I almost didn’t call. I informed him of his legal rights as I understood them.

“I don’t see why you can’t go ahead and write it," he said.

"And use your first name?”


I couldn’t relax yet. “And your girlfriend will be okay with it—all of it?”

He sucked in a sharp breath and held it, as if I’d sucker-punched him. All was quiet. Even the birds in the trees above us kept their peace.

I said, “She does know, right? I mean, my husband knows all about it, and that I'm talking to you today.”

“Wow," he said. "You have a good relationship.”

He determined he’d tell her. I determined I’d finish my memoir. Upon completion, I promised to send the manuscript to his sister for delivery—no point deviling his girlfriend with it prematurely, he'd said. I said it would arrive with a release form, and that in order for me to move forward, he’d have to sign it.

From our first hello in 12 years to release from liability—in the course of an hour we’d covered a lot of ground.

But when he left, he anticipated no problem in signing off on the memoir—and by doing the thing I feared most, I was set free to write it.

What is the thing you've feared doing most in your writing career? Approaching an agent at a cocktail party? Reading your work in public? Please share!


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. At her blog, Healing through Writing, she is currently posting about the philosophical, logistical, and biological challenges of healing from a triple ankle fracture sustained during Hurricane Irene.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

The Memoirist's Great Fear, Part 1

I was scared to call him.

I had told myself I was free and clear to write my memoir, Standoff at Ronnie’s Place, about my first husband’s suicide. My sons, now 22 and 24, had generously given me the green light. Ron’s parents had died, the executor to his mother’s estate had died, my father had died, and my mother suffered from a dementia that would keep her from reading it even if she wanted to. My siblings had provided input and would not stand in the way. The first chapter had even been published.

The stakes for completing the project were on the rise. Last summer I found out that Ron’s first wife, who’d been a staunch cheerleader for the project, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). She also happens to be my target reader. I’d overcome that first nasty fear of the memoirist—“Who would want to read about me?”—by answering, Deirdre does. She’d always said, “But you and Ron had children together. How on earth did you raise those boys after Ron killed himself?” I aimed to tell her.

But as I neared writing the centerpiece of the project—the all-day suicide standoff at our little Berks County farm—I realized I’d been fooling myself. There was another person involved, one so tortured by these events that despite a lifelong friendship he hadn’t spoken to me in 12 years.

I could disguise him, I thought. Change his first name and other identifying details. But no—my entire project was a search for meaning, and I’d found so much of it in the details of his life, living as he did on the edge of the lake we both considered a spiritual home, in the camp where my father grew up, warmed by a fireplace built by a grandfather I’d never known. To mask such detail would sap the power from my story. And I’d never get away with changing his name. The nearby town is small. The details would reveal him. I could change the name of the lake, put it in another state—but that would be a thin disguise. I run writing retreats for women at our lakeside home. Too many people associate me with it.

A literary attorney told me that the project was dead in the water unless I wanted to fictionalize everything. Or—get his permission to proceed. In writing. All legal-like. Meanwhile, Deirdre's decline outstripped my progress.

Day after day this summer, as Deirdre clung to her functionality by being fitted with braces to keep her walking, learning to “speak” through a computer and “eat” through a stomach tube, my project remained in limbo. I watched Steve from afar. His camp—my grandfather’s camp, on a road named after him—is just six doors down the shoreline. Time was evaporating if I wanted Deirdre to ever read my memoir. I screwed up my courage and…

…couldn’t do it. He had a family now. I saw him splashing in the water with his squealing five-year-old son, laughing, then pulling his girlfriend’s older kids behind his motorboat on a tube. Enjoying a beer on the dock with friends. What right did I have to insert my need to tell my story into any of that?

In part 2 tomorrow, I screw up my courage—and lie.


Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. At her blog, Healing through Writing, she is currently posting about the philosophical, logistical, and biological challenges of healing from a triple ankle fracture sustained during Hurricane Irene.

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Friday, October 21, 2011

Be My Guest: Tracee Jackson

Please help us welcome Tracee Jackson to The Blood Red Pencil.

Editors are to writers what paint is to walls, polish is to furniture, vinegar is to glass: they make words shine. But I write non-fiction, you say. Marketing collateral, websites, speeches—all the stuff that tells and sells. Why do I need an editor? As a nonfiction writer for almost 15 years, I’m here to tell you an editor should be viewed as your clean team, your partner in perfection, your “got your back” friend. If you’ve neglected to form a ménage a trios between you, your words, and an editor, you don’t know what you’re missing. Spread the love.

#1. Get one.
Some of the most successful nonfiction writers would never think of “going to print” without an editor checking, reviewing, red-lining, or urging a rewrite. Take Malcolm Gladwell, for example, the New Yorker column writer-turned-best-selling nonfiction author whose second book, Blink, hit the New York Times best-seller’s list and stayed for an unprecedented 275 weeks. He knows the value of having a relationship with the right editor or, in his case, a team of editors. According to Gladwell, his army of editors makes him look way better than he actually is.

#2. Listen to them.
As long as there have been writers, there have been people advising them how to do it. The first great writing advice book was The Elements of Style, a 1918 guide by William Strunk, Jr., a professor of English at Cornell University. Strunk, who believed that writers used too many words to express their ideas, advocated an economy of style. His advice: Omit needless words—vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short or that he avoid all detail… but that every word tell.

#3. Appreciate honesty.
As with any successful relationship, honesty is imperative. Find an editor you can respect, and appreciate it when they say, “This sentence or this paragraph of this chapter has got to go.” I love how Robert Traver put it: A writer judging his own work is like a deceived husband—he is frequently the last person to appreciate the true state of affairs.

#4. Delete qualifiers.
In 1959, E.B. White of The New Yorker magazine—and a student of Professor Strunk’s forty years earlier—came out with a revised and updated edition of The Elements of Style. In the new edition, White continued the tradition of phrasing prescriptive writing advice in dramatic metaphorical ways. He wrote: Avoid the use of qualifiers. Rather, very, little, pretty—these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.

#5. Get rid of exclamation marks.
I can’t say it any better than F. Scott Fitzgerald when he advised writers: Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke. Miles Kingston concurred in a 1976 Punch article: So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure. It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading LAUGHTER to a studio audience.

So whether fiction or nonfiction, all works should be edited. From a simple business brochure to a thesis, a short story to a screen play, a magazine article to a novel, you need an editor. Don’t sell yourself or your work short by omitting this vital step to make your words shine.


Tracee Jackson, a graduate of the University of Denver with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication, has over 14 years experience in writing, editing, and marketing. An award-winning writer and editor, she specializes in transforming technical material into reader-friendly content. Companies across the nation utilize her services to put the polish on RFQ’s and RFP’s, create marketing collateral, or rebrand and revitalize themselves. She has also served as executive producer of a consumer advocacy nationally-syndicated talk radio show. Visit her at
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Be My Guest - Susan Malone

Thanks so much, Susan, for giving us something to consider with our writing.


What makes for an effective plot?  How do you keep a tale moving?

Plots are really the simple part. The difficulty comes in the telling—creating the story effectively and believably, with the right cadence pulling all of the elements together.  You can outline any book out there (including your own) by simply jotting down what happens in each chapter.  But is that the plot?  Or the storyline?

The plot is the gist, the point, and part of the theme of the book.  And the storyline is how you get from point A to point Z.  I.e., the plot is the entire forest, and the storyline, the trees.  Both organization and structure come into play here as well, the organization being the road map that the structure bolsters up.

So, once you have your plot clear in your own head—boy finds girl; boy falls in love with girl; girl dumps boy; boy spends rest of the novel trying to win girl back—the real work begins in regard to moving along the plot, otherwise known as the fleshing out of the storyline.

Many factors come into play within the specter of creating interesting and believable storylines and plots. First and most important (in that everything hinges on it) is focus.  Most often I see storylines that ramble.  One might begin with a bang-up cliffhanging scene, which really pulls in the reader and sets a great tone, leaving us champing at the bit to turn to the next chapter. But then, that next chapter wanders off to Brazil somewhere (a setting which then never reappears in said book), often with different characters entirely, and the thread of the narrative is lost. What just happened to your plot? Your storyline? The protagonist in whom I’ve just invested my trust to take me through the course of this book? In other words, where are we, and who the heck are these people?

Or, the narrative is going along fine, except the writer keeps drifting off on tangents that sort of relate, but don’t add one thing to the plot or characters.  An old adage in this business says to not take readers down a road that doesn’t lead directly back into the main stream—those readers just may take that road and not come back (i.e., put down the book and not pick it back up).  A good litmus test for every single scene in the book is: Is this vital to my plot/characters?  Can I lose the scene and lose nothing of real value (except, of course, brilliant writing :) ?

Pacing is key, and by design.  It doesn’t just happen. This relates to focus, as again, without it, everything pretty much falls apart.  But pacing includes a variety of factors, even the cadence of your voice.  Does your prose and sentence structure relate directly to the type of book you’re writing?  As an example, the long, rambling nature of Faulkner’s prose would be completely out of place in a Thriller, where the style required through so much action is short and crisp, in places, almost staccato.  Next, are your plot points strategically placed?  Plot points are what make your story move.  You’re looking overall at roughly three major plot points, and a host (nine or so) of minor ones.

I see a lot of belabored minor points—where the writer spends way too much time beating the reader over the head with some issue—and conversely, big holes remain that the reader can’t bridge.  Spend your time creating the important things, and then you can tell the lesser ones.  Yes, some of this is by feel.  But much of it’s logic too.  And when you focus on the nuts and bolts, the feel will eventually come.  Writing is an odd amalgam of art and skill, with the latter feeding the former at just the right times.

See, writing books is simple.  Just decide on your plot.  Then outline how you get from A to Z.  Organize it with effective plot points.  Make sure the pacing fits the book.  Stay focused.  Simple.  We only run into problems when we confuse simple with easy.


Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to Traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

Posted by Maryann Miller, who has never found anything related to writing easy. 

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Be My Guest - Terry Odell

 Thanks again to Terry for stopping by with another helpful post.

Watch Those INGs

Feedback from a critique partner pointing out every time I'd used an "ing" word made me stop and think about this verb construction.

At the very first writer's conference I attended, an agent said she would reject a query with more than 1 sentence beginning with the "ing" construction. Her explanation—it's too easy to make mistakes with that sentence structure.

But is it wrong? No. You have to be careful, and you have to pay attention. There are different reasons to avoid, or minimize use of those pesky "ing" words.

First, the dangling modifier. In my first critique group, I held the prize for creating an answering machine that gave neck massages. I'd written, "Rubbing her neck, the blinking red light on the answering machine caught Sarah's eye." Ooops. (But I would like a machine with that function!)

Make sure the noun or pronoun comes immediately after the descriptive phrase. Thus, the above example could be "Rubbing her neck, Sarah noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine."

Next, the non-simultaneous action. "Running across the clearing, John rushed into the tent." Or, "Opening the door, Mary tripped down the stairs."

John can't be getting into the tent while he's running across the clearing. And Mary needs to open the door before she goes downstairs.

And lastly, there's the "weak verb" construction. If your "ing" verb follows "was", take another look. "John was running across the clearing" isn't a strong as "John ran across the clearing."  Of course, you'll want to use stronger verbs, such as raced, sped, or barreled, but the idea is the same.

So, when you're looking over your manuscript, you might want to flag words ending in "ing" and take another look to be sure you haven't made any of these basic errors.

Another hint: if you're using Word, you can do a "find" using wild cards to flag words ending in "ing." In Word 2003, which is what I use, it's Edit/Find/More. Then check the "use wildcards" box, and then special, where you'll find the command for end of word.

What you'll find is that you should type "ing"  into the search box. Then you can either look at them one at a time, or check the "highlight all items found in:" box.  I don't know the commands for other versions of Word, or other word processing programs, though. Maybe some other folks can chime in with suggestions for how to do this in other programs.


Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She’s the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists. To see all her books, visit her Web site. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

Posted by Maryann Miller who tries very hard to use the "ing" verbs in the right way.

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Monday, October 17, 2011



I’ve been suffering from extreme insomnia recently and I know fear can raise its ugly head during the wee hours when you are between awake and doze. You are most vulnerable then and negative things keep running through your mind in a continuous loop.

As writers, we all experience this to some degree at various stages of our work. First it might be “I can’t come up with an idea.” Then, after a great start where the story flows effortlessly, there is that sudden stop and “Oh no! Where do I go next? What if I can’t finish the story?” The fear seems real.

After you finish the story and polish it to a high sheen, then fear sets in again: “What if I can’t get it published? What if nobody likes it?” Any small word of critique becomes that F.E.A.R.

OK, say your book gets published and after the happy dancing and celebrating calms down, then next phase of fear sets in. “What if I’m a one-shot wonder? That was just a fluke. I’ll never be able to do that again.”

I’ve been there, done that—all of it. Fear is destructive and counter-productive. We all need to confront that Fear and talk it down. You know you are doing the best job you possibly can, and you WILL finish that WIP, and readers WILL like it (especially if you hire an independent editor to help you)!

Think positively, take the next step, and persevere. Don’t let fear rule your writing life. And check out this article by Katherine Swarts about overcoming fear.


A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Cues from the Coach: Writing in 3D

I remember 3D movies from decades past and the 3D comic books my brothers and I used to read. Both required us to wear special “glasses” that allowed the images to appear to rise from the page or leap off the silver screen. While the pictures fascinated me, the glasses proved to be more of a nuisance than I wanted to deal with. Some new 3D movies have reached the theaters, but I know nothing of the technology or whether they also require special glasses to get the desired visual effect. But because we live in a 3D world, the concept makes sense and has a certain appeal.

Written words on the pages of a book, however, are not 3D, so how can this apply to writing? Let’s consider two examples.

Example #1:
Lisa looked up at the azure summer sky, and the bright noonday sun made her squint. Cotton candy clouds dotted the horizon. Birds sang on the power lines at the back of the property, and squirrels chased one another up and down the tree trunks. She let her chilly body soak up the warmth before she went back inside the air-conditioned building. It might be a long time before she could feel the sun again because, by now, someone must have discovered that she was no longer in the ward. Whoever left the door unlocked would no doubt be fired.

Example #2:
Lisa squinted. The bright noonday sun almost blinded her, but she refused to move under the giant oak tree, where the squirrels chased one another up and down the trunk. Bird songs coming from the power lines at the back of the property sparked a memory that teased her mind, then blossomed forth in the recollection of weekends spent at her grandmother’s house when she was a little girl. She forced it away and turned to the cotton candy clouds that snuggled next to one another atop the horizon. Unwrapping her arms from around her waist, she raised them upward and welcomed the sun’s warmth into the chill that had held her body captive since that horrible day. A moment later, her arms fell to her sides. Her head drooped. She shuffled toward the door in the back of the building. It might be a long time before the sun would warm her again. They must know now that she had slipped out of the ward. Whoever had left the door unlocked would no doubt be fired.

Which of these paragraphs jumps off the page and pulls you into the story? Which one is written in 3D?

Linda Lane edits books and coaches writers in the process. She has edited three award winners and strives to make each book she edits a winner. Visit her website at

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Be Afraid

My name is Helen Ginger and I’m addicted to my computer. I had never thought of myself this way until a month ago when my computer crashed, black-screened, nada, nothing, dead as a doornail. My worst fear. If you’ve ever experienced that, it probably became your nightmare as well.

Fast forward a month and I’m still without my computer. I’m waiting. Patiently. Okay, not so patiently. My iPhone is not suited to checking and writing email. I can get some things done on my iPad and, when my husband’s out of town, I can use his computer. There are things even his computer can’t do. Only my computer has Dreamweaver on it, the software I use to update my site weekly. Or…used to update weekly.

Not only am I an editor, I’m a writer. Part of that “worst fear” of losing my computer is that the tech guy may not be able to retrieve all my data, including the manuscript I was working on. The good news is that I immediately emailed my friend and fellow editor to see if she still had the copy I had sent her to edit. (Yes, editors have editors.) She did and promised to save it. Having to rewrite from that point is better than trying to rewrite from the document as it stood back in early Spring – the last time I’d backed up.

There lies my real problem. I’m good at backing up after a computer crash – for about six months, then I slack off. I forget. Not anymore. After this crash, I will sign on with an automated online backup. I can reload Dreamweaver and Word and PhotoShop and all the other software. I can’t reload months or years of not-backed-up data.

So, I’m here today to tell you, with Halloween only a couple of weeks away, be afraid. Most importantly, though, be aware. Backup. Or, like me, get a service to backup for you.

If you don’t, you’re likely to hear what I hear – the dying screams of data and manuscripts adrift in the endless blackness of cyberspace.
 Helen Ginger is a freelance editor, book consultant, blogger, and author of three books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareer series. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. In addition, her free ezine, Doing It Write, which goes out to subscribers around the globe, is now in its twelfth year of publication. She has served as a Board member and Executive Director of the Writers’ League of Texas and currently works as a Volunteer Chair for the Texas Book Festival. She's also an Owner/Partner and the Women’s Marketing Director for Legends In Our Own Minds®.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Do You Need a Dragon?

There are many pieces of writerly advice. One I read warned Don't Fill Your Plot Holes with Dragons and made excellent points about realistic and unrealistic ways to deal with plot holes.

Just for fun, though, think of the advantages of using dragons.

Your character needs to be in a different location. Don't worry about climbing into a car or taking a train. Call a dragon.

Your main character is in danger with no way out. After cursing at yourself for writing yourself into a corner, remember your friendly dragon. Let him appear and scare the skin off of whatever is imperiling your character.

It's a cold night and your character is freezing. Hello, dragon! A bit of fire, if you please. Problem solved.

Your character has a deep secret, which you alluded to many times, but never actually figured out what it is. Solution? He has a pet dragon.

The dialogue drags. Talk about the dragon.

You discover your main character is, in fact, rather hum-drum. No one with a dragon is hum-drum.

Your main character needs a sidekick. How cool would a dragon sidekick be?

Your plot needs more conflict. The dragon can turn nasty.

Best of all?

Your main character is stuck in a deep hole. Oh, dragon??

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Elspeth Antonelli is an author and playwright. Her twelve murder mystery games and two plays are available through host-party.comShe has also contributed articles to the European writers' magazine "Elias". Her blog, "It's A Mystery," explores the writing process with a touch of humor. She is on Twitter as @elspethwrites.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Leave a Tip on the Blood-Red Pencil - What Do You Know?

Well, what do you know? Really. I bet you know more than you think you do. You don't have to be a bestselling author to have picked up some tricks of the trade.

Today, as on most second Tuesdays of the month, we're inviting you to share your writing tip on our
Leave a Tip Day at The Blood-Red Pencil.

Make it simple, or complex. Maybe you've heard an addage many times and have followed it by rote. That doesn't mean everyone else here has heard of it. Or, maybe you've thought up a helpful hint all by yourself and it's worked for you.

Your tip can be about any aspect of writing, publishing, or editing, and can be about any format or venue, traditional, indie, self-publishing.

Whatever the case, our readers are eager to soak in your knowledge. You can make them happy by leaving your tip in our comment section. You may also wish to include your website or blogspot URL, in the event someone reading your idea wants to learn more about you.
Also, we'd appreciate your telling us where you've heard of us, but it's not a requirement.

Here's my tip:

If you've risked using the same verb ad infinitum in your manuscript, yet still feel compelled to portray the same sort of action, consider using the Thesaurus in your word processing program for a new way to say the same thing. Or, if you're old fashioned, you may even own a print Thesaurus you can consult.

This is basic, yet many times I sit and rack my brain for a new word, before giving in and hitting the Thesaurus button, and finding just what I've been looking for.

Your turn now. What do you know?


Morgan Mandel

Morgan Mandel writes mysteries,
romances, and thrillers. She's a
past president of Chicago-North
RWA, was the Library Liaison
for Midwest MWA, and is an
active blogger and networker.
Her personal blog is at:
and website is: http://www/
See her new senior blog at
Her romantic suspense, Killer Career, is 99 cents on
Kindle and Smashwords, and is also in print. Her thriller,
Forever Young - Blessing or Curse is targeted for release
soon on Kindle and at Smashwords before going into print.
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Monday, October 10, 2011

Writing in 140: Writers Read

If one more writer tells me they hate reading…

It’s hard for me to fathom how someone who wants to write would hate to read…or would have so many lame excuses for why they don’t read: I don’t want to mistakenly borrow from someone else’s work. I want to write MY story, not read someone else’s story. Reading is boring. Among other things, reading helps us to form critical opinions on what works and doesn’t work—for us—in writing. It helps us to see structure and format. It allows us to develop and cultivate that visual playground where stories form and grow—those stories of others and ultimately our stories. If not for the stories I enjoyed as a child, I would’ve never made the decision to become a writer. Reading kind of begets writing, don’t you think?
Writing in 140 is my attempt to say something somewhat relevant about writing in 140 words or less.

Shon Bacon is an author, doctoral candidate, editor, and educator. She has published both creatively and academically. Shon also interviews women writers on her popular blog ChickLitGurrl: high on LATTES & WRITING. You can learn more about Shon's writings at her official website, and you can get information about her editorial services at CLG Entertainment. Currently, Shon is busy editing, writing, and pursuing her Ph.D. in Technical Communication and Rhetoric at Texas Tech University.

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Saturday, October 8, 2011

It's a Contest

The Blood Red Pencil is one of the finalists in the Contest for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011. Vote for the blog you like and help us win great prizes from All votes must be entered between September 26th and October 17th, 2011. The grand-prize winners and two runners-up will be announced on or before October 27th, 2011.

We have decided that should we win, if we win, when we win, we will use the gift card to order some books on writing that we will then offer to our readers.

So please take a moment to go vote for us, assuming that you really do like the blog enough to do that, and help spread the word via your blogs, Facebook Twitter, etc. You can copy the line below to use in your efforts to help us.
Vote for the Best Grammar Blog of 2011- Blood Red Pencil is one of the finalists - English Grammar Newsletter
 Thanks, and now back to our regularly scheduled program.  
Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten nice reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly. One Small Victory, is a top seller in the mystery bestseller list at the Amazon Kindle store. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. She will stop playing with her horse and work, honest.

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Friday, October 7, 2011

Busted!—Roland Merullo Caught Using Language in a New Way

Language lovers, grammar geeks, and students of story structure will glean added satisfaction from the tale Roland Merullo spins in his most recent novel, The Talk-Funny Girl, in which Merullo uses language itself as a barometer of character change. His protagonist may bring to mind flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whose stumbling block in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion was the way her Cockney accent revealed her working class roots. But Merullo’s Marjorie has even worse problems: she knowingly mangles syntax.

It’s page seven before this seventeen-year-old girl, raised in rural New Hampshire, speaks a sentence at all: “I come for a try for paying work,” she says, keeping it short and simple so as not to expose her quirks of speech. But we have already picked up the problem. By the time we hear her speak to her parents at home, an excerpted exchange includes sentences like:
“Mister Warner told he might have a work to give.”
“Look on me in my eyes, you Majie you….Might?”
“Probly will. Next week he could of.”
“You lie maker. Probly dint even go.”
One quickly gets the sense that “Majie” is not a loving mother’s endearing diminutive. Her parents mangle her name, too.

Whereas Henry Higgins takes on Doolittle to win a bet that he can get her to pass for upperclass, a desire the girl buys in to, we quickly understand that Marjorie’s personal stakes are too high to seek escape from her family’s odd subculture. Despite teasing and the way it holds her back in school, she wears the family’s odd mode of speech like an arm badge of compliance. Only one thing betrays her desire to change: when she finally finds the job that meets her impoverished parents' demands, she tells the employer her name is Laney, a twist on the middle name she prefers.

The employer, Sands, is no game-playing Henry Higgins. He’s a man on a spiritual journey building by hand his own cathedral, work Laney finds healing. She finds it hard to trust him, though, given her background and the fact that a kidnapper has been killing teenage girls in the area. Sands challenges Laney’s odd speech and she clings to it, but his friendship and quiet presence slowly change her from the inside out.

What I love most, perhaps, is the implied promise in this story’s first-person narration. Once she obtains the maturity to look back and evoke the entire arc of her story, the same person who quotes herself as a teen saying, “Your uncle hasn’t a lie maker ever either,” writes sensitively of her mother:
When my mother was paying for food at the market, or cooking something at the stove, or sitting poor-postured in the passenger seat of the pickup, it often seemed to me she was only half present, that her real self, her spirit, lay hidden behind the disguise of her slim body. In certain kinds of light, I saw her as a skeleton or a ghost, the clothes and skin and flesh and hair just things that had been pasted on and could fall away with one shake.
Laney's language is not a function of poor education and breeding after all. It is a remnant of abuse, and the book’s lovely prose, a promise of salvation.
Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Is Your Writing Keeping You Awake?

Unless you have the perfect writing schedule that allows you to spend only daylight hours in front of your computer screen, or you write longhand at night, the chances are your evening writing, research, or social networking sessions are affecting your sleeping patterns and therefore your health.

Research suggests that limiting your exposure to blue-toned (daylight-like) lighting after sunset will reduce your risk of insomnia and other health issues caused by the disruption to your circadian rhythms. Luckily there is a solution in the form of software that can alter your computer’s range of lighting tones from short wavelength (blue-ish) to longer wavelength (red-ish) so that your screen is more in line with the lighting after sunset.

I’ve been trying free software called F.lux, which I’m very happy with. It’s a small program that downloads quickly and, when run, calculates your location and time since sunset, and alters the tones of the screen accordingly (although it hasn’t picked up on our switch to daylight savings time here in Australia). There is nothing I’ve had to enter or calculate myself; the program simply runs in the background. To begin with the changes were most noticeable on the whites of my screen, which gradually turned a pale sepia, but which I found quite pleasant and easy on my eyes. I now barely notice it. Prior to this I had been altering the colour of my page background in Word while writing late at night as the bright white made my eyes water. On the other hand, my husband really dislikes the colourising effect of F.lux, so it is a very personal issue. The level of red tones can be altered, however, if you find it too distracting, by selecting a different lighting style, such as “fluorescent” as opposed to “halogen”. The effect can also be turned off if you need to do colour-sensitive work at night, or if you have a deadline and need to stay alert.

F.lux was developed by a husband-and-wife-team who noticed the dramatic difference in light colour at night and realised how simple the solution would be to program.

This is a little program I’ll keep using, and I think this is a great way to keep writing a bit longer in the evenings without sacrificing health and comfort, or resorting to paper. After all, it should be your plot and characters keeping you awake at night, not your computer screen.


Elsa Neal is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Time Out for a Little Fun

Some writing tips from the funny papers....

From Sherman's Lagoon:

Turtle: And what's young Ernest up to this fine day?

Ernest: Writing.

Turtle: Isn't that refreshing? A youngster using his brain for creative purposes. These days we see way too many kids just playing video games. What are you writing? A short story? A poem? A song?

Ernest: Computer virus.

And a whole series from Pearls Before Swine:

Goat: What are you writing, Pig?

Pig: A romance novel. But I'm struggling with the main characters' names. So far all I have is the woman's name... Juliet.

Goat: Well, Juliet's a great name. Harkens back to the most beautiful romance of all time. "Romeo and Juliet" by William Shakespeare. What's the man's name?

Pig: Bean Dip.

Goat closes his eyes in disbelief and Pig says, "Really kills some of the intimate scenes."

The next day, Rat is trying to get his share of the millions earned by authors:

Goat: Hey, what happened to you? You're not overweight anymore.

Rat: Yup. I lost the pounds. Now I just have to finish this big book on how I did it and I'll be rich, rich, rich.

Goat: Is that what you are writing now?

Rat: Yeah. It's a three hundred page masterpiece containing all my weight-loss secrets. Have a look...

Goat reads: I ate less.

Again, Goat closes his eyes in disbelief and Rat says, "I plan on using a very large font."

Typing away on his keyboard, Pig finishes the opening of his romance novel:

Camille stood on the windswept cliff, the night's stars the only witness to her lonely plight. One year had passed since her lover boarded the train for the war. One year of tears and long nights and desperate letters. But as the separation grew, so did the time between his letters, each less passionate than the last.

Now, on the threshold of the reunion to which they had once both counted down the minutes, she stood uncertain that he would return to her at all.

And then, at the hour of the darkest night of the soul. A silhouetted figure. An army uniform. A familiar gait. And a smile illuminated by the stars. And a joyous cry from Camille to her lover.... "BEAN DIP!"

Goat and Pig come in to read the pages then Goat says, "See, I think the man needs a different name."

Pig: Names are so hard.

Rat: Call the chick "Fritos." Then you've got something.

Maryann Miller is an author and freelance editor. Her latest book is Open Season, which has gotten nice reviews from Library Journal and Publisher's Weekly. One Small Victory, is a top seller in the mystery bestseller list at the Amazon Kindle store. Visit her Web site for information about her books and her editing services. If you have a good book, she can help you make it better. She will stop playing with her horse and work, honest.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ask the Editor Free-For-All Is Back Today

In Illinois, October is a transitional month. The sun vies with clouds, rain, and wind for supremacy. On any given day, it's a tossup what we'll get next.

Don't let it be a tossup what you offer readers. Let it always be your best. One way to do this is to ask for help if you're bogged down.

Ask the Editor Free-For-All is here to provide that help. Our Editors are on hand to answer your questions about writing basics, manuscript submissions to publishers or agents, aspects of traditional and/or self-publishing, and more. It doesn't happen often, but if we don't have an answer, we'll offer suggestions where you can get one.

To Submit Your Question, Follow These Steps:

Leave a comment below in the comment section. Include your name and blog URL or website, so you'll get promo and we'll be assured you're a real person. (One link only, please!) Then check before you leave to make sure your comment did get added, since sometimes Blogger tests people to be sure they're not robots. You may need to repeat a step or click to preview first and then okay it before your comment sticks.

Our Editors will stop by off and on today to answer your questions in the comment section. If an answer can be expanded, one of our Editors might choose to do an entire blog post on your topic, which could mean extra promotion for you, along with the possibility of forwarding jpegs of your profile photo and cover, along with a buy link.

It's not mandatory, but if you wish you may leave your email address. Also not required, but welcome is to know where you've heard about us.

Others will ask questions, so you might wish to check back later today or the next to see what turns up. Some of our participants are on e-group Digests, or don't get to their computers right away, so their questions and the corresponding answers might carry over through Wednesday or Thursday.

The comment section is ready for your questions, so don't be bashful. No question is too basic. We all start somewhere. 


Morgan Mandel
Morgan Mandel writes mysteries,romances, and thrillers. She's a past president of Chicago-North RWA, was the Library Liaison for Midwest MWA, and is an active blogger and social networker. Her personal blog is at:

Her romantic suspense, Killer Career, is available on Kindle and Smashwords, for 99 cents, and is also in print. Her paranormal thriller, Forever Young - Blessing or Curse is targeted for release soon on Kindle and Smashwords.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Grammar ABCs: F is for Freewriting

How do you get rid of that inner editor—the devilish one that sits on one shoulder, whispering, “That’s not very good. What makes you think you can write? You can even spell!” Or “Doesn’t that need a comma there?” Or “Is that the right word? I don’t think so.”

Freewriting or flow of consciousness is a great exercise to shake off that devilish inner editor and get yourself back into a fun, playful sense of creativity. I think Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind) was one of the first who promoted this form of writing.

The rule for doing this is there are no rules. Choose a topic. Set a timer for ten minutes and put pen to paper. Do not stop for any reason. Don’t worry about commas and spelling and grammar. Don’t think about what you’re writing, just write whatever comes to mind, even if it’s “I can’t think of anything to write. This is a stupid exercise.” Something will come to mind. Go from there, see where it takes you. You may end up on a topic far from the one you started with.

But what do I write about? Anything you want. Something you see out your window, something that’s bothering you, a resignation letter to your boss, a mini-murder mystery in which you kill off your boss. When I teach beginning writing classes, I ask my students to make a list of 5-10 things they’d like to write about. Then each picks one and we do the 10-minute exercise.

Take something from your Work In Progress. Have your character talk to you or write you a letter. Write a page describing your setting. Pick a feeling and write everything you associate with that feeling: what’s your physical reaction? What smell does it evoke? What color do you associate with this feeling? Any tastes come to mind? Music? What memories?

You might end up with pages of drivel, but you might also find a diamond in the rough, something that could help with your WIP or be the beginning of a whole new novel.

Try it. You might enjoy it!

A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently won the national WILLA Award. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series.

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