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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Describing Fictional Characters

He was tall, at least six foot four, with a mop of sun-bleached hair and a Malibu tan. His dimpled cheeks flanked a perfect nose, and a six-pack of abs peeked at me from his unbuttoned shirt. Wow, I thought, he must work out every day! If not for the missing front tooth and the MOM tattoo on his left bicep, he would have been the knight in shining armor I'd been dreaming about since my teens.

This is too much character description. Does the reader need so many details that nothing is left for her mind’s eye to play with? When I read a book, I create my own pictures of the characters. Just give me the basics—gender, approximate age, and maybe one interesting detail. I will learn all I need to know about him later on through his words and actions; sometimes his inactions.

Here’s an example from the novel I’m writing. It describes one of my characters the first time the protagonist sees him.

One man entered the dining hall several minutes after the others left. His neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard marked him as older than the other tenants, and he wore a decent-looking jacket rather than overalls. He ate his breakfast quickly, and then carried his tableware into the kitchen with a polite nod to the two women as he passed their table.

Now I just need to finish writing the story. Then I will review what I’ve written, paying close attention to how I describe my characters, making them  lean as possible (unless they’re fat, of course).

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Name Game

Naming characters isn't easy, and yet the names we choose can make or break our stories. An oft-used example is Pansy, the saccharine name Margaret Mitchell almost gave her cunning, provocative heroine.

While I was writing Brute Heart, a novel set in Oregon, I found names for every one of my characters, major or minor, first name and last name, on a map of Oregon. I was amazed at the rich storehouse of names on that map--cities, towns, wide spots in the road, parks, counties, and countless topographical features. Some of the names I used were Riley (a small town), Dusty (Dusty Canyon), Cooper (Cooper Mountain), Jordan (Jordan Valley), Annie (Annie Springs), and Jude (Jude Lake).

Take a look at a map of your own state. If you don't find names for your characters there, get a detailed map of Oregon, a state that has a penchant for unusual names such as Boring, Shedd, Bakeoven, and Drain (all small towns).

Wednesday, May 6, 2015


My husband and I returned from Arizona with the worst colds we've ever had. I'm finding it difficult to whip up enthusiasm for the simplest chores, let alone get back to writing; therefore today's message is aimed at me and any writer with good intentions who's dragging his or her feet.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Stephen King's Top Ten Tips for Writers

In an earlier post I mentioned Stephen King's book On Writing as a favorite of mine. This month I'm listing (from that book) his top ten tips for writers. I think the only tip I follow with any regularity is # 9. I need to look at this list once in a while and pay more attention to the others.

1. First write for yourself, and then worry about the audience. “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”
2. Don’t use passive voice. “Timid writers like passive verbs for the same reason that timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”
3. Avoid adverbs. “The adverb is not your friend.”
4. Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said.”
5. But don’t obsess over perfect grammar. “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.”
6. The magic is in you. “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”
7. Read, read, read. ”If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
8. Don’t worry about making other people happy. “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
9. Turn off the TV. “TV—while working out or anywhere else—really is about the last thing an aspiring writer needs.”
10. You have three months. “The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.”
                                              From On Writing by Stephen King

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Grandma's Apron

I took much of what follows from an e-mail I received. I would give credit to the person who wrote it if I knew who he/she was; although I did edit the piece and add to it. The subject was especially interesting to me, because the novel I'm in the process of writing is set in a time when aprons were an integral part of a woman's wardrobe.

The principle use of Grandma’s apron was to protect the dress worn underneath. She probably didn’t have many clothes in her closet, if she was even lucky enough to have a closet. Aprons also lightened her load when doing laundry since it was easier to wash an apron than a long-sleeved, full-skirted dress. In a pinch Grandma's apron served as a potholder for removing hot pans from the oven, or as a dust rag for the parlor table when she saw unexpected company coming up the road.

Aprons were wonderful for drying children's tears or cleaning dirty ears, and they made great hiding places for a shy child being introduced to a stranger.

When Grandma returned from the chicken coop, she carried eggs in her apron, fussy chicks, or half-hatched eggs to be finished in a box behind the stove. Walking from her garden to the house, she cradled  all sorts of vegetables in that apron, apples and peaches in the fall. After shelling the peas she picked, she used her apron to take the hulls to the compost pile. She also hauled wood chips and kindling in that apron.

Most young people have never seen an apron except in pictures. Grandma used hers to set the pies she baked on the window sill to cool. Today's housewives set the pies they buy at the supermarket on the counter to thaw. Obsessed with organic, today’s cooks would go crazy trying to figure out how many germs were on that apron.

I don't think I ever caught anything from Grandma’s apron, nor from the one my mother always wore; nothing, that is, except love.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ira Glass on Storytelling

Below is a link to a series of four U-Tube videos on the subject of storytelling as explained by Ira Glass. He's referring to making videos or writing radio scripts, but his advice is good for anyone writing prose.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Writing Humor

It's hard to write material that makes people laugh. Almost every time I look for a birthday card or get-well card, I look at (and reject) countless silly cards that were an attempt at being funny before I finally find one that is funny, or, more often, close enough.

My favorite humorist is Dave Barry. Almost everything he writes cracks me up. Just recently one of my critique group members introduced me to another humor writer, Patrick McManus, who is also genuinely funny. Below is an example of his work.

The First Deer
by Patrick McManus

People often ask me how I ever became such an awful hunter.  The answer is my first deer.  I never fully recovered from it.  Many years ago I reported on this incident in a column for Field & Stream Magazine.  I believe that column was collected in my first book, A Fine & Pleasant Misery.  I could tell you for certain but I would have to get up and walk across the room and check the book.  Anyway, the report went something like this.  Although my memory may be a little shaky, everything about this report is true.
When I was 14 years old, there was nothing I liked better than deer hunting. But I had one problem.  I had never been and had no one to take me, because my father had died when I was very young and all the neighbors were afraid to be around me when I was armed.  So one fall day I decided to take matters into my own hands.  I tied my deer rifle to the handle bars of my bicycle, put a little sack lunch in the basket, got on and started pumping up the mountain in quest of my very first deer.
About half way up the mountain I came across a real hunters’ camp.  It was beautiful!  Just like one of the illustrations of a hunting camp in an outdoor magazine.  There were big white-wall tents, men walking around in their beautiful hunting gear, big four-wheel drive vehicles—oh, it was absolutely wonderful!  When the hunters saw me, pumping my bike up the mountain in quest of my very first deer, they thought I was the funniest thing they had ever seen and they started hooting and hollering and teasing me.  I said to myself, “You guys just wait!  You’ll be surprised when I get a deer before you do!”
Well, just as I crested the top of the mountain a beautiful four-point buck stepped out of the brush and stood there looking at me.  I didn’t know what to do—I’d never shot anything before, but finally I managed to snap off a shot.  That deer dropped like a rock!  I was amazed!  It had been such a difficult shot, too. The rifle was still tied to the handlebars!
I rushed over to the deer to look for a bullet hole but couldn’t find any.  Then I noticed a big chunk had been taken out of one of its antlers.  I had hit it so hard in the antlers that I had killed it!  My problem then was how to get the deer home so my grandmother could dress it out for me.
I somehow managed to drag the deer over to my bicycle.  (Deer are a whole lot heavier than you might think.) First I tried draping it over the rear-fender carrier but its hind legs dragged on one side and its head and front legs on the other side, so I knew that wouldn’t work.  Suddenly I remembered that I often carried friends of mine astraddle of the rear-fender carrier!  Yes! I thought.  I twisted the deer up and around and finally got it sitting astraddle of the carrier.  Then I tied each of its front legs to either side of the handlebars.  Finally, I wiggled in between its legs and got on the seat.  I now had the deer’s head draped over my right shoulder.  I started to pedal—it’s a lot harder to pedal with a deer on a bicycle than you might think.
Just as the front wheel of my bike went over the crest of the mountain and we started down the steep decline, I heard something strange.  I had never heard anything like it before—it sounded kind of like--I don’t know exactly what--kind of like --a snort.    I turned and looked at the deer.  It was blinking its eyes!  Right away the deer panicked—its first time on a bicycle—but there was nothing I could do about that now! The bike was picking up speed and bouncing over rocks and around logs and the deer was thrashing around and blowing deer slobber all over my face and it was terrible.
Just then we passed the hunting camp.  I could see the hunters were surprised I had got a deer before they did. We continued on down the mountain and suddenly I realized I had made a serious mistake.  I had forgotten to tie down the deer’s hind legs.  As it thrashed around it somehow managed to get its hind hooves on the pedals.  And then it caught on to pedaling!  It started to like it!  Now we were really flying down the mountain!  If you think a deer can run fast, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a deer of a bicycle! When we reached the bottom, I threw myself off and lay there on the ground as I watched the deer disappear over the horizon with my bike!
Later I heard that it was shot by police--while holding up a liquor store--in Tacoma, Washington--with my rifle!
I think that first deer is the reason I never became a very good hunter.