My Writing Dreams

A few days ago, fellow W.O.W blogger and friend, Charlene Jimenez, and I decided we could boost our writing morale by composing posts detailing our wildest (but hopefully not out of reach) writing dreams. Charlene posted hers yesterday, so check out her writing goals, too!

Recently I’ve realized that I would get more sleep if I had less ambition and, ironically enough, fewer dreams–at least of the variety that I want to turn into reality. In an attempt to maintain my motivation, and remind myself why I keep trading sleep for writing, here are my writing dreams, no holds barred!

November, 2018

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My whippet balls up close as I work on my novel late last fall. In my writing dreams, I get to do this every day. And someone pays me for it.

After a long morning walk with my dogs followed by a three-ish mile jog and a hot shower, I settle in under a plush blanket with some loose leaf hot tea. My beagle is snuggled into her lush dog bed on the floor. My whippet’s warm little body leans into my thigh. My laptop whirs quietly on my lap. I open it and log onto my blog, where I spend thirty minutes to an hour responding to the dozens (maybe hundreds!) of comments a handful of my several thousand followers have left on my last few posts. My tea cooling and my legs growing stiff, I ask my dogs if they “wanna go for a walk.” Tails wagging, they are all too eager. We take a brisk stroll through the neighborhood, and return to the couch, where I read and comment on a few of my favorite blogs before checking my social media for a few minutes. Before I have time to see how much revenue my blog has generated this month, my cell phone rings. It’s my agent.

“I’ve got the best news for you since finding a publisher for Goodbye For Now last year.”

Sitting up a little straighter, I anxiously scratch behind my whippet’s ear. That was pretty good news, and I am not really sure she can top it.

“I’m listening,” I tell her.

“It’s gonna be a movie!” She is practically screaming. I can almost see her now, both hands flailing, smile broad and toothy, eyes squeezed shut, muscles tense with excitement–and I wonder where she is, who can actually see her, and how, with all the hand flailing, she has managed not to drop her cell phone yet.

“What? What is?” Surely she isn’t telling me my debut novel, Goodbye For Now, published roughly one year ago, is going to appear on the big screen.

But she is. That is exactly what she’s telling me.

“And there’s more,” she breathes.

What could be more? My blog has gone viral. My recreational writing classes are always well-attended. My novel is published. My novel is going to become a movie. And there’s more?

Terry Gross wants to schedule an interview with you on NPR‘s Fresh Air!”

It takes an inhuman effort for me to control myself, and I can’t wait to get off the phone so I can stop trying, and start dancing around the family room and kitchen, both dogs hovering around my feet, the sound of their little talons on the hardwood and tile floors musical and festive.

January, 2020

(Note: I have no idea how long making a movie actually takes…)

Yesterday was my 36th birthday. Today, I will walk down the red carpet, my husband and dogs (I insisted they be allowed to come–family, after all) by my side, to see the movie premier of the book I wrote. I don’t know how to confirm this is my reality–this is my life. For so long it was a sometimes elusive-seeming dream. But it was a dream I never stopped believing in, never stopped working for, never stopped loving to dream. And maybe all that is what has made today–has made this life of mine–possible.

And the best part? It’s not over. I have a new novel in the works; an anthology of poetry due out in the spring, when I will spend several weeks in Florida with my sister’s family; a collection of personal narratives about to come out; a few articles set to run in The New York Times and The Atlantic, along with some other, smaller publications; and book signings, writing conferences, and lectures at schools and libraries pepper my calendar. And of course there will be those quiet days of peaceful writing, the dogs cuddling beside me, the candles burning, and maybe, on a really special day, a few flakes of snow drifting down in a sort of choreographed chaos outside my window.

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The sunrise over Lake Huron, as viewed from the breakwater in Lexington, Michigan, in August 2015. In my writing dreams, I get to spend a couple weeks each summer writing and reading along these shores.
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A view of the sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where I often walk my dogs. If my writing dreams come true, this is another place I would spend days at a time reading and writing–and getting paid for both.
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The Potomac River in the Northern Neck of Virginia, just before it opens up into the Chesapeake Bay, as photographed this July. In my writing dreams, I get to spend weeks on this beach, or nearby, reading and writing and walking my dogs.

Come summer, I will take a break from formal appearances and teaching classes I designed to take my writing on the road, spending a few weeks writing on the shores of Lake Huron in Lexington, Michigan, taking sunrise and sunset strolls on the breakwater with my dogs. Then, we’ll head to the sound side of the Outer Banks, where I will read and write from the screened porch overlooking the sound, the sun dipping into its waters just before disappearing, the frogs and bugs ushering in the moonlight. And of course I will spend countless days indulging my literary habits on my back deck at home in the sunshine, and in the rural Northern Neck of Virginia, home to farmers and fishermen alike.

April, 2034

My niece sits on a train somewhere in Europe, a few weeks into her study abroad adventure. Across the train car from her, a woman is reading a novel, Auf Wiedersehen fuer jetzt. My niece smiles, the homesickness she had been feeling just a few minutes before assuaged, at least for now. The woman glances up and their eyes meet. My niece smiles warmly, and the woman smiles back, over the top of her book.

“My aunt wrote that book,” my niece tells her over the clamor of the train, the landscape outside the window behind the woman a blur of green fields and gray skies, just brush strokes of color speeding by.

The woman sets the book down on her lap, keeping her place with a finger.

“Wirklich? Deine Tante?” Her eyes glimmer with star-struck disbelief.

“Ja. Meine Tante.” My niece nods, the warmth of pride and a sense of never being alone swelling up in her chest.

July, 2090

A great grandnephew I have never met browses a used bookstore in downtown Richmond. He and his girlfriend pull books off the shelf, smelling the pages and flipping curiously through them. His girlfriend pulls a book off the shelf, its pages yellowed, its cover well worn. She flips the pages  with her thumb, holds the book in front of her face, and takes a deep breath. The cover catches my great grandnephew’s eyes.

“Hey,” he says, gently taking the book from her hands. He turns the front cover towards her. “Look at this.” He points to the name of the author at the bottom.

“Amanda Sue Creasey,” his girlfriend slowly reads. “Creasey like you. Do you know her?”

“No. She died right before I was born, but she’s my great aunt.”

“Wow…” His girlfriend takes the book back. “That’s really cool.”

“It was made into a movie and everything.”

“Really? We need to buy this book–and we should watch that movie tonight.”

My great grandnephew smiles.

“Okay,” he says.

As they wait in the checkout line, the book held tightly against my great grandnephew’s chest, his girlfriend turns to him.

“Hey,” she says, “don’t you like to write, too?”

May all our writing dreams come true!

 

 

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Nine Must-Reads for Writers

There is, I think, a general consensus in the writing world that writing necessitates reading. To be a good writer, you must also be a reader. Many well-known adages advocate for this. “And when you cannot write, read” and “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” the latter by Stephen King, to name just two. Writing courses also perpetuate the idea, especially beginner courses or courses for elementary-aged students, which often recommend as a starting point the imitation of a certain writer, style, or genre. Truth be told, even in my Master’s program, I was once assigned a certain poet to study and imitate. We are all familiar with the famous works of Anne Lamott (I have my College Composition students read her essay, “Shitty First Drafts,” each semester), Stephen King, and other experts in the field when it comes to our craft. Here, I share in no particular order some perhaps lesser known but nonetheless worthwhile reads for writers. Some I received as gifts. Others I stumbled upon. Still others were assigned reading in various undergraduate and graduate courses I have completed.

1. The Halfway House for Writers, Valley Haggard

The Halfway House for Writers by Valley Haggard is an inspirational book for anyone embarking on any sort of writing journey. It is conversational, honest, and motivational. It advocates for raw, fearless writing, presenting writing as a means of healing, learning, and growing, among other things. The author teaches various writing classes in the Richmond area, and maintains lifein10minutes.com, for which an anthology is due out next year. This book is perfect for anyone looking for encouragement or ideas–or both. Read my interview with the author regarding the book here.

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Valley Haggard’s book for writers, The Halfway House for Writers, takes an encouraging approach toward writing, having been written for “wounded writers.”

2. Room to Write: Daily Invitations to a Writer’s Life, Bonni Goldberg

I recommend this book for anyone who finds herself in front of the blank page or glaringly white computer screen asking, “What do I write about?” only to remain seated, staring, paralyzed, at the same blank page or screen. Every page of the book presents a new writing prompt, for a total of just shy of 200 prompts. Each page is broken into three parts: a brief explanation or introduction, the prompt itself, and a relevant and often enlightening, inspiring, or encouraging quote from well-known writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Emily Dickinson.

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Room to Write provides ample protection against writer’s block, offering almost 200 prompts.
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The pages of Room to Write include an introduction to each prompt, the actual prompt, and relevant quotes from recognizable writers.

3. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser

My favorite thing about this book when I read it as a graduate student a few years ago was its easy-to-read and conversational tone. To this day, I often use Chapter 14, “Writing About Yourself: The Memoir,” to help teach my high school students vital lessons about writing about themselves in the context of the college essay. The writing is accessible and easy to relate to. It is broken into four parts: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes, with each part further broken down into individual chapters. I recommend this work for writers of fiction or nonfiction. Though it is clearly geared towards nonfiction writers, the lessons presented could benefit any writer.

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The conversational tone of this book makes it appealing and easy to read. I read it as a graduate student in a creative writing program, but even my high school students have benefitted from the lessons conveyed in this book.

4. 642 Things to Write About

As with Room to Write, I recommend this book for anyone who thinks he is at a loss for material. It is the perfect weapon against writer’s block. This book is full of blank pages, which might sound intimidating, but on each page is a prompt–or in some cases, multiple prompts. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but don’t think I have anything to say, I page through this book until I find a prompt that inspires me, and begin. If your main interest is simply to write, without necessarily studying the craft in depth, this book will help you see exactly how much subject matter you really do have at your fingertips. Your job is to just get it onto the page.

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My husband, who clearly knows me well, gave this book to me as a Christmas gift. Like Room to Write, it furnishes writers with weapons against the dreaded writer’s block–642 of them, to be exact. Each page features between one and four prompts, and space on which to write your responses directly in the book.

5. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick

This book provides commentary and instruction on craft, as well as examples of various writing to help illustrate when and how a certain effect or goal is achieved well. It also discusses how to craft yourself into a character/narrator, among other topics pertinent to those trying their hand at personal narrative. It begins with an introduction, and from there breaks off into parts: the essay, the memoir, and the conclusion.

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One of the most interesting aspects of my particular copy of the book was that is was used, and the previous reader had scrawled some very opinionated notes in the margins throughout. While reading, I had the benefit of not only forming my own take on the advice conveyed in the book, but also of comparing it to the takeways of whoever had this book before me. Our opinions often varied, but I found his (I imagine it was a man; I don’t know why) amusing in their cynicism and wit and enlightening in their insights.

6. Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard (editors)

This fascinating book (partly because the genre around which it is centered is so intriguing to me) includes explanations, examples, and exercises in each chapter.  The explanations are enlightening; the examples are entertaining, informative, and illustrative (I particularly enjoyed “A Braided Heart: Shaping the Lyric Essay,” by Brenda Miller, a piece that, years after my first reading of it, influences my writing); and the exercises are thoughtful , demanding the participant to do more than just write. For example, one of the first exercises, on page 13, consists of three steps:

  1. Write a short poem about a real-life event, personal or public, that interests you deeply.
  2. In the above poem, identify the Subject that was triggered by the writing.
  3. From the poem, write a piece of creative nonfiction about the same Subject

The completion of this exercise requires much, not the least of which is experimenting with genre–writing about the same topic using two very different genres, poetry and creative nonfiction. You will be amazed at the different lives a piece can take on when written in various formats.

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One of the example essays included in this book still influences my writing today.

7. Your Life as Story: Discovering the “New Autobiography” and Writing Memoir as Literature, Tristine Rainer

This book, broken into 22 chapters, does exactly what its title claims: Provides an understanding of how to turn your own life into a readable, publishable story.We are all the star of our own plot. This book aims to help you structure it and express it in an artistic, deliberate manner. In addition, it touches on difficult subjects, such as how to write about others, in Chapter 10, “Portraying Others: Casting Your Story From Life.” And, of course, very few writing books would be complete without writing exercises, which this book also includes.

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We all have a story to tell. This book helps us learn how to best tell it.

8. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Seymour Chatman

This was one of the most eye-opening books I read during my time as an undergraduate at Michigan State University. I still remember the first epiphanic moment in great detail: I was curled up on a love seat-sized piece of furniture in a sort of common area in one of the science buildings on campus, in between classes. There was not enough time to go home; too much time to go to my next class just yet. My books and backpack and brown-bag lunch were sprawled out on the floor around the over-sized chair where I sat, still wearing my winter coat. In true sophomoric style, I was reading the assigned chapter only so I could check it off my academic to-do list, and not in expectation of gaining any true insight. But the reading I accomplished that day was extremely engaging and educational. It was the first time I truly understood the difference between the author and the narrator. I believe it was Chapter 4, “Discourse: Nonnarrated Stories,” that had this eye-opening effect on me. What impressed me was how Chatman managed to break down and explain invisible elements–things I had taken for granted–of the experience of reading, elements that as writers writing for readers and as readers reading critically, we need to be aware of.

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I credit this book with one of the most revelatory experiences of my undergraduate academic career, as well as my reading and writing life.

9. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway

This book, which contains quotes, explanations, advice, examples, and exercises for fiction writers, consists of nine chapters, beginning appropriately with “Whatever Works: The Writing Process” and ending equally appropriately with  “Play it Again, Sam: Revision.” Sandwiched in between are discussions about world building, character building, story form, point of view, time, etc.

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This book is logically organized, beginning with the first idea a writer might have for a piece (or the lack of ideas a writer might have for a piece) and ending with the process of revision, also touching on all the steps between.

 

 

 

 

Patience, Persistence, and Pineapples

Maybe you’ve heard you can do anything you put your mind to. Maybe you’ve heard you can be anything you want to be. Maybe you’ve heard you can grow a pineapple by planting the crown of a store-bought fruit in soil. Maybe you’ve believed these things. Maybe you haven’t.

They’re all true.

Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.

Let’s start with the pineapple. When my dad handed me the crown of a fruit he’d just chopped into chunks and told me to plant it–it’d grown, I didn’t believe him. But, to humor him, I went ahead and plunked the “plant” in a pot of dirt. Imagine my surprise when days, weeks, months later, it wasn’t dead. Imagine my further surprise when years later, I had re-potted it several times, until it grew almost too heavy to move, and spread itself out almost four feet in diameter. But I got my biggest surprise from Mr. Pineapple, as

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The freshly-planted crowns of three freshly-chopped pineapple fruits await their delivery to new homes this spring. As of this writing, at least two have grown enough to require new pots.

my husband and I had taken to calling the plant (that’s right–the plant had seen me graduate from college, get married, buy a house, and start my career), when, upon watering him one day, I noticed what looked like a miniature pineapple sprouting from the center of his crown. Mr. Pineapple was pregnant! Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.

 

Since then, I’ve grown nearly a dozen pineapple plants, and enjoyed the homegrown sweetness of their plant-ripened fruit. But the reward is not without its pains. Through growing pineapples, I have learned a lot of things–about pineapples, and about life.

Years ago, when I had first potted that pathetic, little crown, brown on the edges, I had never expected it to live. Not only had it lived and grown and thrived, it was now producing its own fruit.

First, a newly-planted crown will often look sickly for weeks after it has been planted. But don’t give up on it. If even the slightest hint of green remains, it is alive, and silently biding its time, building its resources.  Just when you start to believe it is really dead, a miracle occurs and the plant comes alive, growing so quickly it will require multiple pots before it reaches maturity.

pineapple-flower
After a minimum of two years, a pineapple plant is mature, and capable of producing a stunning flower, which sprouts on a stalk from the center of the plant.

Second, a plant will not produce fruit until it is at least two years old. Often, it takes longer. Even when the flower appears, the time from first flower to edible fruit is about six to seven months. But at the end, you will savor the absolute sweetest, juiciest fruit you have ever tasted. It’s better than candy.

 

Third, the creative cycle never ends. After you harvest its fruit, the plant lives on, and while it will not flower or fruit again, it will produce an offshoot capable of producing fruit. In addition, the crown from the harvested fruit contains its own potential to produce fruit. It needs only to be planted, water, and tended to a bit.

Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.

Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going with this: Goals and dreams are like pineapples.

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These three mature pineapples are all growing fruit, shown sprouting from stalks at the center of each plant. All three plants are between two and three years old. A pineapple plant must reach at least the age of two before it can produce fruit.

 

First, you must never give up on them, even when the outlook seems bleak. Remember, the darkest hour precedes the dawn–and the pineapple bursts into life just when it looks like it might die instead. Along those lines: Today, I received a rejection letter from a literary magazine to which I had submitted a short story. That was, to say the least, disappointing. But–today, an article I wrote appeared in the September issue of writeHackr, and an article by a friend of mine appeared in the local paper. Though I will for the course of my literary career assuredly receive more rejections than acceptances, I hold to my acceptances. Those are my “slightest hint of green,” and they mean my writing career is still alive. In addition, no agents have shown even the slightest bit of interest in my novel (yet), but I have not given up. I don’t even feel all that discouraged, actually. Instead, I have decide to revamp my query letter and restructure my novel–a complete overhaul. Much like a pineapple requires several new pots before it reaches maturity, my novel apparently requires several new drafts before it reaches maturity. And that’s okay. The evolution of both plant and plot are fascinating.

 

Second, be patient with the process. Progress might be slow. It might be invisible. Never wearying, you must patiently persevere, nurturing, cherishing, and waiting on success, quietly working in the background. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Each step you take in support of your goal propels you forward.

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After a six- to seven-month “incubation” period, from first flower to ripened fruit, the pineapple fruit is ready for consumption. Patience is a virtue in both the cultivation of pineapples, and in working to achieve goals.

What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them.

Third, reach your goal, reap the benefits, savor the fruit of your labor. And then don’t stop. What seem like the mere scraps of your spoils are really their own seeds of future successes. Plant them. Much like the crown of a pineapple, so easily discarded and forgotten, can be the start of another succulent fruit, a chapter you had to cut from your novel might prove the jumping-off point for your next big idea.

Just as I didn’t recognize the potential of that first pineapple crown years ago–had no idea what it was capable of–you might not know what stories, poems, novels, or screenplays you have stored up inside of you. Not, at least, until you cultivate them, nourish them, take the necessary steps to bring them to life. No matter what.

pineapple-chunks-at-river
After two to three years’ worth of watering, re-potting, transporting, trimming, and loving my pineapple plants, and six to seven months of watching the flowers bud, blossom, and ripen into fruit, I enjoy the juicy, fragrant fruits of my labor on the rocks of the James River–appropriately enough, on Labor Day.

 

My Ego and Constructive Criticism

Yesterday morning, I attended my final writing critique group meeting of the summer. Next week marks the start of my school year, the demands of which will make attending critique group meetings impossible. I will miss the insightful, honest feedback of my peers, but truth be told, I always left critique meetings feeling discouraged, deflated, and defeated, my writing having been found guilty of a litany of literary sins.

My hawk-eyed fellow writers advised me to use stronger verbs instead of adverbs (a rule of thumb I am of course aware of, but apparently incapable of applying to my own writing–though I am keen to point out the weakness in my students’ work).

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe.

They accused me of head-hopping, a name for the writerly sin of jumping perspectives at will and seemingly randomly–essentially, inconsistent point of view. I thought I was just writing in third-person omniscient.

They suggested I tighten up my prose, stop overwriting, restructure my plot, and rename a few of my characters.

In short, each meeting was a reminder that I am not, after all, the best writer in the entire universe. In other words: These meetings ground me. They bring me back down to earth and humble me.

And you know what? I need that. I need that, and to grow a thicker skin, as well as to remember my purpose for attending a critique group in the first place.

It wasn’t for accolades. It wasn’t so someone would say my idea was fascinating or the ending of one of my chapters was masterful (thought those moments were nice when they did happen). It wasn’t for my ego. It was for feedback–constructive criticism. A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind. If I am blind to my overuse of adverbs, I need someone to open my eyes. If a particular scene is confusing  or poorly written, I need someone to tell me.

A critique group is where you go when you want someone to tell you that, yes, you really do look fat in that dress–but here are a few options that make you look slim and slender; here is the way not to look fat in that dress. A critique group, like the sister or best friend you can trust to be honest, often has to be cruel to be kind.

At my first critique group meeting, the members communicated at the beginning that every criticism offered had one goal: To help all of us produce the best writing we could. And I’ll be the first to admit, it was hard sometimes (all the time) to hear that what I had brought to the group was in fact far more imperfect than I could have ever imagined, that I had not yet produced the best writing I could.

But even as I walked out to my car at the close of a meeting, wondering why I even bother writing at all, feelings of inspiration, motivation, and encouragement always began to bubble up, and my bruised ego started to mend. Within minutes of getting into my car and turning the ignition, I was already eager to get back to my piece and improve it, applying the kind, thoughtful advice I had just minutes ago viewed as a personal affront to my writing ability.

An inflated ego isn’t going to supply that kind of motivation, or propel me any closer to my goals.

Rookie Mistakes that Ruin your Writing

As a high school English teacher and literary magazine co-sponsor; former yearbook advisor; graduate of a Master’s writing program; occasional participant in writing workshops and critique groups; occasional freelance proofreader; and occasional writing tutor, I have read writing at all its stages, from rough draft to final draft, and writers at all their stages, from novice to better-than-I’ll-ever-be. Today, as I read through some work for a writing group and reflect on student work I read during the school year, I realized there are five common mistakes writers make, whether they are newbies, or seasoned writers working on an early draft. Here they are, so you can look out for them in your own early drafts.

Inconsistent Tense

I am not sure why writers make this mistake. Perhaps we are simply thinking too quickly and writing too slowly, resulting in a lapse of attention to detail. Perhaps we have simply stepped away from a piece for a while, and upon returning, forget what tense we were originally employing. Whatever causes it, even expert writers often commit this literary sin in their early drafts. Sometimes in the same paragraph, a writer will randomly switch from, for example, past tense to present tense. He will stick with present tense for a sentence, maybe a few, and then, for no apparent reason, revert back to the original past tense.

The good news is, this is a fairly easy mistake to correct. My advice would be not to worry too terribly much about tense in your initial draft, but be sure to pay attention to it as you revise. Make sure that you pick a tense, and stick with it. Granted, if you employ, for example, a flashback, that part of your tale will need to be written in some form of the past tense, but the main story-line should employ one, consistent tense.

Unnatural Dialog

Often, my students approach me with their own, personal writing projects and request that I read them and offer feedback. I am always very honored when a student trusts me with her writing, because I know how scary asking for feedback can be–doing so leaves a writer pretty vulnerable. When I do read students’ work, one of the most common mistakes I see is unnatural dialog, in two forms: 1) all the characters speak in the same manner, regardless of their age, gender, race, background, education, etc. and 2) the characters say things that, simply put, almost no one would ever really say–they are too formal or too stilted or otherwise unrealistic.

While correcting this issue is not as simple as fixing inconsistent tense, it can, of course, be done. A few pieces of advice:

  1. Listen to real people. Listen to how they speak–the cadences different groups use; the vocabulary they employ; the rhythms and colloquialisms and pronunciations. Then, use these observations to inform the way your characters speak.

  2. Read your dialog aloud, and listen carefully to how it sounds. Better yet, assign characters to real people and read the dialog together. Is it natural? Can you tell the characters apart simply by what each one says and how he or she says it? Ask yourself: Would someone really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself: Would this character really say that? If the answer is no, change it. If the answer is yes, way to go.

  3. Make sure every character speaks a language unique to his or her personality, background, education level, gender, age, etc. While a white, male professor and his twenty-something, white, male student might both speak English, they are going to use very different sentence structures, different jargon and slang, etc. Consider these differences, and respect them.

Clichéd Characters

Unless you’re writing an allegory, your characters should be dynamic (unless you have a literary purpose for keeping them static), complex, and developed. They should have motives, fears, dreams, secrets, pasts. For a hero to be completely good and a villain to be completely evil is not only too simple, but unrealistic. Make sure your characters are just that: characters. They should have quirks, pet peeves, unique personalities, motives, and flaws. Consider what makes every character tick. Avoid using characters as mere plot tools. I have heard various methods for making sure your characters are well-developed, believable, realistic, and relate-able. Here are just a few:

  1. Hold an imaginary conversation with each character. Simply begin with something like, “Hey, Marissa, how ya feelin’ today?” or “Marsha, what’s on your mind today?” Then, let them speak to you. And listen.

  2. Write a letter to your character, and then write a response from him or her in his or her voice.

  3. Write a backstory for each character, including information such as family history, education, geography and location, job history, likes and dislikes, talents, fears, dreams, pets, etc.

  4. Describe a character’s favorite outfit and explain why that’s her favorite outfit.

  5. Describe a character’s dream car and explain why that’s his dream car.

  6. Describe each character–even minor characters–from another character’s perspective, or from multiple other characters’ perspectives.

  7. Tell a chapter of the story (or, if it’s a short story, the whole story) from each character’s perspective. What you learn about your characters might surprise you.

Weak Words

I tell my students to avoid what I call “weak words.” These words include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • great
  • amazing
  • nice
  • good
  • bad
  • stuff
  • things
  • have/has and other “to-be” verbs

The above list is pretty obvious, but these words appear in countless pieces of writing, and usually unnecessarily so. One place they might belong is in dialog, but they generally do a poor job if employed in description or narration. If I tell you my dinner tasted amazing, you know I enjoyed it, but little else. You could easily wonder what made it “amazing.” Was it the service? The flavor? The atmosphere? The company? And once we have determined the answer to those questions, what was so “amazing” about the element? If we’re discussing the service, was the waiter charming? Attentive? Prompt? If we’re describing the flavor, was the food savory? Sweet? Spicy? Buttery? Be as specific as possible. Allow the reader to taste, smell, feel, hear, and see by employing concrete, descriptive words. As a reader, I cannot conceptualize what “amazing” means. I know it’s positive, but that’s where my understanding ends. However, I can very easily imagine what “spicy” and “buttery” taste like.

Inconsistent Perspectives

First, you need to decide if you will tell your story in first, second, or third person. Then, you need to make sure you remain true to that choice. For example, if you elect to utilize a first-person narrator, you must remember that the narrator knows only his own thoughts, motives, and emotions. He might be able to guess at the thoughts or emotions of other characters, or assume or interpret things about them–but he cannot know, and he cannot narrate like he knows. For example, Mark Twain elected to tell The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the first-person perspective of the character of Huck Finn. Huck Finn cannot tell us what Jim is thinking or feeling–unless Jim tells him. Huck Finn cannot tell us how his Pap feels about him–unless Pap tells him. He can tell us what he might believe the other characters think or feel, but he cannot get inside their heads or hearts. For another example, I was recently reading a writer’s rough draft of a short essay. The writer was looking at a photograph a friend had posted on social media, and started describing to readers what the friend had been thinking about and remembering when he had posted the photograph. Unless the photograph was captioned with that information, how could the writer possibly have known what the friend had been thinking or feeling? The writer had written sentences to the effect of: “Michael started thinking about the past–the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. He promised himself to be a better father, a better man.” Suddenly, the writer was somehow in Michael’s head, which is, of course, impossible, and inconsistent with the first-person perspective of the story. In a case like this, the writer has two choices, as I see it: 1) Cut it. The narrator cannot tell us what he or she does not know. 2) Fix it. Let us know these are the narrator’s thoughts. The example above could be remedied like this: “I think about Michael and what made him post that picture. I imagine him thinking about all the missed baseball games and late arrivals to school plays. Maybe he promised himself to be a better father, a better man. Maybe it was motivation–a reminder of what not to do, who not to be.” Now, we are in the narrator’s head, not Michael’s.