Where to Write: The Best Writing Locations for Every Project

If you enter the front door of my house, mount the stairs, and make a left, you will find yourself in the room my husband and I call “the office.” Despite its mundane name, the office serves a myriad of functions: It’s my husband’s video game room, our catch-all room, and my writing room. It even served a short stint as a guest room at one point.

Opposite a massive television that dominates an entire wall of the office, sits my heavy, wooden desk, its broad surface all but covered with magazines, books, candles, a few photographs and business cards, a mug full of pens, and my laptop. I was pretty proud of this little space–this tiny portion of the room that was mine–when we first set it up. For a while, I even started referring to the office solely as “my writing room.” Truth be told, though, my husband plays far more video games in there than I write articles, poems, essays, or stories. And so, gradually, the room has returned to its original name: the office (though maybe “gaming room” would be more appropriate).

I do write there occasionally. It’s a cozy, quiet spot–and it’s nice to have all my writing materials handy (if not 100% organized). I’ve found, though, that despite my loving the idea of a writing room, I’m a fairly migratory writer. I write at the kitchen table. I write at the table outside on our back deck (a lot). I write on the couch. I write perched on the edge of the brick hearth in front of our fireplace. I write sitting in a gravity-free chair beside the fire pit in our backyard. I write on rocks in the middle of the Jame River. I’ve even been known to write during a float session and in an inflatable, backyard pool. Each of these locations offers its own set of benefits and drawbacks. Each environment contributes to–or, in some cases, detracts from–the creative process in some way.

Writing Outside

One of my favorite places to write is outside–anywhere outside. My back deck, my front porch, my hammock, the river, the beach… I find writing outside in the natural world offers a plethora of benefits. My mind is free to wander through the open space of fresh air, tangled tree branches, birds on the wing. Nature seems to help open up my creative pathways and free my imagination.

The advantages I find to writing outside are many. The natural world offers stimulation for all five senses, and often, unexpected inspiration. My essay, “Out Of Touch,” was inspired in large part by an experience just lounging on my hammock in the backyard. “The moon was late to the party” came of an experience I enjoyed on two consecutive nights of evening walks. I wrote a large portion of Goodbye for Now on my back deck.

The outdoors also offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination. Being at one with nature puts me in a meditative state that is more open to ideas than my usual, task-oriented mind.

Writing outside offers a way out of ourselves–transcendental experiences that seem to allow us a wider sphere of perception and thoughtfulness, and a broader scope of imagination.

In addition, if you’re falling victim to writer’s block, one way to overcome it is to step outside and observe nature. Focus on each sense individually, and describe, in detail, what you see, hear, feel, taste, and smell.

Some of my most original and pertinent lines, phrases, ideas, metaphors, and similes find me when I’m outside.

There are, however, a few drawbacks (none of which outweigh the benefits, if you ask me). Kris Spisak, author of Get a Grip on Your Grammar: 250 Writing and Editing Reminders for the Curious or Confusedsays she writes “outside a lot, but I can’t edit there if I’m in fine-tuning mode. The glare on my screen lets imperfections slip through undetected.” Sun glare on a laptop screen can indeed be pretty brutal sometimes, and outdoor situations are not always the most ergonomic. Plus, writing outside is obviously weather-dependent, so it’s not always a feasible option. Finally, sometimes I myself tend to get caught up in my surroundings, and end up doing more observing and appreciating than writing.

Writing in a Coffee Shop

Somehow, writing in a coffee shop has the effect of just magically making me feel like a bona-fide writer. I’m not sure why, exactly–but I feel legitimate when I write in a coffee shop. (Or itwould, I imagine, if I ever wrote in a coffee shop…) Another plus is the people watching you can manage in a bustling coffee shop can help inspire character ideas, and the conversations you can overhear can help inspire dialog.

A coffee shop sometimes offers fewer distractions than writing at home–or at least fewer opportunities for procrastination. You can’t get up and load your dishwasher, fold your laundry, take a nap, or mop your floors when you’re at the coffee shop. But you can write. And you might as well–because there’s not much else to do. Spisak admits that when she writes at home, “sometimes laundry calls; dishes need to be done; or family voices want to disturb my productivity. Those are the occasions I like to support local small businesses by buying their coffee. (Being a writer is a different type of entrepreneurship, after all. We need to support each other where we can.).”

“If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

All that said, I myself rarely, if ever, write at a coffee shop, though a Starbucks sits at the main intersection just two miles from my front door. I once took a conference call there, and nearly a decade ago, I graded a stack of research papers there–but I can’t recall having ever actually written anything there.

The drawbacks to the coffee shop writing scene include the fact that, while you can’t get up and start doing chores or paying bills, other distractions exist–like chatting up the barista, talking with other customers, getting up to purchase another snack or drink, people watching more than writing, and the necessity to spend at least a little money. Spisak, however, sees the latter as something of a motivating benefit. “If I paid for a coffee and scone, it’s like a miniature investment in my project.”

Writing in a Comfy Couch or Chair

Who doesn’t like curling up with a good book (whether you’re reading it or writing it is beside the point) on a comfortable couch or chair? I mean, it’s comfy! So comfy, in fact, that you’re not likely to want to get up soon–so you’re likely to stay there a while and keep writing. Charlene Jimenez, a writing instructor and freelance writer, says she likes writing in a comfortable chair or on a cozy couch because “it’s nice to physically relax when you’re working your creative writing muscles.

The main drawback for me? I sometimes get a little too comfortable and end up giving in to the urge to nap.

Writing in a Home Office

According to Jimenez, “The solitude of a home office is the best. I’m surrounded by all my novel notes. It feels like my own space, so I feel comfortable and productive there.” Spisak agrees that there’s something helpful about being surrounded by all your materials and ideas. “At my own desk, I’m surrounded by inspiration and all of the resources I usually need,” she says. “My desk at home is my usual writing habitat. When I have my own desk at home, there’s no excuse for not getting my writing down. It’s there. It’s waiting. I just need to enter my writing space to make it happen.”

Setting up a certain space designed just to help you write can help condition your mind and writing muscles. You know that when you enter that space, you write. Similarly, people know not to disturb you; you’re working.

One drawback, however, is that while a home office may help you focus, it may not be particularly stimulating or inspirational (or it may make writing feel like, well, work).

Writing on a Porch or Balcony

Jimenez wrote most of her NaNoWriMo novel on her back porch, where her husband had just hung some beautiful lights, making the space peaceful and inspirational. Spisak, too, has a balcony she calls her “warm-weather office,” explaining she enjoys “the fresh air during my work time. Something about a nice breeze and birdsong can be inspirational.” I’m with you there, ladies! I love the different perspective offered by an elevated porch or balcony. I can see more, and see it all differently, lending me new ideas, stimulation, and inspiration.

Potential drawbacks include possible distractions, such as people stopping by to chat, traffic sounds, and my own tendency to eavesdrop on the conversations of neighbors or passersby…

Wherever you do most of your writing, I hope it offers the inspiration and motivation for your best work.

 

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Much vs. Many

To follow up on my last post regarding when to use “fewer” and when to use “less,” let’s briefly discuss when to use “much” and when to use “many.” Although the latter two seem to be confused far less frequently than the former two (largely because we seem to have an inherent sense of which one simply “sounds right”), people still sometimes mix them up.

Use “much” with singular nouns and “many” with plural nouns. For example, you didn’t eat much cereal, but you did eat many muffins. “Cereal” is a singular, mass noun, whereas “muffins” is a plural noun. There is one box or one bowl of cereal, but there are several muffins.

You would ask, “How much chicken did he eat?”, but “How many eggs did he eat?” (This would be different, of course, if you were dealing with an extremely hungry person, in which case, you might actually need to ask, “How many chickens did he eat?”)

You can talk about how much milk you drank, but how many cookies you dipped into it. You might describe how many sundaes you ate, but how much ice cream.

(Side note: Apparently, I am the aforementioned extremely hungry person. I started this post with breakfast examples, moved on to dinner, and followed with dessert–not deliberately! For more examples of how to correctly use “much” and “many,” click through the slideshow of (food!) photos below.)

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For further explanation of the relationship between “less”/”fewer” and “much”/”many,” click here.

 

 

MLA 8: The Latest and Greatest

For teachers in my city (including me), school starts tomorrow (though our students won’t return to their desks until the following week). For English teachers in my high school (also including me), this means the newest standards of the MLA format go into effect tomorrow,

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Last week, I finished setting up my classroom. The students who walk through the door next week will be the first batch to whom I will teach the newest MLA standards.

as well. The guidelines we have become accustomed to teaching for the last several years have changed, and our students are expected to begin employing the updates this fall. If you are a teacher who teaches the MLA format, or a student who learned the format last year, the changes are pertinent, as we all must begin using them now. Below is a look at some, though not all, of the major changes.

 

Books

When citing a book in the works cited, one is no longer required to include the city of publication or the medium (in the case of a book, print). A works cited entry for a book in the updated edition would look like this:

Author’s Last Name, First Name. Book Title. Publisher, Year of Publication.

For Example:

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. Harper Collins, 2015.

Articles in Print Periodicals

Labels have been added to works cited entries for articles in print periodicals. A works cited entry for an article in a print periodical would look like this:

Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Article Title.” Magazine or Newspaper Title, Edition, Date

of Publication, Page Numbers.

For Example:

Creasey, Amanda S. “Savor the Sweet.” Richmond Times Dispatch, 24 July 2016, p. F9.

Note that if an article spans multiple pages, the abbreviation would change from a  single “p.” to two: “pp.” For example, an article that ran from page 5 to 14 would be cited as pp. 5-14.

Did you know…?

MLA is an acronym for Modern Language Association.

Articles on Websites

In earlier editions of MAL, brackets <> enclosed the URL, and often, the inclusion of the full URL was optional. It would have looked like this:

<https://wordpress.com/post/amandasuecreasey.com/4249&gt;.

In the new edition, one must include the full URL, but it need not be enclosed in brackets.

As with books, one no longer needs to include the medium (in this case, in the older version, web).

Under MLA 8, a works cited entry for an article on a website would be formatted like this:

Author’s Last Name, First Name. “Article Title.” Website Title, Publisher or Sponsor of Site,

Date of Publication, URL.

For example:

French, Richard. “On Heroism.” American Museum of History, American University,

9 March 2015, amh.org/2015/03/09/on-heroism/.

Entire Website

Changes to the rules regarding citing an entire website resemble those regarding citing an article found on  a website.

The updated format looks like this:

Author’s Last Name, First Name. Website Title. Publisher or Sponsor, Date Range of

Production, URL.

For Example:

Morgan, Smith. Poe Museum. The Poe Museum, 2012-16, poemuseum.org.

The Hanging Indent

Please note that the hanging indent is still used in the newest version of the MLA standards, but depending on the device used to view this post, it may or may not show up on your screen.

If you are unfamiliar with the term “hanging indent,” it refers to the way an individual entry is formatted in an MLA works cited. The first line of an entry always begins at the left margin. Any subsequent lines of that entry are indented to the right. Think of it as the reverse of paragraphing in the body of a paper, where you indent to the right only the first line of a paragraph, and all subsequent lines of that paragraph are flush with the left margin.

Additional Resources

This post is a very basic overview of some of the most obvious changes to the MLA format. For further information, consider checking out the following sources:

https://www.mla.org/MLA-Style/What-s-New-in-the-Eighth-Editionhttps://www.mla.org/MLA-Style/What-s-New-in-the-Eighth-Edition

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/owlprint/747/?tag=movipersonal-20

https://www.easybib.com/guides/citation-guides/mla-8/mla-7-vs-mla-8/

 

 

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.

Than vs. Then

One of the reasons English is often cited as one of the most difficult languages to learn is its many homophones, one of the most infamous pairs being “than” and “then.” What follows is an extremely simplified explanation of their proper use.

“Than” with an “a” expresses comparisons. One way to remember this might be to associate the “a” in “than” with the “a” in “comparison.” An example of the proper use of “than” would be:

Ian is taller than Sally is.

The above sentence compares Ian’s height to Sally’s.

“Then” with an “e” relates to time. One way to remember this might be to associate the “e” in “then” with the “e” in “time.” An example of the proper use of “then” would be:

Ian was the taller of the two children, but then Sally grew.

The above sentence helps express when in time Ian was no longer taller than Sally–after she grew.

A sentence that uses both “than” and “then” properly would be:

Ian was taller than Sally, but then Sally grew.

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While I admit to loving the message in this Instagram post I came across a few weeks ago, I also admit I had a difficult time seeing beyond the “then” that should have been a “than.”

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.

Alot vs. A Lot

One of the most common errors I see in my students’ writing is the combining of “a lot” into one word (that doesn’t actually exist): “alot.”

The main difference between “alot” and “a lot” is that one is a word, and one is not.

Many of us are so accustomed to seeing “alot” that we ascribe to the misconception that it’s a word, but–surprise!–it’s not. The proper way to employ “alot” is actually to separate it into two words, a noun and its article: “a lot.” One helpful way to remember this is to think of a plot (or a lot) of land. If you own one lot of land, you own a lot of land, but not onelot of land, or alot of land. Just as you would not write “onelot,” you would not write “alot.” The proper structure is, instead “one lot” and “a lot.” Another way to think of it is this: You wouldn’t write “alittle,” so you also wouldn’t write “alot.”

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I don’t love my dogs alot–but only because “alot” isn’t a word. I do, however, love them a lot!

 

Achieving Emotional Impact: Advice from Experts

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From left to right: Moderator and author Robin Farmer listens as authors Shadeqa Johnson, Anne Blankman, and Ginger Moran respond to questions at the monthly James River Writers Writing Show. The topic of this month’s Writing Show was “Editing for Emotional Impact.”

The last Wednesday of every month, my local writing organization, James River Writers, puts on their Writing Show. Last Wednesday, I attended my second Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact,” hosted by author Robin Farmer, and featuring author Shadeqa Johnson, young adult author Anne Blankman, and author and book/creativity coach Ginger Moran.

I arrived at the Writing Show at 6:51, six minutes after the 6:45 start time. The lobby of the Firehouse Theater (the venue for the Writing Show) was empty, the 6 o’clock social hour in the lobby having already morphed into the presentation and moved into the auditorium. Someone from James River Writers quietly and warmly led me to what seemed to be the very last seat in the very first row. I didn’t get a program because they had already given away all 76 of them. I sat down gratefully, and settled in, optimistic that I would learn a few things I could apply to my own novel-in-progress. Despite my tardiness, my optimism was rewarded. Below, I share my lessons with you.

On Finding the Emotional Truth

As writers, part of our job is making sure our writing resonates with our readers. The most effective way to achieve this goal is to make sure our work elicits genuine emotions, and provides characters our readers can relate to. To keep a reader interested, we must make sure to hold their emotional attention–our readers must be emotionally invested in our characters. They have to cheer for them, cry with them, laugh with them. But how can we create characters and situations that foster this type of character-reader connection?

Johnson

Ms. Johnson advised that writers get themselves out of the way and listen to their characters. After you have your basic story idea figured out, she recommended you write character bios that include the characters’ vulnerabilities, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get it. She also reminded us that “the best fiction comes from truth.”

Blankman

Ms. Blankman said we need to ask ourselves: What one thing matters to the character most, and how can you threaten the safety of that one thing? She also advised to be careful to begin at the right part of the story. Make sure to reveal the character before he embarks on his emotional journey and change. What is he like before he starts to change? She cautions us not to start too late, but instead to allow our reader to meet the character before the story arc begins.

Moran

Ms. Moran, who spoke largely about nonfiction, reminded us that fiction rules also apply to nonfiction. She says her rule of thumb for plot is: It starts bad, gets worse, and then gets resolved.

On Achieving Emotional Variance

Our hostess, Robin Farmer, introduced this topic by explaining that one of the most common mistakes new novelists make is creating a protagonist who is too unhappy. Or too happy. Or too angry. Or too bitter. In short, new novelists sometimes create a character who is dominated by one character trait or mood, and is thus somewhat flat and static. Emotional variance, however, refers to the variety and spectrum of emotions people feel. In one day, even the most stable person likely experiences multiple emotions, ranging from concern to serenity, from fear to calm, from contentment to frustration.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s advise was simple: Your character needs to be likable before she is miserable.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman said she often creates an emotional checklist for her characters. One technique she uses is color coding. She assigns a certain color to each emotion, and then goes through her draft, highlighting or changing font colors accordingly. “You want a rainbow,” she said, indicating that a variety of colors implies balanced and believable emotional variance in your character.

In addition to color coding her drafts, Ms. Blankman discussed the method of creating what she termed a “peaks and valleys graph” by chapter or section. She describes plotting points on a graph according to high points (positive emotions) and low points (negative emotions). This visual can help you get a sense for how often your character is happy and how often she is sad–as well as the intensity of the joy or sorrow. A higher point would indicate a higher intensity of elation. A lower point, a deeper pit of gloom. Ideally, your chart would show several peaks and valleys, indicating you have achieved emotional variance.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson advises that the character’s emotion should change with each plot point in the outline of your story. She also recommends considering your own emotions throughout the day and “following the rhythm of life.”

On Knowing When You Are Done

While our ultimate goal is to always have that finished, polished piece, ready to send out for publication, or maybe just share with close friends and family, it can be very difficult to discern when a piece you have been working on is done–or at least as done as it’s going to get. The three authors on the panel explain how they decide when they are done below.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson described the feeling of being done as reading her work, and experiencing the sensation that someone else wrote it. She describes how the hair on her arms will stand up and says it seems as though the finished piece is “singing” to her. She knows she is done when she has nothing left to say. She also cautions us not to let our egos get in the way. Do not think, “I have to get the story out right.” Instead, realize that you are merely a conduit for the story. Sit down. Listen. Write.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman admits that she can often revise until she can no longer see her story clearly, and it becomes too familiar. She reads it so many times, she can no longer tell if it’s good or not. When she reaches this point, she either puts the piece away for a while, or sends it to a trusted critique partner.

She also advises that we need to do terrible things to our characters, and make them suffer.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s advice follows closely to the last tidbit from Ms. Blankman. To ascertain whether or not her work is finished, she asks herself the following questions:

  • Have I gone deep enough?

  • Does this hurt badly enough?

  • I let my character suffer, fail, take risks. Can I make it worse?

If she can answer yes to the first two and no to the last one, she is done. If not, she has more work to do.

On What to Avoid

It is one thing to make sure we are doing everything we should be doing, and quite another to make sure we aren’t doing everything we shouldn’t be doing. Here are some “don’t’s.”

Blankman

Ms. Blankman warns us not to be too easy on our characters. She also recommends reading books we don’t like, figuring out why we don’t like them, and then not doing whatever that is.

Moran

Ms. Moran cautions us not to focus solely on an external or an internal conflict. The best writing incorporates both.

On Books We Can Learn From

You may have heard the adage, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” Surely it is solid advice to say that one can become a much better writer through reading good authors. Below are some recommendations from the panel.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson has two requirements for books she reads: 1) they must entertain her, and 2) they must teach her something. She recommends reading Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom and Diane Whetstone’s Lazaretto.

Blankman

Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia is an excellent model because it is simple, spare, and stripped down. Raw, honest, and emotionally true. For YA she recommends Karen Cushman and Karen Hesse.

Moran

Moran’s list of models included:

Joan Didion

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Black Boy by Richard Wright

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Anne Lamott

David Sedaris

Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

On a Publisher’s Role in the Editing Process

Navigating the waters of publishing can be tricky. What are the steps? Who are the people? How do I do this? The unfortunate truth, and the reason why this process is so tricky, is: It’s different for everyone. Here is how our panelists have followed their pathways to publication.

Johnson

Ms. Johnson recommends hiring an outside editor, one not affiliated with a publisher, because they have more time to work with you than an in-house editor might.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman works with an in-house editor through Harper Collins, but says she has her manuscript pretty polished before her editor ever sees it. After she sends the work in, her editor responds with an editorial letter, which usually starts by listing all the piece’s virtues, and ends by explaining what needs to be improved or addressed. Ms. Blankman has never hired an outside editor, but she does share her work with trusted critique partners, and her agent is a former editor.

Moran

Ms. Moran advises that writers of young adult literature may not need to hire an outside editor. Because YA literature is so popular right now, a YA piece is likely to receive a lot of attention from in-house editors.Literary fiction, not so much–so if that’s what you write, you might want to consider finding your own outside editor. Lastly, Ms. Moran says you are wise to “invest in help.”

On Cutting Copy

Cutting copy is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process. How do you know what to cut and what to keep? What if you feel you must cut something you love? We all know the pain of trimming down our work.

Johnson

Johnson laughed as she said that what she was about to advise us to do, “none of you are gonna wanna do.” She was right, but it seems good advice, nonetheless. As part of her revising process, Ms. Johnson re-types every single draft. She prints it; reads it, taking notes as she goes; and then retypes it. This is helpful in cutting copy she says, because “you’ll only want to retype the good stuff.” If you find yourself thinking, as she sometimes does, “I’d rather kill myself than retype this paragraph over again,” you might not need that paragraph.

Blankman

Ms. Blankman reminds us to trust our readers. They don’t need the entire backstory. Let them fill in blanks while you drop clues for the first couple of chapters, or use flashback. She also advises not to use a prologue to tell backstory. The other authors concurred: prologues are often one of the first things an editor or publisher will cut.

Johnson

Give flashback and backstory when you need it to move forward. In other words, write your story forward until yo must go backward in order to go forward again.

Moran

Ms. Moran’s very straightforward advice was that most writers will end up needing to cut the first 40 to 130 pages of their manuscript.

(At this point in the show, an audience member recommended a book called Five Editors Tackle Twelve Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing.)

On Discovering your Characters

While our readers may not need to know every little detail of our characters’ lives, in order to tell an accurate, honest, and believable story, we do. Here is some advice on getting to know your characters.

Johnson

Write a letter to and from your character, or hold an imaginary conversation with your character.

Blankman

Write a scene where the main character isn’t the main character, a scene told from a different character’s point of view, as if he or she were actually the protagonist.

Moran

Consider all the mundane details of your character–from the kind of car she drives to the kinds of clothes in her closet. And read Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist.

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The monthly James River Writers Writing Show takes place at the Firehouse Theater in downtown Richmond. Above, writers pour out of the building after the May Writing Show, “Editing for Emotional Impact.”

 

 

 

Less vs. Fewer

Basically, “less” works with singular nouns and “fewer” works with plural nouns. For example, you might drink less milk than your friend, but you ate fewer cookies.

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You eat LESS salad, but FEWER vegetables.

You drink less water, but fewer glasses of water. This is because “water” is singular, whereas “glasses” is plural.

You eat less soup, but fewer bowls of soup.

You purchase less perfume, but fewer bottles of perfume.

You packed less clothing, but fewer clothes.

If you understand when to use “much” as opposed to when to use “many,” then another way to think about it is this: If you would use “many,” use “fewer.”  Think: I didn’t eat as many cookies as he did = I ate fewer cookies than he did.

If you would use “much,” use “less.” Think: I didn’t drink as much milk as he did = I drank less milk than he did.

The Importance of Proofreading

In case you’ve ever underestimated the importance of proofreading, don’t.

I recently found myself in the center seat on a full flight that couldn’t take off because of a typo.

It went something like this:

Pilot’s fuzzy voice announces over the cockpit speakers, “Ladies and gentleman, we have a full flight today. There are no empty seats, and it appears we will need to delay our takeoff just a bit because we are running over the weight limit.”

General rumble of dismayed passengers worried about missing connections (I include myself in the group of worriers) rises and falls in the cabin.

We wait.

And we wait some more.

About twenty-five minutes pass.

Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers crackles, “Ladies and gentleman, we are investigating what appears to be a typo. We recently got new handbooks, and we believe this latest version contains a typo. We are looking into it to make sure we are following procedure before takeoff.”

Exclamations of amusement and disbelief rise and fall in the cabin.

We wait.

And we wait some more.

Ten or fifteen minutes pass.

Pilot’s voice over the cockpit speakers relates the welcomed news, “Ladies and gentleman, it appears the issue was indeed only a typo. We will be taking off shortly. Thank you for your patience.”

Sighs of relief rise and fall in the cabin.

But I am still a little concerned.

You see, my 50-minute layover was a tight one before the typo-induced delay, and by the time the typo was identified and the confusion cleared up, our flight was taking off an hour later than scheduled.

I’ll spare you the details of the three-hour flight, which was uneventful, and skip to what was left of the layover:

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Every day on my way to and from work, I see this sign. Today, I glanced up and noticed a glaring mistake. If you see it, comment here or find me on Instagram to prove your proofreading prowess!

We are running through the airport with carry-ons clunking against our thighs and backs. We are panting on the tram. We are racing up to our gate as the woman manning it says, “You’re lucky you got here. They’re closing the door now,” and picks up a phone to tell the operator on the other end of the bridge that we are here and not to close the door yet. We are jostling our way down the aisle of already-settled passengers, eyeballing us as if we are the reason they have not yet taken flight.

We make our flight, but our checked bags aren’t as fortunate.

And our car keys are tucked safely away in them.

We land in Richmond, where the car we cannot unlock, let alone start and drive home, is waiting in the south parking garage. We call my mother-in-law to make the 25-minute drive from our home, where she has been taking care of our dogs, to the airport–with our extra set of car keys in her purse. We drive two separate cars home, and have an excellent excuse to relax for the evening: We cannot unpack luggage that did not arrive, nor can we begin to wash and dry and fold the clothes packed in said luggage.

We wake up the next morning to find our bags kindly delivered, waiting in the shade on our back deck–and the typo-induced ordeal has finally come to close. At least for us. I don’t know what became of the passengers whose connecting flights had already taken off when we finally landed at our connecting airport.

The moral of the story? The next time you consider sending an e-mail, publishing a blog post (goodness help my hypocritical soul if you’ve found a typo in this one!), or turning in a paper before you’ve proofread it (multiple times), consider the chaos one little mistake could cause on the other end (not to mention your own, personal humiliation).