One Writer’s Journey

March 23, 2017

Scenes: Creating a Sense of “Being There” in Nonfiction

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:50 am
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My most recent batch of students is busy writing away. They are deep enough into their work that they are attempting to create scenes.  A nonfiction scene is a lot like a fiction scene in that it is a great way to pull your reader into the story.  It uses dialogue and characters, setting and action.  Unlike the fiction scene, it all has to be true.

That means that if you include dialogue, you have to have dialogue to quote.  It has to be word for word.

That means that if you find “someone mentioned needing to buy new shoes” in a source, that is all you can write.  You cannot write ‘One of the students said, “I need to buy new shoes.”  Nope.  The problem is that the quotation marks imply that it is a direct quote.  To use the quotation marks, you need to have found those exact words.  “And I said to him I need to buy new shoes.”  “Marcus said to me, ‘I need to buy new shoes.'”  Something like that.

There are times that you have a bit of wiggle room.  When I wrote about a family of armadillos, I could describe the four young armadillos digging into the dirt and tearing into a fallen log when they heard insects.  Why?  Because they are typical armadillo behaviors.

But when I wrote about the protests in Ferguson in Black Lives Matter, I couldn’t say that a protestor did X or a protestor did Y unless I had that information from my source material.  Even if X and Y are both fairly innocuous actions, when I’m talking about people, I need to know that someone did it.  Otherwise I have to say, a protestor may have done X or may have done Y and that isn’t the sort of thing my editor is going to let stand.

Creating a scene can be tricky but if you have the facts to pull it together it is one of the best ways to pull a reader into your writing.



October 24, 2016

An Interesting Life Feeds Makes for Interesting Writing

cabin-and-truck“An Interesting Life Feeds Makes for Interesting Writing.”  When you saw that title, whose life did you think that I meant?

Maybe you first thought of the character’s life.  Certainly a character with an interesting life will be more fun to write (and read) about than a character who sits on the sofa, plays video games and eats chips.  Snore!

What I actually meant was that when a writer has an interesting life, it makes for interesting stories.

Lately, I’ve been doing the prep-work for NaNoWriMo.  I’ve finished half of my character interviews and I’ve scrapbooked the characters and settings.  This means that I’ve been doing a lot of research.

Google Image is my friend.  I’ve collected photos of historic iron mines, miners cabins, ghost towns, and a deserted mansion.  There are photos of Lon Sanders canyon, iron ore and old timey mercantile stores.  All of these things came into the story intentionally.

But as I was searching cabins (my main character has to live someplace!), I had an epiphany.  I needed exterior dairyimages but I needed to know the layout as well.  A number of interior artifacts would also be useful.  Where oh where could I find these things together.  Then it hit me.  My father-in-law has helped restored a log cabin.  In is now set up as a museum complete with wood burning stoves, a spinning wheel, and a kitchen.  Seriously, I can be so dense at times.  That’s a photo of the cabin and our truck, both restored by my father-in-law. Thank goodness I have such interesting people in my life!

Then something completely unexpected crept into the story.  What do they grow on this farm?  Originally, the farm where this cabin stands, included tobacco fields.  We know this because there is a tobacco barn.  My mother died of lung cancer and my father has COPD.  Yeah, I already really like this character and she is not going to grow tobacco.  Besides, I’ve moved the cabin to slightly different geography that is far too rocky for tobacco but there are cattle aplenty.

Guess where my family went this weekend? The photo to the right is my son drinking a soda in a calf barn.  We went to a local organic creamery.  Now, in my story, the Wilkersons keep dairy cattle and, by the end of the book, will be working towards having a full-fledged dairy.  I so did not see that coming and will have to go back to the real dairy (oh woe is me!), take the official tour and do some delicious research.

Spend time with interesting people.  Go interesting places.  Do interesting things.  They will find their way into your stories.



August 30, 2016

How to Add Depth to Your Writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:29 am
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depthFor the first time in quite a while, I am once again sending out manuscripts without a contract in hand.  And today was only the beginning. I’ve got another one to submit tomorrow.  And another to go out on Wednesday.  Still another is ready and will go out Thursday.  Deep breath.  Tale a deep breath, Sue.

It doesn’t matter how many sales I have.  If I’m lucky, sending material out like this means that I’ll get a rejection.  If I’m not so lucky, I’ll get feedback with an offer to read it again. How’s that unlucky?  I’m only joking, a little.  Getting feedback of any kind is actually great but it means that I’m running the risk of hearing one of the phrases that I dread.  “You need to add depth.”

I know enough to realize that this doesn’t just mean add to the word count.  Adding another scene isn’t the way to get the job done.

But what does it mean?  For different writers or different stories it can mean different things.

For some writers, your story may be too slight.  Yes, you have a plot.  It is a well-developed plot and your hero has to put out some serious effort to succeed.  That may be enough if you’ve written a picture book, an early reader, or a chapter book.  But novels, both for middle grade and young adult readers, often have subplots.  You may need to add one or more subplots that in some way mirror the main plot.

Sometimes the problem is that the reader needs more insight into your character.  Fixing this problem may be a matter of inner dialogue or making sure that some of the dialogue has not just text but subtext.

Last but not least, what is lacking may center on the setting.  You have details.  You have descriptions but they seem to be incidental to the story itself.  You need to find a to have the setting speak about the character, the story problem or a theme.

If an editor describes your story as slight or asks you to add depth, give the comment some thought.  Read your manuscript again with this comment in mind.  The key is to craft a solution that fits right into your story, seamlessly, as if it has always been there.


June 27, 2016

Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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trees around feed plotMy middle grade science fiction novel is set on an Earth-like world.  The area where the main character lives is very like an area I frequented as a child and still visit as an adult.  That said, my mom and grandmother never encouraged off-road strolling.  There were too many snakes and ticks and chiggers.

Lucky for me, I now live in male dominated household I lovingly call “Man Land.”  Paths and roads are mere suggestions.  Before you go down, you spray your clothes with Sawyers (tick repellant) and you use the video feature on your cell phone to self check for ticks in hard to see areas.

This weekend, I took the time to stroll through several feed plots and up a rarely used road or two.  I discovered that walking an overgrown gravel road is actually much easier than walking a well-maintained gravel road because the gravel is anchored in place with weeds.  When you walk past a stand of short leaf pine (at least I think that’s what it was).  The bark looks a lot like shag bark hickory and you can smell that glorious piney smell when you stroll past.  I was surprised how closely together the trees were growing.  Not even a tween could easily pass between the trunks.  Certainly not a teen in a hurry.

Not far from that was a stand of cedar.  Pines have long needles.  Cedar have scaly needles/leaves.

There were clusters of multiflora rosas growing amid clusters of blackberries.  I had forgotten how small wild blackberries could be, not finger-tip sized like the ones in my yard.

The sweet smell of honey-suckle stood out but I didn’t notice any scent what-so-ever from the trumpet vines.  The flowers were beautiful and easy to see but scent?  Nothing I could detect no matter how much the humming birds love them — and I actually saw a humming-bird alight on a branch and rest there for a time.

I had already roughed out the scenes in which my character moved through this landscape at about this time of year.  I’ll definitely be reworking them now that I’ve done it on a humidity drenched evening as the sun was pushing the horizon.  I know it isn’t always possible but this experience helped me see that your character’s sensory perceptions will be much sharper if, before you pen that scene, you take the time to walk the path.



April 22, 2016

Is your setting real enough?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:25 am
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Nevada, Abandoned, Building, Shack, Shed, DesertMy new project was humming merrily along as, each evening, I added two new pages. They’d fled, evading capture, and headed off up the mountain. Then, as they approached the area where they would make camp, the story ground to a halt.

I dutifully kept my butt in my chair, adding a sentence, deleting a sentence and generally annoying myself.  Why couldn’t I get them as far as the deserted mansion?  Maybe, said the tart voice in my head, it’s because you can’t envision your setting?

Oh.  I’d been trying to write about the wreckage of an old estate and although I’ve been through abandoned forts and deserted mining settlements, ramshackle mansions have not been a part of my past. I typed “deserted mansion” into a Google image search and found myself clicking through sprawling stone estates in Europe, ante-bellum disasters, and a towering urban structures standing shoulder-to-shoulder with equally deserted neighbors.  Then I saw it. Red brick. Three stories.  In the middle of a field.  There were even interior shots.  As soon as I had my setting in sight, the words flowed.  You can find my r

When you find yourself unable to write your characters through a scene, give some thought to the setting.  If you can’t see it in your mind’s eye, get online and do some looking around.  Not that you should stop with the visuals.  You need to know what it sounds like when a door screeches open, how a long empty house smells, and the feel of spongy half rotten wood underfoot.

Staring with photos and a picture in your mind allows you to write with the level of detail that is essential in creating realtic writing that draws your reader into the story.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to do some research on general stores.  Check out my image research here on Pinterest.


December 10, 2015

Creating depth in your writing

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 3:11 am
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There are certain phrases that you simply never want to hear from an editor.  Top on my list?  “This just feels slight.”

Yes, there are fixes including adding subplots but I’m always worried that these subplots will feel like they’ve just been tackeThe-Target-cover-lo-res-277x418d on.  After all, I didn’t plan them as I was creating the story so, in a sense, they are tacked on.  Fortunately, you can avoid this “tacked-on” feeling by creating parallels between your plots and subplots.

As I’ve been listening to the audio-book of The Target by David Baldacci, I’ve noticed these types of parallels between his plot and subplots especially in terms of setting.  He has a main plot and numerous subplots.  I’m not being cagey on purpose but it is sometimes hard with Baldacci to tell where one subplot ends and another begins.  His working is far too complicated to ever be called slight.

Anyway, back to that setting.  In this particular book, the setting that draws the plot and subplots together is prison, not a specific prison but prison in the generic sense.  At one point, the main characters who are both CIA agents are sent to a training facility.  Because it is “be reevaluated or stand trial,” they don’t have a choice and they have no freedom to leave. They are, for all practical purposes, in prison and are treated no better than prisoners. One subplot takes place in a prison in Alabama.  The other subplot involves a character who grew up in a North Korean prison camp.


There are also strong parallels in the details used to describe these prisons.  Cells and huts are described as windowless and dark.  Characters who are no longer in these confining spaces spend a great deal of time gazing out windows, often looking for a variety of spies, either true-spies or snitches.

By including numerous parallels within the settings of his plot and sub-plots Baldacci creates a book that has depth and the layers needed to engage both an editor and a wide variety of readers.  For more on creating depth in your writing, specifically depth in your characters, check out my post today at the Muffin.



July 7, 2015

World Building: Setting and Culture

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:20 am
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world bldg setting cultureIn the past year, the vast majority of my work has been nonfiction.  I’ve been thinking about fiction a lot lately.  I have two novels in the works (note: long deserted) and really want to get back to them.  They are both fantasy which is going to require a lot of world building.

What do I mean by world building?  I’m talking about all of the details that go into creating your fantasy world.

In part, this is a matter of setting and there’s a lot to consider.  What planet or land is the setting for your story?  What does it look like?  Smell like?  Feel like?  When we create a fantasy setting, a lot of the time we get hung up on the differences to our own world.  And that’s understandable.  It’s what makes your setting beyond ordinary.  Because of this we obsess about things like multiple suns, desert planets and dragon filled skies.

But don’t forget to consider what is the same.  The same?  The details that are familiar to your readers help build a bridge between their every day lives and the world of your story.   It makes it understandable.

World building goes beyond the physical world to also include the culture of the story.  The culture includes everything that makes up  a people’s way of living.  It includes language, technology, social organization (monarchy, republic, etc), economy, politics, religion and how they react to the environment and conflict.

When it comes to matters of culture, we again tend to focus on the “different.”  We make up a language and system of naming children.  The society is matriarchal with women having multiple husbands.  The people are vegetarian and commune with the trees.

As groovy as those kinds of details are, we again need to remember to include the familiar because it (say it with me) forms a bridge for the reader.

Having to noodle over all of this is why writing science fiction or fantasy is such a huge undertaking.  Tomorrow, a bit more about creating a bridge.


June 30, 2015

World Building: Not Just a Matter of Fantasy

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:38 am
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world bldgWhen you say “world building,” many people assume you are talking about fantasy.  The truth is that you have to world build any time you are taking readers into a specific world with which they are unfamiliar.

Yes, Rowling had to world build in Harry Potter.  But Milne also carefully constructed the 100 Acre Wood.  Whether you are writing a mystery in which the setting is key or a gothic story with a dark, moody setting that impacts the story, you too will have to world build.  Here are 5 things to keep in mind.

1.  Know your setting before you write about it.  You need to have the details in place before you start writing.  Some writers create maps.  Others pin images on Pinterest.  Still others print things off and make a scrap book.  Do whatever works for you but know your setting ahead of time.

2.  Pick and choose.  Especially when you’ve created a complex and wonderful world, you’re going to want to share it with your readers.  The key will be feeding them the information a little at a time so as not to overwhelm.  This means that you will have to pick and choose the details you want to reveal first.  To know what to reveal when…

3.  Consider your scene.  As you take your reader into the setting for the first time, what is the most important thing to reveal?  A lot of this will depend on your scene.  If you want to create an air of mystery, you will reveal something strange or curious.  If you want to an air of forboding, you will reveal something creepy or ominous.  What detail from your setting will best convey this?  Once you know you are ready to …

4.  Create your tone.  You know what you want to get across and what details you have chosen to do it.  Now carefully choose the words that will do this.  Branches can be spidery or grasping.  The scene of flowers can be fresh or cloying.  It all depends on what you want to convey.

5.  Consider your character.  Now that you know what you want to do and how you can do it, consider your character.  These have to be details that your point of view character would note.  Does it still work, if not, you have some fine tuning to do.

It sounds like a lot of work but if you do it right, you will create a rich, vibrant story world that pulls your readers in and drives your story forward.


November 13, 2014

Character Emotion: Indirection of Image

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:44 am
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Check out John Thornton Williams post on Glimmer Train.

I’ve written before about character emotion and using a scene to demonstrate how a character feels.  In short, this means that instead of writing “Pablo was happy,” you create a scene that shows Pablo being happy.

Easy enough.  (Snort! As if.)

In his post “Indirection of Image,” John Thornton Williams challenges us to consider and show for our readers how the character’s emotion impacts how he reacts to a specific setting or image.  Think about it, a character who is entering a hospital for a birth will observe and interact with the hospital in one way.  A character whose infant is in neo-natal ICU will have yet a different experience.

Now think about your current project.  Pick a scene with a memorable setting.  How does your character’s emotional state influence what he observes and does within this setting?

Once you’ve found a scene, read over it and then open a new file.  Create another scene in this same setting but swap your charater’s emotion 180 degrees if possible.  If your character is elated in the scene in your story, have him interact with this scene when he is despondent.  If he is angry, create a delighted scene.  If he is sorrowful, rework it with gleeful.

Once you’ve done this, take a look at the setting details.  How your character sees the setting should vary somewhat depending on his emotional state.  If that isn’t the case, spend some time playing with your charcter and get to know how he reacts as a result of various emotions.



February 12, 2014

POV and Description

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:25 am
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description and povLast week, I read a really good post on the Muffin about writing description.  In this post, Margo Dill wrote about always keeping your POV character in mind when you are writing description.  In her example, someone’s roses are first described as beautiful.  Seen through the eyes of the POV character, they are something to be avoided, a fact he learned when he fell into them the previous summer.

Writing description from the perspective of a point of view character means understanding how that character thinks.  Here are some things to consider.

  • Senses.  What is your character’s dominant sense?  A fantasy written from the point of view of a dog, might emphasize smell.  An owl would be visually oriented, at least at night, and also focus on sound.  Even people use some senses more than others.  I’m constantly trying to track down the source of some smell or another.  My son is famous for noticing strange sounds.
  • Hobbies.  Does your character have any hobbies?  A gamer is likely to use game terms or compare things to his favorite game.  A soccer player might pepper her observations with sports terms.
  • Background.  What your character thinks of another character’s home may be influenced by where and how she lives.  A modest bungalow may look like a shake to a girl who lives in a penthouse apartment while looking like heaven to a character who lives in grandma’s basement with her parents and siblings.
  • Historic.  Historic fiction can be especially difficult.  While we would notice the stench of a medieval city, the residents wouldn’t.  What would they notice?  The height of a manor house?  The colors of a knight’s garments?
  • Circumstances.  What your character notices may also depend on what is going on in the story.  A wide lake may look peaceful one day but be a barrier to freedom on another.

Fine tune your description to suit your point of view character to give your reader a spectacular view of your setting.


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