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Writers’ Group: Culture

23 Apr

Somehow I convinced my writers’ group to let me lead them this month. I didn’t drug them, I swear!

I had a flashback to my semester of sociology in college and remembered the seven elements of culture. Well, I couldn’t find a list of seven and my Google searching gave me ten. When you’re writing a historical setting or a fictional setting, it can be really helpful to think more about the background of your setting in terms of these elements. There’s a lot more to creating a world, race, or religion than you’d think!

  1. Economic System– We’ll start with the boring ones. Well, probably the borning ones. If you’re writing about a currency revolution, this might be really exciting. Normally, this is more of a background element to a culture. It sets up how goods and services are exchanged. Currency and bartering would be most common.
    • Example: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter uses galleons, sickles, and knuts. Not our filthy Muggle money.
  2. A Form of Government– Again, this could be exciting or boring depending on your story. The government in A Song of Ice and Fire is central to the plot while The Fault in Our Stars doesn’t mention who’s president. If you’re writing about royalty or politics, this is a big one to think about. Otherwise, it’s likely a background element that you should give a few second’s thought to.
    • Understanding the legal system and how corrupt it was in the 1920s is helping me with my novel set in that time period.
  3. Symbols– Now we’re getting to it. A symbol is a visual that stands for something. It should evoke a reaction from the members. It’s a form of nonverbal communication or a material object. The meaning one group attaches to the symbol may be different from another group which makes a symbol unique to each culture.
    • US President Richard Nixon made a hand symbol while visiting Brazil that means ‘OK’ here but meant something very rude to Brazilians!
  4. Language– This one may seem obvious. For people to share a culture, they need to share a language to communicate. However, language can also divide cultures. Think of different regions of a country. How I speak in Michigan is going to be different from someone in Texas. Meanings of words vary by country (chips) and region (Coke).
    • My first conversation after landing in London was with the woman at the coffee counter. She asked me if it was “For here or take away?” I stared at her for twenty seconds before responding, “To go.” My jet lag brain didn’t process what had happened until the next day.
  5. Rituals– These often mark a transition in life and many are religiously based. In the US, the Super Sweet Sixteen is a non-religious ritual. Rituals often have established procedures or ceremonies, like a wedding or funeral.
    • Again to Harry Potter, having the trace lifted is a ritual that signifies someone has grown up.
  6. Artifacts– An artifact is an element of material culture that holds meaning for that culture. In modern times, our artifacts change quickly because of technology. My simple Nokia phone from middle school seems like an ancient artifact next to my iPhone 7. These can include the household tools and clothes of a people and are very important to visualizing and describing the setting.
    • A book set in ancient Rome wouldn’t have watches but the togas and shoes the people wear are going to be essential in setting the scene.
  7. Social Organization– This mainly covers family patterns and social classes. Does my imagined race of blue centaurs live in herds or do they hunt alone? Would the poor and the rich be able to eat at the same restaurant? How people interact and who they interact with defines the social organization.
    • In The Space Between Us, Serabai lives with her mother in law because of the traditional family patterns in Mumbai.
  8. Customs and Traditions– This is a big one. I’ll break it into two major groups, values and norms. Values are judgments of good and bad that a society has. They define something as desirable or undesirable and shape the way people act. Norms are these ways of acting. They are accepted standards and expectations for behavior. They can be formal norms which are strictly adhered to and called mores. The most important norms are made into laws and enforced with a punishment for breaking them. Informal norms are called folkways or customs and do not carry a strong stigma if they are violated.
    • Because American culture values individual achievement, it’s a norm that we don’t use all of our vacation days (unfortunately).
  9. Religion– While not every person practices a religion, most societies (especially in past times) have one. Before modern science, people answered the questions of the universe with a supreme being, be it God, Zeus, or Krishna. While a culture might not have a god, chances are they do.
    • Many wars are fought over religion. There are too many A Song of Ice and Fire examples to count.
  10. Art and Literature– The best for last! Art and literature might be a subcategory of artifacts, but they’re not always material. Stories can be passed on orally and many times these stories reinforce customs and traditions. They’re also an example of entertainment in the culture.
    • The Tale of the Three Brothers in Harry Potter warns young witches and wizards about the dangers of power and living in the past. And it tells the origin story of the Deathly Hallows

I hope I haven’t bored you too much! My group assured me this was helpful but they’re too nice. Until next time, write on!

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!


Book Sense: Smell and Taste

30 Nov

Welcome to the last installment of the Book Sense series. We’ve already covered touch and sound and today I’ll cover the last two, smell and taste.

Here are the four I want to focus on today:

  • Unpleasant smells
  • Smells that invoke memory
  • Taste of something unknown
  • Tastes that invoke a sudden emotion

Yet again, please add more in the comments as you see fit.


Unpleasant smells: We tend to notice smells that are extremely pleasant or extremely unpleasant. I think the unpleasant ones are more striking and tell more about a story. The smell of decay can depict death. Fires have a distinct smell. There are a lot of negative smells that can help set a scene without having to describe it. The smell of a sweaty sock is bad but what about a neglected patient in a mental institution?

Smells that invoke memory: There are smells that will always remind me of things in my past. The laundry detergent my host mom used in Mexico is one I still remember eleven years later. Lilac will always make me think of my parents’ house and the old lilac tree in the yard. I think these memories can be very powerful and if used sparingly (maybe once or twice per story), can be very effective.

Taste of something unknown: I remember my first time trying Vegemite and (apologies to any Australian readers) how salty it was! I think descriptions of a new taste can help frame a character’s reaction. I think this is especially important in fantasy if an invented substance is being tasted. What does Mars vodka taste like if they don’t have potatoes?

Tastes that invoke a sudden emotion: Tasting bile in your mouth is a sign of great discomfort or dread. A mouth watering is a sign of hunger. A dry mouth can be fear. There are a lot of ‘tastes’ in our mouths that can show how a character is feeling without having to state it outright. And it’s always better to ‘show’ instead of ‘tell.’

There we are! Are there any other smell or taste sensations you think are important (or overused) in writing? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Sense: Touch

28 Nov

Welcome to part two of the Book Sense series. Yesterday I talked about sound, today I want to talk about touch.

Here are the four I want to focus on today:

  • Character-to-character connection
  • Feel of an unknown item
  • Touch-induced emotions
  • Temperature sensations

Yet again, please add more in the comments as you see fit.

Character-to-character connection: This is probably the most important use of this sense I can think of. The feel of a friend’s hand on your shoulder, a creepy stranger’s bump against your hip, or a lover’s caress of the hair are all very important ways of experiencing touch in writing. It drives relationships and, thus, plot.

Feel of an unknown item: I have fantasy writing in mind when I think of this. I know what a wool blanket feels like. I don’t know what a blanket feels like when it’s made from the hair of a fictional llama-bird. When something is not commonly known, a description of it is very helpful to build a fictional world and physical touch description should be a part of that.

Touch-induced emotions: I talked about sounds that evoke memories yesterday and this falls into the same category. I also think a touch can induce an emotion. Personally, slipping into a pool to swim laps is one of the most calming things I can imagine. Once I’m underwater, I’m instantly at peace. I think slipping into bed can have the same effect. These shouldn’t be very common but they can be used well.

Temperature sensations: Changes in temperature are very noticeable so characters should experience them as well. Walking in on a winter day has an instant warming effect. Being outside after a run can start to feel cold in November (personal experience). Change in seasons or time of day can be marked with temperature instead of overt statements and I believe this is one that can be used frequently and still be effective.

There we are! Are there any other touch sensations you think are important (or overused) in writing? Please leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Book Sense: Sound

27 Nov

With a lack of topics and a need to write the posts for this week well ahead of time, I’m embarking on a series for this week that will focus on the sounds books can (and should) include. I’m going to skip sight because so much of a book is describing a picture (and because of my number of posts per week). Today, I’m going to start with sound!

I’ll pick four to start with.

  • Sound of a speaker’s voice
  • Background sounds for a setting
  • Sudden or startling sounds
  • Sounds that provoke a reaction or trigger a memory

If you have more, please add them in a comment.

The sound of a speaker’s voice: Now, this can be great if a character is going to have a unique way of speaking such as an accent or vocal tick. I really like it when used sparingly. For example, I could tell you my husband’s voice raises when he’s about to make a bad pun and then if I ever talked about his voice starting to rise, you could imply he’s about to make a bad pun. (Note: you could guess this every five minutes and be correct.) I think this can be used well to show the age of a character, too. High voices for a child or cracking voices for an elderly person. However, if used for every character or too many in a single scene, it can get old fast. Sparingly, it’s a great tool.

Background sounds for a setting: This is on my mind now because I have the Rumba running and clothes in the dryer. So before you picture me sitting alone in a quiet apartment, realize that the Rumba got stuck in my bathroom and the dryer buzzer is about to go off so I’ll be stepping away to unload the clothes. Little touches like this can make a scene. I’m writing this, but I’m busy! Maybe there’s a peaceful background noise if I’m writing out on the porch with the wind chimes blowing or I’m hiding from my husband’s friends if I can hear a football game. I like these touches when they add to the mood. If they don’t, they’re distracting and unnecessary.

Sudden or startling sounds: When a sudden action happens, I find a sound is usually attached. A gun going off, a door slamming shut, a car crashing, a glass shattering. These all have very jarring sounds associated with them. If I’m napping and my husband comes home, the door jerks open and I wake up. (Note: The dryer buzzer just went off. Timing.). Because a lot of fiction focuses on an inciting incident, I think the sound of that incident can be a great way to punctuate the action.

Sounds that provoke a reaction or trigger a memory: This is another one I’m going to say is best used sparingly. If there’s a memory that a character needs to share, sense memory is a great way to bring it forward. A sound like a baby crying or a balloon popping can trigger an emotional time for a character. When this memory moves the plot forward, I think it’s a good technique. If it’s building a character arc, I think it could be OK. If it’s filling paper, it’s a waste.

What are other times you like sound description in a book or story? Leave a comment and let me know!

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Why I’m Not Doing NaNo And How I Feel About It

24 Oct

For the first time in four years, I’ve decided not to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) at all. I had a traditional ‘win’ in 2014 and in 2015 and 2016, I started participating after my school semester ended in the middle of the month and I did a time-based editing commitment. It was a bit more like camp NaNo but it still allowed me to participate and enjoy write-ins.

This semester, my class doesn’t end until early December and I’ve decided not to commit myself to any participation at all. It’s hard to step away for a year and I’m really going to miss the way NaNo makes me so excited about writing and the friends its introduced me to. I usually have the energy to write from NaNo that extends until February. But this year, I won’t.

This comes at a hard time for me because I’ve stopped feeling like a writer. I write this blog, but I’m not working on my short stories and I haven’t touched my novel in a few months. I’ve had a few acquaintances ask me lately how my novel is going and my answer is ‘school.’ I feel like I’m not a writer now, I’m a student. I don’t feel like I have time to be both.

With a graduate date of December 2018, I’ll have at least another year of feeling this way. I made a running analogy about this for my husband that I feel works well. Writing this blog is like training for a 5K. It’s short, small runs, that keep me in shape and keep me feeling good. Working on my novel is like training for a marathon. It’s completely different and a lot more commitment. Running 5Ks puts you in a good position to start training for a marathon, but it’s not in the same league. This blog keeps my muscles loose, but they’re not ready to jump into a novel.

I hope none of you are having writer doubts like I am. It makes me all sad and mopy. I’m really hoping that when I’m no longer a student, I can reach some other goals I have for myself. One is to finish a half Ironman triathlon. The other is to finish my book and start querying it. I’ll start January 2019 but that seems a long way off.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Writers Group: The Hook

25 Sep

My fellow group of writers met last week for our monthly meeting. I was so glad to go because I’ve been forced to miss meetings for one reason or another the past two months and I’m glad we are back at it! Our topic this month was the hook, the first sentence (or paragraph) of the story that draws the reader into the book.

We looked at two writing coaches and their advice on the hook. K.M Weiland suggests that there are five elements.

  1. It asks an inherent question. This may be explicit or, more likely, implicit. It should make the writer wonder. The reader should be left wondering ‘Why?’
  2. Introduce a character. One is ideal, but sometimes more. Sometimes a name is given, other times it’s more general.
  3. Provide a sense of setting. This helps place the story in the reader’s mind and makes the first scene more interesting.
  4. Establish a voice. This may take more than one sentence to develop, but it can be done in a single sentence. This is more important in first person narration but is necessary for other POVs as well.
  5. Make a sweeping declaration. Some will say never to do this, but if done well, it can be great.

Some say you need to pack this into one sentence, others that you have a paragraph or page or chapter to do it. It depends on your audience and genre as well.

The other coach we looked to for advice was Suzannah Windsor Freeman. There were a few ‘don’ts’ she provided.

  • No dialogue. The reader doesn’t know who’s talking or what is being talked about.
  • Avoid excessive description.
  • Avoid irrelevant information.
  • Don’t introduce too many characters. Each one will not be memorable.

Freeman has six ways to hook a reader and some of them are similar to Weiland’s.

  1. Make the reader wonder.
  2. Begin at a pivotal moment.
  3. Create an interesting picture.
  4. Introduce and intriguing character.
  5. Start in an unusual situation.
  6. Begin with a compelling narrative voice.

Some other advice included asking questions as the story goes along, but not answering all questions before asking more. This builds tension and plot. All questions should be answered by the end of the story.

We spent the remainder of our time looking at famous first lines and seeing how they covered these elements. We also looked at the books we were currently reading to see if they fit the mold. I really liked this exercise and it has me feeling good about my opening line.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group

4 Jul

The amazing Maria led our writers’ group this past month and concentrated on Tense and Point of View in writing. Let’s start with POV.

There are a lot of advantages and disadvantages to certain POVs. In some cases, the genre dictates what is normally used. I write YA and I know first person is most common and I know that my 3rd person book might have to be completely rewritten at some point (I hope it never comes to that) because it’s YA. We talked about times books are written in two points of view and how that works. Sometimes, the writer will combine first and third person POV. Some chapters are written in first from a certain character’s perspective and others from 3rd, following one or more characters. Most commonly, this is done with two 3rd person POVs.

There are some major disadvantages of 1st person. You are limited to what the character sees so you can’t write about anything outside his or her vision. This can result in a lot of ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’ which makes a book drag.

Second person is not as common. Maria found an example in How the Mistakes Were Made. The character Laura is represented in sections of the book written in 2nd person but this isn’t the whole book. Second person creates some distance from the reader so a whole book in this format might be tedious. I’m always reminded of the Choose Your Own Adventure series that I read in elementary school. Those were so fun.

Third person unlimited can head-jump too much if the writer isn’t careful. This can be confusing to follow. The suggestion is that you write like the piece is a play. Too many soliloquies can be annoying! This style is common in romantic intimate scenes. It can be tricky because it can confuse who knows what information and what each character can act on.

Third person limited is more common. It can feel distant and narrative distance from the action becomes possible. To limit this, a writer can use words that match a character’s personality. Maybe a character scowls but he thinks it’s just a frown. Maybe someone with anxiety is panicking not fidgeting. The tone of the writing can match the character as well to limit narrative distance.

There are four people involved in any third person narration: The protagonist, the viewpoint character (if different), the narrator, and the author. Think of The Great Gatsby. Gatsby is the protagonist, Nick is the main character, there is a narrator, and Fitzgerald is the author. How the narrator describes something and how Fitzgerald might describe it could be different from how the narrator describes it, thus creating the different people.

The most important thing to do is stick with the POV you’ve chosen. Even if it’s an unreliable narrator, the key is to be consistent. Maria recommended the website for more information on POV.

The second part of our discussion was tense. Past and present tense can give writing a very different feel. Present tense can be restrictive. It’s good for action books and jokes but it can be hard to reflect on past events leading to the present action. Switching from past to present tense is more than changing ‘was’ to ‘is’ and so forth. There’s adding more thoughts and description that’s being noticed at the moment.

We did an exercise where we chose a piece of our writing (or a sample from the book) and changed the POV and tense. It’s fun to try if you want!

We’ll be meeting again next month. Until then, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Scrivner and Software

25 Apr

After missing my writing group last month, I was glad to jump back in and meet the group. We had a few new members this month so there was only one other writer I knew well. Because of the new audience, we went over writing software again, particularly Scrivner. I apologize for any reader here who might already know some of this from a past post.

There are some features of Scrivner that I didn’t know about (I don’t have Scrivner so take this with a grain of salt). I did know about the corkboard feature which seems to be a favorite of the users. With each chapter/scene on a notecard, you can move them around the corkboard and rearrange your story to see if there’s a better order. There are templates that Scrivner provides for character sketches and setting descriptions. You can change the templates to fit what you need and you can also create other templates, whatever will help you write better. You can drag and drop sections between files of Scrivner. If you have character sketches done and you want to start the sequel, just drag and drop to the next story. You can take a snapshot, which is a freeze of the story at a given moment. Then, if you change something and if you don’t like it, you can go back to the snapshot and try again.

There’s an option for inline annotations, comments that won’t show up in the final version. This is good for noting something you may have to revisit later or comments from a Beta reader. There’s a word frequency tool which will show words you use far too often. I’m an ‘Awesome’ person myself and I bet the tool would show that! If you have a file in Word that you want to put into Scrivner, there’s a ‘split’ option which can be used to split a long file into scenes or chapters as needed.

In addition to Scrivner, there are several free softwares that writers can use, though they don’t have the number of features Scrivner does. yWriter is one.

Sorry that this isn’t too new for those who have been here a while. For those who haven’t read this before, Scrivner is a wonderful tool and those who use it seem to love it. I have no desire and I’m fine with Word. 🙂 To each his own.

Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

Library Writers Group: Writing Concisely

24 Jan

My writers’ group (four strong at the moment!) met last week and one of our members discussed writing concisely. At first, I was wondering where she would go with this topic but we talked about wanting to write concisely to get to our points faster and be as succinct as possible while still being comprehensive. With these ideas below, I took a piece at 500 words and cut down another 80!

The first is to obviously try to cut words. There are many lists available of words different writers recommend cutting. These can include look, feel, so, just, even, really, finally, only, and many others. Words like see, feel, think, and know usually can’t be cut themselves, but are an indication that there’s a way to cut words around these words. There are phrases known as redundant pairs that can always be cut such as sit down (sit) and stood up (stood).

Rephrasing is another way to cut words. Passive voice is usually wordier than its active alternative. Phrases can be shortened altogether, taking ‘the chair with brown legs’ to ‘the brown legged chair’ (5->4). Clauses starting with that, who, and which, can be turned to phrases. ‘My teacher, who I respect very much, likes hiking’ becomes ‘my well-respected teacher likes hiking’ (9->7). Sentences that start with There/It are/is can usually be shortened as well. ‘There are three bookshelves in my living room’ becomes ‘I have three bookshelves in my living room’ (8->7). The final thing we covered was a new term for all of us. Nominalization refers to turning a verb into a noun and makes sentences a lot longer. ‘The reconciling of monthly statements is Mary’s job’ becomes ‘Mary’s job is to reconcile monthly statements’ (8->7).

Many times, sentences become redundant. We were given the example ‘Some ideas can be incorporated into another sentence. This will make the writing simpler.’ I got this 14-word idea into 5: Combining ideas makes writing simpler. Combining can be done at both a sentence and paragraph level. I find myself repeating things within a paragraph from time to time.

There’s more cutting to be done. Taking out weak words and adding strong ones can make something shorter by avoiding repetitive description, adjectives, or adverbs. Prepositional phrases can often be cut. We read an article that recommended outlining after finishing the first draft. It can show pacing to show the author where to cut and any subplots that weren’t finished and can be taken out. Another suggestion was to look at each scene and break down the elements of a scene within it. This can also show pacing and show which elements might be over-done and could use some cutting.

We covered some ways to practice concise writing. My favorite is tweeting. When you’re limited to 140 characters, you have to make each one count. A fun exercise we did was taking the first part of a Wikipedia article and cutting the word count in half. This was really fun to do and I highly recommend it.

We’ll be back next month with more. I’m excited I won’t have to miss this group while my class is in session. Until next time, write on.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!

NaNoWriMo 2016 In Review

5 Dec

Well, I made it! I hit my goal and here I am on the other side. I didn’t write every day though I rarely do during NaNo. I’ll admit I’m a rebel and maybe my rebel goal is easier than the traditional 50K. I didn’t start until after my final exam on the 9th, which is the biggest cheat I allow myself. I realized when I did NaNo the traditional way that I could write the minimum 1667 words in about half an hour. Hate me if you will, but that’s what it took. So I held myself to 30 minutes of editing each day. To add some pressure, I made myself meet that goal each week. If I missed getting the 210 weekly amount by Saturday night, I would consider the whole thing a fail.

And I made it! You can look at my daily posts if you like for details, but I’ll say I made my goal by more than two hours. I finished going through the book from the mid-point I was at and went through it one more time. I added scenes for consistency and made some character changes. A lot of my writing was a write-ins at my local library. There’s a Detroit ML that came to all of them because he lives close by so I still felt connected to the region despite not attending any of their events. They did a stamp system to encourage participating and unfortunately, I ended with a total of four stamps.

I was going to start doing a go-through for dialogue consistency, but I think I’m going to change directions. I started reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass and even three chapters in, I’m coming up with ways to make my story better. I need to change the pacing. I need to strengthen a subplot. I need to make my female lead character’s motivation stronger. In short, I need to make a better story before I worry about better dialogue. What I have so far is valuable. I got to page 13 or so and a lot of the changes I’ll make are much later in the book so I do plan to come back to this later.

I’m rejuvenated. I want to work on my novel again and to be honest, I’m kicking myself for typing this when I could be working on it! I’ll take the time to write the reviews I’ve missed and catch up, but I’m considering cutting back another post per week to spend more time writing. Maybe making one post per week a writing update instead of what I normally post. I want to work on it more, especially before school starts up again in February.

Congratulations to all the other winners out there. We survived! Happy writing.

You can follow me on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. I’m available via email at And as always, feel free to leave a comment!