Seize the Moment – Grab a Short Story

image of two books

[T]he story demands that you become a fuller participant in said experience. There won’t be any long authorial seduction of the reader; you need to be primed when you show up. And no chapters full of backstory, set-pieces, window-dressing, etc. Of course, all readers should be alert and dedicated all the time, but a novel is more likely to forgive you a brief lapse in attention here and there–a short story will just spit you back out, the end.”

Justin Taylor

A short story is a complete story in a very small package. As a reader of a short story, you fill in the details about the characters and their lives. A good one will have you thinking about it, in different ways, for a long time after you’ve finished reading.

Short stories use the same elements as novels but they tell a complete story with far less words. Because they are shorter, it doesn’t mean they are easier to write. Short story authors revise and rework their stories, looking for the best word to convey their meaning. They have to do more – express more, convey more – with less. In addition to having fewer characters, short stories often cover a very short time span. Some stories cover a few hours or a few minutes. A lot can happen in that small amount of time. Sometimes, but not always, a character’s whole life changes in the space of a few minutes.

Short stories also have some unique and unusual characteristics. Depending on the source you refer to, these works can be anywhere from 1,500 to 30,000 words. That is quite a range. In grad school, I wrote a paper on Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question”. This short story covers several trillion years of history in about 4,500 words. My analysis of the work was several pages longer than the story itself!

Another interesting feature of this type of literature is that they often end in a sudden, dramatic fashion that has a lasting impact. Sometimes there is a moral we are left to consider. This is in contrast to the novel. The ending of a novel is often the anti-climax, also called resolution, where most plot lines are tied up with a nice bow (unless there’s to be a sequel), the climax having occurred in the previous chapter. With the short story, it frequently ends with the climax. No loose ends are tied. We are often left wondering how it all works out (or doesn’t). As readers, we decide that by filling in the gaps with our imagination or by trying to figure out what the author meant. Either way, there is much to think about when reading short stories.

A distinguishing attribute of the short story is that it is meant to be read all at once. Depending on the individual reader, that can be a good thing or bad thing. Some people prefer the slow build up of the novel, while others enjoy the condensed, tight, brief story that can read in under an hour. It is surprising that, in this busy world where people never seem to have enough time, short stories are not a lot more popular. Whatever your preference, short stories continue to be a significant part of American literature.

What have you found to be the most striking aspect(s) of the short stories you have read? Do you prefer short stories or novels? Why? Please comment below.

Writers on Writing: Nina Kiriki Hoffman

images of author book covers

NINA KIRIKI HOFFMAN is an award-winning author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. She has been nominated for every major award for her short fiction in the fantasy and science fiction genre.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

NINA: Ideas are all around. I always have at least a pen and a piece of paper, more usually a notebook, for jotting down title ideas, snatches of interesting conversations, strange thoughts I get from situations I observe. Sometimes I prod my muse by rolling dice or coming up with writing prompts. Sometimes I get ideas from dreams. I also read voraciously and watch TV, and those things feed into the idea bank.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the science fiction/fantasy and/or horror genre and/or for teens?

NINA: When I try to write realistic/mimetic fiction, I get bored. I like to write stories that include magic or things so far unknown; I like wider possibilities than the ones I know from real life.

Many of the things I’m drawn to write have a teen mindset, because I think that’s my own mindset. I’ve always resisted growing up. I think I’m in some sort of twilight zone at this point, because being a teenager has changed so much since I was one. It’s a bit confusing.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

NINA: I’m reading the Rizzoli & Isles books by Tess Gerritsen. I just finished reading Julie Smith’s two New Orleans mystery series about Skip Langdon and Talba Wallis, and her Rebecca Schwartz San Francisco mysteries. Been on a female detective kick for a while. God bless the library.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

NINA: GRIMBOLD’S OTHER WORLD by Nicholas Stuart Gray. I read this when I was thirteen, and it totally invaded my mind. I’m sure I’m still stealing ideas and scenarios from it. Gray used tropes from English myth and legend. He did beautiful things with cats, second worlds, trolls, wizards, lost princes, magic spells, and even Faery, though he didn’t call it that. All in beautiful language.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

NINA: Um, I don’t think I have a favorite. It’s all woven together, whatever it is. I just want to get from here to there in the story.

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

NINA: For the past seven years, I’ve written almost exclusively in food courts and coffee shops and bookstores. I had cancer, surgery, radiation, and chemo in 2007, and two deadlines, so I was very sick and writing under pressure at home, and it left me with an allergy to my own office. I hope I can get over this, because coffee shops and bookstores don’t stay open late enough for me. I write on a MacBook Air. I am sure I am not ergonomically correct.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

NINA: I write four days out of seven, or sometimes more, for stretches of three or four hours.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

NINA: Nope. I let my fingers do the walking when the time comes to start again. Open a new file and see what appears, though, as I said above, I’m constantly collecting scraps and fragments I could use.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

NINA: No. I’m lazy.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

NINA: Use naps and journaling upon first waking up to kickstart the flow again.

Connecting and keeping up with Nina Kiriki Hoffman:

Interview conducted in 2014.

Writing Tips for Smooth and Engaging Writing

Effective communication is the sharing of information that others pay attention to, understand, remember and use.

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Check out the following strategies to communicate more effectively. They are not just meant for college students or people who write for a living such as technical writers or authors. Even if you only communicate via email with your boss and peers at work, following these guidelines will have your co-workers taking you, and what you have to say, more seriously. You will also be more appreciated for sharing information that is useful, easy to understand and meant specifically for the people receiving it. What more could anyone ask for?

  • Know your purpose. To be effective, writing must have a purpose. What do you want to communicate? Why are your ideas important and/or why do you want to share the information? Where is the best place and what is the best format to disseminate your ideas? Answering these questions will help you share your knowledge more successfully.
  • Focus on your audience. Especially in a work environment, you will be appreciated for enumerating the ways your ideas will benefit others. How, specifically, can this data be used? Why should it be important to them? An effective writer doesn’t just provide information. They explain to their reader what’s in it for them. There is nothing wrong with writing simply to express but, in the long run, you won’t have very many readers if you don’t deliver something useful. And, you’ll have more readers/fans/happy coworkers if you make it easy for them to understand and use your ideas in ways that make their lives better.
  • Write to your audience. It is helpful to think about who your audience is so that you can tailor your writing to them. You don’t want your readers to feel that you are “talking at them” or “talking down to them”. Use language that they use. Explain new information but not things they already know. Good writers engage their audience. Use ‘we’ and ‘us’ where appropriate. If warranted, be conversational. When writing to an academic audience, be formal. When communicating with management, focus on solutions rather than problems. If you don’t spend time considering who your audience is and how to engage them, you may very well lose them.
  • Start general and get specific. In a previous post, I stated that an effective way to write is to say what you are going to say, say it and then tell your audience what you just said, using different language (and varying amounts of detail) each time. The best way to do this is to begin general and introduce your topic. Then, express what you want to communicate in sufficient concrete detail. Finish by succinctly summarizing the provided information and don’t forget to state the reason for your communication including the benefit to others.
  • Vary sentence lengths and structure. Many people have a tendency to write mostly medium, long or short sentences. This can be boring for readers, especially if you write mostly medium or long sentences. While editing, you can break up long sentences, join up small sentences and rearrange sentences to create a more engaging read. But, don’t do this randomly. Think about what your expressing in each sentence and determine the best way to do that. Use short sentences when you want to make an impact. Use longer sentences when communicating related bits of information. Intersperse that with medium sentences to create an effective flow.
  • Use better words and a variety of words. Although writing style ultimately depends on your purpose and audience, in general, it is always a good idea to avoid slang. To make your writing sound more educated, without sounding arrogant or stuffy, use words such as large instead of big, significant rather than important. Avoid repeating the same words over and over as that is boring and unimpressive. The thesaurus feature in Microsoft Word makes it easy to use an assortment of words.
  • Read your writing out loud. This is very helpful in making sure that our writing flows smoothly and helps us catch grammatical errors.

These strategies may seem daunting at first or a lot of effort but, like anything else, your writing will improve the more you apply them to your work. Writing is both a practice and a process. Typos, grammatical errors, wordiness, repetitive vocabulary, and similar sentence structure can all be corrected in editing. The more you employ these practices, the easier it will be to write smoothly and effectively and engage with your audience. These approaches will soon become second nature and you’ll know it when you spend less time editing, other people take more notice of you and your writing, and more readily recognize and adopt your good ideas.

Experiencing Drama

drama sign

Good night, good night. Parting is such sweet sorrow that I’ll say good night until tonight becomes tomorrow.

Romeo and Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Drama imitates. Poetry animates. Short stories fixate.

While these three forms of literature share common elements, they often use them differently, or for a different end. Short stories focus on a small slice of life. You could even say they exaggerate a moment or highlight a defining moment, but leave you to work out what it all means. Poetry brings things to life. Like the kids game of Twenty Questions, poetry looks at the characteristics and qualities of an object that is animal (living), vegetable (growing) or mineral (inanimate), (basically anything). A poem beautifully, lyrically and often rhythmically describes something in such detail that it becomes real for the reader. Drama, again, is a different animal.

Drama imitates life by displaying it in front of your eyes. The audience sees and experiences the interaction (i.e. movement, dialogue), emotions, and background for scenes of life. At the same time, much is left to the imagination. Since the entirety of a play is acted out upon a stage, in front of an audience who can hear stagehands moving props, it cannot provide the same rich detail that is found in a film. The audience fills in the gaps as they watch the action and listen to dialogue and music. This often happens on a subconscious level. As participants in life, we have our own drama – our comedies and tragedies – which makes the watching of plays a partially unique experience for each of us.

It is because of the employment of our imagination, beliefs, and experiences that plays seem so real even though they are really just an imitation of life. Without the projection of our life on the play, it would be lacking, hollow, a fake.

I saw my first professional production of a play during my sophomore year of high school. With our teacher, we took the commuter train to San Francisco, ate lunch and went to the American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) to watch Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. We had already read the play and knew what to expect, but to see it acted out right in front of our eyes was mesmerizing in a way films often are not. It is a shared, participatory experience that actively involves your senses, emotions and intellect. The energy and emotions of the audience influences the players upon the stage. Popular movies, while evocative, lack the reciprocity of emotion that is an essential part of a play.

A good analogy for seeing a play versus watching a movie is listening to music. Even if you’ve never been to a play, I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to listen to live music. It moves you in more ways than listening to the same tune on an MP3 player or on the radio. Drama, like music, is best experienced live. Give yourself the gift of watching a play today.

Writers on Writing: Louise Marley

photo of Louise Marley
© Louise Marley
Used with permission

LOUISE MARLEY is a prolific writer of science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction with strong female characters. She has been awarded the Endeavor Award three times. She has written under the pseudonyms Cate Campbell, Louisa Morgan, and Toby Bishop. Ms. Marley used to sing professionally with the Seattle Opera and music features significantly in several of her novels.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

LOUISE:  I always have more ideas than time to write them!  I’m particularly inspired by images, sometimes ones that pop into my head (always grateful for those) and sometimes ones I observe in the world around me, in a piece of art, or even one that comes to me when I’m reading another writer’s work.  Some of my favorite books, such as THE CHILD GODDESS, began by thinking of an intriguing title, and then developing a story to fit it.  People often offer their ideas to writers, but it rarely works out; I think our ideas have to be specific to our own creative process.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the science fiction/fantasy and/or romance genre?

LOUISE:  I’ve never written romance, but I love fantasy and science fiction, mostly because I love reading in those genres.  I also love historical fiction and have been working in that field for several years now (under my pseudonym, Cate Campbell.)  I do think we should write what we love to read.  We bring our passions and enthusiasms to that work, and I believe it shows.  With historical fiction, the research and the details of other historical periods fascinate me.  With fantasy, the freedom to create, to play in alien worlds and explore the characters who populate them, is a joy.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

LOUISE:  I’ve just finished a historical novel, IN PALE BATTALIONS, by Robert Goddard.  It’s set in the same period I’ve been working in, post-World War I, and I found it interesting, but not a complete success.  It’s been a popular novel, and I think people who love an intricate plot probably love it for that reason.  I found the characters unconvincing, which shows my particular bias–I think stories only succeed if I, as a reader, believe the characters’ behavior and choices.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

LOUISE:  I love Connie Willis’s wonderful time-travel novel, DOOMSDAY BOOK.  Connie is great at character and plot, and this was a book I couldn’t put down the first time I read it.  It has everything–good science fiction, excellent historical research, high stakes, and a lot of tension.  And, of course, Connie’s great, clean writing!

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

LOUISE:  I don’t know if I have a literary technique!  I do like drama, and so in every scene I try to find something that makes the scene memorable.  I absorbed this principle from my work in opera, back in the day, and it has served me well as a writer.  One of the things I love about writing fantasy or science fiction is that I can create big-picture scenes.  I suspect some of my novels have an operatic feel!

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

LOUISE:  I tend, with a novel, to start with my idea, and write about fifty pages.  Then (in an act of discipline), I stop and write a brief synopsis.  This is to have an idea where I’m going, to keep myself from wandering off in too many different directions.  Sometimes the synopsis helps as I develop the plot, and sometimes I never look at it again, but it gives me a sense of structure and organization.  I try to always know the ending before I get there!
ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

LOUISE:  I write every day, as a general rule.  Two hours is probably my average, although when I’m on a deadline I can write four to five hours.  I write in my study, or on my deck, or–often–in a coffee shop, with white noise around me.  The day just doesn’t feel right unless I’ve spent some time on the work-in-progress.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

LOUISE:  I never lack for ideas!  So, yes.  In fact, I have two book ideas waiting to be addressed when I finish the current one.  And then there are short stories to be written as well!

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

LOUISE:  I do.  Often, as I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel or story, the next one is niggling at me to get started.  If that didn’t happen, I would know I needed a rest.  (See the next answer!  :-))

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

LOUISE:  I agree with Anne Lamott on this issue.  I don’t really believe in writer’s block, but I do accept that a writer can be tired, or as Lamott says, “empty.”  Sometimes a rest is in order, but that doesn’t mean watching tv or doing something else that fills the mind with non-writing materials.  It means taking a walk, going for a drive with the radio off, or simply sitting somewhere in solitude, allowing the mind to roam and refresh.  I walk a lot, which is helpful.  I also practice yoga, which seems to feed my writing with energy and focus.  I also write before I do something else, like reading a book I’m enjoying or watching a television program (love Downton Abbey!)

image of some of the author's book covers

Connecting and keeping up with Louise Marley:

Interview conducted in August 2014.

The Writing Life: Survival Lessons

Survival Lessons book cover

I am a prolific reader. I’ve always loved escaping into amazing realms. From school days spent in the library, avoiding bullies, through today when I am fortunate enough to earn an income reading, editing, and writing, books have been like a best friend. They are a source of comfort, inspiration, and a well of infinite knowledge. Books continue to amaze me and stir an awe of people and life that is more important now than ever before. What more could anyone ask? Except, perhaps, to share those adventures in reading.

I love writing about books I’ve read. But this is not a simple review. I want to share how we can all benefit from something I read in a book. That book is Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman. This might seem like an odd choice for a blog for writers, but writing is a solitary experience. We may bounce ideas off friends to expand on our topics beforehand. And we may ask people to read and provide feedback on our work, but the middle part is fairly solitary.

Survival Lessons is all about choices. Choosing your heroes, choosing to enjoy yourself, choosing how you spend your time, choosing to plan for the future, all choices that we can make to live a more meaningful life. This should be easy for us. Writers make choices all the time. But how often do we choose to put ourselves, our wants, and our needs above everything else, including our writing? Self-care is challenging for many people, but writers spend a lot of time in their head and often neglect body and soul. So, here are a couple of suggestions to live a more balanced, connected, thoughtful, and joyful life.

Choose Your Friends

“I began to talk to neighbors in their eighties and nineties, people who had previously been nothing more than nodding acquaintances. I discovered what interesting lives they’d led and how much they have to say. Once I slowed down and took the time to ask questions, I realized they had a thousand and one stories.”

Alice Hoffman

It’s very important to have some balance in our lives. Maintaining friendships is critical. We need people who like and accept us, just as we are, and who make us feel good. People we can talk with about anything, not just writing. It’s too easy to get lost in our heads. We need to be grounded and be in our hearts sometimes, to stay sane and healthy.

We need people to look up to. Who inspire us. So, if you have good friends, hold on to them. Show them that you appreciate them. If you don’t have good friends, you need to find some. This is a daunting task at any time, but a real challenge during a global pandemic. You can meet people through organizations like Meetup and Eventbrite which offer events like virtual game nights, Zoom book clubs, online writing groups, spiritual meetings, and much more. It’s a great way to create some balance, have fun, learn, and meet people.

But you don’t have to sit in front of your computer. You can also go outside and talk to a neighbor. Everyone has stories to tell. You can make a friend and learn new things about yourself and life, make connections, and get inspired.

Choose to Give In to Yourself

“A puppy is never a mistake, though it is often a mess…  Sometimes that’s what you need most of all, not to be alone. Sometimes a dog knows that before you do.”

Alice Hoffman

We can learn a lot from a dog. They can teach us how to love life and live in the moment. Our relationships with dogs are a lot less complicated than those with other people. They love us with their whole heart and are always ecstatic to see us, even if we only went outside to put the trash in the bin. They are always there for us. They let us know when it’s time to eat, time to play, time to walk, and time to sleep. A dog won’t let us spend too much time writing to the exclusion of all else.

A dog saved my life once. After a profoundly difficult time in my life, he found me and taught me to love again.  Living with a dog can make you laugh, cry, scream in frustration, be joyful, and fill your heart with love. I can’t imagine life without a dog. They truly are a human’s best friend. You know what people say, life is better with a dog.

I think this book, which provides concrete ideas to improve life, can help anyone who is struggling – and I think we are all facing new and challenging difficulties during this global pandemic. We can always grow, learn, and love as long as we are alive. There is a significant difference between surviving and thriving and Survival Lessons can help you move closer to thriving. The more grounded and balanced we can be as people, the better writing we will do.

What are your tips for living a well-rounded life? What helpful books have you read lately?

Connecting with Poetry

photo of Bodega Bay
Bodega Bay © Eileen Rackus
Used with permission

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute.  We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.  And the human race is filled with passion.  And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life.  But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.”  

Tom Schulman, “Dead Poets Society”, 1989

Like many people, I began writing poetry in my youth to deal with painful feelings I had no other way to manage.  Through sharing my poetry, and reading what others have written, I found that I was not alone in my feelings.  Throughout my life, poetry has been my refuge, my solace, my salvation, my inspiration. 

In college, I took an introductory poetry class.  Regularly, we recited poetry to each other in the courtyard.  Standing closely, face-to-face, looking into the windows of the soul.  Reciting poems to people we knew only superficially had a profound effect on all of us.  If you haven’t experienced this, it may be difficult to imagine the bonds that developed.  Who could imagine that you could learn everything you need to know about a person based on their choices of poems and on the beauty, elegance and, often, passion with which they were recited?  The intimacy of attentively looking into another person’s eyes as they tell you the joys, pains, and meditations that we all relate to was a little uncomfortable at first but it became one of those indelible experiences that alter you irrevocably at the deepest, most fundamental level.  You can take the measure of a human by their poetry, what they read and what they write. It informs about their morality, their truth, their vision, and their fortitude to be true to their artistic vision of truth and beauty.

Poetry can be many things to many people.  The following passage from “Poem in October” resonates with me and speaks to my deep connection with nature, tending and feeding it.  What does it speak to you?

   These were the woods the river and sea
         Where a boy
            In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
         And the mystery
            Sang alive
   Still in the water and singingbirds (Dylan Thomas, 1934)

When my father was dying, too young, quite before he’d had a chance to live his own life rather than always sacrificing for his family, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” helped me express my unspeakable pain.  How does it make you feel?

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas, 1951).

After a tumultuous relationship ended, I found myself again with the help of Derek Walcott’s Love after Love (1986).  Can you relate?

Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life

“Poetry is the literary vehicle which is not only an aid to living but a means of living. For example, an encyclopedia can offer information on elephants. You can discover where they live, what they eat and how they breed. This information is for practical purposes only. You can grasp the ivory of the elephant, but not its soul. The encyclopedia will not touch on its majesty, wild grandeur, strength or power. The poem can turn the elephant from a museum specimen into the highest concrete visual image that comes alive in the mind of the reader. For the living elephant, we must turn to poetry.” IB Iskov, “Why Poetry is So Important

From a young age, poetry has been a significant part of my life.  From helping me deal with overwhelming emotions, singing my joy to the world, expressing the deep sorrow and anger at my father’s passing, to helping me learn to love myself again, poems have been a recognition and expression of my humanity.  It connects us all to each other and anchors us to life.  If you don’t already have a relationship with poetry, I hope this inspires you to develop one.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.  (Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese”, 1993)

The Writing Process

graphic of the writing process

Writing is a process (and a practice rather than a product) because it is never truly finished as there are always revisions that can be made.  Consider the word ‘revision’ for a moment.  It doesn’t mean to edit.  It means to re-vision.  Significant changes can, and often do, take place in revision. 

Let’s look at the three phases of the writing process.

  1. Prewriting – includes research, reading, synthesizing, brainstorming, outlining, freewriting, etc.  Everything that is done to prepare to write.  This phase can take a lot of time.
  2. Writing – this is the actual writing of the essay, article, book, etc. During this phase, the focus is getting all your ideas down in a logical, structured manner with an introduction, body and conclusion.  Phase 2 is actually the shortest part of the writing process.
  3. Revising – in this stage, the writing is looked at as a whole to see how well ideas are expressed, developed and supported; whether the conclusion(s) are logical based on the information presented; and how well the writing meets the requirements.  Portions may be completely re-written. Editing is not a part of this.  This phase takes significantly more time than writing.

We don’t just go through each phase once.  You will go through each at least once, probably several times.  And, that brings me to the other point I want to make about writing.  It’s a practice, like anything else.  The more you write, the better you will become.  Spending a lot of time in revision will improve your writing and ultimately more of your revision time will be sent on the content and the implications of what you have written.

Phase I – Prewriting

To begin the writing process you must first discover, explore and connect ideas related to your topic.  This involves interpreting and drawing conclusions from your research.  You can use one or more of the following techniques to help you build a big picture understanding from all the data gathered on your topic.

  • Researching – Information – and our understanding of it – changes all the time. Look for recent research whenever possible, but don’t use anything older than 10 years old. Reference and Academic Librarians can help located and retrieve data from other libraries.
  • Re-reading/Reviewing highlighted passages – additional readings of research materials can help you pick up things you missed the first time through.
  • Outlining – This is a structured way of organizing your ideas prior to writing.  Each section of the essay or novel is accounted for and details are provided.  It is very clear what each paragraph is about.  This is one of the best techniques to use, especially in conjunction with one of the previous techniques to prepare for writing your essay. This is especially useful for people who are organized and like to plan. Outlining can include chapter summaries.
  • Character Sketching – For some of us, it is useful to develop our characters in advance. We consider what events have shaped our characters views and reactions to the world. We also write about how our characters look, think, feel, aspects of their lives such as career and relationship status, and their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Freewriting – This involves writing down everything you can think of on the topic.  When you’ve written everything you can, re-read what you have written.  When something you’ve written sparks a new thought or idea, begin writing again.
  • Clustering – This is a way of diagraming and connecting ideas.  It is similar to outlining.  Start with your topic in the center.  Then connect bubbles for the main categories related to your topic.  Connect more bubbles to the main categories that reflect points you want to make related to that category.
  • Brainstorming – Similar to clustering and outlining, but without the structure, brainstorming is writing down ideas as they come to you.  As you notice relationships between thoughts and points, draw lines between them.  You can highlight things that are significant and even number things according to the order with which you think they should be discussed.  There are no rules with this form of prewriting.
  • Listing – Like brainstorming, this technique involves making a list of the types of information you want to include and/or listing everything you know about a topic.

What works best for me is researching, re-reading, outlining and freewriting. I usually do the freewriting inside my outline and eventually copy paragraphs into another word document to begin the writing process.

Phase II – Writing

This is the stage where you write your first draft by organizing, in a logical progression, the information collected and synthesized during Phase I. A previous post illustrates and details how to structure the essay. At this point in the process, you will to do the following:

  1. develop a purpose or thesis statement that states what the writing will be about (based on your research question)
  2. explain your thoughts more fully in a manner consistent with your purpose and audience
  3. provide supporting evidence from your research
  4. for fiction: use research to add details, depth and richness to your story
  5. for non-fiction: detail how the data relates to your ideas about the topic and explain how all your ideas and research date prove your thesis or purpose statement

As you are writing, focus only on that. Some of us have a tendency to correct typos, grammar or word choices as we are writing, but that can interfere with the flow of ideas. Writing is, after all, a learning process. The act of writing continues the synthesizing of data begun during Phase I. Whatever you notice about the quality of the writing, Just make a note of what you discovered and keep on writing. Once you have finished the first full draft, put it aside for a day or two so that when you begin revisions, you can look at what you’ve written with a fresh outlook.

Phase III – Revision

Revising is the phase where you make many, and sometimes substantial, changes to your rough draft.  Review any notes you made during Phase II. The best course is to work on content, structure, cohesion and flow. During revision, you may need to reorder, or rewrite, paragraphs, pages or whole chapters to provide a more logical progression of ideas toward the conclusion you wish to reach. Don’t waste time on grammar and typos in sections that may be completely rewritten (more than once) before you have a final draft that needs polishing.

Many writers find it helpful to receive feedback on a revised draft from at least one other person. Ideally, this would be someone in your target audience. They can discuss the terminology, how well each paragraph builds upon the last, whether you need more or different research, and if you have sufficiently supported your thesis (aka purpose in writing).

Once you have a final draft, you will need to proofread and polish it. It is easier to make several passes at this because there are so many things to consider when revising. 

  • Microsoft Word and Google Docs can help you find and correct grammatical, mechanical and punctuation.
  • Word choices – as stated in a previous post, use better words and a variety of words.
  • Vary sentence structure and lengths – this helps with the readability and flow of your writing.
  • Subject-verb agreement – whether your subject is singular or plural, your verb should be too. Check out this resource.
  • Switching tenses – As a general rule, you should pick one tense and stick to it. For writing that is supported with evidence, that is usually past tense since the studies you will cite were completed in the past. You can switch tenses, but be sure it is for the right reasons. Here is a resource. A lot of fiction writing today is written in the present tense. Whatever tense you use, make sure it make sense with the purpose.
  • Transitions – each paragraph should flow smoothly from one to the next with each consecutive paragraph building upon the information in the preceding passage.
  • Read your paper out loud when proofreading to catch awkwardness.

Sometimes it is better to have someone else edit our work We can be too close and attached to our writing to be objective.

Engaging in Reading

Frank Dicey - The Novel
Frank Dicey – The Novel

Reading is an active, engaged exercise.  It involves considering the material and connecting it to your life in some way.  Asking yourself the following questions while you read will help you connect more deeply to literature.  What you learn from these explorations will make you a more effective communicator as you’ll be able to share your thoughts, ideas and feelings in deeper and more meaningful ways. 

How does the work you are reading make you feel?  Most literature is written to evoke an emotional response.  It is one of the clues an author provides to assist the reader in finding the theme, the message or idea behind the story.  Unlike fairy tales, the theme is not necessarily meant to teach.  A theme presents an idea in a particular way.  What we do with that information is up to us.

What scenes, sounds and tastes do you experience?  Authors use descriptive language to create vivid, animated pictures in the mind of their readers. Reading is a sensual experience as much as it is a mental exercise. 

How do you as a person, or your experiences, connect and intersect with the characters and situations in the story?  How do the characters and their lives compare to people and circumstances you’ve encountered in your life?  What can you learn about yourself, other people, and life from reading?  There is much to be gained from stories beyond the intentional themes depicted in literature.  Coming of age on a space station or in Samoa, learning to wield magic, living amongst aboriginal people or in a post-apocalyptic society where everyone is constantly monitored and freedom of choice has been eliminated are a few of the many experiences I have enjoyed or suffered, without lasting consequences, through books.

What do you notice about how the work was constructed?  Literary elements, such as the few mentioned below, not only enhance reading pleasure, they provide additional information about the work and the author.  There are many styles and literary techniques that can be used to subtly (and not so subtly – think farce) influence, highlight, and support the meaning behind the collection of words on a page.  Reading closely, carefully and actively will help you find the following:

  • Theme – The main idea that solidifies a work.  What techniques or elements does an author use to suggest or highlight the theme?  How do the techniques used support the theme?  How do these elements contribute to or detract from your experience of the work?  Why do you think that is?
  • Point of view – The perspective from which the story is being told – first person (story recounted by a character in the story), second person (reader referred to as ‘you’ by narrator), or third person (a narrator who is not one of characters tells the story and may or may not provide the thoughts and feelings of the characters in the story).  What is the point of view of the story and how does it affect your experience of the work?  How would the story change if it was told from a different point of view?  What is the impact of knowing only the thoughts of feelings of one character’ (limited), all character’s (omniscient) or no characters (objective)?  Does the point of view alternate in the story?  If so, how does that add to or detract from the story?
  • Plot – the sequence of events in a story.  How is the information being provided (i.e. chronological order, alternating between present action and flashbacks) and how does it impact the reading experience?  What picture is being painted?  How does it help the overall story to unfold in this way?
  • Story – the events or content of work.  What do the events say about the characters in the story?  How does this compare to your own experience or the experiences of people you know?
  • Setting – The time (past, present or future) or place (London, rural America, or the planet Alderaan in a galaxy far, far away) where a story takes place.  What does the setting tell us about the way characters look, speak and act?  What behaviors do we take for granted that might mean something different in another time and place?  Looking for the culturally bound meanings of words and actions can open a story in new and unexpected ways that help us understand better what it means to be human.
  • Tone – the overall mood of a piece of literature.  What does this say about what the author is trying to convey?
  • Symbolism – an object, action or person that has, in addition to its literal meaning, a figurative association that is shared by most people.  For instance, the flag of the United States is literally a piece of cloth but it also represents freedom to many people.  How does the use of symbolism contribute to your experience and understanding of a literary work?  How do you know what the figurative meaning is?  How does this relate to the theme?

Even if the content isn’t particularly interesting, studying how an author expresses ideas can be very fascinating and educational beyond the English classroom.  Reading in this manner will improve your written (and oral) communication because bringing awareness to the act of reading (or writing) transforms it.  The use of any of these or other elements in your writing and speech will provide a richer, fuller communication experience for all parties involved.  Think about people you know who relate events in a manner that evokes your emotion and imagination.  Listening to such people engages us on many levels.  Understanding how to use techniques to enhance your communication will help people engage and interact with you more fully.  Even if you aren’t a sales professional, healthcare worker, politician, customer service representative, or teacher, you can benefit from being able to express your thoughts clearly and fully.  Knowing your options, consciously selecting how to communicate, and observing your impact will keep you fully in the moment and connected and engaged with others.  And, I think, we’d all like to feel more connected – with people as well as the books that we are reading.

Writers on Writing: Jonathan Maberry

Jonathan Maberry photo
© Sara Jo West
Used with permission

JONATHAN MABERRY is a New York Times best-selling and multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning horror and thriller author, editor, comic book writer, magazine feature writer, playwright, content creator and writing teacher/lecturer. He was named one of the Today’s Top Ten Horror Writers. His books have been sold to more than two-dozen countries.

ANGELA: Where do your ideas come from?

JONATHAN: Ideas are everywhere. I’ve never known a working writer who was ever short on ideas. It’s really more a matter of having the time to write all of the ideas in your head. However I’m also actively on the prowl for elements that will deepen my stories or allow me to build-in interesting hooks. I read a lot of nonfiction about politics, psychology, world news and current events, and tons of science. I subscribe to several dozen science magazines and also correspond with many of the writers and, more often, the experts in various scientific fields. If I want to build in an element of, say, genetics into a story, I typically seek out the leading experts and ask to pick their brains. I now have quite a network of world-class experts in molecular biology, infectious diseases, military technology, forensic evidence collection, hematology, surgery, and so on. It becomes a habit to see something, wonder about it, play ‘what if?’ games with it, develop it into a possible story, and see if that’s something to build into a short story, novel or comic book.

ANGELA: Why do you write in the horror and/or multiple genres?

JONATHAN: Technically I write thrillers. Horror is one of the variations on thrillers that I write. I write stories about people overcoming extreme threats or hardships. I don’t, as some horror writers will, write about monsters. I write about people confronting and overcoming monsters. That’s an entirely different head space.

The horror I write is generally built on the thriller model –the race against time to prevent something very bad from happening. I also write horror built on the suspense model –which is about dealing with things as they’re happening with no clear idea (for the characters or the reader) as to what is going to happen next or how this is all going to work out).

Writing for me is generally about the story first and the genre a bit later, though I have done some projects that are specifically aimed at the center of a genre target. The short story “Chokepoint” was a straight horror, as was the novella “Jack and Jill”. Both are zombie stories and that genre lends itself well to in-the-moment horror.

My YA novels in the ROT & RUIN series tend to be adventure thrillers with elements of thriller, action, science fiction, romance, and, yes, horror. The four book series is more or less a bildungsroman because it does follow a teenager’s growth from a rather naïve youth to a powerful young man, and it showcases the evolution of his worldview.

As for writing in multiple genres, that’s both a creative and business thing. In creative terms, I both dislike personal limitations and enjoy the opportunity to broaden my artistic horizons. For that reason I’ve embraced the opportunities –offered or self-imposed—to write projects in a variety of genres. I will never allow myself to be pigeonholed. I was advised against that by Ray Bradbury and, more emphatically, by Richard Matheson, when I was teenager. I’d gotten to know them both and they each warned me that fitting into a slot is a quick path to a short and unrewarding career. I took them at their word. So, I’ve taken some creative risks in order to write all kinds of stories. It’s easiest to see in my short fiction. In the last few years I’ve done a novella set in the Land of Oz (“The Cobbler of Oz”), an homage to Edgar Allen Poe’s August DuPin (“The Vanishing Assassin”), a ghost story (“Property Condemned”), an historical horror (“The Death Poem of Sensei Otoro”), a Cthulhu Mythos story (“A Footnote in the Black Budget”), a comedy (“Pegleg and Paddy Save the World”), a thriller (“Saint John”), a John Carter of Mars/Edgar Rice Burroughs story (“The Death Song of Dwar Guntha”), a western (“Red Dust”), an apocalyptic noir (“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride”), a science fiction tale (“Clean Sweeps”), a fantasy (“Spellcaster 2.0”), a story set in the world of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood (“The Million Dollar Hunt”), a werewolf adventure (“Strop Search”), a Sherlock Holmes story (“The Adventure of the Greenbrier Ghost”), a psychological mystery (“Doctor Nine”), a gangster vampire story (“Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard”), a YA thriller (“Fat Girl with a Knife”), and many others.

The other reason, the business reason, is because I want to maximize my opportunities to sell new work. If I wrote only in one genre then that’s all I’d do. Maybe a book a year, plus some side work in short fiction. Instead I write several books each year, each in a different genre, and they are published without me competing against myself.

ANGELA: What are you currently reading?

JONATHAN: My reading varies between nonfiction materials, books for possible cover quotes, and novels I read for leisure. So, for the first, I’m reading about new development in paleontology –particular dinosaur evolution into birds; as well as information on remote viewing, psychotropic drugs used for interrogation, and electromagnetic pulses. That’s for a couple of novels I have in development. For cover blurb purposes I’m reading Janice Gable Bashman’s first middle grade novel, FINAL HOME RUN and will then read Clive Barker’s NEXT TESTAMENT graphic novels in order to write the introduction to one of the volumes. For leisure, I’m listening to the audiobook of Ray Porter’s narration of Robert McCammon’s THE NIGHT BOAT, and reading the print version of FIELD OF PREY by John Sandford.

ANGELA: What is one of your all-time favorite books and why?

JONATHAN: When I was a young teen my school librarian introduced me to several professional writers who were part of a club. I became friendly with several, including Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and a few others. Bradbury and Matheson soon became two of my favorite writers, and one Christmas they each gifted me with signed first editions of books of which they were particularly proud. Each year I buy new hardcover editions of those books, read them on Halloween week, and donate them to a different local library. Those books are SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES by Ray Bradbury; the book that introduced me to fantasy. And I AM LEGEND by Richard Matheson, the novel that has most significantly influenced the kinds of apocalyptic fiction I both love and write. My other two favorites are the TRAVIS McGEE novels by John D. MacDonald and the DAVE ROBICHEAUX series by James Lee Burke. The McGee novels are, in my opinion, the very mysteries largely because of the complexity and humanity of the lead character. As for Burke’s novels –the language is lush and gorgeous, the insights fascinating and the characters are completely real to me.

ANGELA: What is your favorite literary technique/device/element to use in your writing?

JONATHAN: My three favorite literary elements are dialogue. rhythm and pace. For dialogue, I have two separate elements that I dig. First, love writing realistic conversations that advance the story while deepening our insight into the characters. Most of my stories begin with two characters talking in my head. If you’re not a writer, this is a definite cry for help. If you are a writer this is where great ideas are born.

The second element is the rhythm of the storytelling. A long time ago the wonderful and brilliant writer Harlan Ellison told me to try to write my stories the way the eye sees them. He was one of the pioneers of shattering the standard paragraph block into smaller bits. Short paragraphs. Sentence fragments. One word paragraphs. The effect is like listening to a piece of improvisational jazz. Instead of a straight workmanlike performance, you set to see the story the way the musician (or writer) does. That way the eye sees a flow of paragraphs of different sizes on the page and it follows the flow. Longer paragraphs slow things down, which is fine if you want that to be the pace. Sometimes what you want is a series of seemingly disjointed elements cascading down the page. This is a style also used by Ed McBain in his 87th Precinct novels. I’ve used it since about my second or third novel.

As for pace, I don’t allow my characters much time before I make life very difficult for them. I do character development while in gear, and I explore how the stress of certain kinds of events strips away affect and reveals true nature. Plus, I write very fast and I want the story to move along at top speed. That’s why there is a thriller element

ANGELA: What is your writing process?

JONATHAN: I tend to let an idea bang around inside my head for a while, then I’ll start jotting down ideas. Story elements, snatches of dialogue. Like that. Once I have enough of it, I rough out a plot. I always want to know where my stories are going, so I spend a lot of time developing the logical and exciting end to the bits and pieces. During the actual writing, however, I allow the story to change in the telling because that is a very organic process. But I keep the plot handy, and often revise it as the story changes.

One thing that I’ve found very useful in terms of hitting deadlines, reducing the number of revisions I’ll need, and telling a stronger overall story, is that I often jump forward and write the ending first. Then I back up and aim everything at that bull’s eye.

ANGELA: How frequently (and for how long/how much) do you write?

JONATHAN: I am a professional writer. Except on days where I have business meetings or time-intensive author events, I typically write eight or nine hours a day. Lately my schedule has been to be at my laptop by eight-thirty or nine in the morning and write until midday. I eat and do an hour of fitness training in my pool, or walk on the beach with my dog. Then I go back to work and write until dinnertime. I set my word count goal at about three thousand words per day, but I often hit closer to four thousand.

I typically work on one novel at a time, and take short breaks during those to write short stories and comic book scripts. Currently I’m writing two monthly comics, ROT & RUIN and V-WARS, both for IDW; and will likely add a third title next year.

I also have to integrate time for business –emails, phone conferences, contract negotiations, creative meetings, etc., with the various publishers and agents with whom I work. And I need time to edit. I’m currently editing volumes three through five of the V-WARS prose anthology series; as well as three simultaneous X-FILES anthologies, and a young adult horror anthology.

Time management is key. I do not waste time. And, yes, sometimes I have to work overtime. That’s always a risk for the self-employed.

At my current pace, I’m writing four novels per year –average word count of 120k each; two monthly comics; a dozen short stories; plus interviews.

ANGELA: Do you already have ideas lined up so that you could immediately start the next story?

JONATHAN: I have my next six novels already sold and waiting to be written. They include KILL SWITCH (book #8 of the Joe Ledger series), WATCH OVER ME (book #1 of the Dylan Quinn teen mystery series), VAULT OF SHADOWS (book #2 of The Nightsiders middle-grade science fiction series); GLIMPSE (a standalone horror-suspense), COLD COLD HEART (#2 in the Dylan Quinn series), and BITS & PIECES (a collection of Rot & Ruin short stories). I only do short stories on invitation, and I have a dozen of them on the calendar. And my comics are pre-sold. So…yeah, the ideas are there, the projects are there, all I need to do is make sure I have the time to do each one at the best of my skill level.

ANGELA: Do you always start the next work immediately after completing one?

JONATHAN: Unless a project wraps at the end of a work day, I generally take a ten minute break and then leap into the next thing on my schedule.

ANGELA: What do you do about writer’s block?

JONATHAN: I don’t believe writers block exists. Writers who say that they encounter it most often are those who are trying too hard to make their first draft read like a polished final draft. They are imposing unrealistic expectations on themselves. First drafts should be done quick and dirty –get the story out of your head and onto the page. That process taps into the part of us that is instinctive –we’re either storytellers or we’re not. Once the essential story is down, no matter how flawed and clunky, we then shift mental gears and approach the revision with an entirely different process. Craft. That’s something we learn. The skills of craft include figurative and descriptive language, point of view, person, pace, timing, dialogue, metaphor, and so on. These are things we learn in order to refine our stories. Writers who understand that these are separate stages of the writing process never get writers block.

Another reason for the myth of writers block is a lack of structure. I know some folks rail against the sacrilege of writing an outline for a novel. They don’t consider that to be how an ‘artist’ does it. Blah blah blah. A story must have some internal logic or it is simply writing without a point. The plot needs to be nothing more detailed than bullet-points for the logical flow of one event to another and on to the best and most interesting conclusion. A plot doesn’t have to be set in stone, either. However having one gives a writer a place to start, a direction to follow, and some guideposts along the way so they don’t wander off on a tangent that has no value to the final project.

I also think that many writers believe in the block because they’re trained to. It’s part of the process of mythologizing the process of writing that the writer is more of an artiste than he or she is a professional. I was trained as a journalist and came to fiction much later in my career. But could you imagine being a reporter and telling your editor that you’re blocked and can’t turn in the story on last night’s house fire? Or that the political debate you’re covering didn’t ‘speak to you’. Please. I have very little patience with the kind of writer who allows anything to get in the way of writing. After all, this is what we love to do. So, damn it…stop complaining and write. If it comes out wrong, so what? That’s why we learn the skills of revision.

Image of some of author's book covers
© Jonathan Maberry
Used with permission

Connecting and keeping up with Jonathan Maberry:

Interview conducted in August 2014.