Why was this scene cut?

By Janet Lane

I saw a terrific movie yesterday, An American Sniper. The director, Clint Eastwood, made a surprising decision that triggered thoughts about, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the mantra for story telling, and for good reason. Because we all write and read different genres, I’ll mention major movies. Imagine if the slaughtered horse head-in-a-bed scene had not been included in The Godfather. Or the nude sketch scene in Titanic. The shower scene in Psycho. Or when Dr. Zhivago sees Laura through the streetcar window and suffers a fatal heart attack before he can reach her?

All levels of writers know this principle, yet it can be difficult to master.

In Scene and Structure, Jack Bickham explains the purpose of scenes. His first three points:
1. The goal of each scene must relate to the story question.
2. The conflict must be about the goal.
3. The conflict must be with another person, not internally, within oneself.

This is helpful when determining when to write a scene, and when narrative summary will be the best option.

Telling gives the reader essential knowledge that keeps the reader informed, and able to grasp the significance of the scene/s that immediately follow.

If the protagonist is to insult someone, the reader needs to know the stakes and penalties, so s/he can worry. Not an,“It was the best of times and the worst of times” sweeping global overview, but concise details specific to your story.

If the scene is affected by current conditions, it could be a capsule historical overview at the beginning of the story. Here’s an overview from my latest release, Traitor’s Moon: "Poor England was sliding into civil war as the Duke of York prepared to fight King Henry VI for the throne. Roads weren’t safe to travel, and this moonless night made them the more dangerous."

It could be situational, unique to the protagonist.
"Stephen’s family already had their feet to the fire with alliances unsavory to the crown."

Attempting to “show” either of these developments would take chapters, but it’s backstory. Sometimes an isolated piece of backstory is dramatized in a Prologue, but the key here is to avoid “isolated.” If backstory is introduced as a prologue, it must be brief and connected and vital to the protagonist, or the writer risks losing the reader in the first or second page.

Examples of prologues that worked: Beauty and the Beast, a compact narrative voice-over (telling) that explained details of the Beast’s past cruelty and how he deserved the subsequent curse. Contrast that with the decision James Cameron made in Titanic, when he chose to “show” and created “book ends” to frame the story. Book End number one launched the story, dramatizing the moment when an elderly Rose sees the nude portrait of herself as a young woman on a newscast. Rose’s backstory is then presented in a flashback—on a fascinating stage--when she arrives on the boat and we learn basic facts about her engagement and her family’s financial troubles.

Showing vs. telling engages the mind of the reader. Our job is to draw the reader into the story world. Second, it leaves an indelible stamp on the reader’s memory. When shown well, it’s as if we personally experienced the event. It creates a memorable story, always our goal.

It takes extra effort. Again from Traitor’s Moon, it’s easy to say,
"Nicole thought she was ugly."

That’s acceptable for a first draft, but to engage the reader, show, don’t tell.
"Katherine was flawless, a testament to all that women
strive to be, something Nicole could never be with all her
six feet of bones and angles, and lack of all things feminine."

There are mundane, uninteresting moments of life that should not be shown or told.
*When your protagonist is driving to the store during normal weather and traffic (detailed, distracting travelogue)
* When your protag is dressing normally (not strapping a bomb on his chest, of course).

These slice-of-life events have been coined “cigarette actions” because they bring to mind the predictable order of the process: taking a deep drag, exhaling it into rings, and tapping the ashes in to the ashtray.

Returning to the movie, An American Sniper, Eastwood avoided starting his movie with a “prologue.” He started it in real time, a life-and-death moment in which the protagonist has to make a horrifying decision. Only after he totally hooked the audience with this tense scene did he begin a prologue-type sequence of three quick scenes that economically established the origins of the protagonist’s deeply held beliefs. As discussed in Vogler’s The Writing Journey in the chapter on Ordinary World, Eastwood’s prologue didn’t take on an “ordinary” Ordinary World such as, “Born in Chicago, youngest of twelve, average student, had measles at nine, etc.” Eastwood only provided essential details unique to the protagonist--and directly related to his inner story—which showed what made him the man he was.

There was also a point in the movie where I was surprised that Eastwood omitted a very dramatic moment. This is not a spoiler! I’ll just say that a major scene was not dramatized.


Eastwood demonstrated his firm grasp of story by showing (foreshadowing) in the previous scene, the off-camera action that followed. Would the omitted scene have elicited deeper emotions than the penultimate scene? I welcome your comments, but please avoid including any spoiler information so others can view the film and see for themselves this unusual treatment of “show vs. tell."

Guest Post: Bonnie Biafore – Enough Already

Hi, I’m Bonnie. I’m a recovering workaholic.

The pace I kept was starting to affect my health and the quality of my writing. The friskiness and humor that are the hallmarks of my writing were disappearing faster than unguarded burgers when my dogs are around.

So…..I’m going to play devil’s advocate to some of the writing advice out there.

  1. Don’t write every day.

Writing isn’t like eating or breathing to me. Writing is my job and I’m trying hard to treat it as such. When I worked for a company, I had weekends and holidays off, and took vacations to recharge my batteries, sharpen the saw, fill in analogy here.

Working for myself was a different story. From 1999 to 2012, I worked close to 7 by 24. I’ve had relapses since then.

Now, I take time off from writing. Time off can be writing related: people-watching to get ideas for characters or traveling to get ideas for settings or storylines. Some time off, though, should be dedicated to total recharge.

  1. Don’t set a rigid writing schedule.

I do set a schedule. It just isn’t rigid. When I’m updating a book, I know I have to revise 15 pages a day, 5 days a week for 2 months. Which hours of the day or which days of the week aren’t as important to me. (OK, this is my full-time job so I get to set my work hours and days. Those of you with other jobs might not have this luxury.) There have been times—many times, when I sat down to write, and spun my wheels for 2 hours before I realized what was happening. If those 2 hours were my writing time, I’d have a word count of, say, 20 words for the day.

Now, I watch for spinning wheels. When I notice them, I stop and do something else. Sometimes, I simply switch to writing something easier. (With my non-fiction writing, some stuff is easier to write.) Or I might do something else that needs to get done.

A favorite trick of mine is to knock out a short to-do so I can scratch it off my list. The energy boost I get from completing a minor task is often enough for me to tackle something more difficult. Sometimes, a change of scenery helps. Write in a spiral-bound notebook instead of at the computer, or use a laptop computer to sit on the sofa, at a coffee shop, or in a train station.

  1. Walk away.

Many times, the spinning wheels come from a writing problem: opening sentences, chapter cliffhangers, or a sentence that just doesn’t sound right. I’ve learned to take a break, usually to walk the dogs. Invariably, I end up recording the sentences I need on my cell phone as I walk in the woods.

  1. Don’t follow other people’s advice!

Everyone is different, so what works for me might be disastrous for you. I know what time of day I’m most productive, the best time for creative work or drudgery. I’ve learned that when I wake up at 1am thinking about work, I need to turn on the light, work for an hour or so, and then go back to sleep. I know that when I get on a roll, I need to cancel other plans so I can make the most of that opportunity. I know when something I’ve written is right, even if others tell me to change it. I’m learning to recognize the days when my brain and body are crying “Uncle!” and then take the day off mostly without feeling guilty about it.

Go ahead. Listen to what others have to say. Then, figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.


End of rant here:

Writers are great. They work in a competitive, stressful industry, yet they share their knowledge and support each other’s endeavors. They work hard. They’re fun to be around.

Thanks for letting me be part of the group.

The Research Conundrum

By Katriena Knights

For some reason, I keep developing plots for my stories that require a ton of research. I don’t know why I’ve been doing this. I guess the need to just learn stuff overcomes the desire to get a book done quickly and efficiently. For example, my current WIP is a sequel to Necromancing Nim, which took place in Denver and Urbana, Illinois. Both places I’m pretty familiar with. But the sequel, Summoning Sebastian, sends my little vampire/vampire/human ménage off to the wilds of Siberia.

I’ve never been to the wilds of Siberia. I’m not sure I ever want to go to the wilds of Siberia. But the book ended up there. So I have to do research.

The conundrum comes when I try to figure out how to do research. My first instinct is to learn EVERYTHINGALLOFITRIGHTNOW. So I buy a ton of books, print out a bunch of websites, and collect a metric whackton of information.

And then almost never read it. Or at least not all of it.

I go ahead and plow through my story, stopping here and there to look up items, but mostly extrapolating from what I actually have managed to read from this information-collection orgy. So the story gets written. But then when I’m done I feel like I have a ton of research gaps.

So we go back to LEARNEVERYTHINGALLOFITRIGHTNOW. That creates a vicious circle.

I’m working on a piece now where I’ve constructed the plot based on some things I already know will work, but that I’ll need to do a bit of research on to clarify. When I go back to do the rewrite on each section (this is a really fast turnaround job), I do the research on just the bits I need to know about, make whatever additions or changes I think are going to work, then move on.

When I started Summoning Sebastian, I collected a ton of books about Russia. (In all fairness, I’m doing research on I think two, maybe three other WIPs with the same materials.) And yes, a lot of what I learned in the initial reading made it into the story. But when it came down to it, I did a lot more on-the-spot research, writing sections in a fairly vague, generic way, then coming back and filling in details as I got to individual scenes that needed them.

I really have no idea which is the better approach. I know I tend to over-research. In the midst of researching for several stories set in Russia or with Russian protagonists, I ended up actually learning a bit of Russian. Which is overkill in the extreme. On the other hand, while I was cleaning up bits of Summoning Sebastian, it was really handy to be able to read menus of airport restaurants in Chelyabinsk without having to run everything through Google Translate. Your mileage may vary.

What are other ways to approach research? Is binging an acceptable method, or should I reconsider my life choices? Has anybody else been crazy enough to learn an entire language just to write a foreign character? Talk to me below. I promise not to judge.

Photo credit: "Old Books" by zdelia, from freeimages.com

On The Dangers of Writing Fictional Men

By Colleen Oakes

I remember discussing Twilight (a book I'm not embarrassed to admit I loved) at length with a couple of girlfriends, right around the height of the hysteria that captured a nation of teenage girls and forced a lot of grumbling married men to watch Robert Pattinson stare for hours at an exasperated Kristen Stewart. We were all sitting around my sister’s kitchen table, a bottle of wine open, and our books open on the table. My friends were listing off Edward’s desirable traits:

“He’s strong and a perfect gentleman!”

“He’s rich – he loves to spoil her.”

“He worships her and sees her for who she truly is!”

I remember leaning back and considering the implications before reminding them that “He” was written by a woman. HE is a myth of our own making.

There is a danger in fictional men written by female writers. As a female author, I see this trait in myself: a propensity to write perfect, flawless men. It’s only natural - I want to give my characters the best of the species to interact with; a man who is all things that my character needs, a man who is the combined fantasy of a thousand women. He encompasses our deepest desires, he listens with the ears of our therapists and girlfriends, his touch is like wildfire – he is the male equivalent of the lady in the living room, whore in the bedroom mythos. He is all these things and more. He is a delightful illusion of the needs that we don’t feel are being met: a portal directly into our disappointment.

There are a litany of sins committed when we write men this way. First, we do a huge disservice to our characters. Our characters don’t need perfect. They need complicated. They need hurdles. They need emotional resonance, for their hearts to harden like diamonds under conflict. Their minds need expanding, and above all, no character needs easy. There is no book, no story in “easy”, and a perfect man without flaw is easy. While Edward might make our hearts beat a little faster with the intoxicating attraction of teenage love, it’s the real men, flawed men – think Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets - that really can turn our heads. Interesting is better than good.

The other danger in writing perfect men is that the writer, or even the reader can experience projecting – that is, when they project the expectations of a fictional character onto their real life partner. My husband, who is the best man I’ve ever known, can’t compare to a fictional man in women’s fiction. He doesn’t create elaborate dates involving hot air balloons or gallons of rose petals. He doesn’t love to clean, and he definitely never buys me cars or takes me swinging through the trees because his super strength makes me weigh practically nothing. There are no sunset horseback rides, although sometimes we do go to our favorite Thai restaurant for dinner and he lets me have one extra wonton. Our life lacks a certain romantic danger, but that’s okay, because our life is real. He may not be the rippling hunk of muscle with a secret fortune squirreled away, but this year when he dressed up like a Sith Lord to take our son, dressed as Yoda, out for Halloween, I could have fainted with adoration. He’s held my hair as I threw up in Las Vegas, he cried alongside me when we met our son for the first time, and he will never ever get his pajamas into the hamper. Ever.

But that’s okay, because he’s real. He is not a fantasy created by a female writer who is fulfilling her every Cosmo-inspired fantasy. He’s a man of flesh and blood and burps.

We don’t like it when men shove us into a box of their own pre-packaged unrealistic expectations.  Let’s not do the same.

The Perils of First Person

by Katriena Knights

Many beginning authors start their writing adventures with first person. To many beginners, it feels more natural, more immediate, and even easier. But writing in first person carries a number of stumbling blocks and dangers that aren’t as obvious in third person.

So what’s the big deal? Write in first person, and your reader will feel like they’re right in the middle of the action, right? In fact, this leads to the first peril of first person writing—keeping your protagonist in the middle of the action. Which isn’t always as easy as it might seem.

If you decide to write your story in first person, you can’t recount any events that happen while your protagonist is absent. This can cause all kinds of problems, especially with a more complex story. You should take this into account when you’re plotting your story, and be sure your main character participates fully in any major plot twists. In Twilight, Stephenie Meyer commits a major faux pas in this regard by having Bella fall unconscious during a critical moment of the story’s climax. It’s a really good way to lose your reader. Apparently this didn’t bother her jillions of readers, but it bugged the heck out of me.

Another question to ask is particularly important if you plan to write a series. Can you sustain a first-person narrative over the course of your series? This approach is common in the YA and Urban Fantasy genre, but keep it in mind as you’re constructing your initial plans and proposals.

In the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon manages to make it through nearly two massive tomes without deviating from the POV of her main character, Claire Beauchamp-Randall-Fraser. But it’s not long before her story outgrows this POV, and Gabaldon starts dealing with the shortcomings of first person by using third person in various scenes. At first, she frames this as Jamie relating stories to Claire. But then she also needs to tell Bree and Roger’s story, and that’s when the first-person train goes completely off the rails. The bulk of Gabaldon’s epic series is told in alternating first and third person, with the only first-person sections being those told from Claire’s POV. I’m not saying it doesn’t work—it works very well in these books. But it’s a tricky thing to balance, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that approach.

Another fairly common approach to first-person narrative is to alternate the POV characters, telling each section from a first-person perspective. This can be an effective way to explore more than one character, but there are some pitfalls here, as well. Don’t try to use too many characters—your reader is likely to get confused about whose POV she’s in. Also, it’s very important to vary the narrative voice. I’ve read some alternating first-person POV stories where the voices of the characters were virtually identical, even though one was female and one was male. This made it very difficult for me to orient myself, since there were few proper names to let me know whose head I was in.

I’m not one of those readers who’ll flat-out refuse to read a book if it’s in first person—although they do exist—but like any reader I can be pulled out of a story if the technique falls short. So when you’re considering the structure and plot for your first-person story, think about addressing some of these possible problems so you can head them off at the pass.

(By the way, this post is brought to you by my laboring over my recent WIP, the sequel to Necromancing Nim, which is written in—you guessed it—first person.)

Animals as Secondary Characters

Hi, I'm Robin D. Owens and I write fantasy romance for Berkley-Penguin-Random House (the "Heart" Series – 13 going on 14). I also write the Ghost Seer paranormal romance series for Berkley (Ghost Seer out last April, Ghost Layer recently released in September and Ghost Killer out next February). I wrote a five book series of fantasy for women (the "Summoning" series) for Luna Books.

I'm known for my animal or Familiar companions, and I'm quite sure that Zanth, the telepathic cat with attitude (redundant), sold my first book, HeartMate. Since then, in the Heart books, I've had kittens, cats, dogs, foxes, a raccoon and a hawk as my Fams – along with a wandering mole, etc.

In my Summoning series I have some magical beings who shapeshift into various animals. Miniature greyhounds and warhawks are the most common, though occasionally they have their catlike moments. I also have flying horses.

These characters are in the books for several reasons: mentors, friends, comic relief and occasionally under threat (they can get into trouble and some go to war). In the Summoning books, they also play a mysterious part in shaping the worlds' events.

You might call them archetypical characters. Mentors who advise (and may have their own agendas which also make them tricksters). Friends who are there to listen or nudge or nag (so, that's still a horse word but at least it wasn't badger...). Comic relief: this I use quite a bit, I like my tension built, released and built again.

The Ghost Seer series has a ghost Labrador as a spirit guide and all around cheerleader.

Things to watch for when you're writing animals. First, my cats are pretty much cats, except they are slightly more intelligent and can speak telepathically. They are self-centered, they live in the moment, they have contradictions in whatever philosophy they have but it has meaning to them at the time. They're vain. They call all cats "Cats," capitalized, and all dogs "dogs," NEVER capitalized. They look down on dogs. And they negotiate payment for favors.

I try to keep my animals close to what they are here on earth, and with those limitations. My puppy in Heart Thief adores her FamWoman...and piddles on the rug. My crippled and starving Noble Hound in Heart Fate resents having to eat leftovers that a hunting cat "generously" gives him. He looks down on cats because they aren't as loyal as dogs. The Ghost Seer dog, Enzo, is determinedly cheerful.

For research...I have cats and my ex-roomie had a puppy. I observed. There is a strategically vital place in my house and each and every one of my cats has found it and held it.

I read a lot of books on foxes and there are some in the neighborhood. Another thing, THE expert on foxes call a noise they make "chortling." Maybe the sound is closer to chortling than the standard, well-known "barking." If I used "chortling," it would pull my reader from the story to think about the word which is not something associated with foxes....

The mole came in handy in a couple of the stories and a fan who liked moles and stuck the idea in my head provided critique and tips.

I have friends who have horses and I studied "natural" horsemanship, went to a horse camp (I live in the city) given by another writer who has Lipizzaners.

So, from my point of view, don't make them too cute, or too smart, and keep them lifelike. People will love them anyway.

May all your writing dreams come true.

Pen and Paper? Are You Kidding Me????

By Mark Stevens

I recently sparked a flutter on Twitter.

I mentioned that I write by hand.

Yes, full novels—start to finish.

By hand.

I mentioned this on Twitter and I could hear virtual jaws dropping from coast to coast.

Okay, in reality, I had five or six comments along these lines: “Are you KIDDING ME??????”

I also found a few like-minded souls.

Soon, we had a club forming. Men and women of the Pen & Paper Brigade will only listen to vinyl, take pictures with film and write books by hand.

It’s the only way to go.

First, a notebook is so damn portable. No hunts for electrical outlets in the coffee shops. Trains, planes, automobiles, canoes, rocket ships. Doesn’t matter. Got a place to sit down in the woods? In the park? A mountain cabin off the grid? You’re set.

Second, that sound. I’m addicted. That faint, dull scrape of ink going on a page. It’s visceral. It’s real.

Third, less time staring at a computer screen. Don’t we all need less? And no worries about outdoor reflections, moving around so the sun is just right. When you write by hand, it’s a non-issue. Have you ever headed to the computer and waited ten minutes while updates are installed? Non-factor.

Fourth, the process slows me down. My storytelling head is slow. Fresh copy goes on the right side and then the left is open and available for inserts and new ideas.

Fifth? Well, this is kind of a stupid reason but I dig seeing the notebooks stack up. I shoot for 500 words a day. That’s it, that’s all. I try to get in five days a week of writing. It never works out exactly. Some weeks fail, others get in a groove. But I recently finished a novel in about 14 months, including uploading the darn thing to a computer. Yes, at some point there is computer involved but then it’s a solid second draft.

Here are my tools.

  1.  College-ruled, 1-subject notebooks with perforated pages, 11 inch by 8 inch. I like 100 sheets per notebook. I’m not super fussy about my notebooks, but you get the idea.
  2.  A uni ball VISION ELITE. (I think the lower-case uni ball is official and I don’t want to be disrespectful so I’m going with it.) I prefer the “bold” tip. I like blue. Black is okay. I’ve tried many other options. Nothing comes close. (Dear uni ball folks: One case may be shipped to my home address in exchange for this endorsement. Email mstevens@ecentral.com for shipping particulars.)

Any downsides? None that I know of, other than trying to decipher that gnarled-up penmanship. Man, that’s some wild stuff.


Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

Implementing Your Conference

By Katriena Knights

Author’s Note: Several people are posting their reviews of the recent Colorado Gold conference. I decided to do something different rather than just post, “Colorado Gold was Awesome!!!1!1!!!1.” So instead I’m going to talk about ways to use all the great ideas you get at conferences without overwhelming yourself with change.

Writer’s conferences are a great way to network with other writers, learn more about your craft, and find out what’s working for whom in the world of promotion and sales. A serious writer should probably attend at least one or two a year to keep on top of the latest trends in the industry and to bump elbows with other writers who are undoubtedly experiencing the same struggles and frustrations. You can learn a ton at a good conference--sometimes enough to kick your career or the quality of your writing up to that next level.

Conferences can also be overwhelming, though. You come home filled to bursting with great ideas, but when you start trying to implement them, it’s just too much. Adding that great promotional idea takes away too much time from the manuscript you’re trying to finish, or the kick in the pants you just got about the book you’ve had on the back burner diverts your attention so you can’t focus on the manuscript you’ve got under deadline.

So how do you reconcile these conflicting needs? The best way is to break down what you’ve learned and figure out how to ease into the new routines. This way you can take advantage of what you’ve learned without derailing everything you’ve already built. Here are some ways to accomplish this:

  1. Organize your notes. Look through the notes and materials you brought home from the conference. Sort out the things that got you really fired up—the ones you want to start doing immediately. Set other ideas to the side for future reference.
  2. Figure out what’s relevant. Which of these ideas address an immediate concern? Is there a promotional tool you think will prod your sales up if you use it consistently? Is there a brainstorming idea that looks like it could get you out of the writer’s block you’ve been battling on your WIP? Put those on the top of the pile.
  3. Prioritize. Figure out what makes the most sense to try right away, and what would probably fit into your routine if you leave it for a bit later. For example, if you’ve already committed to a project that has to start immediately after the conference, don’t try to start a new writing or promotional routine that will eat all the time you have for that commitment. You might even put everything aside for a few days to get other work out of the way or to let your ideas marinate.
  4. Implement one thing at a time. Don’t try to change your entire routine in a day. Ease into the new approaches. If the promotional guru you heard at the conference presented a complex posting schedule for your social media, try bumping up your posts gradually on one platform at a time rather than tackling the full schedule from day one. That way you’ll have a new routine in place right away and can build toward the final goal.
  5. Keep building. Once you feel comfortable with the new routine, add to it. Whether your goal is writing more words or posting more promo, keep moving forward incrementally. Go from a post a day to two posts a day. Go from 250 words a day to 500. If you keep moving forward, you’ll end up where you want to be, even if it takes a little longer than you’d like.
  6. Weed things out. Just because a particular method works for one writer doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. If something isn’t comfortable or doesn’t produce the results you’re after, ditch it. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong or that you’ve given up. It just means that particular approach didn’t work for you. Never be afraid to do this. Trying to struggle through a routine that you find tedious is rarely going to get you the results you want.

Working through what you’ve learned at a writers’ conference and getting those tidbits to work for you is a challenge, but in the long run it can be the best way to give your career a kick in the pants. Don’t be afraid to try new things, but don’t be afraid to take it slowly, either.

How to Grow a Novel

By Barbara Graham

Graham_MurderBySunlightProbably because I’m in the midst of trying to get my garden to produce something other than really healthy weeds, and my next book is in the formative stage, the comparison between gardening and writing a novel seemed ideal.

After all, they both start with high hopes and big plans. Each beginning I think—this will be the garden/book that won’t have “issues” like weeds, blight or repetitive phrases. The characters will be fascinating and the tomatoes won’t have blossom end rot.

Before beginning such a fabulous project, there is some studying involved. I peruse the seed catalogs and gather ideas for the best vegetables for the sunny end of the garden. Can they grow in our short season? For the book, what will the story line be and because I write mysteries, who should I kill this time? The first book in my mystery series, Murder by Serpents: The Mystery Quilt was inspired by a headline in the newspaper. It simply read, “man found dead in car.” No snakes, no other tie to the storyline. I began playing with the scenario. Why would a man be dead in his car? Any number reasons. You pick one of your own and write that book.

So, we plant a seed and soon there is a sprout. The seedlings go into the garden on the recommended date but I like to cover the tender sprouts. I often use plastic milk bottles without lids and the bottoms cut out. They form individual greenhouses. Also too tender for early exposure, ideas and characters being developed now should avoid the early critique situations. Let them get some roots and a good strong stem before hearing from the critics. Something fabulous could wither and die from early exposure to the world.

Pull the weeds and throw on some fertilizer. Add more words, maybe create a world with murderous garden gnomes. This is the waiting game. Slog through the pages adding on. Fix the dialogue. Protect it from outside intruders like deer stomping the tender leaves with their sharp hooves, making a mess, it is your world to save.

The garden is planted, out of human control, except for watering and constant weeding. Heavens, some weeds are taller than the desired plants. Every first draft of the next book, I find myself wondering “who wrote this mess?” Is that a weed or something worth keeping? Sometimes in the early stages, they look the same. There is much work to be done. Peering at the vegetation, you see emerging baby carrot tops. They look like fine parsley but sharing the same spot is some nasty broadleaf weed. The weed must be carefully extricated without killing the carrot. It is the garden equivalent of excising the wrong word in a sentence, a writers’ weed destroying the intended meaning.

Is anything worth keeping? Yes. Throw some more fertilizer in there, use better words. Plants and story are both improving at last. The plot has only a couple of small holes now, easily mended, and your hero is worthy of the name. There are small, dark green tomatoes on a plant. Green peppers on another. The potatoes plants are tall and covered with small purple flowers. There are jewels in the dirt.

One more rewrite. A walk through the garden again. The ripening tomatoes are even more gorgeous than expected. Maybe you should enter them in the county fair. Let the judges see what a real tomato smells like. As for the novel, a few more rewrites, queries and maybe a contract, all yours for the picking.


Barbara Graham began making up stories in the third grade instead of learning to multiply and divide. A native Texan, she later lived in Denver, New Orleans and East Tennessee. Inspiration for Silersville (home of her imaginary friends) comes from her Tennessee period. An unrepentant quilting addict, she lives in Wyoming with her long suffering husband and the spoiled dog. Her motto is “Every book needs a dead body and every bed needs a quilt.”

Her most recent book, Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt is book five in her Quilted Mystery series featuring Tennessee Sheriff Tony Abernathy and his quiltmaker wife, Theo. Visit Barbara at her website.

Barbara is giving away one copy of Murder by Sunlight: The Charity Quilt to a lucky U.S. or Canada reader who leaves a comment on this post by midnight Mountain Time Friday, September 12. The winner will be selected using random.org and the name posted here on Saturday.

Crush the Crutches

By Mark Stevens

Do you have “crutch” words?

Words you inject into your prose without thinking?

I mean, they are such great freaking words that you when you ask a reader to plow through your latest incredible best-selling novel, she comes back and says:

“Well, not bad. But did you know you used the word ethereal 187 times?”

Or (fill in the blank for your go-to word)?


Guilty as charged. I’ve got a few. They change from one piece of writing to the next.

They are words my inner brain fell in love with, most likely, decades ago.

I pull them out of the dust-covered brain cells that are my word filing system and I drop into the prose without really thinking.

(Question: Why can’t my ability-to-edit brain see the heavy repetition of my crutch words? When I read manuscripts by other writers, their crutch words jump out at me like something from Sharknado. “Did you mean to use the color ‘salmon’ on page four and page 196?”)

Which brings me to Visual Thesaurus. (http://www.visualthesaurus.com/)

Stevens_Visual ThesaurusIf you are looking, occasionally, for that little spark to kick a sentence or a paragraph in the butt—a way to give your writing voice a little inspiration—check it out.

It’s a word lover’s daily jolt of caffeine.

First, take your crutch word and enter it in the search engine. VT will give you a visual rendering of the universe in which your word lives—all its relatives, close and distant.

If you want to tweak your favorite plum word in one direction, you click on that word within the sphere (Do mean “hot” as blistering or “hot” as spicy?) Suddenly, you are charging down another path looking for the right word.

Plus, VT has daily columns about word derivations and interesting takes on word usage. A recent column looked at “anxious” versus “eager.” Knowing the difference is the kind of distinction that might give your prose more accuracy.

If you subscribe ($25 per year), you get a daily ‘word of the day’ in your email and lots of nifty/nerdy info to go with it.

As I write this, today’s word is ‘theurgy.’ (“Magic performed with the help of one—or more.”) Recent words were cheroot, caliphate and hypernym. As Visual Thesaurus says: Dog, for example, is a hypernym for dachshund, Chihuahua, and poodle. Some folks call 'em generic terms or superordinates.

In fact, Visual Thesaurus will help you avoid hypernyms (and your damn crutches) and be as precise and fresh as possible.

Every day.


Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014