Rocky Mountain Writer #47

Heather Webb
Heather Webb

Heather Webb - Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening  


Writer Heather Webb stops by the podcast to give a sneak peek of the four-hour master class she'll be giving at Colorado Gold, RMFW's big three-day conference in September.

Her class is called Nailing an Agent-Grabbing Opening and it will give participants a chance to learn what makes an opening grabby, or trite, and how to win an agent's eye.

Heather also catches us up on all her projects, including a short story collection she spearheaded that was recently reviewed in the New York Times.

Heather Webb’s novels Becoming Josephine and Rodin's Lover are published by Penguin Random House and have sold in six countries. Both books have received starred national reviews and Rodin's Lover was a Goodread’s Pick of the Month in 2015. Heather’s works have been featured in national print media including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Cosmopolitan, Elle, France Magazine, Dish Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and more




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Intro music by Moby Gratis

Outro music by Dan-o-Songs

For suggestions about content or to comment on the show, email Mark Stevens. Also feel free to leave a comment about the podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast provider.

Host Mark Stevens:

The Fruit of Your Labor

fruitGo buy a piece of fruit you haven't had in a while: a peach, a plum, a pear, a mango, even a carambola (starfruit, though they're not as good here on the mainland as they are in the islands.) Find a place to sit alone and close your eyes. Try to imagine you're a primitive human. Game is scarce, you've been living on insects and grubs, or bland roots. You're always on the verge of starvation, though never quite starved - a terrible state if you've ever lived through it.

You see this thing hanging from a tree. You've never considered eating it before because, well, it's on a tree. What part of a tree ever tasted good? Wood, bark, leaves... Still, finally hungry enough, you climb up, pull this thing down, you bite into it (bite into the fruit you bought now.) Try to experience what that starving primitive experienced as glorious sweetness and a flavor you've never imagined could ever exist floods your mouth and your soul soars.

Write that.

Many times I read work from writers who, in their jaded experience, seem to have forgotten that not all of their readers have read the same old tropes and traditions a thousand times. They sometimes neglect details that could enrich their story. How many times has a gun been fired in a thriller or mystery? So many times it is just accepted that readers know what it means to fire a gun, or have one fired at you. So why describe the way your nerves jolt at the sudden blast, the sound waves stinging your skin like electricity, the smell of expended gunpowder, the intense silence following the explosion, the heat you feel from the bullet as it leaves the barrel...or as it tears into your flesh?

Never forget some of your readers may be reading your genre for the first time, and you are their sponsor. Even if not, being reminded of details that often get glossed over or skipped because they are rote or common, can electrify some long-steeped and jaded readers, too. As you write such things, take a moment and close your eyes, try to experience the thing as your character would experience it (whatever it is, whether firing a gun, stealing a candy bar from a store, having sex). Is it their first time or they are old pros? How would that affect the experience.

Never let such things become rote or old hat in your stories. Always remember while you may have written/read similar scenes a million times, your character has not, and your reader is identifying with them. Always keep it fresh, as if this is the first time anyone ever wrote a scene like this. Never let the jade show under your skin.

Something wrong with you.noʎ ɥʇıʍ ʇɥƃıɹ ƃuıɥʇǝɯoS

Here is how I found out that there is something wrong with me.

Boy wearing dunce cap.I was 7 or 8 when, during a parent-teacher conference, I was asked to leave the room. I went into the coat room and found I could still hear everything that was said. My teacher told my parents about an assignment in which students were asked how to divide 2 apples evenly among 3 people. The correct answer, it seems, was to cut each apple into thirds and give each person 2 pieces. Most of the class got it right, but three people gave wrong answers. One kid said to tell one of the three people to leave, then give the two remaining people each an apple. Another kid said to just go buy a third apple.

And then there was me, a quiet kid who kept mostly to myself. My teacher was worried - I had said to give each person a sharp knife and let them take as much as they wanted. When asked how my answer gave each person a fair share of the apple I said, in effect, that the three people would either be generous and take only a little, leaving more for the others, or they would all fight it out amongst them, killing at least one of them, and then split the apples.

My teacher then proceeded to ask my parents if I'd ever been caught mistreating pets or weaker children. I laugh now, but at the time I was hurt and outraged. It was a different teacher who recognized my unharnessed imagination and set me on the path of channeling it into storytelling, but I still spent many years after that thinking there was something wrong with me because I didn't see the world the same way as everyone else.

As writers, we don't see the world like everyone else. If we did, there would be nothing interesting about the stories we tell, and therefore little reason to tell them. It is our own, individual skew on reality that makes our stories unique and fun and ultimately readable. If anyone tries to tell you what's wrong with you, own it proudly. Because what's wrong with you and me as people is very right with us as writers.

Oh, the weather outside is ….. perfect for my story!

"If you don't like it, wait five minutes." That's the mantra Coloradoans mumble when the temperature plummets from 70 to 30 in one day. Important plans get interrupted, and you may sprain your back shoveling two feet of wet spring snow off your deck and have to cancel your tennis match.

The unpredictability of weather and its related conveniences and inconveniences can be useful tools as you plot your story.  It’s done with good scene-setting, consistent information, common sense/believability, and excellent timing.

LightningConsistent/Common Sense. It’s clever to tie the weather to your protagonist’s moods. If he’s just suffered from the loss of a loved one, a cloudy sky, dripping rain like teardrops, may be perfect to amplify his grief.  However, if every time he’s troubled the sky becomes overcast, it becomes obvious and distracting. And admittedly, humorous, where comedy was not intended.

Scene-setting. A romantic story setting might be, not just sea and surf and sand, but a gentle surf, at sunset,  warm, with sound effects--whoosh, whoosh, a soothing, sensual rhythm to the waves. Perfect for that “First Kiss” moment between hero and heroine. Or the surf can be crashing and pounding against the cliffs in that “Life Threatening” moment with rain so heavy the characters can’t see as they stumble along a treacherous path to the castle. The setting can become a critical “Plot Point” when nature becomes the antagonist, as when Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass fought against a hostile climate to drag himself back to civilization in The Revenant. It can become the “Saving Grace” moment when a vicious clump of space garbage veers just to the right of our hero’s space capsule.

Believability. Was there really an ice storm in Florida in August? Not that you can’t deviate from normal expectations, but everybody and his brother had better be talking about it. I recall visiting Vancouver in March, and the weather was something we in Colorado are accustomed to: blue skies, not one cloud, sunny. The difference was that every person on the street and every DJ on every radio station was marveling and commenting. The DJs encouraged everyone listening to take the day off work and just get out there and enjoy it.  The entire city was joyful. Unusual weather works in novels. If you need flowering trees earlier than expected, it can be done. Just acknowledge the rarity through your characters.

Timing. If the weather causes a turning point or crisis, build toward that moment to avoid the deus ex machina factor. If there’s a fog-caused 20-car pile-up in which the villain is killed just before he arrives to finish off the hero, palm to head. It won’t work. Your fan has been loyally reading for hundreds of pages, anticipating this confrontation. For the satisfying ending, the villain needs to arrive mentally and physically strong and able to compete, so the hero can suffer and strive and finally win.

If in the struggle the villain slips on ice, falls and loses his gun, it needs to be established beforehand that it rained and the temperature dropped at sunset, causing treacherous driving conditions, for example.

Most of these are common sense. Considering the weather is one of the joys of writing. No longer are you victim of the weather. Now you are the Wizard, throwing clouds and rain and snow on your people. Just cool it with the lightning bolts.

The Plague and Power of Perfectionism

First off, thank you RMFW for inviting me to be a regular contributor to this blog. RMFW has played an important role in my writing career over the years—I’m grateful that I now get to participate with the organization in a more regular way.

Before making the switch to full time writer, I worked as a psychologist. I feel it is a career that has benefited me a thousand times over when it comes to not only my writing, but my understanding of writers in general.

Because we are an interesting bunch—on that, I’m sure we can all agree.

There are many personality types drawn to the profession of writing. A weekend spent at any writers’ conference will convince you that we run the gamut from stodgy to bizarre—and even at times evidence the ability to be bizarrely-stodgy.

I both love and find myself fascinated by writers.

In all my years writing, and talking with writers, and thinking about writers, I feel that there is one particular personality trait that has the potential to either serve you or slay you and your creative endeavors.


Now I know plenty of people, non-writers too, who tout their perfectionistic ways and natures. They love their highly controlled world of “just so” and “the right way” because it lines up, is correct, and runs from A-Z with an exacting precision that smacks of I’m in control.

Because who doesn’t like to be in control?

Perfectionists strive for the flawless.

Perfectionists hold themselves and others to incredibly high, sometimes impossible standards.

Perfectionists are often thought of as extremely conscientious and “ideal” by society at large.

The problem with this character trait, frequently praised and even admired by those of us less perfectionistic by nature, is that it can also hold you prisoner. When it comes to going after your dreams, perfectionism can jail you for a very long time with no hope for parole.

Because the simple truth is that no one, not even you, is perfect.


Not even if you catch all the typos.

Not even if you see the every flaw.

Not even if you clutch with white knuckled fists to all the rules.

Perfect is not realistic, sustainable, or even happy. It is a world where there is no room for mistakes even though mistakes are a vital component of the learning and growth process.

Perfectionists sometimes measure themselves and others, a person’s worth as an individual, by their accomplishments. Perfect is usually a horrible judgmental harpy—most often looking in the mirror, probably harder on themselves than anyone else.

Perfect is also, and probably most importantly, the killer of creativity. It will always talk you out of trying something outside the box. Taking that risk. Daring to try. You may even feel like a slave to your own exacting judgment. Never free to take a creative risk. Terrified of “others” who you fear will condemn you and your creative choices just as harshly as you judge others.

As harshly as you judge yourself.

Many writers who struggle with this can often point a laser at what is wrong with other people’s work, but are incapable of committing their own story to the page because they may never allow themselves to be vulnerable enough with that horrible first draft.

Now if you happen to be a perfectionist, the news isn’t all bad. In fact, you have some amazing strengths and rightly deserve all our admiration and acclaim, once you can wield that X-Acto knife instead of being kept hostage by it.

Mistakes are not bad; they are how we learn.

Allowing your flawed work a place to exist in your world is how every writer starts any book, short story, narrative poem—you name it. Struggling past flawed to better is how we grow as writers. Not a one of us is fully formed.

Perfectionism is a powerful tool, so use it to serve your purposes.

Writers in particular can benefit greatly from their exacting attention to details when counterbalanced with allowing themselves creative freedoms first. It can be a gift, but only if you’re in charge of it. You need to use it instead of allowing it to keep you from trying.

At best, the perfectionist can unleash beautiful and mighty work into the world.

And at the very least, you’re already most editor’s dream.

Less Than a Month Until Conference Registration Opens

RMFWConference_Chalkboard_getreadyforregCan you believe it? There’s less than a month before registration opens for the 2016 Colorado Gold Conference.

In this month’s conference post we want to let you know about a few new events along with a reminder about our usual programming. Some events are free and others are paid add-ons with limited space.

Make sure you register early to take full advantage of everything the Colorado Gold Conference has to offer.

New! Blue Pencil Café with Keynote Speaker Robert J. Sawyer
Meet with keynote speaker and best-selling author Robert J. Sawyer for a 15-minute Blue Pencil Cafe. Bring up to four pages from your manuscript for a cold read, if you wish. Or use your one-on-one session with Robert to ask questions and receive advice about your work or publishing in general. Space is limited.

One-on-One Critique with Keynote Speaker Ann Hood
Schedule a critique session with keynote speaker and best-selling author Ann Hood. During your one-on-one session, Ann will provide a personalized critique of your work-in-progress. Space is limited. Submit 10 pages by July 1, 2016.

One-on-One Critique with Freelance Editors
Freelance editors Jessica Morrell and Jeff Seymour are available for a limited number of one-on-one critique sessions. This is a excellent opportunity to find out what it’s like to work with a professional editor. Or, if you’re having issues with your work in progress, they can help you get over the hump. Submit 10 pages by July 1, 2016.

One-on-One Pitch Sessions
Every attendee may register for one free 10-minute pitch appointment with an attending agent or editor. At the time you register, you may choose three acquiring agents/editors. We then do our best to schedule your pitch session with your first choice of agent/editor. You will receive your pitch appointment in your registration materials when you arrive at conference. If you are missing your appointment or unhappy with your assigned agent/editor, see the pitch scheduling volunteers to resolve any conflicts. Additional pitch appointments are also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you check in 5 to 10 minutes before your pitch.

One-on-One Pitch Coaching Sessions
Many authors have written great work, but they don’t know how to convey their concepts in a short, intriguing pitch. Or maybe the idea of attending a pitch session scares you to death. If this sounds familiar, add pitch coaching to your registration. Susan Spann and Heather Webb are back by popular demand and are joined this year by Angie Hodapp. Schedule a Friday afternoon session with one of these ladies to practice your pitch. A fifteen-minute session will help tighten and pump up your pitch before your appointment with an agent/editor. These sessions are only $40 and well worth the increased chances you’ll be asked to submit pages.

Agent/Editor Critique Round Tables
These round table critique sessions are monitored by an attending agent or editor. Sessions are offered Friday morning and afternoon, and tables are open to 8 critique participants and 2 auditors. If you register as a critique participant, you will submit the first ten pages of your manuscript, plus a one-page synopsis of your story, to be critiqued by the agent/editor of your choice as well as by the other participants at your table. If you register as an auditor you will only observe; you will neither submit pages nor offer critiques to participants. Participants will receive further instructions once their registration is confirmed. These sessions are a $40 add on. Deadline to register and submit pages is July 15, 2016.

Master Classes
Master classes are back this year and expanded for more offerings. These classes are four hours in length and provide more specialized instruction on writing and the business of being an author. This year’s classes are scheduled for Friday morning and, based on attendee feedback surveys, we're adding a Saturday morning and afternoon class as well. The fee to attend a master class is $60. Space is limited.

NEW! Hook Your Book Sessions
We all spend countless hours perfecting our book summary for the cover copy, online bookstores, and query letter because first impressions count. Without a hook, a reader will pass your book by. That’s why we’ve added a new event to this year’s conference. Hook Your Book is a free thirty-minute opportunity to run your book summary by two experts in your genre. In fact, it’s a little like speed-dating for your book. During conference registration, you’ll request a Hook Your Book session and will be asked for a genre preference. When you check in at conference, your envelope will contain a Hook Your Book appointment. Check with the scheduling volunteers if you have a scheduling conflict and need to reschedule. Additional Hook Your Book appointments may also available on a first-come, first-served basis. Make sure you check in 5 to 10 minutes prior to your appointment.

NEW! Mentor Room
This year we've added a room for one-on-one mentor sessions with an industry expert. Book 20 minutes of coaching on things like your cover copy, query letter, a specific scene in your work in progress, publicity, and marketing. The Mentor Room is also open to ask legal questions or make other publishing inquiries. We will have more information about this event in next month’s conference blog post along with a list of scheduled experts. As this is a new program, we're making appointments available for $25 each. Book early, appointments will be limited.

Birds of a Feather Genre Chat
Back by popular demand! Birds of a Feather sessions are an opportunity for authors to gather and discuss trends, challenges, and other opportunities specific to the genre in which they write. This year we have a room devoted to Birds of a Feather sessions all day Saturday and Sunday morning. At the time of this blog, this year’s confirmed Birds of a Feather genre chats include mystery/suspense, romance, western, horror, science fiction/fantasy, young adult, and historical fiction. Sessions are open to all attendees, so get there early to make sure you get a seat to take part in the discussion.

NEW! Post-Panel Book Signing
There will be signing table outside the bookstore this year. Authors who are also presenters will be available to answer questions and sign their books for a short time after the completion of their session. Authors will also be at the table in the morning, during the lunch break, and before evening meals.

Professional Headshots
Schedule a 10-minute photo shoot with photographer Mark Stevens, RMFW volunteer and owner of a Denver-based communications firm. Mark takes thousands of pictures every year for a variety of clients. We are lucky to have him conduct photo shoots for us again this year. Schedule a casual session during the conference or pre-banquet (in your fancy duds). The price for a photo shoot is $40 and includes photo editing and large-size files for all your publicity needs. Expect delivery within two weeks following conference. Appointments will be limited, so sign up early.

Workshops & Panels
As usual, we have an amazing lineup of workshops and panels. Improve your writing skills, learn about publishing options, better your marketing plan, and more. You’re sure to leave this year’s Colorado Gold Conference with a brightened outlook on your career.

Lastly, we want to mention that the Conference Brochure and At-A-Glance will be available soon on the Conference Page. The Conference Page is the hub for all information about pricing, keynote speakers, agents, editors, special guests, and other important information about conference. It is updated regularly.

If you have any questions about conference, email us at

The Changing Face of Entertainment

Netflix just premiered a new sitcom (sort of, more of a situation dramedy) from the makers of Two and A Half Men called The Ranch, and the reviews of it set me thinking. I watched the show before I read the reviews and I found it funny, fresh, thought-provoking, and original. The reviewers I read (about seven) didn't like it. I'm not going to get into why (I'll start to rant about political correctness and the new Thought Gestapo and all that, and that's not what this post is about.) The important thing is that the critics, to a one, missed the entire point of the show and why it's good.

Having lived in Colorado, where the show is set, I know a lot of rural people like this. The critics clearly don't. Like most who live on either coast they have no clue who people in the middle states are. There is a segment of the country to be served by a show like this, who have minimal interest in shows by Hollywood scions who assume everyone lives, speaks, and thinks like them.

The Evolution of ManI submit that a show like this is perfect for a new, wet-behind-the-ears, upstart entertainment source like Netflix (new in the sense that they have only been offering original programming for the last few years.) Netflix is more interested, at the moment, in building a viewer base than they are in bowing to convention. So shows that the networks and cable cabals who think they rule the industry would never green-light are getting made and broadcast anyway.

Likewise the recent boom in electronic publishing has allowed for the publication of books that the big New York/Los Angeles publishing houses would never consider. They are getting distributed, read, and enjoyed by thousands. Add POD (print-on-demand) services like Amazon's, and suddenly the market is being flooded with books that would otherwise never see the light of day. And I'm surprised to say that as far as I can tell, for the most part the quality remains relatively high, considering how abysmal many predicted it would be.

It's the great democratization of the entertainment industry. No longer are a few gatekeepers with a whitewashed point of view about their industry the final say in what the public gets to choose from for their entertainment dollar. And many of these electronically published books have gone on to great commercial success as well (most notably 50 Shades of Grey and The Last Ship.)

So while the sudden opening of the floodgates has many feeling overwhelmed and afraid that their book will never be seen or read amid the cacophony of other books suddenly flooding the world, I submit this is a good thing. The industry is changing (perforce) and change is scary. But another equilibrium will be found eventually, and in the meantime we are witnessing evolution first hand.

Should We Write About What We Know?: Experience versus Research … by Mariko Tatsumoto Layton

How often have you heard that you should write about what you know? At the same time, you might hear that we can write about anything we want, we just need to research the subject matter. This debate of personal experience versus research is like nature versus nurture.

I write middle-grade multicultural novels with Japanese protagonists. I was born in Japan and immigrated to the U.S. when I was eight years old. Even after our move, our home was very Japanese. I know a lot about being Japanese, what it feels like, how others treat us, the misconceptions, etc. So, I’m qualified to write about a Japanese protagonist. Even then, my character might be training to become a sumo wrestler, or is a violin prodigy, or is a samurai boy, something or someone I’ve never been or experienced. In those cases, I read books on sumo training or history books on samurais. I imagine what a boy might feel or think and write about it. But am I portraying those characters correctly? Am I doing them justice?

Have you read books with a subject you know well and seen errors? Does that aggravate you? An acquaintance of mine read Annie Freeman’s Fabulous Traveling Funeral. Early in the book, the funeral group travels to Santa Fe. My acquaintance used to live in Santa Fe and noted that the description of the area was not accurate. This infuriated her. Despite my argument that it was fiction, she disliked the novel intensely because of that error.

2016_Mariko Layton_Ayumi's Violin cover KindleEven though I am Japanese and I research every point in my books as thoroughly as possible, my Japanese sister-in-law, who moved to the U.S. at the age of thirty, nitpicks everything in my books. She might say that at a certain kind of a party, this kind of food would be served, not the food mentioned in my book. She might point out that the card game a child is playing is too old for her. She might be right, even though I recall playing that game at that age.

So, I often wonder if having had certain experiences is enough to precisely portray a character, a subject, or a place. Sometimes I want to shout, “It’s Fiction!” I know that even in fiction, we should be truthful and correct as to certain things. I sometimes envy authors who write science fiction or fantasy. They can create any kind of a world or character.

When you’re writing your first or second novel, the maxim of writing what you know might be good to follow because there’s so much to know about novel writing. The subject matter is one less thing about which to learn. What if the protagonist is a quadriplegic? What if you’re male and want to make your protagonist female? What if you’re Caucasian and you want to write about someone who lives in Fiji? How much research is enough? We can’t change the color of our skin. We can’t recreate our childhood. Is researching and doing your best enough?

I believe accuracy is a matter of degrees. I can’t know everything about which I write. I make a diligent effort to learn as much as possible about what I write. If I can’t learn enough to be fair to the subject matter, I won’t write about it. I don’t want to insult anyone who knows more than me. But humans all have emotion. We may not all feel the same emotion about something, but I can imagine how someone might feel.

Emotion is one thing I’m confident about. I might be criticized for the way a certain character feels, but there is no right or wrong with emotion. Therefore, I let my characters feel the highest of joys and the lowest of sadness.


When Mariko Tatsumoto Layton arrived from Japan at the age of eight, she could only count to ten and say thank you in English. But as soon as she learned to read English, she fell in love with books and wanted to become a writer. She first became the first Asian woman attorney in Colorado before finding her way to become a children’s book author.

Learn more about Mariko at her website. She can also be found on Facebook.

“The Idiot Plot”

I recently read a review of the new TV series based on Terry Brooks' classic epic fantasy Elfstones of Shannara when I read the following precis that made me laugh: "The elves' magical protective tree, the Ellcrys, is dying. Lethal demons are slipping back into the world. To banish them again, someone must take the Ellcrys' magical seed to Safehold and bathe it in Bloodfire. Problem is, no one knows where Safehold is, or what Bloodfire might be. These requirements have the weight of prophecy and doom, but they're also faintly amusing, as though the elves lost their car keys centuries ago, and don't have the faintest idea where to look for them." (article)

This made me think of the pacing and plotting of a story. Too many times I've read books (or seen TV shows) where the plot seems to move forward on the slimmest possible impetus, leaving me to wonder why the characters are even following through with it, rather than just catching a movie or running errands. This reviewer also invokes James Blish (iconic author of speculative fiction books, including many Star Trek episodes) who first coined the phrase "Idiot Plot", a story that only moves forward because none of the characters will stop to ask obvious questions or exchange crucial points of information. For example, keeping pieces of information secret for no apparent reason except that it prevents the conflict from being resolved too soon.

Rube Goldberg MachineA Rube Goldberg machine uses a complex, sometimes improbable, chain reaction to accomplish a simple task, for example cracking an egg into a bowl, which is much easier done by hand. Your plot points can be like parts in a Rube Goldberg machine, or they can be girders in a bridge. It's a subtle thing, to be certain your plot is moving forward intelligently, and not stupidly.

At any advancement of your story (plot point) be sure your characters are asking all the right questions, looking under all of the obvious rocks - and even some of the not-so-obvious ones. If someone is keeping something secret, make sure they have a reason to do so, and make it a damn good one. (Some old and tired cliches to avoid: "I kept this secret to protect you!" "I kept this secret until you were ready to hear it." "I kept this secret because you didn't ask.") Make sure that the reasons your characters got into this adventure to begin with remain the reasons they stay in it, or give readers new solid, plausible reasons to make this conflict even more crucial to the characters, personally, than before.

It is certainly important that every cause have an effect in your story, but even more critical is ensuring that every effect has a cause. Not just any cause, but one that proceeds from a prior plot point. It should proceed not only logically, but precipitously, causing the stakes to rise and the urgency to mount. And it must propel the characters headlong into the next plot point, almost against their will. At no point should the readers be left to ask, "Why?" If you have done your job correctly, they should have the answer before they even think to ask.

Avoid the Idiot Plot. Leave it for soap operas and sitcoms (and the TV show "The Arrow"...oops! I didn't say that! Except, they expend so much energy on the noble goal to "save my city" no one stops to explain just exactly what's wrong with the city! But 'nuff said!)

Playing with Rhetoric

In this year of politics we are likely to hear the common complaint, “Oh, that’s just the candidate’s rhetoric. Wait until they’re in office and we’ll see what really happens.”

picture of jfk inauguration
Kennedy used antimetabole to inspire a generation.

Rhetoric definitely has a bad reputation. The first definition in the dictionary implies that rhetoric allows people to use language for influence and persuasion, but without honesty.

I had a class once in rhetoric. Took it because someone said it was practically an automatic A, and heck, who wouldn’t go for that? Unfortunately, a new teacher took over, and I never worked harder. We had to read Aristotle and discuss the importance and forms of arguments and logic.  Guess what? Aristotle didn't use rhetoric to lie. I barely survived the course.

Today, as a writer, I wish I’d paid more attention. Rhetoric was a good class, and the influence of an articulate speaker (or author) has maintained an important part of my writing aspirations since. If I could come up with phrases like, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” I think I would be a happy writer indeed. President Kennedy apparently borrowed the structure of that comment from a school headmaster, but you have to admit, he used it well. That phrase inspired a generation to launch the Peace Corps, go to the moon, and march for peace and equal rights. Rhetoric. Good words.

So, how can we use rhetoric, or more precisely, rhetorical devices to enhance our writing experience? There are whole lists of devices on the Internet that can add emotion, lyrical rhythms, and resonance to our writing. Here are a few:


Alliteration is the recurrence of initial consonant sounds. These sounds can be easy or harsh on the ear, and will draw attention to themselves by their repetition. What if you were writing a story was set in a florist shop? You could name the store, “Moe’s Flowers,” and be done with the job, or you could play with the beginning F sound and create something like “Flo’s Fantastic Flowers,” giving your readers a sense of Flo and her pride in her business without expending a lot of page real estate on that thought.


Wow. What an interesting word that simply means to repeat for emphasis. Can you imagine a child who wants the sucker in your hand? What does she say? “May I have that please?” or “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” Can you use that epizeuxis rhetorical tool to enrich some of your characters’ dialog?


Similar to epizeuxis, is amplification. This is repeating a word within a phrase to emphasize its importance. In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, he used “of the people, by the people, for the people,” to emphasize the importance of those who died on the battlefield, who mourned the lost souls, and who had to rebuild our nation after the great Civil War. When used in a conscious effort, amplification can truly hammer home a point. Maybe you could use it to underscore the theme of your story, as in, “Love is gentle, love is kind,” she said, and kissed the soldier good-bye.

Rhetorical devices are worth studying as you work on your next story. As you engage in rewriting a chapter, maybe play consciously to make a thought stand out using a rhetorical device. Or hide a thought by making it as mundane as possible, sandwiched between phrases that sparkle with their rhetoric.

Do you have a favorite rhetorical device? Please share. Beyond our annual Simile Contest at Colorado Gold, do you indulge in a regular rhetorical device?

Wishing you a creative word day.