Writing Tip

address-book-2246457_1280National Poetry Month

I forgot that April is national poetry month.  When I worked as a children’s librarian in public libraries, we tied our book displays and programming to the event.

Because I am not a poet, I write poetry when I want to have fun with words.  Maybe poets do the same thing with prose when they need a break from their serious writing.

I also like to write poetry because the only person I am trying to please is myself.  As I work on my novel, I have to keep in mind all the rules of good writing, the expectations of the audience I am writing for, and the requirement of agents and editors.  I am free with poetry.  If I share a poem, I hope others will like, but if they don’t, that’s fine.

The event began in 1996, created by the Academy of American Poets.  While there’s still time, check out 30 Ways to Celebrate on the Academy’s site.

Even though I write poetry just for fun, I learn techniques I can apply to my prose writing when I read it.  My background as a children’s librarian has led me to read children’s poetry more than any other kind.  But I think a skilled poet can appeal to kids and adults in different ways with the same poem.  I’ll talk about what I have learned from reading poetry next time.

Writing Tip

globe-2150324_1280What I Learned from J.R.R. Tolkien, Part 2

My second lesson from Mr. Tolkien is this: All writers, even nonfiction writers, are in engaged in some kind of world-building.

With any kind of speculative fiction, the world-building is obvious.  But any writer who is introducing readers to an unfamiliar world has to do a type of world-building  for it to seem real to the reader.

Historical fiction uses a world-building different from speculative fiction.  The writer wants the reader to understand a given time period so well that she feels like she knows what it was like to live in that era.  Such well-researched settings enhance the fictious story.

But even nonfiction history books have to explain a vanished past in terms a reader can comprehend and make connnections with.


My novel is set in the eastern mountains of West Virginia in the present, and I still have to do world-building, or at least, region-building.  So many Americans are unfamliar with a rural lifestyle that I need to explain things like a lack of chain stores or bad phone reception.  I have visited the area and researched the animals and plants so when I need to drop in some description, I can be accurate.  Readers will feel like they are visiting an unique place and people who live in the area won’t find errors.

Nonfiction writers have to do this kind of research and then present it in a way that engages the reader.  A dry listing of facts won’t do it.

So whether you write fiction or nonfiction, realistic or speculative fiction, I think all writers can appreciate the effort Mr. Tolkien put in to make the unreal so amazingly real.


Writing Tip

wizard-2021410_1280What I Learned from J.R.R.Tolkien, Part 1

Since I write contemporary, realistic YA fiction, it sounds strange that I learned any thing from a fantasy writer.  But I did and the first lesson is “Know Your Backstory.”

Mr. Tolkien’s meticulous detail to his backstory may be why I could understand Middle-earth so easily.  Most of the backstory wasn’t included in the narrative of his books.  It was created either to help Mr. Tolkien keep his world-building straight or in the hope that future artists might expand on some of his stories.  Readers would know nothing about his extraordinary creativity if his son Christopher Tolkien hadn’t published the backstory after his father’s death.

Not every novel needs a backstory.  I happened to be a writer who writes better whenI know my characters like my closest relatives.  I need to understand their basic personalities, like and dislikes, opinions, mannerismas, and any other personal details.  Then, as I write, I can pull on that knowledge to make the characters come alive.

For example, if I need a character to make a sarcastic comment, I will not use Merritt Lody, who is fifteen and has a sunny, easy-going personality.  He likes to joke but he isn’t sarcastic.

I am working on a mystery novel concerning crimes in the present that are tied to crimes occurring fifty-two and seventy years ago.  Because all the crimes happen in the same county and involve several generations of several families, I needed to create family trees.  I won’t use all the members I have named to fill out the trees, but going into that detail provides me with wonderful opportunities for inspiration to catch fire.

disposal-1846033_1280All the details do not need to appear in my novel and shouldn’t.  As I have read in many places books are not dumps where authors unload the characters’ backstories in great heaps.  I look on my novel as a recipe with the backstory sprinkled in like spices – just enough to add zest to the plot and characters but not so much that the backstory overpowers the main narrative.

As I wrote this post, I realized I learned another lesson from Mr. Tolkien.  I’ll write about that next time.


Scripture Saturday

flower-429645_1280What Easter Means to Me

I am trapped.

The boulder is heading straight for me and I know I can’t escape.  What good would it do anyway?

I’ve ended up in this exact situation before, too many times before, so why try to get away?

It’s my own stupid fault.  I finally get that.

There’s nothing I can do.

I huddle down against the impact, wondering how much this will hurt, wishing being truly sorry mattered.

I’m knocked to the ground.  But not by the boulder.

A man, a stranger, shoves me out of the way, and I just have time to look up and watch the boulder smash into him, shatter into a pile of rubble, and bury him.

I am too stunned to do anything but gape.  When I finally recover enough to move, the pile moves, too.  I stop, my eyes glued on the pile.

Flinging off the rocks, the man stands up.

I splutter, “B-b-but how?  But who?  But why?”

Brushing off the dust and dirt, the man gives me a huge grin and answers all my questions with one sentence.

“Dad sent me.”

Writing Tip

ring-1671094_1280Favorite Author — J.R.R. Tolkien

I am no fan of fantasy.  I didn’t read much of it as a kid – I was hooked on mysteries – so that may be why I can’t get interested now.  If I pick up a fantasy book thick enough to break my foot, I realize I will have to take notes to remember the world’s regions, languages, and alliances, not to mention each character’s abilities, loyalties, and hatreds.  So I quietly lower the book, making sure my feet are clear, and run away.

But I am a huge fan of The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.  I have a special fondness for The Hobbit.  In seventh grade, I was assigned to read it, and it was one of the few assigned stories I ever enjoyed.  Most of my required reading concerned characters who learned valuable lessons and then watched a loved one die.  The Hobbit has a few deaths, but they seem reasonable since they occur during a battle.  And with all the action and heroics, no one has time for valuable lessons.  I loved it.hobbit-1584058_1280

I read The Lord of the Rings when the movies came out.  The best sections are the ones concerning the hobbits, which Mr. Tolkien said were his favorite to write.  I can tell.  The human characters begin to bore me after a while.  They are all so tall and grave and noble that I begin longing for a human who is short and frivolous, and ignoble.

I have recently become interested in myths and enjoy The Silmarillion because it is myths for a modern audience.  As greatly as Greek and Norse myths have influenced our culture, many of the stories make us scratch our heads because they were not written for us but for the people of their time.  The Silmarillion is accessible and identifiable to modern readers since it was written by a man of the twentieth century.

It’s structure is more like pure storytelling than a novel, and I think Mr. Tolkien writes better in that style.  Whatever the reaons, I return to The Silmarillion again and again.

Writing Tip

lily-960387_1280Easter as Inspiration

As a writer of Christian fiction, I can find endless themes in the Easter story: renewal, sacrifice, forgiveness, love, rebirth, and resurrection are just a few.  So many different people are involved in the story, each with his or her own backstory, I have myriad sources from which to create characters.

Since I can’t address all these in a single blog post, I’ll just focus on one: the Easter story as a story arc, mimicking the themes of Maundy Thursday to Easter.

Maundy Thursday – Story starts with some kind of celebration with all the main characters.  One character is sad for some reason.bible-2167783_1280

Good Friday – A tragedy occurs.

Holy Saturday – Charcters react to tragedy.

Easter – The tragedy is turned on its head somehow, becoming the opposite of what the characters thought it was.  Because of this, most of the characters are profoundly changed for the better.

I wouldn’t have to plot my story over four days.  I could have it unfold over years if I wanted to, but I would use the the four days as described as my anchors for the action.

I wouldn’t even have to mention within the story I was following the pattern of Easter.  J.R.R. Tolkien used many Christian themes in The Lord of the Rings, but because his characters live in Europe before the introduction of Christianity, they can’t say Aragorn’s return to the throne is like the Jews waiting for the Messiah.  But readers can make the connection.

I would love to try my hand at writing a story as I have outlined.  Maybe I will get more inspiration.  Does Easter inspire any ideas for you?  Let me know!


Writing Tip

calendar-162126_1280Writing in Time — April

As with the other months of spring, I am not a huge fan of April.  The better weather and new growth means one thing to me: more work.

Luscious green grass means it will need to be mowed soon, and when you have acres to cut, it’s no small chore.  Soon we will be planting which means weeding can’t be far behind.

When I worked in the children’s department of public libraries, April meant more work because we were gearing up for our summer reading program, an enormous undertaking.  We had to get a lot done in April because in May we were busy with visiting schools to promote our program.  We would take a deep breath in April and not let it out until mid-July.

cherry-trees-1567310_1280So if I use April for a setting, I will use it for comic effect.  My main character is the one person in the story irritated with spring.  A lot can go wrong, in a humorous way, when working outside.

Speaking of humor, the month kicks off with April Fool’s Day.  I am not a big joker, but the holiday does have a lot of possibilities for storytelling — two or three characters spend the day tricking each other.  Or a joke has unexpected consequences.  I could turn the holiday serious – someone is accidentally killed by a April Fool’s Day joke.  Or was it an accident?

April also makes me think of storms, so I often see it in my head as a month of darkness.  In a temperate climate, it’s the first month of the year when you expect dangerous storms.  An April storm would be a great setting for a climax between two  competing characters locked into some kind of duel.  The month’s dark and stormy nature can be used as a metaphor for secrets.  I could write a story about long-held secrets that finally come to light at the height of a storm.

I know I have skipped over Easter, but I thought that holiday should have entry to itself, which I will write about next time.


Writing Tip

group-1825513_1280Strong Verbs Not Allowed

From the writers in my writing group, I’ve learned that dialogue tags are out of style.  You should only use “said” with maybe “asked” and “whispered” sprinkled in.  And only use “said” when there is no better way to indicate who is talking.

The style now is using action statements to show who is speaking.

Don’t write:  “Don’t do it,” I warned.

“You can’t stop me,” sneered the Evil Villian.

“Help me,” screamed the Hysterical Victim.

“I’ll do whatever I can,” I vowed.

Do write:. “Don’t do it!”  I charged up the stairs.

“You can’t stop me.”  The Evil Villian grabbed an automatic.

“Help me!”  The Hysterical Victim strained against the handcuffs.

“I’ll do whatever I can.”  I dived for the gun.

I see how they second version provides more information to the reader to help him create a more vivid mental picture.  I also understand how tags can be overdone with characters replying, yelling, crying, adding, interrupting, gasping, and so on.

You can also convey the delivery of the dialogue with the words used within the dialogue.

Instead of:  “That’s terrible,” he growled.

Write:  “That’s the worse news I’ve had all year.”

The second line delivers more meaning, it’s more precise, more colorful.

But …

Personally, I don’t mind reading tags, if, as I said above, it’s not overdone.  I like to know how the dialogue sounds.  The action tags give me clues sometimes, but I think a verb describing the sound of the voice in the dialogue tag give just  as much information.

I don’t know when the minimizing of dialogue tags began.  I find a lot of them in older books, from 50 years ago or longer.  Perhaps it has something do with TV shows and movies.  People are so used to storytelling being visual that authors try to copy that action as best they can in print.

Authors of current children’s books still use a variety of verbs for dialogue tags.  The technique makes the story easier to follow.

So what’s your opinion?  Should no one ever growl or yell or sob?  Or can these be used sparingly?

Scripture Saturdays

hope-2046018_1280Still Hoping

I wanted to tell you how I was doing with giving up worrying and taking up hope for Lent.  Not very well is the answer.  I have been worrying a lot.  Not the stomach-sickening, paralyzing kind of worry, but the sneaky, persistent sort that makes me feel miserable before I can figure out why.

It is so alien to my nature to hope.  It feels false, like I am wearing an outfit I don’t like.  And our culture in general, in the arts specifically, equates hope with rose-colored glasses and chasing rainbows.  I can’t even estimate the number of times I have read that a TV series has “improved” because this season the storyline is darker, or an actor is excited her character has taken a dark turn.

I understand why artists turn to dark themes.  They believe that can get more dramatic mileage out of the destruction of a marriage than the restoration of one, out of a best friend’s betrayal than her faithfulness.

But it’s extremely difficult to live with such depressing expectations.  Since my feelings in this area often trick me, I will go with what I know, and what I know about hope I have found in the following verses:

Psalm 31:24: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”sun-622740_1280

Psalm 42:5: “Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

Hebrews 6:19: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”anchor-57748_1280

This is one I love Jeremiah 29:11: ” ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to proper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'”

Yesterday I actively hoped instead of worried about a problem.  I felt my heart grow lighter.  I came to the conclusion that since neither hoping or worrying changes the outcome of a situation in reality, I might as well hope.  Like any other skill, I have to practice it.

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