Category Archives: Rules of Writing

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

A couple of weeks ago, I co-presented a stimulating session entitled “How to Write a Cover Letter that isn’t Boring”* as part of a day-long marketing boot camp. When the program organizers requested that I discuss “writing tools and resources” as part of the presentation, I got to thinking. What are a few of my favorite things? And since I’m a giver (not unlike Oprah minus the $10,000 refrigerators and $500 face cream), I will share them with you here. (free) Wordle creates a visual representation of the most used words in your text. Businesses often use this as a tool to delve deeper into a client’s vision and mission statements, assuming that the most often used words are of particular value to the company. But I use Wordle to determine which words I use too often. For instance, I was horrified to find that “like”, “just” and “little” are among the most common words in my novel. There is no excuse for such lazy writing. I did a search for each instance and weighed out the necessity of each word in context. Of course, now that I’ve cut back on those pesky qualifier words, I may find something even worse lurking around the corner.

Small Legends Wordle

Like? Just? Little? Back? WTF?? (free) I use the Hemingway App more often for business than creative writing, but it is handy for both. Simply paste your text into the site and receive a color-coded critique to rival that of your high school English teacher. The app highlights sentences that are difficult to read, use passive voice, or include the most dreaded of all writing faux pas, the adverb. It also determines the grade level for overall readability. The app does not suggest how to “fix” these issues, but leaves it up to the writer to make a judgment call. After all, we need not all write like Hemingway.


What’s so bad about adverbs anyway? And so what if my sentences are hard to read? Maybe I don’t want anyone at less than an eighth grade reading level to read my book! Harumph! (paid but trial subscription available) Visual Thesaurus is a nifty tool that creates interactive word maps, building off of a root word to offer related words and meanings. The sidebar provides definitions by: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. While the tool doesn’t perform miracles beyond those of a regular thesaurus, the interface is easy to use and fun for us word nerds.


I’m surprised it doesn’t branch to “procrastinating” or “pulling out ones own hair”.


* A rather boring title that I promptly subtitled “Always Judge a Proposal by its Cover Letter”. Total marketing nerd humor.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Kill Pile

Scrap. Scratch. Leftovers. Tidbits. The Drawer. All writers have a name for the file where they stash the beloved but ill-suited lines, scenes, and even entire chapters they have cut from a story. For my novel-in-progress, I named this file The Kill Pile.

Most of the time, I quite enjoy deleting unnecessary or out-of-place text from my work. It’s like cleaning out your closet and then admiring all of your favorite clothes without the distraction of that shirt with the oil stain or the adorable pants that no longer fit. But then there are the pieces that are hard to let go of, even if they border on unwearable. For instance, I have a pale pink sweater that looks great with my skin and has these cool little flower appliqués that are feminine without being girly. However, my sweater also has a decent-sized hole just below my right boob. Months after discovering this, I continue to wear the sweater and pretend to be surprised each time someone points out the hole. I just can’t seem to get rid of it, even though I know I should.

Deleting a great line or scene from my novel is 100 times more painful than giving up my sweater. But no matter how much I may love a particular turn of phrase or exchange between characters, if it detracts from the story, it’s gotta go.




While I rarely revisit my Kill Pile, I find comfort in knowing that it’s there. And as I inch closer to the completion of the third draft of my novel, I thought I’d take a moment to honor just a few of the many lines that otherwise may never see the light of day. Perhaps it’s also time for me to stash that sweater in the back of my closet; out of sight but still there if ever I should want it.


* * *

I am sitting on a cushioned wood chair in a warm kitchen. My feet don’t touch the floor, but it doesn’t matter because I’m eating an oatmeal cookie. I love oatmeal cookies. The old woman is at the stove, humming what sounds like cartoon melodies. Bugs Bunny songs.

If I close my eyes, I can see her lemon-colored sweater, the beaded chain on her glasses, the few remaining streaks of deep brown hair on an otherwise white head. She smells like wax paper and roses, and her fingers are short and stout, the backs of her hands perfectly white except for a sprinkling of light brown spots, like freckles that have been smudged.

She pats me on the head, like my Nana does sometimes. She drinks tea out of China cups patterned with blue flowers while I play with the marshmallows in my hot chocolate. She calls me Sweetie. Would you like some toast, Sweetie?

* * *

“My aunt got in a car accident on her way to the airport one time,” Alisha said. “Just a fender bender but they had to pull over and exchange insurance and everything, so she missed her flight. She was all pissed off, because she was on her way to some important work thing. BUT as it turned out, the airplane that she was supposed to be on caught fire mid-air and went down over the ocean somewhere and everyone who didn’t die on impact ended up drowning or being eaten by sharks.”

“What a crock of shit,” Sara grumbled. “I saw that in a movie once or twice or a hundred times. And pass me the fucking joint if you’re just going to sit there.”

“Can you actually crash into water?” Marisol pondered, picking at a small hole in the knees of her jeans. “I mean, you can crash into dirt or cement or a mountain, because they’re solid. But water isn’t solid. So wouldn’t you just sort of sink into water?”

“At a fast enough speed, the water is as hard as cement,” Alisha said. “And depending on what angle you’re coming from. Like if you dive into a swimming pool headfirst rather than doing a belly flop.”

Sara shook her head. “I still say its bullshit regardless of the angle of the plane.”

“Anyway I thought planes were designed to float now,” Marisol said. “In the event of a water landing. The plane is supposed to float long enough for everyone to get out onto the boats.”

“It depends on how fast it hits the water–” Alisha started.

Sara groaned. “Can we kill the physics lesson for now? You know there’s a reason why I’m an art history major.”

“Because you like to get high and play with finger paints?” Marisol joked. Sara made a face but didn’t argue the point.

* * *

When I got home that evening, a little drunk and burping up wasabi, I found that my home had been exorcised. All of his jeans, t-shirts and underwear were missing from the shelves. His five million wrinkle-proof shirts had disappeared as well, as had his razor, toothbrush, comb, and shaving cream. Everywhere I looked, there were gaps left behind like missing teeth.

* * *

In a family full of teachers, Patrick had chosen to go to architecture school. “I’m kind of like the off-white sheep of the family,” he explained.

* * *

How to Stay Awake During Long Solo Drive to Los Angeles:

  • Three double cappuccinos by noon
  • Open up all of the windows when passing through Coalinga*
  • Whatever you do, do not listen to pubic radio

*slaughterhouse capital of the West



Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Long Live the Editor!

Over the past week, I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading a 300-page manuscript for my writers’ group. The novel is a work in progress for sure, flowing well in some places, meandering in others (in fact, I just made a note to cut Chapter 10 all together). But this is precisely the point of having others read your work; often they can see what you cannot. This is why all writers need editors.

Not all writers agree with this. I’ve perused a fair number of literary agents’ blogs and submission guidelines, and have picked up on a common message: Do not send your first draft. Or even your third. I’ve also heard that many agents and publishers dread the month of January, since it routinely brings with it an onslaught of slapdash National Novel Writing Month manuscripts.*

Editing an English language documentBut what about those writers who have “outgrown” editors? There are a number of authors who have attained enough popularity and status as to make them almost untouchable. For instance, while I can’t know the intimate details of Stephen King’s writing process, the epic length of his books points in the direction of “less is more” when it comes to editing**. Stephen King is big money. If he tells his publisher not to change a word, his publisher won’t change a letter.

Tom Wolfe is another one. For years, I’ve heard what a great writer he is, and his sales numbers appear to reflect that popular opinion. However, when I picked up I Am Charlotte Simmons a while back, I was surprised by his dull characters and rambling narrative***. Worst of all, Wolfe’s then 70-something-year-old voice repeatedly bled through the narrative of this story about college kids (my favorite was when he explained the drinking game of “quarters”, which he set off with quotation marks each time). I barely made it through 100 of the 800-page book before I set it aside, shaking my head and thinking, “This is what happens when a writer gets too big for an editor.”

While I shrugged off Wolfe’s novel, I was crushed to have a similar realization about an author I actually really like, an author who I have in fact praised more than once on this very blog. Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, is everything I aspire to in my own writing: Sometimes distressing but always compelling. Redemptive, but not in a Hollywood ending sort of way. Genuine. As is standard practice with a first novel, I imagine that his publisher had him work very closely with an editor on this book, and to great effect.

But a spot on Oprah’s book club and a few bestsellers later, that editor was noticeably absent in Lamb’s most recent novel, We Are Water, which examines a number of touchy subjects including gay marriage, interracial love, and sexual abuse. I will say this: the characters are complex and many layered, and the storyline is intriguing and topical. But the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, at times more like a series of speeches being delivered to the reader than a conversation between two people. In clear violation of the golden rule of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – most of the back-story is delivered in the form of monologues that go on for pages and pages without a single scene or exchange. The opening chapter is a stilted Q&A session between an awkward journalist and an elderly artist, neither of who are significant characters in the book. And don’t get me started on the overuse of ellipses to signify that someone is about to have a flashback…

It’s heartbreaking when a good book goes bad. We Are Water had so much potential, but left to his own devices, Lamb failed to transform his characters into real people and their stories into real lives.

Everyone needs an editor. Period.


*I wonder if November – the month when all the NaNoWriMo’s are hard at work – is actually the best time of year to submit.

** This is not to talk smack about Stephen King, who is actually a pretty darn good writer when he puts his mind to it.

*** To Wolfe’s credit (or his editor’s), his grammar and sentence structure are beyond reproach.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Whose Story Is It?

Writing about real life can be tricky.

I am currently writing a new KQED Perspective that includes less than entirely flattering assessments of several former boyfriends. The piece is not mean-spirited nor does it call anyone out by name, however these men would surely recognize themselves by my descriptions. And although I am clearly telling my side of the story, I can’t help but feel a little prickly about doing so in such a public forum.

I am a product of my experiences. And as a writer, I write about these experiences. I share my stories, my viewpoints. I decide how much to reveal about myself, and have the power to portray myself – and others – as I see fit. Because it’s my version of events.Two Sides

But what about the other half of the equation: the people with whom I’ve shared many of these experiences? How do I walk the line between MY story and THEIR version? If we were both there, whose story is it anyway?

If this new Perspectives piece is accepted, I will record it in my own voice, and then it will be broadcast to thousands of people across the Bay Area, and very possibly to one or more of my former boyfriends. For the sake of the piece (length, tone, etc.), I portrayed each of these complex people and my relationships with them in one sentence; it’s not quite an emotional sucker punch so much as a sharp pinch. But I doubt anyone would be pleased to hear him or herself summed up in this way.

It’s unclear to me how to balance people’s feelings with my version of the truth, and also create compelling work. Do I cross my fingers that none of my former boyfriends ever hear my Perspective (or read this blog)? Or do I kill the piece all together in order to avoid potential strife? After flip flopping on this for a while, I started to wonder how memoirists tackle this conundrum. So I asked my dear friend Mari, who has published two graphic memoirs and has a third in the works. She encouraged me to tell my truth, but also noted:

“If there’s the remotest possibility they could hear it, you should give them a heads up before the rest of the world knows, as a courtesy. Trust me, it’s ultimately far less awkward this way.”

In short, if my Perspective is accepted, I’d better be prepared to send out some slightly uncomfortable emails. And be prepared for some less than favorable reactions.

When it comes to sharing our real life experiences, I think we writers must ask ourselves this question: Is the story worth a potentially awkward conversation? If the answer is no, then the story must not be very good.

Tagged , ,

Critique or Critic?

My high school drama teacher set the class with what appeared to be a straightforward assignment: form groups of three and share a story about either your favorite or your least favorite teacher. We launched into our tales of terrible teachers: The time that Mr. Marrett, in a snit, threw an eraser across the classroom. Mr. Philbrook’s “creative” use of a 10-pound rock as a hall pass, forcing his students to haul the thing with them every time they went to the bathroom. And my own story about the time Mr. Nicholson refused to help me with my AP English essay. His justification: “No one is going to help you with your work when you are in college.” Oh, how I loathed Mr. Nicholson…

By a show of hands, it was immediately clear that out of our class of 25 students, a mere four or five of us had taken the positivity high road and talked about a teacher whom we liked. The rest of us had jumped on the teacher-bashing bandwagon. My drama teacher then revealed the lesson of this exercise*: when given a choice, our natural inclination is often to focus on the negative.

This truth abounds when it comes to critiquing someone else’s writing. Each time I read a piece for my writers’ group, I must make a conscious effort to note both what is working and what is not, to underline the clever phrases as well as the awkward ones. I try to put myself in the other writer’s position – what kind of feedback would be most helpful? What will inspire him or her to rush home after the meeting and start revising? After all, we are there to improve our writing, to learn from one another.

Thou shall not use passive tense!

Thou shalt not use passive tense!

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Some people seem to equate “critique” with “critical”, and behave more like the self-appointed Grammar Police or the Plot Development Marshall.

My friend Jen recently told me that she no longer reads aloud in her ongoing writing class whenever a new crop of students joins the group.

“There’s always at least one person who feels the need to establish him or herself by ripping everyone’s work to shreds,” she explained.

“Perhaps it’s like beating the crap out of someone your first day in prison,” I suggested. “Maybe they think everyone will take them more seriously if they come out swinging.”

Just last week, a new member to my writers’ group beat the crap out of my chapter. She began her written critique with this disclaimer.

My comments will reflect a lack of familiarity with what has been revealed before this point in the narrative, and for that I apologize. I hope that they are helpful to you, in any case.

This seemed a fairly reasonable statement to make, since she was coming in at Chapter Ten of my novel. She went on:

I’m not as much an appreciative reader, I guess, as I am a critical reader. I think of my function as to be something of an encouraging small voice asking how to make the narrative better. As I result, I need reminding to applaud that which is going well.

So far, this sounded pretty on par with my own philosophy. But as I read through her critique, it became clear she still had some work to do on the “applauding” portion of the program. Comment after comment, she had nothing but negative remarks:

This is cliché… This is vague and repetitive… I hate adverbs… Melodramatic… I’m beginning to lose interest because the telling is flat… Bland word choice, cliché structure.

It went on and on, until this final summary statement:

Not enough happened in this section, and the action that occurred was obliquely written, smothered in cliché, and sometimes vague and lacking drama. Even the ending: passive and oblique. Could be sharper, could be more briskly written. Could be more specific in the rendering of the moments and descriptions of the people and action.

By this point, I was laughing aloud. What on earth was I supposed to do with this onslaught of profoundly unhelpful commentary? Pronouncing a piece of writing as cliché, vague, and melodramatic is not, strictly speaking, a critique; it is criticism without the benefit of thoughtful insight or suggestion. And frankly, it’s kind of mean.

For the record, I received largely positive feedback from those members of my writing group who have read my novel from the beginning. Sure, they had suggestions for tightening up some of the sentences, clarifying vague statements, and the like. Their comments inspired me to sit down at the computer as soon as I got home. The new member’s comments inspired me to recycle her “critique”.


*I’m guessing his bigger message was “Stop doing that.”

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Retreat! Retreat!

corporate retreat

The Corporate Retreat: There’s nothing quite as scarring as seeing your boss in shorts.

Words are funny things. When used in one context, a word can represent something desirable, and in another, a panicked directive. Take the word Retreat. Spa retreat. Spiritual retreat. Corporate retreat. And then there’s the type of retreat that comes in the midst of battle, when the other side is kicking your ass. Today, however, I would like to share my recent experience with one of the happier meanings of the word: Writers’ Retreat.

When my friend Mari jetted off to Mexico last summer for a week-long writers’ retreat, I was both jealous and a little intimidated. A whole week spent doing nothing but writing? Talk about pressure to perform. So when I recently decided to take a mini retreat with a couple of writer pals to lovely Lake Tahoe, I shrugged off the assertion that three days simply wasn’t enough time.

We arrived Thursday late afternoon, went to the grocery store, made dinner, and chattered away for a time, finally sitting down to write at about 9 o’clock. This was my first clue that I would probably get a lot more writing done if I’d brought less engaging people along. By 11:30 or so, we called it a night, determined to get a fresh start in the morning.

On Friday, we quickly fell into a comfortable pattern: two hours or so of writing, followed by a 45–60 minute break. While I set about revising my novel, Jen worked on the first in a series of fantasy novels, and Annika wrote about her days working in the classifieds department of a local weekly newspaper. Every time I glanced at the clock, another hour had whizzed by. When a minor epiphany led me to resolve a troublesome plot issue, I started feeling pretty good about me. I was kicking writers’ retreat ass!

Less than 24 hours later, I was on the edge of a neurotic downward spiral. After breezing through some key revisions in the first section of my novel, I moved on to the next section only to find the writing disjointed and flat. My heart and my confidence dropped into my belly. While Jen and Annika tapped away productively at their keyboards, I glared at my laptop, the bile rising in my throat.


My money’s on Google to develop the Six Billion Dollar Man.

After an hour of this torture, I decided to pack it in for a while and take the dog for a walk in the forest that butts up against the property where we were staying. It was a bright and warm day, the blue skies dotted with marshmallow white clouds. As I trekked through the forest – listening to the sounds of chirping birds, pine needles snapping under my feet, and the wind blowing in the trees – I thought of a friend who recently moved in with her boyfriend. Rather than cramming all of their cumulative belongings into the shared house and then attempting to sort through the mess, the couple stored everything but the essentials in the basement. That way, they could bring out items only as they needed them, leaving their home uncluttered. As I walked, it occurred to me that I can apply this same approach. My novel is a little like the Six Million Dollar Man: I can rebuild it. I have the material and the tools. I just need to find the patience.

Writers’ Retreat Takeaways:

  • Five days minimum. As The Clash once sang, the minutes dragged but the hours jerked.
  • Go somewhere peaceful and preferably in nature (as long as there’s an outlet for your laptop).
  • Go with people you like, but not too much.
  • Don’t try to keep a fire going and write at the same time. Literally.
  • When in doubt, walk the dog. Take breaks to stretch your legs and air out your mind. Let inspiration seep in.


Tagged , ,

Prayers from the Bath Mat

I recommend a nice thick nap. It's much easier on the knees.

I recommend a nice thick nap. It’s much easier on the knees.

I awoke around 3am with stomach pains and a dull ache across my lower back. I rubbed my belly for a little while, grabbed the heating pad for my back, and dozed in and out of consciousness for some time. By 5:30 am, I was kneeling on my bath mat and praying that whatever was fighting the good fight in my gut would give in and admit defeat already. By 6:30 am, I was violently expelling the contents of my stomach into my thankfully recently cleaned toilet. Again and again, my stomach forced the poison within back out through the front door. And all the while, writer nerd that I am, I thought, “I must remember how awful this is the next time I make one of my characters vomit.”

When I started writing this blog, I made a commitment to myself that I would post every other Tuesday without fail. Like many people, I am most organized and reliable when I have a deadline to work with. You may not have noticed that today, the day of this posting, is Wednesday. But I have. For the last two days, as I’ve continued to evacuate all fluids from my body (how is there anything left at this point?), I’ve agonized about not meeting my deadline. I let myself down.

Oh, I’d planned ahead. I already knew what I was going to write about, had even plunked out a rough draft Sunday night after my 6-1/2 hour drive home from a long weekend in Los Angeles. And then this.

In my few moments of mental clarity over the last two days, several things have occurred to me:

  • It is good to plan ahead.
  • It is good to be flexible even when you’ve planned ahead.
  • You can find inspiration in the oddest places (kneeling beside a toilet at 6:30 am, for instance).
  • Take it easy on yourself. So you missed one deadline, one goal, one or 100 days of writing. Start again tomorrow.
  • While I’m still not sure if my sudden illness is due to a bug or something I ate, it will be a while before I look at tomato soup the same way.

Well, at least I already have a draft of my April 15th post. Hope to see you back then.

Tagged , ,

Kill Your Adverbs: The Anti-Blog Blog

I’ve perused a fair amount of blogs about writing and have found that, with a few notable exceptions, they tend to break down into two categories: Do’s and Don’ts, and Why I Haven’t Written.

I Heart Adverbs!

How can Schoolhouse Rock be wrong?

The Do’s and Don’ts are pretty straightforward: Avoid adverbs. Never open a book with the weather. Take it easy on the exclamation points. Avoid prologues. I take these Writing Commandments with a large grain of salt, since many of these rules are subjective and made to be broken. Beside, I figure if the occasional adverb doesn’t ruin a story for me, it probably won’t ruin it for most other people either.

My favorite Do’s and Don’ts lists give insight into the writing habits of well-known writers, from Henry Miller to Kurt Vonnegut to Zadie Smith*. I am fascinated to learn about what works – and what doesn’t – for these beloved authors: Write to please just one person. Start as close to the end as possible. Work on one thing at a time until finished. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. When sharing advice, these writers often contradict one another, and sometimes themselves. As Steven King famously wrote, “Ignore all rules.”

The other common – and certainly the most disdainful – type of blog I’ve encountered is the Why I Haven’t Written, aka Dear Diary: Life is Hard. “I didn’t write this week because I had to call my mother and the dog was sick and my boss was being a jerk and my pen was leaky and American Idol was on…” Why on earth would anyone write a blog about why he or she doesn’t have the time or energy to write? And why on earth would anyone want to read this drivel? That’s what support groups are for. If you have the time and energy to update your blog, guess what? You also have the time and energy to whip out a paragraph or two of your short story, memoir, or novel-in-progress.**

Now that I’ve planted my size eight feet firmly on my soapbox, it’s time for me to confess my own (largely) selfish reasons for starting a blog about writing. I want to make writing a constant in my life, to keep it in the forefront of my conscious mind. I want to make myself accountable. Most of all, I want to WRITE MORE. And as a side benefit, I hope to entertain a couple of folks along the way. I write about my experiences and what works for me in the hope that this will be of interest to others, just as I’ve learned from reading about what works for Miller, Vonnegut, Zadie Smith, and even Steven King.

So. Why do you read or write blogs?

* I think this heartbreaking bit of advice from Smith will resonate with most creative folks: “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”

**Perhaps my next blog post will be: Too busy writing novel to write blog post. Check back later.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,