Monday, September 30

The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield, Five Stars

The Authentic Swing by Steven Pressfield, Five Stars

Certain things turn me into a kid at Christmas time.

That describes my mood as I waited for my ARC of Steven Pressfield's The Authentic Swing. I'm a longtime reader of Pressfield's blog and have benefited from his sage advice many times. Also, his fluid, inviting, writing style makes his work a pleasure to read. I feel we're sitting comfortably over two steaming hot mugs of caffeinated goodness chatting about the art and craft of writing.

The Authentic Swing is more about writing as art than writing as craft. This came as a surprise to me, but not an unpleasant one. After all, there are hundreds--thousands!--of books on the technical side of writing but precious few about finding your path, yourself, your soul, as a writer.

Finding Your Writing Soul

I have a confession: I've never golfed. Not once. Ever. Yet I found Steven Pressfield's account of the game riveting. He gave me new ways to think about it.

It turns out that golf is a lot like writing. Here are a few excerpts:

"[G]olf is not a team sport in the way that basketball is, or football, or baseball. You don't pass the ball in golf. There are no "plays." You don't celebrate a victory with your teammates.
"In life, you're born alone, you die alone, and most of the time you live alone.
"Golf is just like that.
"In golf, the competitor is on his own."

"[I]n golf, your opponent is not allowed to impede you.
"He can't tackle you or punch you or even try to rattle you by jingling the change in his pocket. ...
"In golf, no one can hurt you but yourself."

"[T]he struggle of the golfer ... is the same as the struggle of the writer.
"It's the struggle of any artist or entrepreneur, any athlete or warrior, anyone engaged in a spiritual pursuit, as meditation or the martial arts, yoga, dance, calligraphy; any person, male or female, in any creative or ethical field.
"What is this struggle? It's the quest to connect with one's true ground. To become who we really are.
"It's the search for our true voice."

And that's what The Authentic Swing is about, it's about finding yourself as a writer and then having the courage to trust yourself. For example, Pressfield writes (and this is a paraphrase):
The struggle of the golfer is the same as the struggle of the writer or of any other artist. We must connect with our true ground. We must "become who we really are". In other words, writing, like golf, like any other artistic pursuit, is nothing less than "the search for our true voice".
That's not the entirety of Steven Pressfield's writing advice, but it does tie into his instructions for how to write a first draft.

First Drafts And How To Write Them

In a word: Quickly!

All Steven Pressfield's advice resonated with me, but his advice about first drafts made me want to spring out of my comfy reading chair and do a happy dance. "Yes!" I thought. "Someone else who thinks like I do." It's always nice to know you're not alone.

Here's Steven Pressfield's advice for first drafts: Don't stop, don't think. Write.
He holds that "our supreme priority is to get SOMETHING down from Page One to The End--no matter how incomplete and imperfect".

He also writes that:

"The enemy in the first draft is not incompleteness or inexactness or imperfection. The enemy is resistance. The enemy is self-sabotage."

You have to dig deep, trust yourself and then dive in. As Steven Pressfield says:

"You start with instinct.
You plunge in.
Good things happen."


The Authentic Swing is a slim volume of only 144 pages, with the lines widely spaced. But that's okay. No complaints. It's not about how many pages a book has, it's about what's on them and this one is bursting with writerly goodness.

The Authentic Swing is a quick, enjoyable, read and a valuable addition to any writer's library. Five stars.

Photo credit: seeking meaning in the rorschach sky" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, September 28

Story Creation

Story Creation

I've been looking back through the last several articles I've written and noticed a number of posts about characterization. That's probably because I'm starting a new book.

I love this part of writing--word building, character development--where one gets to dream. This is the staring at a blank wall phase where, if non-writers (in other words, normal people) are around, they give me a concerned look and ask: Is anything wrong?

In reality I haven't been staring at a blank wall, I've been enjoying my very own holodeck.

It's been difficult--almost impossible--to tear myself away from the holodeck and do anything as practical as writing a blog post so I thought I would turn disadvantage into advantage and blog about what I'm doing at the moment; namely, story creation.

Please keep in mind that what I say in the following works for me but your mileage will likely vary. This isn't a one-size-fits-all kind of thing.

How To Excavate A Story

1. The Idea

Think of this as a writer's meditation.

One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that you get to daydream (at least occasionally) as part of your job. Not for the whole day (though I've done that!), or even a significant portion of it, but I think there's no better way of letting an idea catch you.

And really, being honest, I'd say that ideas choose me rather than the other way around. Think about how we talk when we get an idea. I say things like, "It popped into my head" or "Something just came to me."

Fortunately, ideas often come to us while we're doing other activities--taking a shower, going for a drive, weeding the garden, walking to the store. Even when I'm writing another story, ideas will pop in and demand immediate attention.

Come to think of it, ideas are a lot like newborns.

I copy these ideas down in my writing journal and then, after I'm finished with whatever I'm working on, I come back to the ones that have grown roots and taken hold; the ones that demand I flesh them out and bring them into the world.

Okay. So. We've gotten our idea, it's demanding to be developed, let's continue to the next step: stitching the ideas together or, to put it another way, connecting the bones.

2. Fashioning a story skeleton

In the past, this step--cobbling together ideas (/bones) into a story (/skeleton)--was agonizing for me.

It used to be that when I reached this point--I'd have a story idea as well as a small group of related notions that fit together--I'd dive in and start writing. I'd think: Why not? I know who the protagonist is and I have the inciting incident, why not start writing and see where the story takes me?
And you know what? That's fine! It's how many, many, pantsers write and it works for one of my favorite authors, Stephen King.

We're all different and, generally, I don't think we know when we start this journey whether we're a pantser or a plotter. Sure, we may think we know, but we don't really know until we've completed a few stories. (Also, each story is different. Sometimes I can pants a story, but for me that's the exception not the rule.)

I've found, through bitter experience, that pantsing isn't the best--the timeliest--method for me. When I pants I generally end up doing twice as many drafts and have to (and this can be VERY painful) get rid of great chunks of writing when it doesn't serve the needs of the story.

SO I've added this second step which is, basically, putting the bones (the ideas) together so they form a skeleton, one that I hope will hold together through (most of) the many drafts the story goes through.

The problem is that, at this stage, I generally don't have a clue how to get from one idea to the next. In a sense I've got bones but no connective tissue. The bones aren't strung together, they're just lying on the floor in a heap. I have to figure out which ones go together and in what order.

For me, here's the key: I search for patterns.

Something that I've found helps with this is thinking about the universal themes embedded in other stories.

For instance, head on over to and pick any trope and start reading. I think the basic, essential, structure for every story variation has been recorded on that site. Even if I don't end up using anything straight from there it's a great way to make connections and find missing elements in a story you've mostly uncovered.

Outlines = Roadmaps

Outlines are like roadmaps, they're suggestions. Possible routes. You can always decide to take another route to your destination or, even, to change destinations. Having a roadmap just lets you keep better track of where you are, where you've been, and we're you're going. (That said, one hopes that the fundamental route won't change too much.)

The Excavation Metaphor

I used to believe being a plotter meant I couldn't view stories the way Stephen King does, as preexisting entities--think dinosaur bones--in the soil waiting to be dug up. This is Stephen King's excavation metaphor. He sees himself as discovering stories rather than creating them.

But I think plotters can view stories this way. Rather than doing the excavating while we write we do it while we plot.

The next step is buckling down and doing the writing. And that means deciding on secondary arcs, ushering in helping characters, minions for the antagonist, and so on.

But I've reached the end of this (rather long) post.

What are you working on? What is your method?

As always, good writing!

Photo credit: "Testing the E-M1" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, September 25

5 Ways To Nurture Creativity

5 Ways To Nurture Creativity

Writers, songwriters, chefs, parents getting their children to bed--in fact, every single one of us at some time or other--need to be creative.

The problem: Often when I try and consciously do something creative I feel as inventive and whimsical as a pencil sharpener. Are there exercises one can do? Tips? Bon mots of wisdom one can latch onto like a drowning man clutching a life preserver?

The author of Everything You Thought You Knew About Creativity Is Wrong says, resoundingly, 'Yes!' Yes there are ways, things one can work at, to make us each more productive creatively--or is that more creatively productive? No matter. Here are the tips.

1. Find your comfort zone and stand within it.

To be creative one must take risks, but we're not going to feel comfortable enough to take those risks if we're standing outside our comfort zone. Goldstein says:
"When we're comfortable and acting in our preferences, we have the courage to take risks." 
I agree! One of the best places for me to get ideas is in the shower and that's a place I feel comfortable, protected, safe.

2. Accept that everyone is different.

What works for someone else might not work for you. For instance, some extraverts like to be in a group and brainstorm together but for many introverts that's not the case. And that's okay! Take a shower, drive around and listen to music, take a walk, different activities serve as creative triggers for different kinds of people.

3. You don't have to be spontaneous.

Plotters are just as creative as pantsers; people who meticulously plan out a painting are just as creative as their more impressionistic kin.
"Painter Henri Matisse, for example, constructed all of his paintings before he began. He even wore a suit and tie while he created -- not exactly the splattered, ragged overalls we associate with artsy folk. Edward Hopper and Norman Rockwell were also big planners ..."

4. Creativity is about coming up with something new but it also embraces combining the old in new ways.

There really is nothing new under the sun. If all philosophy is, as Alfred North Whitehead said, a series of footnotes to Plato then all writing is probably, in one way or another, footnotes to Shakespeare. The trick isn't coming up with something brand new, it's combining ideas in new ways.

I realize you've probably heard this before but it came as a revelation to me: the trick to making the old new is particularizing it. This is what happens when we filter universal themes through our individual experiences and I believe it's what lies at the core of that nugget of wisdom: write what you know.

For example, everyone has lost someone they cared about. The object of our affection has either died, or moved away, or told us to take a long walk off a short pier. But each of our reactions to that experience will be as unique as we are. That's how we take the universal and make it particular. Personal. Intimate.

(Just today, Check Wendig wrote a terrific post about the admonition to write what you know: (adult language -->) Write What You Know: Roasting That Old Chestnut.)

5. Nothing is ever finished.

The author quotes Picasso as saying:
"To finish a work? To finish a picture? What nonsense! To finish it means to be through with it, to kill it, to rid it of its soul …"
That's how I feel about my stories. I could always add more. I could tweak this, refine that, but at a certain point--after they've been proofed, edited, and so on--one has to let our incomplete children go out into the world, one filled to the brim with sticks and stones and things that most definitely break hearts if not bones.

That's it! Five tips to great creativity.

Before I leave, a few months ago I wrote about John Cleese's views on what creativity was and how it could be nurtured, developed. The link is here: John Cleese Talks About Creativity.

Photo credit: "Filter No. 5 - "Grainy Film"" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, September 23

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

Thee Ways To Create Strong Characters

I don't want terrible, gut-wrenching, things to happen to my characters. I've spent many hours crafting them and I know them inside and out. They're my friends, my creations. My babies.

Nice Writer Syndrome

Janice Hardy has an apt name for this reluctance to bring one's characters low: Nice Writer Syndrome. In her article, Do You Suffer From NWS?, she writes:
"Stories are fun when readers get to watch the struggle. They want to see someone overcome a terrible problem and win. To do that, you have to put your characters in terrible situations. You have to be mean, be evil, be cruel. If it breaks your heart to do it to them, then you're on the right track."
If you think you suffer from NWS head over to Janice Hardy's blog (the link is above) and take her quirky quiz.

A Recipe for Creating Characters Readers Care About

1. Be merciless.

I've just mentioned Janice Hardy's advice, but I want to say one more thing. As Robert Wiersema says, don't flinch. Fiction writing is finding the truth within the lie. And truth hurts, so writers must be courageous and not flinch in the telling of it.

2. Make your character interesting.

This comes from David Farland's article, A Recipe for Great Characters.

How can we make our characters more interesting? David has a few suggestions:

a. Use mystery/concealment

Everyone loves a mystery. We want to figure people out, why they do what they do, 'how they tick'. Give your character

- a secret from his/her past
- a hidden agenda, or even
- "a secret about himself/herself that even the character doesn’t know"

The last suggestion is my favorite! I love writing stories that employ this as well as reading them (changelings, etc.).

b. Make your character conflicted.

Incorporate opposing traits in your character. For instance, Indiana Jones was brave, extraordinarily so, but he was also deathly scared of snakes.

David Farland's advice is right on target, so much so I feel like highlighting it with red and making it blink. He writes:
"Give your character a major internal conflict. By that I mean, pick a word that describes your character. For example: He’s compassionate. Then find another word that can also describe your character, but make it a polar opposite—terrorist. Now, look for ways to reveal both sides of your character. For example, your protagonist might be at a French Restaurant. He sees a mother and a baby, and tries desperately to drag them away from the restaurant—just before it blows up. He saves them! But how did he know that the restaurant would explode? Because he set the bomb. Giving a character a dual nature creates an instability, a lack of balance, that probably can’t stay forever."
Let's try this out.

I'm starting on a new story today (Yes! I'm very excited) and I haven't completely nailed down the main character, but I do know she loves her (somewhat obnoxious) best friend--the one who, more often than not, gets her to do something she's not comfortable with and then toddles off leaving my main character to deal with the consequences.

Here's a word that describes my character: Caring.

The opposite of caring: Neglectful.

(Tip: can help you find antonyms.)

The problem: How could a caring person be neglectful?

My protagonist could have an important, time-consuming, job. She could be a doctor, nurse, judge, lawyer, etc. In general, I could give her a career which forces her to choose between being a person who cares for her friends and family and a person who, despite what she wants to do, must neglect those she cares for the most.

Yes! I like that.

c. Give your character a special ability or skill.

I've heard a number of successful writers give this same advice. Give your protagonist (and perhaps each of your characters) a special skill, something that only he/she can do.

This doesn't always have to be a useful skill--it could be something trivial like being able to tie cherry stems in a bow with one's tongue or making one's eyes roll backward in one's head. The point is they can do something, and do it well, that no other character can.

That's it for today. This is my second post about the nuts and bolts of characterization, the first is here: How To Create Extreme Characters.

Photo credit: "Say hello to Spike (aka "Butch" and "Killer") from the Tom & Jerry cartoon series" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Friday, September 20

Kick Your Writing Up A Notch: Beware Sense Verbs

Kick Your Writing Up A Notch: Beware Sense Verbs

Here's the rule:
"Eliminate “protagonist + sense verb” phrases that make us watch your protagonist have an internal experience, and instead simply dramatize the internal experience."
That doesn't come from me, that's from the (terrific!) article A Straightforward Technique to Make Your Writing More Immediate and Effective by Cheryl B. Klein over at Brooklyn Arden. (Thanks to +Elizabeth S. Craig for sharing the link.)

What I love even more than the advice is that the author gives examples that do a fine job of illustrating her point. For example:
A) Katherine heard a man shout, "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" and spun to see what was happening. She saw that a clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.

B) "LORD GIVE ME PATIENCE!" a man shouted behind Katherine. She spun to see what was happening. A clown was dancing merrily across the parking lot, a small dog in a red ruff nipping at its heels.
There's two things here: a person (the protagonist) and a camera. Even if one is writing from the point of view of the protagonist (using either the first or limited third person) one should be the camera. The camera doesn't think or feel or believe or hope, all it does is record what's out there, what's happening. At least, that's how I think of it.

For instance, using Cheryl Klein's examples:

In (A) the reader is placed in Katherine's mind and filters everything through what Katherine hears, thinks, smells, etc.

In (B) the reader takes up the perspective of the camera. Yes, it's positioned inside Katherine's head, but it sees the world rather than Katherine's sensory impressions.

These words can be a tip off that you're talking about what a character senses rather than about the the thing(s) the character is sensing:


That list, from Cheryl's article, can be extended by adding any sense term: taste, believe, etc.

As Cheryl points out, sometimes we do want to observe our characters, we want to talk about what they see and feel and believe rather than the world in which they see and feel and believe it.

Cheryl B. Klein has written a great article on how to make one's writing clearer, I encourage you all to read it for yourself; it's short, clear and has good examples.

I'll leave you with something I picked up from reading Stephen King's On Writing, though perhaps he never says it quite like this: clarity is king. We need to make adjustments if we want to talk about the world but instead talk about how our characters see the world.

(Being hung up on one's character's inner states is very different from showing who your character is by the unique way they see the world; what they notice. For instance, a firebug might notice fire the way a designer would notice the line of a coat. But this kind of subtle characterization can be done without calling attention to a character's thoughts.)

Good writing!

Photo credit: "Grace and... Disgrace" by Zach Dischner under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Thursday, September 19

Neil Gaiman's Advice to Writers

Neil Gaiman's Advice to Writers

Although Stephen King's advice changed my life where my writing is concerned, one of my favorite writers on writing is, and will forever be, Neil Gaiman.

If you want to know why, watch this:

Some things Neil Gaiman says in the video:

"You have to finish things — that’s what you learn from, you learn by finishing things."

"Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you."

Those quotations, and the video, are from Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers over at Brain Pickings.

(I've made a Neil Gaiman playlist; it can be viewed here. It contains all the videos, below, and a few others.)

Here are a few more videos featuring Neil Gaiman:

1. Neil Gaiman talks about his book The Ocean at the End of The Lane.

2. Neil Gaiman on AtGoogleTalks discussing his book The Ocean at the End of The Lane.

3. Neil Gaiman on the Late Late Show (10th anniversary of American Gods)

4. Neil Gaiman talks about what great art is.


Photo credit: "WonderCon 2011 - Doctor Who panel with writer Neil Gaiman" by Pop Culture Geek
under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, September 17

Character Types And The Five-Bad Band

Character Types And The Five Bad Band

I've spent hundreds of hours over at pouring over their character descriptions. The Barnum, for instance, is a kind of trickster character who lives by exploiting greed. Equally interesting--especially to those watching Under The Dome--is the Honest John's Dealership trope.

As I was searching through the forest of descriptions I came upon something called The Five Bad Band that (suitably modified) I'm going to use in my next story. I was so excited to find it, I had to share it.

First, I'll talk about what the Five Bad Band is and then we'll go over a few ways it's been used.

The Five-Bad Band

1. The Big Bad

The first time I heard the term, "the Big Bad," was during an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The Big Bad is the ultimate villain, the mastermind, the strongest of the strong and the baddest of the bad. You do not want to meet this guy/gal after lights out.

The Big Bad has the role of leader.

The Big Bad might go head-to-head either with the Big Good (if there is one) or the hero.

Examples: Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, Big Jim Rennie from Under The Dome.

2. The Dragon

This is the Big Bad's right hand man (or woman).

If the Big Bad is going head-to-head with the Big Good then The Dragon will be the hero's nemesis.

What's a nemesis? The way I think of it, the nemesis is a character a lot like the protagonist--in fact, under other circumstances, they might be great friends--but their goals place them in conflict.

Here's what Scott Myers writes of the nemesis:
"If the Protagonist is most often your story’s most important character, the Nemesis is not far behind. Indeed some of the greatest characters in film history have been Nemeses including Darth Vader (Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz), Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and the shark (Jaws).

"If conflict is the stuff of great drama, there is perhaps no conflict more compelling than that of a Protagonist versus a Nemesis."
If The Dragon's boss, the Big Bad, is a psychopath then The Dragon will be the most rational of the five. If, however, The Dragon makes The Joker look sane, The Big Bad will be the rational one.

Often The Dragon can be persuaded to switch sides even though he is the member of the team most trusted by the Big Bad.

As the article over at puts it:
"[The Dragon is] more likely to be The Hero's Evil Counterpart or Worthy Opponent within the context of the story than the Big Bad is."
Example: Darth Vader is a classic nemesis/Dragon.

3. The Evil Genius

This is one smart puppy. Often he/she makes and operates all sorts of dastardly weapons.

Usually the evil genius doesn't care about overarching schemes or the big picture. He wants to be paid well, be paid on time, and stay alive long enough to spend his money.

Example: The tech guy on the short-lived TV series The Dollhouse. Here's another one from
"Barty Crouch Jr. is a better example. He replaces a teacher, kills his father, and lures Harry away from potential protectors, and no one realizes until nearly the last moment what he's up to." (Evil Genius)

4. The Brute

If the Evil Genius is at the top of the intellectual ladder The Brute is at the bottom. For all that, they are second in power to The Dragon. If anything happens to The Dragon, they'll take over. A fact that does not escape their attention.

The Brute is, as the name implies, physically powerful, though they couldn't best The Dragon in a fair fight.

The Brute is also the most sadistic of the Five Bad Band.

For numerous examples click here and scroll to the bottom of the page.

5. The Dark Chick

The Dark Chick acts very different from the other members of the group. She adds color to the group and in all other ways stands out from them.

The Dark Chick is the 'loose canon' and the most likely to be redeemed and join the side of good. If The Dragon switches sides she might end up as his lady love. If not, she might end up with the hero.

If The Dark Chick and the hero or Dragon don't walk hand-in-hand into the sunset, she may form a pathological need to kill either of them after they spurn her affections.

#  #  #

I'd like to note that, although the description over at talks about four men and a rather kinky gal it's fine to make them whichever sex you'd like.

In this article I've talked about the Five Bad Band but there is a corresponding Five Man Band composed of the hero and his companions. (Bit of a tongue twister!)

If you read the description of the Five Man Band you see that it can fit many different fictional groups. For instance, Buffy and her gang as well as the characters from Scooby Doo.

That's it for today! I have to tear myself away from reading and do some writing now. (grin)

Photo credit: "Emperor Palpatine vs. Justice Lords Batman (345/365)" by "JD Hancock" under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, September 13

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

Using Tarot Cards To Tell A Story

I thought I'd write about something a bit different today.

Years ago, an acquaintance told me she thought numbers had meaning. Although I didn't share her belief, I was intrigued. Next, she told me the meaning of numbers told a story.

A story! That did interest me and I scooted to the edge of my seat.

She laughed and told me the story and, though it was interesting and I promised myself I'd remember, I promptly forgot it.


This morning I went shopping with a friend who bought a deck of tarot cards. Later, while she was making coffee and puttering around her kitchen, I picked up the tarot cards and flipped through the major arcana, starting with The Magician.

At that moment my friend's story came back to me and I realized something. The meaning of the numbers from one to ten seemed to be a close analogy for something else: The hero's journey.

I'll lay out my reasoning below, do tell me what you think in the comments.

(Please keep in mind I'm not claiming numbers have meaning; in fact, I don't think they do. What interested me was the similarity of the one story to the other.)

The Hero And The Fool

1. The Unaccomplished, Unrealized, Hero

Number 1: The thing itself without division or differentiation of any kind. Pure, raw, potential. (By the way, all my information about the meaning of numbers was drawn from the links on this page over at

This is from at
"... the Magician implies that the primal forces of creativity are yours if you can claim your power and act with awareness and concentration."

Hero's Journey: The Hero in the Ordinary World

The hero in the ordinary world is at the beginning of his journey. He hasn't yet claimed his power and does not act with awareness.

The hero is untried, untested; a diamond in the rough.

The hero has the capacity for great bravery, for acts of courage, but none of that has manifested yet. One day he may be able to slay dragons but that day is not today.

2. The Hero Starts His Journey

Number 2: Duality. Division. Instinctual knowledge. The energy of (1) gets direction.

Hero's Journey: The Call to Adventure

In this second stage what was metaphorical becomes literal. The hero literally gets a new direction with the call to adventure.

For example, Indiana Jones is asked to find the ark of the covenant (Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark), Joan Wilder must ransom her sister (Romancing the Stone), Frodo must destroy a ring of power (The Lord of the Rings).

As with the biblical story of Jonah, our hero may refuse the Call to Adventure at first, but, eventually, something will happen (in Jonah's case, being swallowed by a whale and stewing in gastric juices for a few days) to change his mind.

3. The Hero Enters the Special World

Number 3: The number three brings balance to the two opposites. One can also think of 3 as the child of 1 and 2; in this sense, 3 can be thought of as having been birthed by them. It is a newborn that needs nursing, developing.

Hero's Journey: Entering The Special World

Christopher Vogler, in his wonderful book, The Writer's Journey, puts it this way,
"It [the Special World] is a new and sometimes frightening experience for the hero. No matter how many schools he has been through, he's a freshman all over again in this new world."
Vogler also notes that "the Special World should strike a sharp contrast the the Ordinary World."

So here we have the hero entering a new situation, a new world, with different rules. It is completely unfamiliar. What used to be his strengths in the Ordinary World are weaknesses here and what were weaknesses are now strengths (think Alice in Wonderland).

To sum up: the hero enters a new world that is completely different.

4. The Hero Trains, Becomes Something New

Number 4: If the number 3 is a new thing then the number 4 is the new thing matured. It can be successful, or not. The number 4 is about maintaining what has been created, about building a strong structure.

Hero's Journey: The Hero Finds His Footing.

The hero finds her legs in the new world, she learns how things are, is tested, finds some allies and makes more than a few enemies. Through her journeys, her trials and tribulations, she starts to grow into her own.

5. The Ordeal: The Hero Confronts His Nemesis And Loses Something

Number 5: Something is lost. This could be momentum, love, money, friendship, whatever, but something that was gained in (4) is lost. Also, though, one becomes stronger because of the ordeal.

The hero goes through the trial (usually) victorious. He loses something, but he is made stronger.

The is part of the wikipedia entry for The Hierophant:
"The negative aspect of The Hierophant is well illustrated by the myth of Procrustes. Procrustes was a man (or a monster) living in the mountains of Greece. He invited weary travelers into his home, washed the dust off their feet, provided a meal, and let them lie on his bed. If they were too big for his bed, he cut them to size. If they were too small, he stretched them to fit. At last, Theseus came through the mountains and accepted Procrustes’s seemingly kind offer. When Procrustes tried to cut him to fit, Theseus killed him, making the road safe. In this way, the Hierophant is like Freud’s superego. It shapes us, sometimes brutally. This shaping is necessary for us to become who we are." (Wikipedia)
I would add that not only the shaping, but rebelling against the shaping, is what brings us into our own. It is the fight against the monster that makes us, as the saying goes, "come into our power".

If the hero never fights the monster, never engages it, the hero will never realize his full potential.

Or something like that! (grin)

So here we have a confrontation, like what happens between the protagonist and the antagonist midway through a story, what Vogler calls the Ordeal. Because of the battle something is lost (in the case of Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark it was Indiana's freedom) and something is gained (he gets his lady love, Miriam, back).

(In the tale of Procrustes the Pitiless, although Theseus doesn't lose anything, many of Procrustes's other 'guests' do.)

Okay, that's it for today. I'll go through stages 6 through 10 on Monday.

#  #  #

Personally, I don't put any stock in numerology or the tarot, but I love stories and it seems to me that the cards of, for instance, the Rider-Waite tarot deck, tell a story. Also, I'm intrigued by the possibility they could be used to help us create our own stories.

In any case, since this blog is about anything and everything to do with story--anything that will help us create better, more inventive ones--I thought I'd share!

Good writing, see you Monday. Cheers!

Photo credit: "RWS Tarot 00 Fool.jpg" by Pamela Coleman Smith (published 1909) via This image is not under copyright in the US.

Wednesday, September 11

How To Create Strong Characters

How To Create Strong Characters

Let's talk about how to create strong characters. Today, I'm going to focus on creating extreme characters.

In "Making Your Characters Extreme" by Marjorie Reynolds (a guest post over at, she writes: 
"If you want to write a novel that readers will remember decades or even centuries later, learn from the masters and populate it with one or more extreme characters. You’ll find they’ll not only linger in a reader’s mind, but they’ll give your story energy and heighten your own interest in writing it.
Sounds great! But how do we create extreme characters?

1. Your protagonist should have a "deformity, affliction or peculiarity" that is the "driving force in your story".

For example, 
"In The Phantom of the Opera, the phantom’s disfigurement dominates the story. His fear that he will frighten off people, especially the woman he loves, causes him to hide in the bowels of the Paris Opera House and wear a mask." 

2. Use your characters flaw(s) to reveal the kind of person they are

Marjorie Reynolds writes:
"A hero is not a perfect person who conquers all. He makes mistakes. He usually possesses a tragic flaw (hubris or stubbornness, for example) that makes him vulnerable to his enemies. A hero is someone with all the faults of an ordinary person but with the strength of character to struggle to the point of death. He won’t give up.
"To win at the end, he must struggle and push himself beyond what he believes he can do.  He must go beyond the point where we would stop. You don’t have to tell us he’s a hero. We can see he is."
Characters must have faults and they must struggle to overcome them, even if this--especially at first--doesn't seem possible.

3. Show your characters strengths and weaknesses through action. Don't describe them to the reader.

4. Give your character a backstory that explains his/her extreme behavior.

5. Make your character admirable.

Someone once said--I remembered it because it made a lot of sense to me--that your character doesn't have to be nice but they do have to pursue justice.

I think that's what makes anti-hero's possible. An anti-hero isn't a good person; sure, maybe they are underneath it all, but if so we're talking about way underneath. What makes an anti-hero the good guy/gal is his/her cause, his/her goal. He/she is writing a wrong, fighting the good fight.

(Note: I've adapted the checklist, below, from Marjorie Reynolds's article.)

Five ways to gauge whether your character is extreme:

a. Does your character do something--fight vampires, find relics, break out of prison after digging a tunnel with a spoon--that no ordinary person could or would?

b. Does your character have extreme/strong emotions to go along with their extreme behavior?

In order for readers to believe someone would spend years digging a hole with a spoon (Shawshank Redemption), they need a context. They need to understand the character's emotional motivation through that character's actions.

c. Does your character have an extreme goal?

In Lord of the Rings, Frodo--a hobbit who knows nothing of the larger world, or fighting, or the evil machinations of wizards, and certainly nothing of the evil of the ring--ventures out to do what no one else has: destroy the One Ring.

Let me give you a real life example: Jerry Gretzinger and his map. 50 years ago Jerry Gretzinger created a map. The map, and his idea of it, evolved over time and--due to the nature of the map-- there is no clearly defined end state.  In Jerry's words:
“The map began as just a doodle. I just made little rectangles and crosshatched them. Carefully. And I just kept adding rectangles and I put a river in....and some railroad stations. But there was this moment when I came to the edge of that sheet of paper…Got out another sheet of paper and put the two together…and I think I taped them together. That’s when I realized that it kind of had a life of its own.” (Mapping “The Void”)
However, Jerry says his goal is to work on his map till he dies. That's his goal. When the end comes, he wants to expire in his studio, mixing his paints. To work on some one thing for 50 years and to want to keep on for another 20 or 30 ... wow. That's extreme. Also, it's compelling. After I read about Jerry's map I couldn't get it out of my head.

(Perhaps the example of Jerry and his map should be under (a), above, but I think it fits here as well.)

d. Is your character's backstory extreme?

Extreme emotions, extreme goals, extreme behavior all needs a good explanation. Something outstanding, something unusual must have happened to account for, to explain, why your protagonist is how he/she is.

Superheroes often have interesting and extreme backstories to explain the character's behavior. Superman for example.

e. Does your character, at any point, stand alone?

Extraordinary characters will go where ordinary characters won't. Think of Mitch McDeere in The Firm. He has a lot of help from his friends and family, but in the end he stands alone.

Those are just a few of the qualities extreme characters can have. I encourage you to head over to and read Marjorie Reynolds's article for yourself.

Okay, that's it! Good writing.

Photo credit: "Ralfs" by Rolands Lakis under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, September 9

Find The Truth Inside The Lie: Stephen King on Writing

Find The Truth Inside The Lie: Stephen King on Writing

I've been binging on Stephen King.

I'm reading Under the Dome (my ereader tells me that after completing ~500 pages I'm 52% through) and watching the TV series. This is entertainment at its best and, as a writer, it's fascinating to see what changed between the book and the TV show (especially given that Stephen King is a writer on the show).

But that's not what I want to talk about.

Yesterday I came across this interview with Stephen King, The Art of Fiction No. 189 on The Paris Review.

The interview is from (as near as I can tell) 2008 and King is remarkably candid about both writing in general and his in particular. For example:

Book ideas, creativity, and connecting unrelated subjects

"When I wrote Cujo—about a rabid dog—I was having trouble with my motorcycle, and I heard about a place I could get it fixed. ... The mechanic had a farmhouse and an auto shop across the road. So I took my motorcycle up there, and when I got it into the yard, it quit entirely. And the biggest Saint Bernard I ever saw in my life came out of that garage, and it came toward me.

"Those dogs look horrible anyway, particularly in summer. They’ve got the dewlaps, and they’ve got the runny eyes. They don’t look like they’re well. He started growling at me, way down in his throat: arrrrrrrrrrggggggghhhhhh. ... The mechanic came out of the garage and said to me, Oh, that’s Bowser, ... Don’t worry about him. He does that to everybody. So I put my hand out to the dog, and the dog went for my hand.

"I remember how scared I was because there was no place to hide. I was on my bike but it was dead, and I couldn’t outrun him. ... But that was not a story, it was just a piece of something. A couple of weeks later I was thinking about this Ford Pinto that my wife and I had. ... I was worried about my wife getting stuck in that Pinto, and I thought, What if she took that car to get fixed like I did my motorcycle and the needle valve stuck and she couldn’t get it going—but instead of the dog just being a mean dog, what if the dog was really crazy?

"Then I thought, Maybe it’s rabid. That’s when something really fired over in my mind. Once you’ve got that much, you start to see all the ramifications of the story."

King on his kind of book

"... I can remember thinking that I wanted the book [Cujo] to feel like a brick that was heaved through your window at you. I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do—and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this—should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up. It should get in your face. It should upset you, disturb you. And not just because you get grossed out. I mean, if I get a letter from somebody saying, I couldn’t eat my dinner, my attitude is, Terrific! [emphasis mine]"

Interviewer: "What do you think it is that we’re afraid of?"

I don’t think there’s anything that I’m not afraid of, on some level. But if you mean, What are we afraid of, as humans? Chaos. The outsider. We’re afraid of change. We’re afraid of disruption, and that is what I’m interested in. I mean, there are a lot of people whose writing I really love—one of them is the American poet Philip Booth—who write about ordinary life straight up, but I just can’t do that.

I once wrote a short novel called “The Mist.” It’s about this mist that rolls in and covers a town, and the story follows a number of people who are trapped in a supermarket. There’s a woman in the checkout line who’s got this box of mushrooms. When she walks to the window to see the mist coming in, the manager takes them from her. And she tells him, “Give me back my mushies.”

We’re terrified of disruption. We’re afraid that somebody’s going to steal our mushrooms in the checkout line.

King's stories are about "... an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it."

I’d say that what I do is like a crack in the mirror. ... In every life you get to a point where you have to deal with something that’s inexplicable to you, whether it’s the doctor saying you have cancer or a prank phone call. So whether you talk about ghosts or vampires or Nazi war criminals living down the block, we’re still talking about the same thing, which is an intrusion of the extraordinary into ordinary life and how we deal with it. What that shows about our character and our interactions with others and the society we live in interests me a lot more than monsters and vampires and ghouls and ghosts.

On Planning A Book Out--Or Not

King: "Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book."
It is a wonderful interview and, if you like Stephen King's work and want a peek behind the curtain, I encourage you to read it.

Stephen King's Acceptance Speech for the National Book Award

Stephen King won the National Book Award For Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003 but I had not read his speech. I did yesterday (as I said, I've been binging) and it is truly wonderful.

Here is one of my favorite parts:
"But the storyteller cannot afford to forget and must always be ready to hold himself or herself to account. He or she needs to remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it./ ... I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded." 
That advice was like a tall cool drink of water, "Find the truth inside the lie." Simple, but far from easy.

I'd like to leave you with something disconnected--though not completely so--from the current topic.  A 1968 memo written by Gene Roddenberry to the writers of Star Trek was discovered recently, it details what the creator of Kirk, Bones, and Spock thought were their essential characteristics. Fascinating read.

Photo credit: "SK-4" by Tabitha King, copyright

Friday, September 6

10 Ways To Overcome Procrastination

 10 Ways To Overcome Procrastination

The following tips are from C.S. Lakin's article, 10 Tips to Help You Avoid Procrastination, over at Live, Write, Thrive.

10 Ways To Overcome Procrastination

  • Make a writing schedule. Actually write it down and post it where it can stare you in the face. Let your family know you plan to follow it and ask for their support (to leave you alone so you can write). You can even ask them to nag and remind you to use that willpower.

  • Write for short periods of time. So you can feel that sense of discipline and accomplishment. If you try to set aside a whole day or a big block of hours, life may encroach.

  • Reward yourself when you meet your goal. Cookies! Literal or figurative. Or bake a cake. Take a bubble bath. Whatever works.

  • Work somewhere that won’t be distracting! Okay, that’s a hard one. Some people find the coffee shop noise helpful background ambiance. I drive to my local library four days a week to get away from my dog. Really. He drives me nuts with the ball and Frisbee. He’s a lab. He can’t help it. So I leave.

  • Get the other stuff out of the way. I can’t start work until I go through my e-mail and feel I’ve taken care of some stuff that I know will bother me if I don’t take care of it first. You know what stuff that is for you.

  • Close your e-mail programs and social networks, and turn off your phone. Yes, you really won’t die if you “unplug” for an hour or three.

  • Write at your best time. It’s way harder to push through to write if you’re sleepy or unfocused. I turn off my brain around 5 p.m

  • Get an accountability partner. If you want to set tough goals to reach a deadline, set up someone you have to report to or send your chapters to by a specific date and time. I know of one author who agreed to pay $100 every time he was late sending his required pages to his accountability partner. Sometimes he got them sent one minute before deadline, but it was great incentive for him.

  • Remind yourself you love to write. I hear from some writers how they’ve come to hate writing. If so, why bother? Write because you love it. It’s fun! Yes, it’s hard work, but so are a lot of things, like scrubbing grungy toilets and digging trenches. Personally, I think writing is a whole lot more fun to work at than a lot of other things. Writing is a privilege; a lot of people struggle each day just to find food and water to survive. Count your blessings. Change your attitude.

  • Think of yourself as a writer, that this is your job. Adjust your attitude to view your writing as a profession. Be professional. Treat your writing as a business and be responsible about it, just as you would any other job you are hired to do.
Great tips. Especially the one about distractions.

I love my cats. LOVE. But, gah! They can drive me nuts at times. One is a snuggle bunny, which is terrific, but he wants to snuggle when I want to write.

Writing with a cat draped over one shoulder is not easy. Doable, but not easy.

That said, I hope he never changes.

Time Scheduling Programs

I thought I'd add something to C.S. Lakin's list: keeping track of how much you write.

Currently I'm using Hours Keeper for the iPad and it's made a world of difference. It helps me stick with the task at hand rather than going off to do other things.

I admit that it's often difficult to remember to record what I'm doing but (of course) there's an app for that.

For those who DON'T like to clock in before you do something there are programs that record your activities automatically:


Here's an article from LifeHacker: Five Best Time-Tracking Applications.

It's an older article, but the apps are still around. Good info.

If procrastination is a problem for you--it is for me--try different things. Experiment. Perhaps you'll fine a pearl of wisdom that will resonate with you, perhaps keeping track of your time will help. Perhaps the key will be something completely different.

I think that, as is true with so much in life, the key is to experiment and find what works for you.

Whatever you try, good luck and good writing!

Photo credit: "His Royal Highness King Zawadi Mungu" by Ian Sane under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, September 4

Robert A. Heinlein: On The Writing of Speculative Fiction

Robert A. Heinlein: On The Writing of Speculative Fiction

There are nine-and-sixty ways
Of constructing tribal lays
And every single one of them is right

How did great writers structure their stories? And, beyond that, how did they think of story structure? 

Today, by a lucky accident, I came across a mention of Robert A. Heinlein's thoughts on structuring stories. I rooted around in my bookshelf to see what I could come up with and found an article entitled, "On The Writing Of Speculative Fiction," by Robert A. Heinlein. It is the edited transcript of a talk he gave

In On The Writing Heinlein discusses a number of ways of structuring science fiction stories with special emphasis (of course) on how he did things. His talk is fascinating and ends with what became his famous 5 rules of writing.

Five Ways To Write Speculative Fiction, by Robert A. Heinlein

1. The gadget story

This isn't the sort of story Heinlein wrote, but he said he enjoyed reading them.
"I have nothing against the gadget story--I read it and enjoy it--it's just not my pidgin. I am told that this is a how-to-do-it symposium; I'll stick to what I know how to do."

2. The human-interest story

This was the kind of story Heinlein wrote. He said:
"There are at least two principal ways to write speculative fiction--write about people, or write about gadgets. ... Most science fiction stories are a mixture of the two types, but we will speak as if they were distinct--at which point I will chuck the gadget story aside, dust off my hands, and confine myself to the human-interest story, that being the sort of story I myself write.
What follows are sub-types of the human interest story. Heinlein said:
"There are three main plots for the human-interest story: boy-meets-girl, the Little Tailor, and the man-who-learned-better. Credit the last category to L. Ron Hubbard; I had thought for years that there were but two plots--he pointed out to me the third type."

3. Boy meets girl.

Or some combination thereof. 

Heinlein writes that although there is often romance in SF stories that, in his day at least, it was less often the case that the romance was "the compelling and necessary element that creates and then solves the problem [emphasis mine]".

There's quite a number of ways to go with this structure, Heinlein listed a few:

- boy-fails-to-meet-girl,
- boy-meets-girl-too-late,
- boy-meets-too-many-girls,
- boy-loses-girl,
- boy-and-girl-renounce-love-for-higher-purpose.

And, of course, those are just the start of the variations! Today's stories have boy-girl, girl-boy, boy-boy and girl-girl.

Heinlein even gave those in the audience the basis for a "boy-meets-girl" plot:
"Here is a throw-away plot; you can have it free: elderly man meets very young girl; they discover that they are perfectly adapted to each other, perfectly in love, "soul mates." (Don't ask me how. It's up to you to make the thesis credible, If I'm going to have to write this story, I want to be paid for it.)

"Now to make it a science fiction story. Time travel? Okay, what time theory--probable-times, classic theory, or what? Rejuvenation? Is this mating necessary to some greater end? Or vice versa? Or will you transcend the circumstances, as C. L. Moore did in that tragic masterpiece "Bright Illusion"?

I've used it twice as tragedy and shall probably use it again. Go ahead and use it yourself. I did not invent it; it is a great story that has been kicking around for centuries."

4. The little Tailor.

This is about a nobody who becomes Mr. or Ms. Big or, flipping that on its head, about a character who is at the zenith, the apex, of his/her career and then plummets to the bottom. Heinlein writes:
"... this is an omnibus to all stories about the little guy who becomes a big shot, or vice versa."
 As examples Heinlein lists:

- "Dick Whittington,"
- all of the Alger books,
- Little Caesar,
- Galactic Patrol (but not Grey Lensrnan),
- Mein Kampf,
- David in the Old Testament.

Heinlein notes: "It is the success story or, in reverse, the story of tragic failure."

5. The man-who-learned-better.

Heinlein writes:
"The man-who-learned-better; just what it sounds like--the story of a man who has one opinion, point of view, or evaluation at the beginning of the story, then acquires a new opinion or evaluation as a result of having his nose rubbed in some harsh facts. I had been writing this story for years before Hubbard pointed out to me the structure of it."


- Heinline's own "Universe" and "Logic of Empire"
- Jack London's "South of the Slot,"
- Dickens's, "A Christmas Carol."

Heinlein On Story

Recall that, at the beginning of the article, Heinlein defined a story as
"something interesting-but-not-necessarily-true"
That's a general statement, broad enough to cover any story. Well, at least the interesting ones! (And we could say, well, interesting to who? Interesting to how many? To the writer? To readers yet-to-be born? In any case, moving on.)

However, Heinlein's own stories conformed to this structure:
"... a man finds himself in circumstances that create a problem for him. In coping with this problem, the man is changed in some fashion inside himself. The story is over when the inner change is complete--the external incidents may go on indefinitely."
Here are a few of his examples:
A lonely rich man learns comradeship in a hobo jungle.
A strong man is crippled and has to adjust to it.
A gossip learns to hold her tongue.
A hard-boiled materialist gets acquainted with a ghost.
Heinlein goes on to stress that he's interested in stories about inner as opposed to outer change:
"This is the story of character, rather than incident. It's not everybody's dish, but for me it has more interest than the most overwhelming pure adventure story. It need not be unadventurous; the stress that produces the change in character can be wildly adventurous, and often is."

Robert A. Heinlein's definition of the pure science fiction story

First, let's break down Heinlein's own structure for his stories:
a. The protagonist finds himself/herself in circumstances that create a problem for him/her.

b. In coping with the problem the protagonist is changed in some fashion inside himself/herself.

c. The story is over when the inner change is complete.

Here's what Heinlein thought were the essential bits:
i. The new conditions (the change in the protagonist's circumstances) must be an essential part of the story.

ii. "The problem itself--the "plot"--must be a human problem. The human problem must be one that is created by, or indispensably affected by, the new conditions."

iii. "And lastly, no established fact shall be violated."
Good advice. That said, Heinlein added:
"But don't write to me to point out how I have violated my own rules in this story or that; I've violated all of them and I would much rather try a new story than defend an old one."
In closing Heinlein gave encouragement to other writers:
"I've limited myself to my notions about science fiction, but don't forget Mr. Kipling's comment. In any case it isn't necessary to know how--just go ahead and do it. Write what you like to read. If you have a yen for it, if you get a kick out of "just imagine--," if you love to think up new worlds, then come on in, the water's fine and there is plenty of room."

Heinlein's 5 Rules

It is in this speech that Heinlein gives his famous 5 rules. Although I've come to the end of what I wanted to tell you about Heinlein and his comments on story I'm going to include the rest of his talk, below, because I got such a kick out of reading the original. Maybe you will too.
"I'm told that these articles are supposed to be some use to the reader. I have a guilty feeling that all of the above may have been more for my amusement than for your edification. Therefore I shall chuck in as a bonus a group of practical, tested rules which, if followed meticulously, will prove rewarding to any writer.

"I shall assume that you can type, that you know the accepted commercial format or can be trusted to look it up and follow it, and that you always use new ribbons and clean type. Also, that you can spell and punctuate and can use grammar well enough to get by. These things are merely the word-carpenter's sharp tools. He must add to them these business habits:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you start.
3. You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
4. You must put it on the market.
5. You must keep it on the market until sold.

"The above five rules really have more to do with how to write speculative fiction than anything said above them. But they are amazingly hard to follow--which is why there are so few professional writers and so many aspirants, and which is why I am not afraid to give away the racket! But, if you will follow them, it matters not how you write, you will find some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at him."
Yes ladies and gentlemen, write, and you may one day find "some editor somewhere, sometime, so unwary or so desperate for copy as to buy the worst old dog you, or I, or anybody else, can throw at him." (grin)

Good writing!

Photo credit: "Wee Westie Backlit on the Beach" by Randy Robertson under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, September 3

Roy Peter Clark Tells Us How To Write Better Prose

Sometimes I make the most wonderful discoveries.

Case in point, two days ago, as I wove my way through the jungle of the Internet I came upon Roy Peter Clark and his book Writing Tools. That would have been wonderful all by itself, but it got better!

Next I discovered Mr. Clark had narrated 50 podcasts, one for each chapter in his book ... and that each chapter's narration was only about 2 minutes each! And it's free! If you'd like to take a look, here's the link: Roy's Writing Tools.

So far I've listened to the first 10 podcasts. At that time I'd been putting the finishing touches on a story and I think it helped polish up my prose.

By the way, I had no idea who Roy Peter Clark was so here's a short bio:
"Roy Peter Clark (born 1948) is an American writer, editor, and teacher of writing who has become a writing coach to an international community of students, journalists, and writers of many sorts. He is also senior scholar and vice president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a journalism think-tank in St. Petersburg, Florida, and is the founder of the National Writers Workshop. Clark has appeared on several radio and television talk shows, speaking about ethics in journalism and other writing issues." (Roy Peter Clark, Wikipedia)
Enough background, let's jump in.

10 ways to make your prose stronger


1. Begin sentences with subjects and verbs.

This is called a right-branching sentence which is one that has the main clause on the far right. If it were on the far left then--you guessed it!--we'd call it a left-branching sentence.

Here's an example of a right-branching sentence:
"The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain." (Stephen King, It)
That's the opening line from Stephen King's It. The core sentence reads: The terror began with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

Beautiful! We're oriented immediately. What is King going to be talking about? The terror. What about the terror? How it began. Then he goes on to talk about a boat made of newspaper. My reaction: That is a mighty odd way for something referred to as "the terror" to begin. Instantly, I'm interested.

But anyway, that was a digression. A right-branching sentence gives us the subject--the doer--and the verb--the action--right up front so that when we pile on qualifiers there's less of a chance readers will become confused.

Clarity is king! (Yes, that was a little punny.)

2. Order words for emphasis. Place strong words at the beginning of a sentence or at the end.

It's the same with paragraphs. The first word of a paragraph, as well as the last, should pack a punch. Here's an example from Shakespeare:

"The Queen, my Lord, is dead."

There we have the emphasis at the end. Pow!

3.  Use strong verbs.

We've heard this advice before but it is so very true. Strong verbs help create interesting, engaging, stories.

Strong verbs:
- Create action
- Save words
- Reveal the players

Ian Flemming, creator of James Bond, was particularly skilled at using strong verbs. Here's the key: we want our characters to preform the action of the verb. For example:

"Bond climbed the stairs."
"Sunlight filtered through the curtains."

Simple. Uncluttered. Clear.

Mr. Clark quotes George Orwell as saying: Never use the passive where you can use the active.

4. Use passive verbs to showcase the victim of the action.

It used to be that when folks stressed the importance of strong verbs I'd wonder: Is there really no place for weak verbs? There is!

Mr. Clark uses this sentence to demonstrate this point, it's from Steinbeck:

"The night was loaded with omens."

Steinbeck could have written, "Omens loaded the night," but Mr. Clark writes that this would have been unfair to both the night, the omens and the music of the sentence. I agree.

5. Use adverbs to change the meaning of a sentence.

When I first heard the advice to forgo using adverbs I was boggled. Why the hate for adverbs? How else should we say something like, "I was not able to go"?

Of course it's not adverbs, all adverbs, so much as it is "-ly" adverbs, adverbs such as justly, enthusiastically, dismally, loudly, and so on.

For instance,

"Turn down the music," she screamed loudly.

Typing that hurt! Why? Well, how else would one scream other than loudly? "Loudly" doesn't add anything to that sentence and so works counter to our over-riding goal: clarity.

But what about,

"Turn down the music," Jan screamed weakly.

That gives us something new. "Angrily" or "desperately" wouldn't have worked as well because often--though not always--when people scream they're angry or even desperate. However weakness isn't part of the concept of screaming so it's adding something new, perhaps even something unexpected. Why is she weak?

Perhaps it would be better if we wrote something like:

"Turn down the music," Jan screamed, or tried to. What came out was an unintelligible sound, a dry rasping, nearly drowned out by the pounding of her heart. She couldn't catch her breath. There was someone in the house, someone else, someone who shouldn't be there, but who could hear anything above the discordant jangling of the music? Clinging to the banister, she gasped for breath and with a trembling hand reached for her asthma inhaler.

Or something like that.

In the last example I used words to try and paint a picture. I wanted to show the reader that Jan was desperate and give him or her a peek behind the curtain, give him or her an idea why Jan was desperate.

Rule of thumb: Use "-ly" adverbs only if they change the meaning of the verb. For example, "She smiled sadly."

6. Take it easy on the INGs.

Minimize ING endings, use "s" or "ed" instead. Why?

a. Adding ING adds a syllable to the word.
b. ING words tend to resemble each other.

Which sentence do you prefer?

i. My friend Kelly likes to walk, run, cycle and swim.
ii. My friend Kelly likes walking, running, cycling and swimming.

7. Don't be afraid to use long sentences.

Mr. Clark writes that length will make a bad sentence worse but it will make a good sentence better.

Here are some tips on making long sentences work:

a. Have the subject and main verb come early in the main clause of the sentence.
b. Use the long sentence to describe something long. For example, a long elevator ride, trip, walk, etc.
c. Let form follow function.
d. Write the action of the sentence in chronological order.
e. Use long sentences alongside sentences of short and medium length.

8. Establish a pattern and then give it a twist.

Mr. Clark tells us to build parallel constructions but cut across the grain. For example:

Parallel: Faith, hope and love. (Each noun has equal impact.)

Parallel with a twist: Faith, hope and being kind and nice to your neighbors even though they're terrible to you.

Pure parallel structure: boom, boom, boom.

Parallel with a twist: boom, boom, bang.

Mr. Clark points out that Superman doesn't stand for truth, justice and patriotism, he stands for truth, justice and the American way. Two parallel nouns with a twist.

9. Let punctuation control pace and space.

We punctuate for two reasons:
a. To set the pace of the reading.
b. To divide words, phrases and ideas into convenient groupings.

A sentence with no punctuation but a period is a straight road with a stop sign at the end.

A paragraph with a lot of periods in it will have a lot of stop signs and therefore a slower pace. This is good for providing clarity, for conveying emotion and for creating suspense.

Comma: Speed bump
Semi-colon: A rolling stop
Parenthetical expression: A detour.
Colon: Flashing yellow light that announces something important is up ahead.
Dash: Tree branch in the road.

10. Prune the big limps then shake out the dead leaves.

Simply put: Cut big then small. Mr. Clark holds that creativity must be moderated by cold-hearted judgement.

Brevity comes from selection not compression. Lift entire blocks from the work.

- Cut any passage that does not support your focus.
- Cut the weakest quotations, anecdotes and scenes to give greater power to the strongest.
- Cut any passage you have written to satisfy a tough teacher or editor rather than the common reader.
- Mark optional trims, then decide whether they should be actual cuts.
- Murder your darlings.

That's it! I hope you found something that could help put a little extra zing in your writing.

Once again, these points have come from Roy Peter Clark's series of podcasts entitled Roy's Writing Tools.

Photo credit: "STHLM #17" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.