Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chasing the Latest Literary Trend—Smart, or Not?

    Okay, so vampires are hot. Seems like all you have to do is stick a blood thirsty (literally) vamp in your novel and it will sell like hotcakes. Or so you've been told. Or maybe you're tempted to write a techno-thriller, in the style of Tom Clancy, or a fantasy inspired by Harry Potter's success. Why? Because, again, these genres have sold millions of books, bringing wealth and fame to their authors and agents. Why not cash in on what works?

    Well, there's no reason why anyone shouldn't try. Except…think about it a moment. Is it the genre itself, or the author who spawned it that's the reason for these stories working so well? When a trend begins in the fiction world, it usually happens because of the passion and talent of an individual writer. This writer follows a vision of the novel he/she wishes to create, and often takes a substantial risk that, because it's something new and different, the book may be rejected by publishers who are more interested in safe, tried-and-true types of stories. When a book like Twilight first appears, it's a surprise and takes a while to catch on…but if it does, it has the possibility of becoming a sensation. The possibility. Readers are the ones who decide whether or not a book actually will become a bestseller.

    And what about all the other vampire tales and fantasies that have suddenly appeared in Twilight's and Harry Potter's wake? Aren't they selling well? Many are. Then why shouldn't you, an author trying to break into publishing, benefit from the feeding frenzy and create yet another, say…Dracula clone? Well, there's no reason you can't. But take a look at the scores of vampires and werewolves and shape shifters competing for shelf space in your favorite bookstore. Does your passion for this type of story promise to raise your novel above these as well as the truckloads of similar novels that weigh down literary agents' and editors' desks at this very moment?

    The point is…following a trend seems to work best if you are lucky enough to have a book ready to go in the earliest days of readers' enthusiasm for the new type of story. If it will take you a year or more to write the book you imagine will be the next Twilight, you're probably already too late. Trends are ephemeral things; they burn themselves out. And no one knows what the next one will be, until some lucky editor spots that book that takes fiction in a slightly new direction, and makes an offer on it.

A lot of what goes into coming up with the next literary sensation is luck, but some of it is passion, extraordinary writing, and belief in your story. And, yes, the willingness to risk failure. I love to see an author take a risk, write a magnificent story, then be "discovered" by readers. And I hate to see new writers desperately trying to copy today's hot trends, because I worry that by the time they finish that first novel their market will have evaporated. Then they may give up without ever letting their unique talent shine.

    So, here's a suggestion. Instead of trying to jump on the bandwagon, write from your heart but also take the pulse of your prospective readers. What kind of story would you love to read? Into what sort of novel do you think your friends, co-workers, family might enjoy escaping? No, there aren't any guarantees you'll be rewarded for your effort, but I for one believe your chances of success are better writing something you really care about…rather than slogging away at a borrowed idea or character model with which you have no emotional or artistic connection. Give me, and the world, something marvelous to read, something to take our breath away and make the rest of us writers say, "Damn, I wish I'd written that!"

    Happy writing—Kathryn.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Tis the Season

    Outside my window sit two feet of snow. My house is warm. I just made myself my version of a latte—espresso, equal parts warm milk (who has time for frothing?), and a little yellow packet of Splenda. My office is cozy and quiet but for Miranda (the calico cat) tripping over my desk between me and my monitor, and I (we—sorry, Miranda) are alone. So why can't I focus and write?

    I'm excited, I guess, because it's nearly Christmas. Yes, maybe that's it. I do feel a sense of joyful elation.

    The thing is, I sometimes feel guilty for allowing myself to enjoy these physical surges of happiness this time of year. Why is that? I think about our young men far from home, fighting a war. I worry about friends who have been without jobs for months in this obnoxious economy. Then there are the people closest to me, family. Some are doing okay for themselves, or at least not complaining if they're struggling. Others…well, if there were any way I could help them I would. But what do you do when someone you love is unable to deal with the daily logistics of life? Can you cushion, protect, provide for them so that the world can no longer cause them pain?

    I lost my mother to a long and horrid adventure with Alzheimer's two years ago. She spent the last three years of her life helpless. The last two unable to move from her bed. My sister became her caregiver and did what I never could have done for her. Even so, I can only imagine our mother's pain and confusion. To say that watching someone fade away in the grip of this disease is heart breaking seems a gross understatement. But there is still another person close to me who is just as dear and just as lost. In this instance it isn't a case of advanced age or Alzheimer's. It's a form of mental illness, the medical name unimportant. After spending many years consulting with psychiatrists and counselors of various sorts on behalf of this person, I've come to accept that this illness is another one that simply won't go away, be cured or even likely controlled. It will create the rules by which this dear one will live until death. And again, I am helpless.

    What does this have to do with writing? I'm not sharing these thoughts with you, my friends, as a means of venting my frustration or sadness or, worse yet, to squelch your holiday spirit. I'm well aware how many of you reading this are struggling to help someone who is ill, either physically or emotionally. My correspondence with students and mentoring clients often reveals how many of you are caring for young or grown children, grandchildren, parents, or spouses who are desperately in need of help. Often, all we can do is be there for them and let life run its course. If we believe in a higher being, we may be able to place our loved one in the hands of one greater than ourselves. For some that can be a comfort. No, my message today isn't meant to be tragic or drain the joy out of this Holiday Season. Believe it or not, it really does have to do with writing. Consider it my gift to you, except….it's not really a gift, I guess, because it's something you already possess. I'm just reminding you that you have it.

    Your natural talent. Your writing. It's a very special ability that you have but few others in this world are lucky enough to possess.

You have an innate desire to put your thoughts, dreams, imagination, stories, and fantasies into words for others to read, and this is the most wonderful tool I know of for managing stress. When I finish this blog, I'll still be sitting at my keyboard and, having gotten my mental gears grinding away by typing this page, I'll feel the urge to keep on writing. My focus has returned. As I write a new scene, the sadness that threatens to suck the joy out of life will weaken and leave for a time. Some people think of writing as work, drudgery, something they must suffer through and be diligent about accomplishing each day if they are to achieve their goal—publication. But the truth is, if you have the writing gene, while you are in the act of putting words to paper or screen, you leave this world behind and live on another plane, in another universe, in a place apart from the rest of your life. You take a little mind trip, and the parts of life that haunt you, particularly those you can do nothing to change, evaporate into the ether. That is why, even with the splinters of pain that life embeds in our souls, I can be happy and enjoy this time of year.

So, this is my wish for you. May you dream your dreams and weave your stories on page after page. May you live in a place of the imagination that brings you long, blissful moments of peace and healing. Write from your heart. Write…write…write, and know that you are doing something worthwhile that will bring insight, pleasure, and comfort to others while allowing you respite from whatever challenges life has laid before you. –Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year, Kathryn


Friday, December 18, 2009

It’s in the Details!

    What turns words on a page into a vivid scene? What magic do some authors perform that convinces readers a story is real and characters are people they might actually run into on the street?

    Details do the trick!

    Does that seem too simple an answer? Common sense or not, it's one element of fiction that is so often overlooked that editors and agents declare it's one of the most frequent reasons they turn down manuscripts. Yet this is such an easy problem for writers to fix, if they are just aware of it.

The trouble begins when the author—you, me, anyone regardless of experience—envisions their story and characters. To us, as creators, the people leap from our imagination with fully developed personalities. Our settings glow in our minds, complete with flora, fauna, and furniture! We "see" each scene as complete even as we polish our final draft, working on dialogue, plot, pacing, character development and consistency.

    But what does the reader see? Only what we put on the page. Therefore, it's important to weave in enough physical details for the reader to work with in her own imagination, allowing her to come up with a fictional world that is, if not exactly the same as the one we envision when we wrote the scene, at least similar and as vivid in its own way. Stories that take place in a muddy void aren't convincing. Stories that give us only generic details—flowers instead of iris, roses, and lilacs; buildings instead of chic condos, Georgian mansions, or mud-daub huts—leave the reader unconvinced that this world on the page actually exists.

    Some writers shy away from using the most obvious details—locations that are available to anyone who walks through a specific city or town. Is it fair game to set a scene in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, to fly on U.S. Air, to allow your characters to stroll down Connecticut Avenue in D.C. or work for the World Bank? Absolutely. In fact, a sense of recognition plays a very strong role in making your story come to life. A good general rule is: as long as you're not saying anything libelous about a business or place, you're safe.

    Take the time to play with details in your story, adding just enough to bring your scenes and characters fully to life. Coloring your story brings it from tonal grays to vibrant color…and may make the difference between a near miss and an offer on your next book. Happy Writing! --Kathryn

Monday, December 7, 2009


    Why do some writers' characters seem to spring effortlessly to life on the page, while others of us struggle and, even then, sometimes feel we've missed the mark? We look at our paper people and wonder--will these characters ever feel real to my reader? Will they be convincing enough to coax anyone to follow them through an entire short story, a novel, or (most challenging of all) a series of mystery, suspense or science fiction novels?

    Too often authors think that by listing the physical and basic emotional traits of a character, they will breathe life into them. By tossing in a description at the beginning of a story or scene, we've delineated the character, created a convincing portrait, given the reader the necessary information to imagine a particular type of person. But how important is it for your audience to know that Rachel has long blond tresses, while Norma has short dark hair? What does it really tell us about Frank if we see that cute cleft in the middle of his chin, or notice that he's 6'2"? I was reminded of the deeper differences in real people, which should be mirrored in our story characters, by a whirlwind Saturday recently. Let me explain.

    We, DH and I, had screwed up our calendar (not an unusual occurrence) by purchasing tickets to a 5 p.m. concert at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. on the same day we were supposed to be at a luncheon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, 100 miles away from the city. Although the times didn't actually overlap, the 2 ½-hour drive from coastal Maryland to downtown D.C. would make for a tight schedule. As we drove across the Bay Bridge and east toward the restaurant where we were supposed to meet with 75 members of our sailing club, in this the off-season of December, it began to snow…and I got an uneasy feeling about our chances of making either venue. But we drove on and arrived in good time for the luncheon. Since my husband does most of the driving, I always take editing for my mentoring clients or a portion of my own WIP to work on as we zip along the highway. Thus, when we arrived, I was still in that writer's daze, semi-lost in my story and its characters.

    This first group of people we were meeting for lunch had been sailing buddies all summer long. We knew them by first names (not always by last) and by their boat's names. Some live in Pennsylvania, some in Maryland or New Jersey. Their jobs, families, religion, political affiliations, and education are all different and no one cares. The one interest that has brought us together is a love of sailing the Chesapeake Bay. As I was a tagalong, my husband being the newly elected Commodore (don't laugh, I think that makes me First Lady of some sort), I grabbed myself a glass of wine and sat back to study folks. What was it that made each of these people unique? What would someone observing them and, not knowing anything about them, learn on first meeting each one? For me, it was a lot more than whether their hair was gray or they chose to wear blue jeans instead of a suit and tie. It was their enthusiasm and ready smile, or the tentative and thoughtful way they listened to conversation. It was the use of hands, head, and full-body gestures that marked them as different. It was the words they chose to express themselves—warm or cautious, teasing or self-deprecating, concerned or casual, cheerful or complaining. All of these subtle differences I could see using for my paper people when I needed to breathe life into them. But there was, over all and despite their individual personalities and characteristics, a feeling of relaxed camaraderie. This was an atmosphere that wasn't in-your-face, out-to-impress, challenging or demanding a great deal of concentration. I kept thinking about this—the mix of setting and characters. In another setting, how would each of them change to suit the atmosphere? The most laid back individual might spring to action in the face of an emergency, no longer speak in the same languid tones, or become so unnerved as to be unable to speak at all. So maybe character is more a matter of a mix of personality, past experience, and current circumstances?

    I was looking forward now to our second people-watching opportunity of the day. At the end of the luncheon, we dashed for the car and sped through sleet and snow back toward Washington. Miraculously, we found a parking space on the street just one block from the National Portrait Gallery where the concert was to be performed. Now this is no ordinary classical music performance. This is the 21st Century Consort. Their members are drawn from some of the most prestigious musical assemblages in Washington. Many we have recognized as regulars from the National Symphony that performs at the Kennedy Center. And the pieces that are chosen are all modern, very modern. So much so that many of their composers are still living, and often appear as guests to discuss their compositions before the audience. Although I often feel at a loss for understanding the music (not having any training in that area to speak of), I feel amazingly privileged to actually see these gifted composers and hear them speak about their works. I tell my husband, "Two hundred years from now, these people will be honored as the masters. It's like meeting Chopin or Mozart!" But this time what most interested me were the people in the audience. Because, like the group of Saturday sailors we'd just left, they came from different places in this or other countries, and no doubt they had varied religious and political views, but they shared a common interest in a very select type of music. The atmosphere here was also friendly, to a point. Many people seemed to know each other and greeted one another warmly. But the conversations! (Okay, so I eavesdropped. Don't you when in a crowd? Great research.) These people spoke an entirely different language—and one foreign to me. They were familiar with the pieces being played. They spoke in technical detail about the compositions, the instruments, their personal experiences playing this music, conducting it, arranging it. And the feeling in the auditorium (and later at the reception in the garden court) was electric, challenging, hyper-charged intelligence colored with a competitiveness that hadn't been at all evident among our sailing friends.

    What have I learned from this day? That the white-haired, stocky gentleman in sweater and chinos might be one type of character at a luncheon for casual sailors…and someone else entirely if he instead chose to spend his spare time at an intimate classical concert. He might love to putter around boats on a summer afternoon, but his look-alike might write a sonata. One fellow might think nothing of diving off the stern of his boat to unsnarl a line from his propeller. The other may have never set foot on any ship smaller than the Queen Mary. Characters are a complex mix of the physical, emotional, personal history, talents, manners of expressing themselves, and circumstances as well as the settings and company in which they find themselves.

All of this reminds me—"Don't settle for a simple physical description and a touch of dialect. Go deeper, a lot deeper if you want to build a believable character on your pages." I'm going to try to remember that as I continue work on this next book. Maybe you will think about it too? --Happy writing! Kathryn

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Plotting: May I please borrow a cup of plot, Mr. Shakespeare?

    It's been said that there are no new plots, that fiction writers can only tread the same ground that's been tread by others. On the other hand, editors frequently state at writers' conferences that they want to see fresh ideas. So what are writers to do? We know that plagiarism is a no-no. Yet, every few years someone is desperate enough (or stupid enough) to copy a published author's work, in whole or part, and put their own name on it, hoping no one will notice.

    Well, of course, someone notices! And then the copier isn't only in legal hot water, they've branded themselves as a cheat, as a writer who isn't clever enough to come up with his/her own words. Where then do we draw the line? When is it okay to borrow and when does borrowing become plagiarism and a career destroyer?

    First, copyright law is meant to protect the original writer's words—his art. But some elements of art are not copyrightable. Titles can't be owned. Neither can a plot (boy meets girl), an idea (Earth is visited by aliens), or a character type (the bimbo cheerleader) be protected from use by another author. It's the actual words, the writing itself that shouldn't be stolen, borrowed, or used without the author's permission. And, of course, no author is going to say that you can take their book and put your name on it. No, wait! I take that back. Some writers do just that. They are called ghostwriters. And they are paid well for delivering a book then keeping quiet about having written it for another person to claim, or for sharing the billing with a celebrity.

    But we're not talking about ghostwriting. We're talking about your original novel or short story, and what may or may not be permitted legally and ethically. What if you love a title you've come up with and someone says, "Hey, you can't call your story Gone with the Wind, that's been used already." Well, legally you can call your book that. Titles are duplicated all the time, either intentionally or by accident. Your book may be a story about a modern-day balloonist who is lost on his round-the-world race. It's perfect! Plus you get the added kick from people recognizing the famous title, used in this different way. But if you want your Civil War saga to be taken seriously, you probably shouldn't reuse that particular book's title.

    What about characters? Can I create a story about a clever amateur detective who uses clues that no one else even notices to solve puzzling crimes? Sure. Hundreds of writers have done so, each adding an original twist and interesting traits to their sleuth. Can I make my detective a sleuth who lives on Baker Street in London in an earlier century? Why not? Maybe I could create a new competitor for Sherlock Holmes. How many vampires roam the night-time pages of novels today? How many soldiers, cowboys, mountain climbers, or deep sea divers risk their lives for their comrades? But common sense says that borrowing the exact character as portrayed by an author who is alive and writing today isn't a nice thing to do. That author might reasonably object to your using his paper people to populate your story, that is if you actually use the same names, descriptions, and so forth. If you want to write a story using the classic Star Wars characters, for instance, and you're hoping to get it published, then you need the permission of the copyright holder to do so.

    However, most of us who write find that we can come up with a title that we're reasonably happy with, and characters who will work well in our stories. What I hear most often as a complaint from new writers who come to me as students or mentoring clients is that they have trouble plotting. "I'm not smart enough to think up interesting plots." "My mind just doesn't work that way." "I want to write something really exciting that's never been done before, but I can't come up with anything really fresh!"

    Well, here's a secret. Of all the writers who are publishing fiction today, most are not coming up with their own plots. Seriously. You say you can't come up with a good idea for a story? Fine. Look up one of your favorite authors, recent or deep in the past, and pick a story you particularly liked. Break it down. What happened to keep you turning pages? What was the central conflict? List the hurdles the hero/heroine had to overcome to resolve that conflict. Where was the story set? How did the setting—time, place, weather, other characters—make the protagonist's job easier or harder? What you're doing is creating a map of a plot that you can then use for your story.

    Shakespeare and virtually every playwright in his time stole plots. They looked to the Bible, to Greek mythology, to historical accounts and folktales, to the works of other poets and playwrights, and modeled stories that were different in slant, setting, style…but virtually lifted from other sources. If you are convinced you can't plot, borrow a cup of plot from another author as you might a cup of sugar from a neighbor when baking a cake. Write a Romeo and Juliet story set in the 31st century. Or a version of Shane, the classic Western, but make it a contemporary story aimed at teenage readers. Develop a story based on a folktale handed down through your Polish ancestors then set it in modern-day Manhattan. Use your cup of plot borrowed from a bestselling author of today to inspire an original tale that you construct and set during the time of the cave dwellers. The possibilities are without limit.

    Is this playing fair? Absolutely. And it's not just because the precedent has been set by famous writers for centuries. The fact is, when you borrow a plot then develop your own characters and setting, applying your voice, wording, and interpretation to the story—it becomes something new and fresh. As you write, you begin to imagine new directions in which to take the novel, additional scenes, sources of conflict, and characters who never appeared in the earlier story. You naturally make the tale your own.

    So don't let being clueless plot-wise stop you from writing a great short story or novel. Borrow a tried-and-true concept to get you started and show you the way. Once you have established the basic structure, your natural creative instincts will take over and help you make the story your own.

    Happy writing! Kathryn

Friday, November 20, 2009


    Are you having trouble finding time to write every day? I know of no writer who says he/she has plenty of opportunities to devote to their work-in-progress. After all, our lives are so busy, how can we fit an hour or more of writing into an already full day? It's a challenge anyone who dreams of publication. However, finding the time may not be the real issue. For many writers the solution is more a matter of setting the stage properly than it is budgeting the hours.

    Let me give you an example. You get up in the morning, dress and grab something to eat and dash out the door. The day job is hell. You get home feeling exhausted, both physically and mentally. You may or may not have children to care for, but whether you live alone or you have a large family, there is an overwhelming desire to…just chill out as soon as you walk through the front door. The very last thing you feel like doing is diving into a second demanding job, which is what writing seems to have become for you. This is why so many novice writers give up on their novels or short story careers. Pure, soul-draining, defeating fatigue.

    What is needed is a change of mindset. Here's one way to do it. Think of writing as your guilty pleasure. Indulge yourself by setting up your writing area with a favorite snack and beverage. (I love a glass of red wine with cheese and crackers.) Light a scented candle. Play your favorite music. Make your writing station at home as comfortable and relaxing as possible. This is your retreat from the real world, your private oasis to which you will flee at the end of a day you may have had little control over. Here, with your characters, you are the boss. You have a story to tell of your own marvelous invention, and you leave behind the madness of daily life.

    Schedule your personal writing retreats to match your high-energy times of the day, if possible. If you're a night owl and have a day job, you've got a perfect match of available time for your creative powers. If you're a morning person, rise and shine an hour earlier than usual and seize the first part of the day as your own. Have breakfast with your characters, and make it a little special—flavored coffee, an egg sandwich, or pastry. Something you enjoy that won't take long to prepare.

    If you think of your writing time as the highlight of your day, the time when you treat yourself to comfort and luxuriate in the fantasy you're creating on paper or screen, you'll feel differently about spending an hour or more at the keyboard! Happy writing--Kathryn

Sunday, November 15, 2009


It's often said that writing is a lonely profession. It is, only if you let it become so. Moreover, writing solo, sequestered in a windowless room or remote cabin, isn't always effective. You may think you need absolute silence and protection from distractions, but the truth is, you'll have much more to write about and develop a stronger focus if you get out into the world and give yourself frequent breaks.

Let me explain a little further... The thing is, if you limit your experiences in the real world, you also limit the material you can then use in your short stories, articles, and novels. You meet fewer people (characters/subjects), you restrict the possible settings you have available for stories, and you know a lot less about the business of life. That is...the business of other people's lives. You need all of these things to build a story. So shutting yourself away to write isn't always necessary or even the best way to handle a writing project. Even when I'm working on a historical novel set centuries before today, I can benefit from people-watching, noting how they interact or react to a variety of situations. I can observe nature when I take myself outside, which has always been around us, and apply it to my story. You need raw material from which to build characters, settings, plot. Although some writers will tell you, "Hey, that's what fiction is all about, I can just make it up," the truth of the matter is, every writer's muse needs inspiration. And we get inspiration from real life, from our experiences in this world.

The other advantage to getting out of the house, or whatever sealed room you put yourself into when you write, is to provide yourself with fresh surroundings. Many very successful writers will tell you that they need to leave home to write for at least some of the time. One best-selling mystery writer writes in a small but busy restaurant in downtown Baltimore. Others have told me (because I'm nosy and I asked) their favorite writing spots are in Starbucks, the park, at the zoo, in an airport (even when they aren't waiting for a flight), and one loves a certain Disney theme park. You would think that these busy, often noisy places would provide the worst writing atmosphere with an intolerable collection of distractions. But to these writers these spots offer a comfortably anonymous setting in which they can zone out and write, while at the same time not feeling cut off from people or as if they are punishing themselves.

Find a place that you enjoy where you can take a laptop computer or notebook and pen. Make yourself comfortable in a corner, on a park bench, at a table with a cup of coffee, sitting under a tree, or in the food court at the mall. This can be one of several alternate offices for you. Many of my writing students at the Writers' Center in D.C. have experimented with this idea, either on their own or with a writing buddy, and report that it's given them new energy and their writing a fresh edge. Let me know what new favorite writing spots you discover! -- Kathryn

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Perspective in Fiction: A Gift, Not a Curse

One of the most challenging (maddening?) techniques for new writers to master is perspective, also known as Point of View. Although POV is a very basic tool in fiction, few new writers (and even some veterans) have a clear sense of how to create it, control it, or use it to the advantage of their stories. As a result many authors throw up their hands at even bothering to think of whose perspective will work best for any particular scene, which character deserves to be in control, and how POV shifts can be most smoothly carried out.

The result of ignoring these questions is often a story that is difficult to follow and feels out of control to the reader, the agent, an editor. When the author has no idea through whose eyes we are viewing a scene, the reader will sense an unnerving detachment in the writing. And this leads to a loss of interest in the characters as well as in the drama being played out before us.

So, how do we establish perspective then keep it consistent throughout a short story or novel?

First, we need a game plan. Will your story best be served by developing it through the experiences of just one character, or do you need more than one character to show the scenes you envision? If one character will do, then all you need to decide upon is will you use first person ("I"), or third person (he/she), as the voice of the storyteller. If you need several characters to adequately tell your story, then you will choose which characters are the best ones for viewing the drama as it unfolds.

An important point to remember is that the more POV's you select, and the more jumping around between heads, the weaker the reader's connection will be with any one character. Therefore, it's to your advantage as the author to keep the number of perspectives limited, which will allow your reader to bond with one central character, to really care about this paper person and want to follow him/her to the end of the story.

Finally, once you've chosen your POV character(s) decide on a plan for timing the shifts in perspective. Although some authors have mastered the omniscient (all knowing) perspective in which we as readers can see everything going on in the story and hear the thoughts and reactions of virtually any character, this can be very tricky for the author…and if omniscient is done badly, the plot will be nearly impossible for the reader to follow.

So for a strong and effective story plan, limit your POV characters, then decide where your POV shifts will fall. If you change perspectives at a scene break, or at a chapter break, your reader will have a much easier time understanding in whose head he's supposed to be.

Does this mean that you should think through your POV for a story before you start writing? Well…uh, yeah. It does. Planning your perspective, just as you outline the basic plot and choose your characters carefully, can mean the difference between a story that feels sharp, reads like the work of a pro, and is easy to follow—and one that unravels at the seams as the reader struggles through chapter after confusing chapter. But the good news is, even if you've already written your story without consciously analyzing your perspective, you can still dive back into revisions and find ways to focus the POV through one or another of your main characters in each scene.

    You'll love what fine tuning that POV focus does for your fiction! Happy writing, Kathryn

Saturday, September 12, 2009


What are the two most important tools any author can use to make a scene in a novel or short story come alive? Action and dialogue. But whereas many writers find that developing action in their stories comes quite naturally to them, a surprising number are intimidated when they have to put words into their characters' mouths.

    Here are 10 tips that will help you write dialogue that's both interesting and correctly formatted. Once you master these basics, you'll enjoy the exhilaration of writing crisp conversations between your characters that your fans will love reading.

  1. Place quotation marks only around spoken words.

    (Example: "I'm leaving for the store now," Mary said.

    Or: "I'm leaving for the store," Mary said, "but I'll be back soon."


  2. Use a simple dialogue tag to identify the speaker. The word "said" is ideal because

    it becomes almost invisible to the reader. Occasionally an alternative tag can be used, but avoid getting too creative; this distracts from the actual spoken words.

    (Good: "Don't touch that!" he warned (or said). "It's dangerous."

    Not so good: "Don't touch that!" he implored. "It's dangerous.")


  3. Place the end-of-dialogue punctuation inside the closing quotes. The ending punctuation mark should be a period, question mark, or exclamation point if the dialogue is not followed by a tag. Notice, you only need one mark at a time.

    (Ex.: "That man looks suspicious." Or: "Doesn't he look suspicious?"

    However, the ending punctuation mark for dialogue that is followed by a tag needs to be either a comma, a question mark, or an exclamation point, because the sentence isn't really complete until after the tag.

    (Ex.: "That man looks suspicious," she said. Or: "Doesn't he look suspicious?" she asked.)


  4. You don't need a tag for every sentence of dialogue. If the identity of the speaker is clear, you don't have to add anything. This works well in a conversation between just two people, once you've established the initial speakers. Or you may identify the speaker by placing a bit of action from that character in the same paragraph.

    (Ex.: "One more word from you and I'm out of here!" Marsha slammed her hand on the kitchen counter and glared at me.)


  5. Avoid repeating characters' names as part of the spoken words. This creates an unnatural, sing-song pattern. An initial greeting is fine; after that, use a tag if needed.

    (Never do this:     "Hi, Alex. What are you doing here?"

                 "Well, Frank, I just felt like a walk in the park."

                "Me too, Alex."

                "Beautiful day, isn't it, Frank?"

                "I'd say so, Alex."

                "Well, gotta go, Frank!")


  6. Choose dialogue that moves the plot forward or further develops your characters. Chit-chat like the rather pitiful example in Tip #5 is stagnant and accomplishes nothing. Let's face it, it's just plain boring.

    (Better:         Frank stared at Alex. "You see anyone pass this way?

    A guy in a gray athletic suit?"

    "Haven't seen a soul," Alex said.

    "You sure? It's a beautiful clear day. You'd think a huge

    park like this would be crowded with runners."

                Alex shrugged. "Listen, I gotta go."


  7. Each speaker should get his/her own paragraph. This is the accepted convention, and it makes perfect sense. If you lump the dialogue of several characters in a single paragraph, your reader will have a tough time sorting out who is saying what. Readers have learned to look for paragraph breaks as clues to when one character has finished speaking and another has started.


  1. Characters' thoughts are not dialogue and shouldn't be framed in quotation marks. You can handle unspoken thoughts in one of two ways, with or without italics:


If I don't get a cup of coffee soon I'll scream, Marsha thought.

Or: If I don't get a cup of coffee soon I'll scream, Marsha thought.


  1. Use single quotes inside the standard doubles if a character is repeating something he/she overheard:

    "Listen." Amanda beckoned to her friend. "Maria just left. 'I'm not giving Greg another chance,' she told me. 'He's out of my life!' I think she's serious this time."

  2. Have fun with your dialogue, but keep your characters "in character". A poor boy from the slums shouldn't sound like a Harvard professor, and a lady-in-waiting from Queen Elizabeth's 16th-century court is unlikely to use modern slang. And as to dialect or regional accents, less is usually better…but that's fodder for another blog.

Enjoy playing with dialogue in your stories. It's not only fun to write, it will keep your readers happily turning pages and feeling involved in your characters' lives! Happy writing, Kathryn


Thursday, September 3, 2009


    This blog is dedicated to my senior writing students and mentoring clients, those of us who are 55 and older. You know who you are. You are the breadwinners, the nurturers of grown or nearly grown children and of parents, the neighborhood volunteers, church members, responsible laborers who have spent your lives doing what had to be done to support yourself, by whatever means necessary and practical, while nurturing a secret dream. You dreamt of writing the story of your life, penning a novel in which others would lose themselves, or creating a book that would teach others a little of what you've learned in life. You wished you could leave behind the job that no longer seemed as satisfying as it once was and live the life of a writer, spending your days weaving tales, reading, researching, thinking great thoughts. But you put off that time because you couldn't see a way to survive on words. You put off that time until now when you are staring retirement in the face, or you found yourself out of work or well into retirement. You realize that it's time to follow your dream—it's your now-or-never time. Your chance to write and become a published author.

    I am proud of you! Every one of you. It takes courage to face a dream then do something active, even aggressive, toward achieving your goal. I am in awe of your ability to learn by dint of hard work—practicing your craft, learning new skills, writing your heart out. On seeing first attempts by some of my students I've felt heart sore at the mistakes—little or huge—that have obviously stood in the way of publication. But then a little miracle happens. With a little instruction, a few sessions of editing and review, perseverance on the writer's part…I witness lovely changes. Stiff sentences begin to flow. Troublesome repetition disappears. Characters spring to life. The writer's world becomes something I can almost walk into.

    What I need to say to you, my senior writers (and, really, to all mature writers who have been struggling with their own dreams of publication, even if I haven't had the honor of working with you) is that you haven't waited too long to write! Whether you are 56 years old, 76, or 96…you are at the right age to write your story. You have a wealth of experience behind you that will enrich your writing. You have the capacity and will to learn much faster than when you were a teenager, because you know how to focus your energies. You have learned to draw from the experiences of others, and so you open your mind to fresh techniques, forgotten skills and even the new electronic technologies available to writers today.

    No matter your age, there's a place for your writing. This is a marvelous art form that doesn't discriminate due to race, education, social position, sex, or age. Success in writing—whether for magazines, newsletters, church bulletins, or books—is based on ideas and words. That's all. So if your heart is set on finishing that short story you started months or years ago and set aside, then pick it up again and finish it. If you sometimes feel discouraged about submitting or selling the novel you've written, keep it circulating to agents or publishers…and meanwhile, follow your muse and plunge into work on your next work-in-progress. Come back to me often, and I'll try to pass along all the tips I can to help you. There Is no better time than now, in these fully ripe years of your life, to write…write…write. – Kathryn –

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Seasonal Writing

I do enjoy the summer…I really do. But, although there's a lot to love about the outdoors this time of year—magnificent flowers, great walking weather, picnics and county fairs—I have to say it's my least favorite season. Growing up in New England, I simply never acclimatized to extended periods of heat and humidity. Once the thermometer hits 85-degrees, my brain turns to steam and stalls out like an overheated automobile engine. I just want to lie down and nap through the heat of the day.

What does this have to do with writing? Well, during the summer writing just seems more of a chore for me. Aside from the heat (you see we don't have central AC in our home) there are more distractions—friends visiting, our sailing club sponsors trips all over the Chesapeake Bay, my garden needs watering and weeding, the list goes on and on. The result is, I have to concentrate harder to write each paragraph, each page, each chapter—or at least that's the way it feels, hampered by my sweltering brain.

With the cooler days of autumn, I always feel invigorated. Suddenly there's more energy to apply to my writing. And winter…well, if it's snowing and cold outside, that's all the more reason for staying warm and cozy in the house, and playing with a character or exciting scene. With spring, there's a different kind of energy burst. I do most of my real gardening in the spring, so that eats up some time. But the physical activity in the still-cool days seems to encourage rather than discourage writing. Maybe that's because gardening is another form of creation, working with soil and seeds rather than words?

So summer, for me, is the hardest time to write. I really have to be stern with myself, sit myself down at my keyboard and put in the necessary hours. However, if the work is less of a pleasure then, I've found a way to compensate myself for the effort. I use summers for experimenting with fresh story ideas. I've just finished work on three plot concepts for new novels, sent them off to my agent, who has forwarded them on to my editor in New York. I'm letting her choose the one she feels will be the strongest as a follow-up to my just finished novel, The Gentleman Poet (Fall/2010). In this way my summers have become a time for experimentation, letting my mind run loose and free on sweltering afternoons, not expecting too much of it—sort of like when we were kids and released from school for summer vacation. In the fall, I'll throw myself into the initial draft of a new book, use the winter for continuing the writing process, in the spring revise and polish and, hopefully, have a finished book to hand my publisher by the time summer's heat again grips us.

I'm not sure this way of planning the writing of a book by the seasons makes sense to my family or other writers, but it works for me. I wonder if all writers have more or less productive periods that follow seasonal, lunar, or other types of patterns.

Think about your own writing. Do your best or least productive writing times seem to depend upon the weather, on stress levels or the time of year? How can you take advantage of these patterns to make the most of your writing time?

Man, it's hot today! Must be time for an ice cream break. – Happy writing, Kathryn

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Whether you're most interested in writing articles and short stories for magazines, or novels for book publishers, the economy may have discouraged you from submitting your work. And in a way, waiting to submit your work may have made sense. Let me explain why…

The past year or so has taken a toll on writers, editors and literary agents. I've noticed a lot of writers, veterans as well as newbies, struggling to sell their stories, and I was among them. It seemed more difficult than ever to interest editors in buying work, and for those of us writing books, it was equally hard to get an agent to agree to represent us. Part of the reason was that editors were getting laid off, and no one felt sure they'd still have a job six months down the road! So acquiring editors stopped buying, and agents grew frustrated when well-written manuscripts they'd submitted were repeatedly rejected. At one point near the end of last year and beginning of this one, one agent told me she wasn't submitting anything for fear of "burning bridges". She intended to wait until the market revived, then she'd send out again.

The good news now is, I'm seeing signs of things loosening up. Following Publisher's Marketplace (an online site), and checking in with various authors' loops, it appears that sales are picking up. And after finding a wonderful and supportive new agent, Kevan Lyon with MarsalLyon Literary Agency, I've sold a book I'd been researching and working on for four years, THE GENTLEMAN POET (a novel set in the early 17th century that features Shakespeare among its characters) to editors at William Morrow/Avon, whose editors are very enthusiastic about its potential for sales. So if you've sometimes felt intimidated about submitting your work for publication… now might be an excellent time to plunge in and begin sending out your material.

The truth about getting and staying published is this: It has always been a challenge, and will always be a challenge. But editors and agents need books to stay in business. And after holding off from purchasing new stories for months, editors are hungry for strong writing to fill their lists of new novels in 2010 and 2011. Why shouldn't your book be one of those they choose? Submit. Letting your stories sit in the closet won't get them to your readers. Happy writing -- Kathryn

THE FIRST BLOG—August 26, 2009

    It's been a long time coming, but at last…I'm here! The intention of this blog is quite simple. I want to pass along to writers of short stories, novels, memoirs, and other creative writing little bits of advice, encouragement, and technical tips that may help them (you!) move closer to a goal of publication.

Why do I want to hand out free advice and "secrets to success" when, in addition to writing my own books, I run a paid mentoring service? Because: 1) Not everyone can afford a professional writing coach or pre-publication editor; 2) I'm grateful to others who have helped me along the road to publication and wish to pass forward the gift; 3) Although it may seem counterintuitive to help the "competition" in a highly competitive business, I love to watch writers grow in their craft; and 4) (this is the sneaky part) I know that if you follow my blog and learn to trust and appreciate my help, you'll do one of two things: eventually come to me as a client, or look for and buy my books. Maybe both!

So, there it is. A mixed bag of goodwill and self-interest. I've laid it on the line. If you're game and care to spend a few minutes each week with me, I'll share with you what I've learned over the years while I've been writing and collaborating with some of the best editors in publishing. So far, the result has been the publication of over 40 of my novels with major, nationally distributing publishers and foreign sales to over 15 countries. And I'm still learning new tricks and strategies as the business changes, which I will pass along to you. Come back as often as you like for a visit, and take away whatever you find that's useful. If there's a topic you'd like discussed, let me know. If it's an issue related to writing that I haven't recently addressed, and I think others will benefit from the information, I'll make your suggestion the topic of a future blog. I won't be blogging daily, since I must protect time for my clients and my own writing projects, but I hope to have something of interest for you at least twice a week. Join me when you can to soak up the news, tips, gossip, and camaraderie of the writing world. – Happy writing! Kathryn