Sep 17

Wednesday Writing Tip #89: Where to Start your Story (Not with waking up!)

Fiction Writing Tip - MorningHere’s a writing tip for the fiction writers out there…

Just because a character’s day starts with his or her morning routine doesn’t mean your chapter needs to start there too. We all wake up in the morning, put on our clothes, brush our teeth, and eat our breakfast. Sometimes we stretch. Sometimes we yawn. Do you see how fascinating this paragraph is? Wait, it’s not? I’m glad you’re noticing, because this is exactly my point.

People don’t want to read about everyday details. As writers, we get to create people and worlds and plots. We get to stir ideas and distract readers from their everyday. So why give them more of the everyday?

Creative writing can have so much potential. Every page, every paragraph, every sentence, and even every word should drive the story forward. If a character is just wiggling his or her toes under the blanket, opening his or her eyes, and seeing the sun break through the window, a reader isn’t being pulled in. Ask yourself how you can intrigue. The morning Cheerios aren’t doing it.

Sep 10

Wednesday Writing Tip #88: “Show don’t Tell” – And what it actually means

Show don't TellEvery writer who’s ever taken a creative writing class has heard the instruction: “Show don’t tell.” It’s so often said, it’s almost meaningless. Except it shouldn’t be. Because if actually understood, being able to show and not tell can make the difference between a humdrum story and a tale that comes alive.

“Show don’t tell” is classic writing advice, and for good reason. Imagine the difference between reading, “she’s angry,” and reading, “her hands tightened into fists; her fingernails pressed so hard against her palms that blood surfaced to her sensitive skin.” Okay, maybe I made that up really quickly, and it’s not the most eloquent of lines. But you see what I’m going for. There can be a named emotion, and then there can be the reality of it that a reader can be pulled into.

Let your readers see, hear, feel, and smell what’s going on. Just like a movie, let them take in the entire scene. You cheat them when you just briefly summarize. Don’t just say the room was small; make your reader feel claustrophobic. Don’t say a character is tired; show the weight of his day on his motions and his mind. Let your reader live through the scenes with your characters, being made to feel what the characters feel, seeing them move through vividly created places and react as people, not as two-dimensional, flat beings.

Imagining themselves fully in your world, your readers will become more attached, and getting your readers attached to your characters and your world is key, right?

Happy writing!

Sep 03

Wednesday Writing Tip #87: Misplaced Modifiers (a.k.a. “Lost & Found”)

Misplaced Modifiers & Lost Buttons

Misplaced any language lately?

Misplaced Modifiers sound like items lost in the laundry. Somehow, you always lose a button and a darn modifier ends up in the wrong location. No? Let’s try this again.

Grammar terminology intimidates for some reason. Why, I’m not quite sure, but it may go back to strict English teachers in our formidable years. Misplaced modifiers are actually quite simple to understand. A modifier is a word or phrase that modifies (or describes) something. A misplaced modifier is when that descriptor seems to be describing the wrong thing.

That sounds silly, right? Sure. But it happens ALL THE TIME.

Glistening in the morning sun, the fisherman cast his line out to the water. (Did you catch the misplaced modifier? The “water” is “glistening in the morning sun,” not the “fisherman.”)

The hunter crouched in hiding waiting for a deer to come along with a bow and arrow. (Wait… Who had the bow and arrow?)

Misplaced modifiers can be subtle, confusing, or just plain funny, but be careful with your language. Of all the things we misplace, our ideas shouldn’t be one of them.

Aug 27

Wednesday Writing Tip #86: Dear Abby: Where to Put Commas with Greetings

Greetings, friend.Commas, colons, the vocative case… Who knew a simple hello was so complicated?

It’s not actually. How to punctuate a greeting is really quite easy to remember–never mind if your email inbox argues otherwise.

Remember “dear” is not a greeting like “hello.” Dear is an adjective, a modifier of the name that follows. “Dear Abby” is no different from “My dearest Abby,” “Darling Clementine,” or some similarly old fashioned but enchantingly romantic greeting that has faded out of favor. (Who wants to bring it back with me? Anyone? … Anyone?…)

If you’re beginning a message with “Hi,” “Hello,” “Good morning,” “Hola,” or any other greeting, however, you should include a comma before the name of the message’s recipient. We learned about the vocative case in middle school (maybe), which directs writers to use a comma before a person’s name when they are being talked to.

Throw me the ball, Peyton.

Hi, Mr. Manning.

It’s the same form.

Lazy punctuation has become pretty widespread on this one, though. Do you use commas correctly in your greetings?

Aug 20

Wednesday Writing Tip #85: Avoid the Blackout Comma

The Blackout Comma

Are your commas making you look drunk?

I’ll admit it: I’m an Oxford comma groupie. But there’s a methodology to my comma zealotry. There’s a difference between correctly comma-ing and looking like you’re drunk. (And yes, “comma-ing” is a word. I just made it up, but I’m claiming artistic license.)

In my book (i.e., my opinion, not my actual book), there is butt dialing, drunk texting, and what I dub “the blackout comma.” Why are they there? What is the logic? It’s a mystery that only the writer once knew. And they may not remember now.

Comma reminders:

  • Do not use commas with lists of two.
  • Do not use commas between subject and predicate
  • Do not use commas around “essential people
  • Do not use commas between adjectives of size and/or color

Sure, we all slip and have one comma too many on occasion. It happens to the best of us. I just feel like I’ve seen a lot of intoxication lately. Maybe it’s just the season for beers at backyard barbecues and tropical drinks at the beach. Consider me your punctuation sponsor. It’s all about moderation, people.

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Aug 13

Wednesday Writing Tip #84: “Into” vs. “In to”

"Do not go gentle into that good night." - Dylan ThomasDylan Thomas told us, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But something as simple as a space would confuse the meaning of a famous line, wouldn’t it? Are you one of the many who muddle “into” and “in to”?

“Do not go gentle in to that good night” just doesn’t make sense, as if you’re “going gentle” for the reason of doing something vague and badly worded to the night. And you know what else doesn’t make sense? Your recent Facebook post when you meant to use “in to” instead of “into.” I kid. But I don’t.

A simple reminder, if you’re unsure whether you need to use “into” or “in to,” ask yourself the question, “where?” If your sentence answers that question, you need “into” – the preposition. Otherwise, maybe you just happen to be using these two words (“in” and “to”) next to each other. Maybe it’s a short version of “in order to,” or maybe it’s not. But if it answers “where,” it should probably be just one word.

Where should you not go gentle? Into that good night.

Where should dirty laundry go? Into the hamper.

If the “where” question doesn’t make sense with your sentence, you probably don’t need the preposition.

Rage, rage against the dying of the proper grammar. In my own little way, I try.

Jul 16

Summer Break – Fun with Grammar

I’m taking a few weeks off from writing tips, but I won’t leave you grammar hungry. Can I tell you all how much I have enjoyed how many times you all have tagged me, DMed me, and shared this video with me? Yes, you’re all right. I totally love it too.

Jul 09

Wednesday Writing Tip #83: Where to Use Semicolons (a.k.a. “This Semi-colon Kind of Life”)


I want something else
To get me through this
Semicolon kinda life
Baby, Baby…

I’m thinking my version works—a “Schoolhouse Rocks” for ‘90s kids or the ‘90s nostalgic. I figure we need something new. No one seems to know how to use semicolons. They’re the misused and abused punctuation mark, thrown down without much thought. But they should have some dignity.

Semicolons should only be used in three situations:

  1. Separating complete sentences. Always make sure that you have complete sentences on both sides of the semicolon here. You can combine two or more complete sentences in this way; there’s no real limit. (e.g., Third Eye Blind was a ‘90s standard; I never realized that song talked about doing meth; you’re looking up the lyrics now, aren’t you?)
  2. Separating items in a complicated list. The definition of a complicated list is any list that has commas within it. (e.g., Some of the biggest Third Eye Blind songs that come to mind include Semi-charmed Kind of Life, released in 1997; Jumper, released in 1997; and How’s It Going To Be, also released in 1997.)
  3. Winky faces ;)

Please stop using them where dashes or simply commas make more sense.

Doo doo doo, doo doo-doo doo…

Darn it, now that song’s in my head. Anyone else?


Jul 02

Wednesday Writing Tip #82: Who vs. Whom

Who vs Whom

Kurt Vonnegut once warned against using semi-colons saying, “All they do is show you’ve been to college”; I’d argue the proper use of “whom” has the same raised-nose effect.

Lots of people treat the word “whom” like that crazy wife in the attic, knowing her secrets but not uttering her name. Are you one of them? Or have the differences between “who” and “whom” never really been explained to you?

First things first, how on earth have I gotten all the way to Writing Tip #82 before tackling the proper use of “whom”? Avoidance? Neglect? A master plan for grammatical suspense? No matter the reason, it’s definitely overdue.

Are you one of the few who know when to use the proper pronoun? Did you know “who” and “whom” are considered pronouns?

Understanding the usage of “who” and “whom” is easiest if you understand the difference between subjects and objects in a sentence. If your eyes just started to glaze over, I’ll make it even simpler. Think about where you would use “he” versus “him” in answering a question. “Whom” ends in “m”; “him” ends in “m.” Use it as a reminder.

Q. Who was at the door?                            A. He was at the door.

Q. Whom did you go with?                          A. I went with him.

Q. Who let the dogs out?                            A. He let the dogs out.

Q. Whom do you believe?                           A. I believe him.

It’s not really as complicated as many seem to think.

Don’t be a victim of grammatical snobbery (or evasion). Command your “who” and “whom” with pride.

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Jun 25

Wednesday Writing Tip #81: Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek

Pique vs. Peak vs. PeekHere’s one that might peak your interest. Or is it pique your interest? This is one people often feel really confident about—that is, until they realize they’ve always been wrong. If your interest is rising, “peak” makes sense, doesn’t it? Maybe. But it’s not the correct usage in this case. A “peak” is a high of some sort, real or metaphorical; however “to pique” is the correct usage for this specific phrasing. It’s from a French word meaning “to prick” or in this case “to excite.” If your curiosity is piqued, you’re interested. If your curiosity is peaked, I wonder if it’s really all downhill from there—the passing of some sort of obsession. And I can’t wrap up this post without a little shout out to the final alternate spelling of “peek,” as in to look when you’re not supposed to. “Peeking your interest” definitely doesn’t make sense. Please don’t write it. Got it?

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