Friday, April 29, 2016

Digging Deeper: Writing that Will Captivate Your Reader -- by Rachel

Language that sings out to the reader is often poetic and beautiful. But most of all, it’s honest. It’s vivid. Language that captures the reader plums the depths and gets right to the heart of the story. What does it take to write like that?

First, it takes getting to know your story so well that you’re breathing and tasting it.  The characters are family to you. The story world is one you’ve know better than your backyard, and the emotions, well you just might have felt them more deeply than your own joys and hurts.

Second, it means passing by the first description that comes to mind. Dig deeper, take your time until a line strikes right at the core of what you’re trying to convey. And then dig deeper still.

Character Descriptions

Here’s one from David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. He describes the boss who oversees the field hands as a woman “with a waist no bigger than a tin can” who “[darts] up and down the rows like a hummingbird.” Can’t you see her? Feel her energy? He found words that were tangible metaphors we could connect with right away.


W. Michael Gear describes the rush of adrenaline a man feels on his first buffalo hunt:  his “blood boiling bright in his veins.”

Kristin Hannah describes an alcoholic looking regretfully back on his youthful ambitions, “a silly dream, a bit of glass spun in a young man’s hand.”

Can you see how the authors didn’t tell the reader what the characters felt? There are no words like "fear," "rush of adrenaline" or "mid-life regrets." The writers explored the emotion and then found a visceral detail that would make the reader feel it as their own.


Claire, in Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber describes the Scottish highland winds “whipping through her bones.”

Anne River Siddons describes a character in a Maine coastal storm “fighting the cold, salt bile.”

Do you feel it? Do you see it? Experience it as if you were there yourself? The authors have used energetic words to convey not only setting, but mood and conflict as well.

I’ll say it again. Don’t go for the first description that comes to you. Writing that sings is never easy, and it’s almost never the first idea you have. It’s deep and thought through, waited for, contemplated upon. You probably need to make several tries before you reach a description that resonates.

Do you want to convey attraction? Bypass the characters’ looks, their glances, even their dialogue. For language that sings, find a single telling detail or metaphor that conveys who that hero is or what that relationship will become in its soul.

Do you want to convey a place? Sure, eventually you’ll describe what it’s like to see the place. But to get that captivating phrase, close your eyes, put yourself there. What does it feel like to be there?

Only once you get to the marrow, the absolute truth of a relationship, emotion, setting or theme, can you find a vibrant, living phrase to capture it. That’s when it will sing.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Painting a Story - Describing Setting without Letting Go of the Action -- by Rachel

One of the chief mistakes novice writers make when they write description is to break away from the story to show the story world. You know – here’s my characters about to escape for their lives, but then all of a sudden, here is a page all about their mountain home and its history. And because the writer let go of the conflict thread, the reader skims.

But it is entirely possible to keep rolling with the story, and still lavish the reader with rich, sensory descriptions that paint the story world so the reader can not only see it, but can taste and touch it. See this description from the Esther Forbes’ classic set in revolutionary Boston, Johnny Tremain:

From where he stood he could see a great ship slowly warping in. No coaster this, no mere boat from the Sugar Isles. A few young gentlemen wearing fashionable clothes, as well as the usual dockhands and porters gathered around to see her come in.

 On the cobblestones almost beside him came the heavy clatter of a great carriage. A coachman bawled to the lesser folk, “Make way! Make way!” The rumble and rattle of a ruby red carriage, the black horses with glittering silver mounted harnesses and on the door, the familiar crest, a rising eye.

The description is alive with sound, sight and even taste. Words like sugar, clatter, bawled, ruby glittering practically bathe the reader in the senses. Forbes uses words like warping and rumble to keep the language moving and active. And don’t you get a good picture of the place?

 But it’s also part of the action. Johnny, a penniless and desperate adolescent, is made small by the huge ship, the carriage clattering beside him and the fancy gentlemen. The rising eye on the carriage gives a sinister feel to the scene. And in a larger sense, Johnny is urgently seeking the man who rides in the carriage, so the action is never lost.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be huge action or a roaring part of the conflict either. This next description is from Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice, a more leisurely novel, and is part of a scene that shows a budding romance.

They set off, footsteps scrunching in the frozen ruts. The air was as sweet as chilled wine. The thin sunshine warmed their backs and caused flurries of melted snows to drift down from the upper branches. They passed the farm, the gamekeeper’s cottage, and by the garden gate of Rose Miller’s little cottage.

 “It’s the sort of place where one could feel happily snug for a lifetime,” Carrie said.

Again, the senses are strong – scrunching footsteps, ruts of snow, air like chilled wine, thin sunshine, drifting flurries. There’s no sense of urgency here. But the characters keep moving as they walk. And the bright description of the pair alone in a world of snow maintains the romantic mood, as the reader waits for a goal to be met – the first kiss that happens at the end of the scene. 

So by all means, take time to paint the story world. Use vivid language. Use the senses. But don’t forget to make your description active and tie it to the action/conflict. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Powerful Prose is Concise Prose -- by Rachel

So you want to write beautiful, captivating prose. How do you do that? One of the best ways is to take out your red pencil and start cutting. Writing that keeps a reader turning the pages, writing that flows beautifully is above all concise. Here are a few areas I’ve found to trim, and it never fails that when I do, it makes the writing more powerful.

Cut adjectives and adverbs. As Stephen King famously said, “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.” When you cut adjectives and adverbs, you’ll be forced to choose stronger nouns and verbs. Instead of saying running quickly, you’ll say sprinting. Instead of saying small, stone house, you’ll say cottage. A page without adjectives and adverbs will be a page of vivid and energetic prose.

Cut repetition. We want our readers to get what we’re trying to say. So we hint at things like character or backstory in myriad ways – dialogue, action, inner dialogue, action, the perceptions of other characters, and so on. This bogs you down. Readers are generally an intelligent group. You can trust them to get it the first time.

Cut rambling dialogue. In real life, we may make half a dozen points before we’re done speaking, but that kind of dialogue isn’t going to sing on the page. If a character says more than a couple of sentences, take another look and determine 1) whether something essential is being said and 2) if it’s going to hold your reader’s attention. James Scott Bell reminds us that dialogue is not people talking. It’s people using words to reach a goal. It’s conflict, no matter how subtle. Most of the rest is just chaff and will lose your reader.

Cut physical cues. The strongest cues to what a character is feeling is their action and dialogue. An occasional hammering heart or trembling hand is okay, but if you’re putting a lot of them in, you might need to go back and make sure your action and dialogue is strong enough. If it is, your reader will have no doubt how your character feels, what she’s not saying and everything else you want him to know.

Cut crying scenes. My agent once told me that you get one cry per book. Crying is a passive response and it’s a lazy way to show emotion. If your character is upset, give them some spunk and have them do something interesting with that emotion. My experience with cutting tears has been that the revised scene is always more profound, because I’ve been forced to dig deeper.  

Cut telling prose. That is, let the reader figure some things out on their own. You don’t have to explain why your character is hiding the letter or that he doesn’t trust his supposed best friend. If you’ve left enough clues, the reader will get mentally involved as they try to work it out and they’ll feel more intelligent for having caught on. And you haven’t weighed down your writing with explanations.

Cut extraneous scenes. When you’re done with your first draft, go back through and find any scenes that don’t move the story forward. There will inevitably be one or two of them. It’s hard to do. You slaved over that scene. You loved it. But if it’s not essential to the story, it’s tangling your writing up and slowing it down.

Cutting makes for lighter, flowing prose. But it has another purpose. Getting rid of something usually ensures that you need to make whatever is left is strong enough to stand on its own, which leaves you with richer writing. What have you cut that made your writing stronger?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Poetic Phrasing…Too Much of a Good Thing? – by Christine

I often find that exact needed word or phrase within the dusty leaves of old leather-bound tomes.

Gosh, I like that sentence. I can almost smell the dust and leather. I also like the rhythm.

I have also come to appreciate modern poetry, thanks to my son Rob.

Poets are different from novelists in that they must convey their story in as excruciatingly few words as possible. At times though, the novelist needs to borrow from the poet’s toolbox. 

  • Poetry: The art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts.
One of my pet peeves is that I’ll pick up a modern-day book with a great synopsis only to set it down after the first chapter. There is no dance to the words.

The following is a sampling of some of those poetic tools. But BEWARE: Poetic phrasing and devices are like salt in the porridge, too little or too much can make your breakfast inedible. 

  • Purple Writing: Wikipedia definition: 

In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the extensive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors
When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work. 

Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions. As there is no precise rule or absolute definition of what constitutes purple prose, deciding if a text, passage, or complete work has fallen victim is a subjective decision.

Here is a sample of my purple prose in an early draft of my non-fiction book Finding Sarah, Finding Me, that Rachel thank goodness deleted the highlighted parts. I can occasionally use too-heavy-a-hand with imagery and metaphor.

That tidal wave of maternal yearning pulled me out deeper and deeper, but in Sarah’s presence I strove to chain down my emotions. As much as I wanted to cry right then and there, I stuffed it down. Or thought I did. The continuing and increasing black swirl of thoughts clutched at me, dragging me out of my safe harbor.

To balance things, here in my opinion is a good example of slightly poetic imagery and metaphor in my new release Sofi’s Bridge.

But Trina’s moods changed like quicksilver when a storm roused the water. Or a foghorn blew out on the Sound. Downstairs in the foyer, the drapes were closed to the water as Sofi had instructed. Until last night, each of the Puget’s faces disturbed Trina, whether it hid behind sheets of rain or sparkled like diamonds as it did today. But today a breeze transported the smell of the sea into the house with its invasive reminder of what it had stolen from them. And almost stolen again last night.

  • Poetry is supposed to rhyme at times, right? 
Yes, but not in a novel. Again, rhyming is one of those devices you may specifically want in a scene, but it’s one of those elements that we need only a dash of once in a blue moon.

Here’s a sample from Sofi’s Bridge that I purposely ruined to show unwanted rhyming.

Her father’s limousine sat exactly as she’d left it. The knots were snug, but something bugged  her. This section of rope had given her trouble, and she’d left it somewhat slack. Now it was so taut it snapped when she tapped it. Must have settled with the weight. After stacking the last of the tack in the passenger compartment, she led Odin by his red collar into the house.
  • Alliteration…She sells seashells by the seashore: One of my personal favorite devices. Not a tool to use too often, but sparingly used can make a passage zing especially in internal dialogue.

  • Repetition, Say it again, Say it again: As you’re writing your brain will play tricks on you. A word you typed two minutes ago will have the annoying ability to show up again and again in the same chapter. Read your chapters aloud to yourself to catch those unwanted repeats. 

  • Specific Repetition: You will occasionally want to underline an emotion or plot point, and repetition comes in many different formats, to name only a few: Repeating the last word in a sentence, or a phrase to stress a point, or repeating the same word at the end or beginning of two sentences. TWEET THIS

In the following scene from Sofi’s Bridge the alliteration is highlighted in yellow and the planned repetition in green to alert the reader to an element of mystery in the story.

The fraying cuffs of Jimmy’s trousers from the shipyard—it wasn’t Neil’s imagination—the heat from the fire brought out the odor of sulfur and steel dust ensnared in the wool. He raised his chin. If he stood clean and in the suit he’d bought with his hard-earned money, would Miss Sofi Andersson look at him differently? See him as more than a paid laborer? Value his advice as a professional man? Ach, it made no matter.

He moved past Sofi, careful to keep his distance. His physician suits and waistcoats hung useless in the wardrobe in his mother’s house in Belfast. Maybe Jimmy was making use of them, as he was making use of Jimmy’s laborer clothes. Maybe Jimmy had even married Alison in one of his suits.

I mentioned at the start that my son Rob has given me an appreciation for modern poetry. Here is a poem he wrote for me on Mothers Day several years ago. This poem will be published in my non-fiction book Finding Sarah, Finding Me: A Birthmother’s Story to be released August 15, 2016.

To Mum

Even before I knew what to call it,
you spoke Art into my life.
Your love was patience, struggle, passion, and vigor,
all at once…
showing me a daily shine.
You raised me in kingdom language.
You spoke the sort of grace 
that brings daises to lift up their necks,
even in the face of an unkind wind.

Robert Campbell Schmidtke


Friday, April 1, 2016

Vibrant Writing: Six Tools to Make Your Writing Sing -- by Rachel

On my writing journey, I spent a lot of time studying the big-picture concepts of writing, such as story arcs, conflict and character, but then I began to notice some smaller scale aspects. A phrase or a small block of text would sing out to me as I read. For a while, I logged the best examples in a spreadsheet. I noticed that my favorite books usually had a lot of these winning sentences.

What made them so powerful? Just as I had studied scenes and storylines to see what made them successful, I began to study phrases to see what made them catch my attention. All of them had one of the six qualities below. Most had several.

The Five Senses
The authors didn’t just use the senses. They bathed the words in sight or touch or taste (often using more than one sense at a time) until I could smell the salty sea air or feel the dried leaves crumble between my own fingers.

“There was a sizzle and steam and a sound like a thousand muskets firing. Then the sheets of ore began to fall.”
–          Year of Wonders, Geraldine Brooks

The phrases usually occurred in the context of an emotional scene, but then a few well-chosen words would zing the emotion all the way home.

“I had only human comparisons for such a look. Caesar and Brutus. Jesus and Judas.”
–          The Host, Stephenie Meyer

Metaphorical Language
The authors utilized metaphors or similes, fresh images that made general ideas tangible and ordinary actions captivating.

“The prayer seemed to find shelter in the morning breeze, as though chanted by the leaves overhead.”
–          Book of Dreams, Davis Bunn

Repetition of a word or a sentence structure gave the writing rhythm, almost like poetry.

“Each question would lead to another and another until there was only a man and a woman in a garden and a forbidden tree.”
–          At the Scent of Water, Linda Nichols

Forceful, Visceral Words
Even removed from their scenes and sentences, the words were strong, capable of evoking a reaction. I noticed that the writers often used words related to the body (bone, blood, flesh) or to a threat (thunder, electric, knifed). Even when the words were used in a different context (neither related to a human body or a physical threat), they still carried the weight of those associations.

“Her voice was a whip-crack in the silent arena.”
–          Taliesin, Stephen Lawhead

The text twisted the normal way of saying things. The writers clearly dug deep, looking for an original and unexpected way to convey their scene, and the words they found were guaranteed to catch the reader’s attention.

“She had skin the shade of bootleg coffee, and crossing her back were the memories of lashed scars.”
–          Harvesting the Heart, Jodi Piccoult

Once I pinned down what gave these memorable sentences their power, it was that much easier to write a few of my own. What about you? Have you found other traits that make a phrase sing to you?

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