Approaching Nonfiction Creatively

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Creative nonfiction. Peculiar term, isn’t it? The first time I ran across it I thought, “Get out! What is this a joke, an oxymoron? An apologia for lying in print?” I swatted it away like a pesky mosquito. And like a pesky mosquito, it kept coming back; in articles and news programs attacking memoirs such as Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest and the biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris. Then, I began noticing ads for university graduate programs in Creative Nonfiction: what a contrast; journalistic outrage and academic codification. It didn’t look like a purple martin was going to swoop out of the sky and gobble up this pesky mosquito. So I figured if it’s going to keep buzzing around, I might as well learn about this thing called creative nonfiction.

So what is it? An easy definition is that creative nonfiction is a hybrid of literature and nonfiction; combining the literary elements of fiction with the facts and information of nonfiction. I like to think of writing creative nonfiction as an adventurous quest. Imagine going on a dream vacation, what would you do as a writer? Absorb every moment. Immerse yourself in the setting. Record every detail, every person, every conversation and, when you are home, regale your friends and family with stories so complete and engaging they think they’ve been there. As long as you don’t make anything up to enhance the story, you have the essence of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (also called literary nonfiction, or literary journalism) uses a global, or holistic approach to explore and relay information. The writer engages the reader by including the details, scenes, action and dialogue of real life. The elements more often associated with fiction, poetry and drama. Resources are available, here at TC and elsewhere, on the elements of effective fiction. What frequently isn’t discussed is combining those with nonfiction. Just as we all had the three “R”s in elementary school, here are three elementary “R”s for creative nonfiction.

Background Image: Neil Conway (Public Domain)


Put aside your creative hat for a moment and remember you are writing nonfiction. There is a basic trust on the part of the reader that nonfiction contains reliable, valid information. The reader is relying on you to be honest, no matter how artistic or literary your style of presenting the facts. It is a disservice to both the reader and to you as a writer to manufacture or alter the truth. I remember reading an article in The New Republic about teenage computer hackers being hired by software companies to help prevent other hackers from breaking into their databases. (Washington Scene: Hacker Heaven, Stephen Glass,The New Republic, May 18, 1998). I thought it was so wonderful. I told several folks about how industry was putting the intelligence and energy of young miscreants to positive use. In the next issue, the editors of the magazine announced they had fired the author because he had manufactured the entire article. I felt disappointed and embarrassed. I’d been sharing this great information, from a magazine I trusted, and it wasn’t true! If there is one thing that continues to make creative nonfiction an annoying mosquito it’s authors who forget that the basic tenets of accuracy, validity and truth are the foundation of creative nonfiction writing. Your literary style and creativity are adornments based on and supporting those facts.


This is the fun part. Research helps bring life to your creative nonfiction. Be excessive in your research. Include everything in your notes, even what it’s like pouring over musty archives in the basement of the library. Nonfiction is about life, whether you are writing about history, a City Commission Meeting, cellular biology, or a memoir. Intimate details, like the spindly, dusty begonia on the loan officer’s credenza or the Democrat County Commissioner’s collection of porcelain elephants, humanize and bring alive a nonfiction piece. Allow your research to include every aspect that surrounds your subject: color, texture, sound, space, weather, or the nuances of body language.

In the course of your research adventure, an equally important element in your research is ferreting-out appropriate sources. They may not always be reliable: in print or on the Internet. Let me give you an example from my own experience. This year I grew a tremendous amount of garlic. As June rolled around I knew it was about time to harvest the bulbs. I decided to do some research about the optimum moment for pulling them out of the ground. I checked my notes from an organic garlic production workshop I had attended a couple years ago: “Ted harvests in June”—great. I scratched my head wondering why I attended that workshop. Then I looked up garlic in three Rodale Press gardening books. I found the following: “harvest when all leaves are brown and dying” or “harvest when half the leaves are brown” or “harvest when one third of the leaves are brown and dying”—now what? Time for an Internet search. After about fifteen contradictory sites I found some real information, “harvest when the top leaves are brown and 5 or 6 lower leaves are still green, as they will form the papery skin around the bulbs when dry.” Don’t be satisfied with one or two references; dig deep, dig far and dig wide. It often takes extensive research to find real and relevant information. Which brings us to our third R.


You may be able to recount your visit to the Bahamas with great literary flair, but if it doesn’t contain some observations or insights to which the reader can relate your writing won’t have a strong voice. Writing about the stunning hotel, the glittering white sand, the romantic starlit nights, would only result in one more travelogue. What would resonate with relevance is discussing the unpainted homes of the hotel workers within walking distance of the glitz and glamour of the hotels, or your conversations with local Bahamians about life “on the other side” of glamour. Let life fly into your non-fiction, not only with creative literary devices but let it take wing with relevant slices of life. Nonfiction writing is an adventuresome outlet (and excellent market) for your creative talents. Explore a slice of life and enjoy writing reliable, well researched, relevant creative nonfiction.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an article by Emily Hiestand about a waste water treatment facility near Boston (can you think of a more exciting topic)? 😉

“The Sri Lankan engineers were almost bubbly with excitement about the facility. Me too. The operation room rivals the deck of the Starship Enterprise; there are monster pumps, and in the dome of each egg a lovely oculus, a functional cousin of that calm, all-seeing eye in the Pantheon. But what really sends me is the transformation this plant is working on Boston’s once sullied harbor, restoring it to a sparkling realm clean enough to please bluefish and seals. And people, who are rediscovering the harbor islands-a sapphire necklace of tide pools, wild roses, swimming coves, and ruins of, for instance, the Asylum for Indigent Boys. From the catwalk windows now the view was of sailboats and water taxis, the Boston skyline ghostly in the distance, and, directly below, the plant itself-a sprawling Rube Goldberg number with Corten-steel stacks, clarifying ponds, and pipes galore, all of it surrounded by the Atlantic and coursed by fresh sea breezes.”

‘Tis better to have written…

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

“The first key to writing is to write, not to think.”
—from “Finding Forrester”

I am a banker.

At least that’s the technical term for my 9-to-5 job, working for one of the world’s largest financial institutions. All day long, I sit in a cubicle, just another mindless drone in a Dilbert world.

In my heart, though, I am a writer.

I haven’t been published, save for a few non-paying e-zines. I don’t write for the glory. I certainly don’t write for the money. So why do I write?

The answer is something I borrow from one of my college professors, something that just rang so true that I’ve kept it with me all these years.

I write because I must.

Background Image: Karin Dalziel/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had stories inside me just bursting to come out. In elementary school, it was being stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean. In junior high, it was a soap opera about my friends’ angst-ridden love lives. And now, everything around me begs to be written down.

I have notebooks filled with ideas, fragments of stories begun in my computer. I have endless first lines and last lines, just waiting for me to sit down and complete them. I have a little notebook in my purse, and I’ve been saying for years that I was going to by a mini tape recorder, to grab onto the thoughts as soon as I have them.

Every now and then I finish something. And this past year, I’ve even managed to submit a few for publication or competition. So far, I’ve gotten nothing but a few nicely worded but stinging rejections.

The problem is that I let myself go for long lapses without writing anything at all. The solution, really, is simple. I need to write—to find whatever time I can, and write.

“But I’m tired,” I whine. “I don’t have time to write.”

I go to work every morning at nine, come home around six and make myself dinner. Some nights I watch a favorite TV show, or hang out with my boyfriend. I clean my room, chat with my roommates, call my mother. Anything but write. In fact, here I sit two days before this article is due, cursing myself for volunteering to write it.

The one thing that comforts me, somewhat, is knowing that I’m not alone. In his book If You Can Talk, You Can Write, Joel Saltzman addresses the problem.

“Strange as it seems, writers love to bitch about writing and they will do anything to avoid it. They’ll check the mail, do the dishes, check the mail again-anything to not have to sit down and actually get to work.”

We all do it. We all make excuses. But the fact of the matter is this: the only way to be a writer is to write. Stephen King wrote his first two novels in the laundry room of his double-wide, after teaching high school English all day. John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill longhand on yellow legal pads during courtroom breaks.

In order to quit whining and start writing, we need to figure out what’s stopping us. I know for me, one of the biggest obstacles is fear; the fear that I won’t be any good. What if I try and I fail at the one thing I’ve always wanted to do? This fear manifests itself as “negative self-talk”. In other words, we convince ourselves that we’re no good before we even get started. If we want to get anywhere, we need to shut off our internal editors long enough to write something.

Another common obstacle, which Saltzman addresses in his book, is the drive to be perfect, to “get it right the first time.” His advice? Insist on not being a perfectionist. Too much focus on getting it perfect results in writing paralysis. No one gets it right the first time. Even award-winning authors have to rewrite.

It’s simple, really. The more we write, the better chance we have of writing something good. In Saltzman’s words, it’s like this:

“Blah, blah, blah. Blah, blah, blah.
Blah, blah, blah……GOLD!”

Write a whole bunch. Write some more. Then throw out the crap and keep what’s good.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he advises us to set aside a place for writing, and to be willing to shut the door and write. Writing is a job, and it needs to be treated that way. As King says, “don’t wait for the muse.” Just keep writing.

Does it take discipline? Patience? Sure it does. Doesn’t anything worth doing? But once we start writing, I believe we’ll find it’s easier to write than to NOT write.

So next time you sit down to write, do these things:

  1. Shut off your “inner editor”
  2. Don’t try to be perfect
  3. WRITE!

Everything else will come with practice.

Now maybe we’ll never be as rich and famous as King or Grisham. Maybe we’ll never win a Pulitzer like Toni Morrison. But at least we’ll have written. And for a writer, having written is the best feeling in the world.

Mirror, Mirror: Finding Your Writing Style

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Some days, it seems like every second person you meet writes on the side, as if writing is to a real job what fries are to a burger. No other profession is more usurped by pretenders than writing. Unlike other jobs and careers, the superficial tools of a writer–pen and paper or computer–are accessible to anyone, and nearly everyone is capable of stringing together words in some fashion.

But having a spiral notebook and a gel pen doesn’t make one a writer. Neither does keeping a journal or penning a letter to the editor. Writing is about more than words and a writer does more than write. The most important tool a writer can have is not talent, creativity or passion. It’s persistence.

Persistence means plowing through the parts of writing that you hate, whether it’s research, editing or composing a three-line bio. Sitting down to write when it’s a sunny summer day and you’d rather be at the beach. Turfing the piece you know in your heart isn’t good enough and starting again.

Fought some of those battles and won? Congrats! A genuine writer lurks inside you. Still worried that “pseudo” applies to more than your pen name? Relax. Even the most dedicated writers can stumble during the writing process. Have a look in the mirrors below and decide which reflects your writing style. By pinpointing your weaknesses, you’ll be one step closer to reaching your full writing potential.

Background Image: Cyborg-X1/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

    • Most often heard saying: “I want to write.”
    • Think you’re a wannabe? Wannabes sit in on writing classes and read books on writing. They hang out with writers. Attend poetry readings. Haunt bookstores. They purchase pretty blank books, fancy pens and expensive software. They drink a lot of coffee. They ask questions about agents and how wide their margins should be. They’re in love with the idea of being a writer. They do everything to do with writing except write.
    • #1 asset: Wannabes are equipped. If it’s a tool of the trade, a wannabe will have it.
    • Best advice for Wannabes: Practice write. Pick up one of those pretty notebooks and write for 10-15 minutes a day. Write for the entire 10 minutes without stopping. If you’re blocked, write your name or “I don’t know what to write.” over and over. Copy out your grocery list. Anything to keep your hand moving. If you want to be a writer, first you must write. Worry about content later.
    • Most often heard saying: “I have to defrost the fridge/run 10 miles/make my first million before I can write.”
    • Think you’re a procrastinator? Procrastinators have a problem with sitting down and starting to write. When they finally start writing, they’ll write for hours. Unfortunately, writing always gets pushed to the bottom of their to-do list. On some level, they don’t think they deserve to write until they get everything else finished, which it never will be. Procrastinators crave order, but can never achieve it to the level they desire.
    • #1 Asset: Abundance of ideas. Procrastinators have an endless supply of stories conceived of whilst they were not-writing.
    • Best Advice for Procrastinators: Make writing appointments. Put them in your calendar and keep them. If your calendar says “Saturday, 9am-noon. Write.”, then at 9am, sit down and start writing. Face the fact that that your email inbox will never be empty, there will always be more laundry to do and the phone will never stop ringing. Write first. When your appointment is over, then tackle the other stuff.
    • Most often heard saying: “Write what you know? But I don’t know anything!”
    • Think you’re a Tiptoer? The feeling that nothing they write could possibly be as good as what someone else might write overwhelms tiptoers. Their feelings of inadequacy cause their mind to go as blank as the page or screen they’re staring at. Though they may have tons of ideas whenever they’re doing “something else”, when they sit down to write, they nearly always find themselves flummoxed as what to write about.
    • #1 Asset: Willingness to learn. Tiptoers are soak up advice like sponges. They are eager to change and to grow.
    • Best Advice for Tiptoers: Grab a notebook and start a list. Every idea that pops into your head, scribble it down. Something funny one of your kids did. A memory from when you were six. The car that cut you off on the way to the dentist. What your boss looked like when he yelled at you the other day. Then, when you sit down to write, pick up your notebook and choose an idea at random. Without thinking about it, start writing.
    • Most often heard saying: “I’ve been published–and it only cost $50 to buy the anthology!”
    • Think you’re an Egotist? Egotists write copiously, while believing firmly in the sanctity of the first draft. Editing is something for other people. When criticized, egotists rebut the critique, justifying each flaw that has been pointed out. They are blind to the dubiousness of organizations that publish anyone and anything–for a fee–believing that, for example, being published by makes them Maya Angelou.
    • #1 Asset: Indestructible self-esteem. No amount of rejection or criticism will ever crush an egotist’s spirit.
    • Best Advice for Egotists: Learn to recognize quality writing. Read the genre that you write-if you write poetry, read poetry. Read the classics, but also read new work by critically acclaimed authors. Sign up for a workshop with one of those authors, preferably one where you have to read your work aloud. Listen to what the others have to say. You may thank them for their comments, but do not rebut what they say or “explain” yourself. Just listen.
    • Most often heard saying: “I write for myself.”
    • Think you’re a Feel-Gooder? Feel-gooders write anecdotes about kids and pets or tearjerker sagas of the “my sister was squished by a giant spider” variety. To abort attempts at criticism, feel-gooders state up front that they don’t write prizewinning material. This invites others to say things like: “Oh, but it’s good, really!” If criticized, feel-gooders will defend themselves by saying they write for themselves, which would be fine if it was true. However, the fact that they are sharing their work proves otherwise.
    • #1 Asset: Relentlessly cheery. Can find good in any situation, regardless how dreary.
    • Best Advice for Feel-Gooders: Decide who you’re writing for: yourself or an audience. If you’re honestly writing for yourself, keep it to yourself, or share with a friend or relative. Stay away from critique boards, workshops and writing groups. It’s not fair to other writers to make them waste time on work that you have no intention of revising. If you decide you are writing for an audience, take a deep breath, bite your tongue and open yourself up to criticism.
    • Most often heard saying: “I’m almost finished.”
    • Think you’re a Perfectionist? Perfectionists write and write and write. Think of Grady in The Wonder Boys. If they do make it to the end of the first draft, then they edit. When they get to the end of the second draft, they edit again. Perfectionists hold themselves to a higher standard than they do everyone else. While they’ll forgive flaws in others, they’ll never forgive them in themselves. Submitting a manuscript with one misplaced semi-colon will toss them into despair.
    • #1 Asset: Perfectionists are above-average writers with a firm grasp on what quality writing is–except when it comes to their own work.
    • Best Advice for Perfectionists: Find a writing buddy. Perfectionists will never think their work is good enough. They need someone else to tell them when it’s done. So find someone you trust, let them read your work, and trust them when they tell you to stop. And give yourself a break. Stop agonizing over insignificant details. An editor isn’t going to reject your manuscript because you used a dash instead of a comma.
    • Most often heard saying: “I wrote for Days of Our Lives!”
    • Think you’re an Exaggerator? Exaggerators aren’t afraid to use ancient credits, or to twist the truth to make it sound like they’re more qualified and successful than they really are. That letter to the editor that Time published sounds like it was a feature article by the time the exaggerator gets done with it. They often work in partnerships with more qualified writers and bask in the reflected glory of the other’s success. Think George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley.
    • #1 Asset: Connections. Exaggerators are consummate schmoozers, able to work a crowd with the best real estate agents and used car salespeople. If they know someone who knows someone who knows someone, exaggerators will make that work for them.
    • Best Advice for Exaggerators: Recognize your failings instead of trying to hide them. Maybe you’re not going to write the Great American Novel, but perhaps you’re able to churn out stellar advertising copy. Instead of riding on someone else’s coattails or coasting on a past success, work at your writing and take some chances. Once your writing’s polished to perfection, you can use your connections to market it.
    • Most often heard saying: “I was first published at 16.”
    • Think you’re a Thwarted Genius? Thwarted Geniuses usually had early success, but then fizzled. They may have won a prize, a scholarship or had a single story published–but they never lived up to the promise of their early years. Disillusioned by themselves or the business, thwarted geniuses often turn to teaching, dispensing writing advice to others.
    • #1 Asset: Thwarted Geniuses have a good grasp on the basics of writing and can be charming and helpful mentors to beginning writers.
    • Best Advice for Thwarted Geniuses: Decide whether you’ve honestly given up on writing. Teaching shouldn’t be a fallback career. If you find yourself becoming irritated when one of your students writes better or becomes successful than you, it’s time to quit the teaching gig. Put yourself back in the student seat and give your own writing another shot. If you opt to stick with teaching, recognize your limitations and admit you don’t know everything.
    • Most often heard saying: “I had three books published last year!”
    • Think you’re a Formula Racer? Formula Racers are prolific and financially successful. They churn out generic books that demonstrate everything beginning writers are told not to do–flat characters, stereotyped plots, “as you know, Bob” description. They have a blasé attitude toward writing that not everyone can master and are eager to give advice on how to “break into the market”. They’re apt to view writing more as a smart business move rather than a calling or vocation.
    • #1 Asset: Formula racers have the business sense that most other writers do not. They know how to market themselves and their writing.
    • Best Advice for Formula Racers: Think outside the box. Formula Racers find a routine that works for them and stick to it; eventually, this becomes stale. Try writing a story where the characters do the opposite of what you normally would have them do. Read outside your genre. Consider having a well-respected author critique your work. Try writing in a different genre or entering a contest that has a word limit or other restriction, just to shake things up.
    • Most often heard saying: “What am I working on? How long do you have?”
    • Think you’re an Attention-Deficient? Attention-Deficients write, copiously. What they don’t do is focus. They jump from project to project, never finishing one before moving on to the next. Everything and anything triggers story ideas for them, but instead of just writing an idea down and saving it for later, they feel the need to write about it NOW. Hence, it takes them forever to finish any single project.
    • #1 Asset: Never lacking for inspiration. Could write 1,000 words on their big toe if asked.
    • Best Advice for the Attention-Deficient: Pick a project to focus on. Recognize that you will get distracted, but once you’ve burned off your initial head of steam on the new idea, return to the project you’re focusing on. Keep doing that until the focus project is complete. Then pick a new one and start the process over. Rather than thinking of everything as a long-term project, consider using some of your ideas as the basis for a column or compiling a book of short stories or personal essays.


Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I had written this fabulous article about how to show and tell in writing, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. In light of the terrorist attacks in New York, I’d like to talk a little about journaling instead.

Background Image: Cindee Snider Re/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Overwhelming, confusing, and highly emotional tragedies are a good time to return to your personal journals, or to start one. The blank pages can become a therapist, a confessional, or a padded room. It can become a source of strength and solace as you pour out your anger, your grief, and your questions.

Journals aren’t only for moments of crisis that come from the world around us. Personal tragedy, personal triumph, and even personal growth are all welcome in the pages of your journal or diary. There is no subject that is off limits, no language barriers, and no points taken away for misspellings, bad grammar, or sloppy handwriting.

It doesn’t matter what your journal looks like. It could be the back few pages of your phone book, your word processor, or a fancy leather-bound, gilt-edged tome from Borders. As long as there is paper and you have a pen, you have a potential journal.

When you have some words on the page, add a few pictures. Sketch a memorable moment, or cut out your newspaper headlines and photos, or copy and paste off the Internet. Make a whole collage to express how you felt at this moment, on this day, about this issue or event.

The most important thing you can remember about a journal is this: Unless you say otherwise, the remarks and content are only for yourself. Don’t be afraid to lock, hide, warn off, password protect, or just NOT tell anyone what it is. Just write it all down. Save your feelings and you’ll thank yourself later.

I have three or four pages about the Gulf War in an old binder. My children were babies and I was terrified they would grow up in a world of war. The thoughts on those pages aren’t pretty and they make little sense. If anyone else read them, the garbled messages would confuse them. It’s pure feeling in written form. And I felt a lot better after I vented on the page.

Journaling is a personal and expressive way to open up the feelings you have inside. I urge everyone touched by the immensity of this event to take a few minutes (fifteen, even!) and share their emotions with their future selves.


Some technical notes and ideas:

Microsoft WORD users can copy and paste pictures as well as text within their documents. Simply right click on whatever picture you want to put inside a document, choose “copy” or “copy picture”, return to WORD, place your cursor where you’d like the picture to appear, right click and choose “paste” or “paste picture”. There are function short-cut keys for both copy and paste at your disposal in the usual tool bar, as well.

You can insert pictures from a saved file by using “INSERT” and then “Picture” and either “from file” for those on your computer or “clipart” if you’d rather use Microsoft Clip Art ones. If you choose “from file”, be prepared to dig through the files on your computer to locate the correct picture.

Once you have a picture in your document, you can move, shrink, etc., by double clicking on the item.

For WORD users: To password protect your file, simply choose “File”, “Save As” …then choose OPTIONS (before you save the file). Choosing OPTIONS will allow you to set a password for the document down at the bottom of that screen.

Something to Talk About

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Coming soon to an author near you…

See… characters seem like real people! Action… advance your plot! Thrill… break up those huge sections of boring narrative? Romance… as your readers fall madly in love with them. How? Dialogue.

Background Image: Marc Cooper (Public Domain)

Something to talk about – Creating dialogue

The most important element of dialogue is that it should sound like people talking. That’s easier said than written. This is true no matter what time period you’re setting the story in, no matter what genre you’re writing in, no matter how “stuffy” the characters are.

Avoid clunky phrasing, stuffy words, proper names and anything that keeps the dialogue from sounding conversational. Read your dialogue aloud or have someone else read it to you. No matter if it’s a mainstream short story or a fantasy novel, your dialogue should feel natural and sound like people talking.

Some tips to make your dialogue feel more genuine:

  1. Slang: Characters should use slang appropriate to the time period, age, class, geographical area, etc.Try not to write in dialect. For readers, it’s distracting and difficult to comb through. For example, if your characters are in the Deep South they may use phrases like “my stars” or “carry you over” or a simple “y’all.” Peppering your story with phrases like these, combined with the details of your setting should be sufficient.
  2. Swearing: Just as not every person swears, not every character should swear. However, many people do and writers should use this where appropriate. This is a good opportunity to get creative. If your character doesn’t swear, what does she say instead? “Cheese and crackers?” “Geezy creezy?”
  3. Pet phrases: We all have pet phrases we use. Maybe we stick “now” on the end of every sentence. Maybe we stick in “anyway” or “so” when we’re stuck for how to move a conversation along. Maybe we tend to begin sentences with “maybe” too often. In any case, using pet phrases can distinguish a character’s voice. This will decrease your need for constant speech tags.
  4. Exchanges: Very rarely do people actually listen to the person they’re talking with. How often have you been talking with a friend and realized you’re not talking about the same thing? People avoid questions. People try to change the subject. People recall private jokes and earlier conversations out of the blue. Having your characters engage in two separate conversations can add to the reality of the exchange as well as the subtext of your scene.
  5. Chit chat: Yes, people chitchat in real life. But for your story’s purpose, all dialogue should affect the plot, including what would seem to be inane. Otherwise you’ll find yourself stalling the scene, which could result in writer’s block. How to have characters chew the fat (from Pulp Fiction):

“Want a sausage?”
(Jules) “Nah. I don’t eat pork.”
(Vincent) “Are you Jewish?”
“I ain’t Jewish man, I just don’t dig on swine.”
“Why not?”
“They’re filthy animals. I don’t eat filthy animals.”
“Sausages taste good. Pork chops taste good.”
“Hey, sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie but I’d never know ’cause I wouldn’t eat the filthy motherfuckers. Pig sleep and root in shit. That’s a filthy animal. I ain’t eatin’ nothin’ that ain’t got enough sense to disregard its own feces.”
“How about a dog? Dogs eat their own feces.”
“I don’t eat dog either.”
“Yeah, but do you consider a dog to be a filthy animal?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call a dog filthy but they’re definitely dirty. But, a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.
“Ah, so by that rationale, if a pig had a better personality, it’d cease to be a filthy animal. Is that true?”
“Well we gotta be talkin’ about one charmin’ motherfuckin’ pig. I mean he’d have to be ten times more charmin’ than that Arnold on Green Acres, you know what I’m sayin’?”

In the scene, Jules is reflecting on a “miracle” that occurred while he and Vincent were working. Vincent is going on about his day, chatting away, eating his sausage. Meanwhile, Jules is nursing his coffee, caught up in his thoughts.

What the seemingly aimless chit chat shows is that Jules is moving beyond Vincent. Vincent could be likened to the “filthy animal.” It also shows us who they are through their language. Both characters have distinct voices, yet their dialect and slang is similar. This shows us that they are in the same “world.” You wouldn’t expect anyone to interrupt and ask them if they’d care for any Grey Poupon.

Sudden impact – Style of Dialogue

  1. Big chunks.

In novel and short story writing, you want to avoid large paragraphs. For screenwriting, large chunks of dialogue are more common and actors love to sink their teeth into a big speech. An example from Chasing Amy:

“I love you. And not in a friendly way, although I think we’re great friends. And not in a misplaced affection, puppy-dog way, although I’m sure that’s what you’ll call it. And it’s not because you’re unattainable. I love you. Very simple. Very truly. You’re the epitome of every attribute and quality I’ve ever looked for in another person. I know you think of me as just a friend and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you’d ever consider. But I can’t do this any longer. I can’t stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can’t look into your eyes without feeling that longing you only read about in trashy romance novels. I can’t talk to you without wanting to express my love for everything you are. I know this will probably queer our friendship – no pun intended – but I had to say it, because I’ve never felt this before, and I like who I am because of it. And if bringing it to light means we can’t hang out anymore, then that hurts me. But I couldn’t allow another day to go by without getting it out there, regardless of the outcome, which by the look on your face is to be the inevitable shoot-down. And I’ll accept that. But I know some part of you is hesitating for a moment. And if there is a moment of hesitation, that means you feel something too. All I ask is that you not suppress that – at least for ten minutes – and try to dwell in it before you dismiss it. There isn’t another soul on this fucking planet who’s ever made me the person I am when I’m with you, and I would risk this friendship for the chance to take it to the next plateau. Because it’s there between you and me. You can’t deny that. And even if we never speak again after tonight, please know that I’m forever changed because of you and what you’ve meant to me, which – while I do appreciate it – I’d never need a painting of birds bought at a diner to remind me of.”

Whew! Holden has just confessed his love for Alyssa, knowing his romantic chances with her are slim to none. This is what happens when your characters finally stop holding it in (hence his character name, but that’s another article).

If you were writing this speech in a novel or short story form, you could break it up into smaller sections of dialogue. Between each paragraph, show Alyssa’s physical reaction. Is she happy? Stunned? Angry? Crying? None of these? Is she looking at Holden? Out the window? At the painting? What is Holden doing? In fiction, showing physicality (reactions, business, etc.) is a good way of breaking up what would be a soliloquy in drama.

Note that, even in this long speech, Holden’s voice remains natural. It has the improvisational feel essential to effective dialogue. He stumbles over words, repeats himself, swears, uses contractions, etc.

  1. Brief exchanges

Using brief exchanges is the more popular method of writing dialogue for fiction. One of the first novels to use choppy, natural dialogue was The Sun Also Rises:

“It’s cold.”
“Want to walk back?”
“Through the park.”
We climbed down. It was clouding over again. In the park it was dark under the trees.
“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.
“I’m a goner. I’m mad about the Romero boy. I’m in love with him, I think.”
“I wouldn’t be if I were you.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner. It’s tearing me all up inside.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’ve never been able to help anything.”
“You ought to stop it.”
“How can I stop it? I can’t stop things. Feel that?”
Her hand was trembling.
“I’m like that all through.”
“You oughtn’t to do it.”
“I can’t help it. I’m a goner now, anyway. Don’t you see the difference?”

Jake, always the responsible one in their circle of friends, is trying to talk Brett out of having an affair with a nineteen-year-old bullfighter. From this small exchange, we can gather that Brett will do exactly as she pleases, despite her former lover’s advice. She is looking for justification of her decision, using the excuse “I can’t help it” over and over again.

The dialogue is natural, conversational and the kind of thing you might overhear people say as they walk through the park. However there is a heavy subtext to these light sentences. Think of what your characters are saying by what they’re not saying.

Both characters have distinctive voices. When writing dialogue, make sure that your characters sound different from one another. People of the same class, location and so forth will sound the same up to a point. But you should be able to have two or three characters have a conversation, without speech tags, wherein your readers know who’s saying what.

The last detail – Basic Mechanics

  1. Speech tags

You can’t go wrong with “said.” It’s an “invisible” speech tag. Ever notice that nearly every speech tag in Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland is “said?” That’s because it serves its purpose quietly and moves the story along.

“You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

Don’t rely on your tags to convey the tone of the dialogue. Avoid “shouted” “cried” “whispered” “purred” etc. as much as possible. Let your dialogue and the situation tell your reader how the sentence sounds. In a longer work like a novel, you can get away with it more than a short story.

  1. Punctuating dialogue

Use a comma instead of a period when the dialogue is preceded/followed by a speech tag.

She said, “You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Use a period when the preceding/following sentence is an action tag.

She lit her cigar. “You know, that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

For beats (the speaker pauses), use commas if the sentence continues around the beat. Otherwise use periods.

“You know,” she said, “that’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

“I’ve heard enough.” She lit her cigar. “That’s just about the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

Dialogue punctuation always goes inside the quotation marks. No exceptions. Ever. Period. End quote.

For more on the mechanics and formatting of dialogue, refer to The Elements of Style (Strunk & White). Ask your questions about punctuation at Merely Conventional Signs.

The Importance of Being Ernest Ernie Ernesto Jack

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

When I was growing up, I loved reading the dictionary. Not the cheesy large print all-the-big-and-bad-words-removed dictionaries in the classrooms at school, but the old Webster’s dictionary we had at home with its tissue-thin pages that oozed musty old book smell. I’d bounce through the tiny print like I was on a scavenger hunt, each looked-up word always leading to another. But as much as I loved words in general, my favorite part of the book was the section at the back that listed common English names. I re-read this section ad nauseum.

Sparked by this name list, I started “collecting” names. Throughout my pre-teen and teen years, I had a blank book where I kept lists, quotes, clippings and ideas. The first thing in the book was a list of names that I liked.

It didn’t stop there. I still make note of names that intrigue me when I hear them and compile lists of names. In a way, my name obsession fuels my need to write. I have this theory that the names I am most drawn to, the ones I maybe heard or saw once, but can’t forget, belong to potential characters—characters not yet written, but conceived of in some form—and that this is why I noticed the names in the first place. Until I match a character with a name, they rattle around in my head, waiting.

I put substantial thought into naming my characters, probably more than a lot of people put into naming their children. Before I bond a character with a name, I want to know I’ve chosen the right one. I’ll often start a story using only pronouns—he, she or I—until I’m certain that I’ve locked onto the right names for the characters. Taking the time to select the perfect name is worth it. Having to change a name mid-story can shatter your whole concept of the character.

While a single name may be sufficient for characters in a short story, or minor characters in a novel, it’s a good idea to give the main characters in novels full names—First Middle Last—and consider all aspects of that name: birth name, nicknames or diminutives and the name the character prefers to use. If the character is adopted or if they use a pseudonym, there can be further variations. Parts of this name may never be revealed to the reader. What’s important is that you, the writer, know it.

Think of naming a character as the reverse of naming a person. Instead of choosing a name and hoping the person will fit it, you have an image of the character in your mind and now you have to find a name that fits them. But wait. What many people fail to remember when choosing a character name is who chose this name. Unless your character is using a pseudonym, a stage name or has legally changed their name for some reason, their parents will have chosen their name. You need to get inside their parents’ heads and decide what factors would have influenced them when they chose the name. You may decide that the parents would have chosen a name that’s completely unsuitable for the character. That’s okay, it happens. It would be unrealistic if every character had a fabulous birth name. If your character’s birth name conflicts with their personality, they’ll probably go by a nickname or some variation on their name.

When naming characters, realize that most of the common wisdom on naming doesn’t apply. Many parents ignore the advice of experts and choose precisely the names they are counseled to avoid. So instead of trying to sidestep the pitfalls and perils of naming, feel free to throw yourself into them, wholeheartedly.

Background Image: Emily Rose | Tako Fibers/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

10 Points to Ponder when Choosing a Character Name:

  1. Do you want your character’s name to be COMMON, TRENDY or UNUSUAL?
    • COMMON names are those that consistently make the most popular name lists, regardless of generation: Michael, Sarah. You might consider a common name if you’re trying to write a story that is “timeless” and don’t want the characters identified with a certain time period. However, a name like John Smith is too ubiquitous, unless you plan on having the name itself be a running joke in the story.
    • TRENDY names are names that are popular for a time. Karen and Susan were extremely popular names for girls born in the 1960s, but these names have disappeared off the popularity radar. Using a trendy name will invoke a certain decade and can be a way of implying your character’s age without actually saying it. If you like the idea of using a trendy name, you’ll need to find out what names were popular for children born in the decade your character was. The flip side of trendy names is that you should avoid using a name that’s indicative of an era other than the one your character was born in, unless there is a special reason for your character having this name. Mildred, which was popular in the early 20th century, would seem out of place on character born in the 1980s. Conversely, it would seem odd for a character in a story about WWI to be named Dakota.
    • UNUSUAL names include the made-up: creating Patriste by combining the names Patrick & Stephanie, the offbeat: September, and the familiar, but uncommon: Rhiannon. Even if you give your character an offbeat name, consider the year they were born and the likelihood of that name being chosen. A character named Rainbow who was born in 1969 is plausible, whereas one born in 1919 is not. Familiar but uncommon names work well for characters. Choose a name that is recognizable enough not to have to be explained, but unique enough that the reader will notice and remember it. By virtue of their low popularity, these names also have the advantage of not being tied to a particular era.
  2. If you do choose a common name, think about the possibility of using an ALTERNATE SPELLING. Consider the difference even a small change such as using Jon instead of John or Mari instead of Mary makes. However, it’s best to avoid spelling names in a way that makes them look misspelled: Kiel, Wakine, Rebacca —unless the peculiar spelling is integral to your story.
  3. Decide whether you want your character to have a UNISEX name: Kim, Tracy, or a GENDER-SPECIFIC name: Felicia, Roger. The femininity/masculinity of the name can have a bearing on how your readers view the character, but remember that it’s possible to modify most names. So even if you’re certain that your character’s mother would have given her a feminine name such as Melissa, you can have her go by Mel if you want her to project a less girly image. Another option is to give the character a gender-specific first name and a neutral middle—then you can choose which one they would use. Consider using last names as firsts and vice versa. A female name used as a last name, particularly with a male character, can be an unusual and interesting twist.
  4. Consider all possible NICKNAMES and DIMINUTIVES of the character’s full name. NICKNAMES include monikers based on physical characteristics or personality: Red, Smiley, pet names: Sweetie, Baby, as well as regular names a person uses in place of their own. In Meet the Parents, Ben Stiller’s character, Gaylord Focker, uses the name Greg. DIMINUTIVES are variations on a given name, which are usually shorter or cuter than the original. Diminutives of James include Jim, Jamie or Jimmy. Nicknames and diminutives can be temporary: a summer camp nickname, or permanent: Deborah might go by Debbie her whole life. They can also change over time: Barbara might be called Barbie as child and Barb as an adult. If you choose a nickname or diminutive for your character, consider who gave it to them, when and why.
  5. Check your character’s INITIALS to make sure they don’t spell out an unflattering word such as BUG or ASS, unless this is a part of your story.
  6. Say your character’s full name out loud. Does the name have a pleasing RHYTHM? Adjacent names that end/begin with the same sound can blur together: Darren Nathaniel. Think about rearranging the names if the combination doesn’t sound right. Think twice about cutesy combinations such as Gary Perry, Candy Kane or Rose Rose. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction. If the PRONUNCIATION of your character’s name is difficult: Siobhan (Shi-VAWN) or unusual: Marcia pronounced Mar-SEE-ah, rather than MAR-sha, do you plan to convey the correct pronunciation to your readers and if so, how?
  7. Consider the MEANINGS of the names you’ve chosen for your character. If you’re waffling between a couple names or spellings, what the names mean may help you finalize your decision. A meaning that fits the character always makes you feel confident that you’ve made the right decision. A neutral meaning is fine, but try to avoid names with meanings that clash with the character’s persona, otherwise you may have readers struggling to figure out why you chose Marvin, meaning “lover of the sea”, for a landlocked farmer character.
  8. Consider your character’s family HERITAGE, especially when choosing a surname. Opening up the phone book and choosing a name at random is often suggested as a method for choosing a last name, and it can work, but it’s important to select a name that’s appropriate: if your character is of Chinese descent, don’t name them Rossillini. If you’re trying to be historically accurate, have a look at census data for the region and years in question. Genealogy sites or your own family tree, maps and atlases are all good sources for names. News articles and magazines such as National Geographic are good sources for names from other countries. If you travel, jot down names for future reference. The character’s family background and ethnicity can also play role in deciding what given names to choose. For example, Catholics often choose saints’ names for their children. Consider whether the character’s family is embracing their heritage or trying to shed it, e.g. an immigrant family that is trying to fit in might choose English names for their children, whereas a family that’s rediscovering their roots may choose precisely the names their parents and grandparents avoided.
  9. Is your character a NAMESAKE? If so, who or what are they named after? Are family names de rigueur? Perhaps it’s tradition that the first son is named after the father or that the mother’s maiden name is passed on to the children. Maybe the parents chose the name to honor a friend, a mentor or someone famous they admire. Think about what other sources may have influenced their decision. A botanist might choose botanical names: Linnaea, Salix. A person who’s traveled a lot—or dreams of it—might choose place names: Paris, Milan. A Trekkie might choose names from the ships’ crews: Data, Scotty.
  10. Consider any STEREOTYPES associated with the name you’ve chosen. Realize that anyone named Elvis will be connected to Mr. Presley. This is fine if that’s a part of your story, but if it’s not, perhaps another name would be a better choice. Also, avoid selecting name combinations that are associated with well-known people: Tom Cruise. Unless there is a reason for such a choice, the name will be a distraction—readers will keep wondering why you chose it.

Finally, consider which form of their name the character prefers to use. This is your opportunity to consider the personality of your character, rather than that of their parents. Does your character dislike one or more of their given names and/or nicknames? Is there is conflict between what they prefer to be called and what other people call them? Perhaps Gwendolyn‘s family calls her Wendy despite her repeated requests for them not to. Do they go by different names depending on who they’re with? Robert might be called Bobby by his family, Robert at work and Rob by his friends. If your character is a married woman, does she use her own surname, her husband’s surname or a hyphenated combination?

Try out all the variations of the name you have chosen. A character named Davis Whitby Smith, could be known as D. Whitby Smith, Davis W. Smith, D.W. Smith, Dave Smith, Davey Smith, Whit Smith, Killer Smith, Buddy Smith, etc. Notice how your perception of the character changes depending on which aspect of the name you choose to emphasize. This is the name readers will identify with your character, so take your time and choose the perfect name.

When I chose a name for the main character in my novel, I wanted a first name that was familiar, but not overly common. I’d decided that his name would be his mother’s maiden name, so I wanted a name that would work both as a given and a family name. I settled on Riley, which means “valiant”. For his middle name, I wanted something generic, the kind of name people pick as middle names so often. I also thought it would be good if the name could work as a namesake — something that would’ve been trendy for the time period. Since he was born mid-60s, John works in that respect (Kennedys, Lennon, etc.). His last name proved most difficult. I wanted a name that would sound ethnic without being obviously a particular nationality. I started with Castillou, the name of a street I lived on when I was a kid, played around with that for a while and came up with St. Lucia. Since Lucia is used in a variety of languages and I’d already decided that one of the character’s grandparents had come from the Caribbean, St. Lucia was perfect.

It takes time to choose a name this way, but it’s worth it. In your quest to find the perfect name for your character, you’ll learn a lot about their background: their family, their past and their motivations. You may never reveal all of this information to your readers, but your awareness of it strengthens your story. If you don’t know the reasons behind your character’s name, then you don’t know Jack… er… Ernest.


Character Naming:

Bestselling Naming Books at Amazon:

A Few Name Sites:

Other ideas:

Everyday Inspiration

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

I write a lot of unusual stories. For example, “Freedom Dance” is about a married woman desperate to leave a dance bar. Awash in a sea of pick-up lines and staggering drunks, she does everything possible to escape her situation while the crowd, and her friend, does everything to keep her there. The colors and sounds are alive and vivid in the story, the terror real and tangible.

Well, they should be. I was this horrified woman.

A single friend of mine hates to drink alone and wanted to try a “new” place. I’m a fairly game girl and went along for the ride. I ended up in a personal hell, and a writer’s paradise. I sat in a corner with a drink (okay, several) and wrote down every terrified thought, every sarcastic comment, and all the detail I could. Including how everyone stared at me as I wrote in my notebook.

Most stories come from real life inspirations like this. A random comment can become the plot for a murder mystery. An unusual landscape can be used as the setting for a fantasy short. An old man walking his dog might become a background character in a piece of literary fiction.

But where and how can YOU find everyday inspirations?

Background Image: Robert Parviainen/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Write everything down. Have some kind of paper, and something to write with, with you at all times. Consider a pocket diary, a 5×7 notebook, a small amount of loose paper, a bunch of 3×5 note cards, whatever works best for you. Keep them all in the same pocket of your purse or handbag, so you can find them when you need an idea.

I have a blank diary, just big enough for my purse. It has a very permanent and literary feel to it, and it’s a lot harder to lose than a 3×5 card. Besides, it was a lot of fun to pick out one that reflects my personality. I use my pen as a bookmark so I know where the blank pages are, and where the pen is. When something strikes me, I can instantly jot it down.

Have an adventure. This doesn’t mean you should take the first flight to Brazil. Well, if you can fly off to a foreign country, go right ahead. The important thing is to get up from your computer or desk, and get out into the sunshine and the rain and the snow. Experience weather, traffic, crowds, and lines.

Take yourself or a friend out to coffee. Go to the library or your favorite bookstore and sit for a while. Visit friends or relatives at work or at home. Take a sandwich to the park or have a picnic at the zoo.

Don’t use your car. If you need to go across town, try using public transportation. Walk up to the store instead of drive. Ride your bike over to a friend’s house or up to the park.

Ask questions. Look at everything with wonder and curiosity. Ask yourself where people are going, what they will do when they get there, what is inside their bags and boxes, where they started out, and just what is their biggest problem? Try asking the same two questions for every person in the room, on the bus, in the car next to you, or wherever you happen to be.

“Why is this guy alone on the bus with two cans of Dr. Pepper and a coconut?” my notebook asks me. I can see him now, awkwardly juggling those two cans and shifting the single coconut around. From this simple question, I might get a great story, or a novel. I know I have a great joke already, or an anecdote I can somehow put into an article I’m writing.

Listen harder. Really hear what everyone around you is saying. Your friend makes a sarcastic comment. You overhear a pithy saying. A guy at the bar tells you a ribald joke. Put them all in your notebook. You never know when a single statement will spark off a story, but it sure can.

We found a broken and useless gun in a box in our attic when we moved into this house. The police were called and it was taken away for ballistic testing, “Just in case it was used in any unsolved murders.” As he stowed the item in his trunk, the policeman said, “How can anyone lose track of a gun? I know exactly where mine are at all times. It just doesn’t make sense.” He was appalled, but I was inspired. What if someone had MEANT to leave it behind? From his off-hand remark, I had a great story.

Look deeper. The best writing has realistic details and descriptions. Capture a beautiful sunset on the beach or the dirt and grime under a bridge. Describe your house, yard, or neighborhood. Write down what color shoes the woman on the bus wore, or how much makeup she wore.

Take a few trips back and forth into time while you are at it. What did that look like when it was new? How will it look to your children’s children?

“Freedom Dance” is about how a married woman perceived the bar. The neon glare and flashing lights, the too-short skirts and too-tight pants, and the wiggles and swaggers. If I hadn’t written down gems like, “The black pants, the white shirt, the black vest, the black cowboy hat, the red steel heart reflecting gently on his breast. The sheriff of love.” I couldn’t have captured the flavors of that bar and shared it with my readers.

Fear nothing. Don’t be afraid to write down anything you want, anytime you want. If it was funny, if it was cute, if it got your attention, write it down. Worry about how you “look” later.

Your friends will understand if you jump up and take down what they said. Heck, they will usually repeat it if you ask. They like to be noticed and remembered, even if it’s only in your notebook.

People will stare and wonder what you are doing, but they can’t read over your shoulder unless you invite them to. Or unless your best friend shows the notebook to the guys you were just describing. Remind yourself that the fellow with the coconut doesn’t know who you are, and won’t be calling you later.

Don’t worry about libel because by the time you are published, they won’t remember saying or doing anything of the sort. Don’t censor yourself because of a “what if”. It probably won’t happen.

Prepare yourself. An unusual activity, like writing, will generate questions from the crowd. It might be easier on your ego and psyche if you already have some answers ready to the usual questions. “What are you doing?” “Why?” “What have you written?” “Are you published?” “What kind of writing do you do?”

I answer with honesty if I can, and with a lie if I’m annoyed. “Writing a letter to Grandma,” can be less threatening than, “Writing down the fact that you picked your nose,” to a stranger. Especially if he happens to be dubbed, “The Sheriff of Love.”

Be inspired. Story ideas are all around, if you know where to look for them. So get up and get out. Bring a pineapple and treat yourself to a pina colada. Someone else will have the coconut.

The Critique Zone

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between beginners and experts, and it lies between the pit of writers’ fears and the summits of their knowledge. This is the dimension of feedback. It is an area that we call… The Critique Zone.

Imagine if you will a critique board with a host who lives to give stark feedback. Add to this equation a writer who titles her post “Stark feedback please.” The thin black line blurs between yin and yang. The twain shall meet.

In the aftermath, the echoes of the wounded writer rise from her once-proud story. Shards of dialogue pierce narrative. Clichés twist around scarred characters. The host turns toward the cry that mysteriously surfaces behind her. What malevolent force penetrated the idyll that should exist between critiquer and critiquee? Signpost ahead: “Next stop: The Critique Zone.”

Insert dramatic music here.

In the Critique Zone, there stand two people: the writer and the editor. Displace either and the zone ceases to exist. As writers we stand on one side of the abyss, yearning to reach across and have our work seen. Yet we fear the possibility that we could plummet into the chasm. As critiquers, we toss out the rope with the warning that it won’t be an easy journey. So who’s to blame if the writer crashes and burns?

When I see “stark feedback” or “nit-picky critique” in a post title, my blood turns effervescent. It’s harder for me to give general feedback than a line-by-line critique. So I sit for a few hours and pore over a story with my cut{COMMENT} style. After I’ve had my say, I post the feedback.

Tact has never been my strong suit. I admit that I’ve had my fair share of writers say, “That was harsh” and not always to my face. Those who have been able to do so have earned great respect from me because each one has added, “and I needed that.”

I write. I get critiques. I don’t always agree w/ them, but I know they’re meant to be helpful. In my experience, no one critiques simply to be mean. The purpose of sharing our writing for critique is to improve it. For me as an editor to say, “Don’t change a thing” is not only a lie but it’s a disservice.

It is difficult to share your work. It is equally difficult to devote time and energy to giving critique. Critiquers have their own neuroses that writers might want to keep in mind.

Background Image: Benjamin Solah/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Apprehensions of the Critiquer

  • I don’t know enough about…

…grammar or character or dialogue or setting or scuppernongs or whatever your particular insecurities are.

As the saying goes: if you can read, you can critique. If you also write, all the better. Even if all you can say something as simple as “I thought this really sounded like two people talking.” Like anything, the more you critique the better you get at it.

You might find that although you feel you are weak about mechanics, you have wonderful plotting skills. Think of your strengths as a writer. Focus on these in giving your critique. As your confidence improves, so will your critique.

  • I don’t have time

Yes, you do. Even if you only have a few moments to glance over it quickly and say: “It grabbed me.” “The hook needs more oomph.” “How do you pronounce that name?” “Is there more to this story?” Simple comments like these can be extremely useful. The writer may be most concerned about the opening lines, iffy about using the name or concerned that it’s too short.

  • What if I hurt her feelings? Or worse, what if I make him mad?

This is a very valid concern. It happens. For the critique-giver the best advice is probably to be gentle but honest. Phrases that can help keep you and the writer on the same side include: “I do this” “have you tried” and “in my opinion.” This reminds the writer that you want to be helpful. If even one of your comments comes across as an attack, the writer may become defensive and close off to suggestions you make.

If a writer asks for NPC or SF, they should expect NPC or SF. However if they say they are “new,” “sharing for the first time” or “putting my head on the block,” chances are good that UPOP is more in order. Use your best judgment.

Any writer worth her salt knows when a critique is written simply to be mean or as a personal attack. Most critiques I’ve seen do not fall into that category. Read over your critique before posting or sending it. If your feelings are strong about a story, it may be best to wait before giving your opinion, whether you plan to criticize or praise.

You’re a reader, not a psychiatrist. Writers must develop a thick skin if they plan to publish. A writer may be hurt or angered by your opinion. They might disagree. They might come back and tell you all the reasons you’re wrong. They might not use a single one of your suggestions. As long as your critique is given in a constructive spirit, these are issues for the writers to handle.

  • I have nothing to add.

That’s fine. Tell the writer, “I have nothing to add.” What do you put in that empty box?

  • Tell the writer specifically what you liked. {“This character was so real to me.” “I could practically smell the salt air.” “My favorite part was…”}
  • Ask questions. {“Where did you get this idea?” “Is this based on someone you know?”}
  • Compliment her. {“Your language is great.” “I wish I could create a setting like that.”}
  • Ask for more of the same story or more of the author’s work.

There’s nothing wrong with intending to do SF and having it come out as UPOP. The trick is to give reasons for your praise.

Frustrations of the Critiquer

  • Rebuttal

There are few things more irksome to me, as an editor, than a writer coming back to rebut the critique. This is not the same as answering questions or clarifying a misreading. What tweaks my cheese is a writer who has an excuse for all her bad choices. It also conveys an attitude of “but it was perfect the way it was.”

For a critiquer, this might prompt a “why did I waste my time?” In future exchanges the critiquer is also likely to say, “What’s the point? She’ll just throw it all back in my face.”

As a writer, if you feel you must respond to critique, keep in mind the time and effort expended by the editor. Thank him for the effort. If you must defend your choices, give reasons and not excuses. Ask questions. If it was a poor critique and you’d like to lash out, ignore it.

If your critique is challenged, resist the urge to rebut the rebuttal. Some writers say they want critique but the moment they come back at you, you know better. Smile. Nod. Grit your teeth silently.

  • Retraction

“Well I didn’t really want that nit-picky a critique.” This is from the gung-ho writer who cries, “Stark feedback please!” Then when she gets it decides what she really wanted was UPOP.

Anyone offering work for critique is doing so because he wants to improve, regardless of whether he is writing for publication or writing for himself. Remind yourself that that was your understanding before tackling the work. This is something for the writer to deal with, especially if his goal is publication. Better to hear it from a friend with the best of intentions than a publisher or agent after believing the work is “perfect.”

  • I can’t say anything nice

We’ve all read pieces that made us want to respond with “This sucks—n/t” or “You know what would help this story? A match.” But we can’t. Yet the maxim of “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” can’t really be applied in this case. What do you do if you think a story is so beyond repair that nothing can save it? You have options.

  • Be general. Let the writer know you appreciate the effort. Congratulate him for taking this first step.
  • Relay your own issues with dialogue, setting and so forth. Tell her how you’re solving those problems. Stay constructive.
  • Ask questions. Get the writer to explore the piece.
  • Share a few tips. I do this fairly often, no matter what the quality of the story. For example: a fabulous story can be full of passive voice so I might share my tip to do a “search and destroy” on was/were.

One “note” I’d like to put here: if you see comments like these in a critique, do not read it as “this sucks.” General comments also come in extremely handy when a story is excellent, as I stated earlier.

You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension—a dimension of dialogue, a dimension of character, a dimension of narrative. You can withstand critique. You can give critique. You can accept critique and reject it. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of words and ideas, of writers and editors. You’ve just crossed over into… the Critique Zone.

Dance Naked

Absolute Blank

By Tawny McDonald (Butcher)

My first year of university, I signed up for an introduction to literature course, thinking that my high grades in high school English would help me breeze through. The first thing we read was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and shortly after that, we were assigned our first essay.

Looking back, I’m sure that the professor must have dealt with her share of smarmy students who made As in high school and entered her classroom with egos that touched the roof. So when she handed out the assignment, she also handed out a healthy dose of reality. “If you want, show me your first drafts,” she said. “I’ll tell you where to improve.”

I wrote my essay and brought it to her, confident that I was going to blow this woman away. “Wow,” she would say, as she read my prose. “This gal is a genius!”

Background Image: Edgar Crook/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Of course, that’s not what happened. I still have my journals from my university days and the entry on the day she handed back my first rough draft reads as follows:

I really despise my English teacher. I gave her my essay to read over today and she told me it had no direction, it didn’t have a thesis and therefore, she had no idea what I was trying to prove. (Also, I had no purpose!) She said she read my opening sentences for each paragraph and found nothing—she couldn’t see the point in reading the whole thing.

Pretty harsh feedback, certainly not very nice, but it was honest. Looking back, I realize two important things. One, she was telling me what I needed to hear. Two, if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have bothered asking for the first drafts.

Dealing with critique is one of the toughest skills to acquire as a writer. Our writing, after all, is something that is very personal and, often, the result of a lot of hard work. But the writing is the easy part.

Handling critique happens in three steps. The first thing you need to be able to do is share your writing. The person with whom you are sharing will critique it. Receiving the critique is your next challenge. Even harder is accepting it.

Step One—Sharing your work

Before you can receive critique you first must share your work. For even experienced writers, this is perhaps the hardest step. Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.'” That fear is quite normal and it’s a tough fear to overcome.

It’s like undressing in front of someone for the very first time. They’re similar in that you first worry if your audience is going to like what they see. You worry that they’re going to notice those little flaws—that your sentences wobble like your knobby knees and your dialogue drags like your saggy bottom. You get past that only to worry that your audience will tell you what they don’t like and that can be the most devastating of all.

Make it easy on yourself. Find someone you trust. If you trust this person, you will know that they have your best interests in mind. This person will tell you what you need to hear and they will be honest with you. You will feel comfortable with them and when it comes time to share your writing, you won’t be able to get it to them fast enough.

The Second Step—Accepting the critique

When you receive critique on your work, it’s hard not to take it personally. This is your writing after all, something that you invested a lot of time and effort into. It is a reflection of you, your exposed, naked body. So when someone critiques it, we really feel their words.

In an ideal world, every word that we write would be perfect. Sentences would be flawless, paragraphs immaculate. Our readers would fall at our feet, utter words of awe.

There are writing sites out there that promote this kind of atmosphere and they are often successful. After all, who doesn’t like to receive constant praise? UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only Please) is nice—it helps to fluff the ego and makes you WANT to write—and any writer can accept that kind of praise quite easily. But it’s not critique and it won’t help you improve as a writer. It’s someone telling you that you’re not fat when even you know you could shed a few pounds.

The opposite of UPOP is ROTC (Raked Over The Coals) critique, a brutal massacre of your writing. It’s the person who has an ego the size of Texas and who thinks that any writing but theirs is a waste of time and paper. This person could say things like, “You’re such a dumbass, you shouldn’t be ALLOWED to own a pen and paper.” When you start to cry, they tell you to quit blubbering and stop writing while you’re ahead. I’m sure there are people out there who are like that; fortunately, I’ve had the good luck not to run into them. Hopefully, you won’t either. But if you do, don’t feel like you have to put up with their abuse. According to Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, “No one should talk to you like this. If you write a long piece, and it is your first, and you are wondering if it’s publishable, and it isn’t, even by a long shot, someone should be able to tell you this in a way that is gentle yet not patronizing. So that you are encouraged—maybe not to pursue publication, but to pursue writing.”

This brings us to the third kind of critique, which we need as writers who want to succeed: Nit Picky Critique, or NPC. We need someone to take an objective look at our work and point out what’s good and what’s not so good. They’ll point out character inconsistencies, inaccurate details of your setting, comma usage that is embarrassing to watch. They might growl at you when you mix up “its” and “it’s”. They might be so blunt as to say, “Sorry. Nope. Doesn’t work.”

This is the type of feedback that you want. Feedback like this is what makes your good work great. It might sound harsh to you and some of it could sting and cause you to prickle up, but it’s what you need to hear. Wipe your tears, take a deep breath or go for a walk. Calm down and read through the critique again. You’ll see that the person who critiqued your piece had your best interests in mind and is trying to help. Understand that they think your piece has potential or they would never have bothered going over it in the first place. The person who is honest and tells you what your work needs to improve is the person who wants you to succeed.

Step Three—Responding to Critique

Regardless of the type of feedback you receive, it is usually polite to respond to the person who took the time to read your work. Drop them a line or call them up and tell them thank you. These people worked hard at helping you and they deserve that much. If the critique was a mere UPOP, you don’t need to say anything further. If the critique was ROTC, still thank them and consider Lamott’s advice to “ditch the sucker”. If the feedback was the third kind, NPC, thank them and do your best not to get defensive. According to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering The Craft, “it’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticized not to be on the defensive, eager to explain, answer, point out—’Oh, but what I meant was…’ ‘Oh, I was going to do that in the next draft…’ ”

Don’t succumb to the “Yeah, But” syndrome. Take the opportunity to ask them to clarify some of their comments or to inquire about what they thought of certain parts of your piece that they didn’t address. Use the critique to your advantage, understand that their comments are just suggestions and you don’t have to use them. After all, as LeGuin points out, “Always in the last analysis, you are your own judge, and you make your own decisions.”

I remember looking at that first draft with my professor’s notes written in red pen in the margin. The anger and devastation that I felt, and the humiliation was like standing naked before someone and having them laugh and point and call you fat. I can still recall that strong temptation to run to her office and pound on her door. I wanted to lay on her floor and thrash my legs and flail my arms. I wanted to throw a tantrum. Instead, I took deep breaths and calmed down. I went home and vented in my journal.

Even then, I knew she was right. One line followed my tirade against my professor:

I guess I should be grateful—I know what changes to make.

My ego was wounded—let’s be honest, deflated—but I was still able to see her critique for what it was. Since then, I’ve been dealing with critique in the same manner. I still share my work thinking that it’s the best writing ever and I still bristle when I get it back with red notes all over the place. I’m still tempted to yell, “YEAH? OH YEAH?” But I don’t. I breathe deeply and go for walks. I accept the critique for what it is. These three steps have helped to establish myself amongst my peers as a writer that is both dignified and gracious. The same can be said for any writer once they’ve learned to deal with critique.

Be brave. Share your writing. Keep a stiff upper lip and recognize critique for what it is. Learn to be grateful and how to be gracious. Acquire these skills and no matter who your audience, you’ll be able to dance naked.


Ban Breathnach, Sarah. “Owning Your Talent” from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1995.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing & Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises & Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Or.: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Know the Rules, Then Break Them

Absolute Blank

By Suzanne Wiles Chapman (Barrister)

I am often appalled to read writing that contains a great story line and interesting characters, but is marred with bad grammar, sloppy style and bad form. The creativity is there, but the structure is poor and the words are lacking. Some writers say that they don’t worry about grammar and style — they never understood it and they’ll leave it to editors. I believe, however, that a grasp of style and grammar are essential to good writing. Understanding the rules of grammar is the foundation upon which we build clever literary devices. Writers must understand the structure of language in order to manipulate it.

Background Image: Andreas Klodt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner likens fiction to a dream, in which the reader is swept into another reality and exists within a story. “In bad or unsatisfying fiction this fictional dream is interrupted from time to time by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or the writing.” Gardner says that in bad writing, whether new or experienced, “the writer distracts the reader by clumsy or incorrect writing”.

In his autobiographical On Writing, Stephen King says, “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations?” His point is simple: grammar and style seem like straightforward skills that merely regulate language, but they are the very tools we need to create masterful stories.

The good news is that understanding grammar and style is not difficult, regardless of your experience in high school English class. King points out that sometimes we can’t really “get” grammar and style until we mature a little: “now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin. And once you start, you’ll find you know almost all of the stuff anyway — it is, as I said, mostly a matter of cleaning the rust off the drillbits and sharpening the blade of your saw.”

Make grammar and style important in your writing. Grammar is simply a set of rules that govern how the English language works. Most of the time you should follow these rules and sometimes you can break them with finesse. Invest in a good grammar book and study it. You don’t have to know every grammar term, but you should know the main ones and be able to identify whether something is correct or not. Here at Toasted Cheese, I host a board where you can bring your grammar and style questions and get an answer in 24 hours. I also will help you in your quest to brush up on the basics with a new tip and activity each week. Taking a time to review this information on a regular basis will improve your writing.

When it comes to good writing style, you can find many excellent books, but I think you really only need two: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and the appropriate style manual for your genre (e.g. Chicago Manual of Style). Don’t just buy these books and put them on your shelf for reference. Read and understand them, because the information will come back to you automatically when you write.

Reviewing grammar and style information is more than just learning to follow the rules. It gives you power over language. For example, two common style mandates are to avoid passive voice and to vary sentence length. Understanding this, you can manipulate active/passive verbs and sentence length to enhance storytelling.

Passive sentences are said to be weak because they show action being done to the subject, rather than a subject doing the action. For example, “The money was left to me” is less informative than “My aunt Ida left me the money”. Passive sentences are, however, useful in certain situations, such as masking the doer of the action for a mysterious effect.

The chair had been moved. Yesterday, it was sitting right next to the window, overlooking the lake. Now, it sat in the corner. I felt a shiver along my spine.

Using a passive sentence, “The chair had been moved”, creates a sense of mystery about who had moved it. However, the key is only using passive voice when it’s for a good reason. Of course, being able to recognize passive voice is the first step.

Now, consider sentence length. Generally, it’s suggested that we vary sentence length, which avoids monotony. However, sometimes a series of short sentences is effective in creating tension. Compare these two paragraphs:

  1. When I arrived at my brother’s house, the lights were out. Curious, I peered into the window beside the front door, wondering where he was. When I knocked on the door there was no answer, but it was unlocked and I stepped inside, only to be surprised by a deafening scream.
  2. When I arrived, the lights were out. I peered into the window. Nothing. I tried the door handle. The door creaked open. I stepped inside. Silence. As I turned to flick the switch, a deafening scream pierced my eardrums.

The first paragraph is fine and contains varied sentence length. In the second paragraph however, the short sentences, some of them only one word, create a sense of trepidation. In other types of scenes, this might seem choppy, but in this type of story situation, it creates the mood effectively.

The bottom line is that one needs to know the rules in order to use them. They become less of a restriction and more of a tool in your writing toolkit.


  1. Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
  2. King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner, 2000.
  3. Strunk, William Jr., and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1979.