It’s the end of the world
as we know it, and I feel fine:
Endings in Fiction

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

“A novel is like a symphony in that its closing movement echoes and resounds with all that has gone before. … It is this closing orchestration that the novel exists for. If such a close does not come, for whatever theoretically good reason, we shut the book with feelings of dissatisfaction, as if cheated.” –John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

If a story has worked, readers will have been drawn into the world created for the characters; they will have fully invested in that world. Because they have made this commitment, when they reach the last chapter, page, or paragraph, they will expect an ending that is clear, satisfying, and delivers on what the story promised.

If an ending is successful, readers should be left with a feeling of closure. This means that the central conflict and any subplots have been addressed. It doesn’t mean that every loose end has been tied up in a bow; nor does it mean that the ending has to be happy or be the one readers hoped for. However, if an author leaves a substory unfinished, perhaps to indicate how life goes on, or to set up a sequel, it should be clear that this was an intentional act. If a plot point is introduced and just left hanging, readers will believe the author has forgotten it. Readers should not be left perplexed about what happened to Great Aunt Harriet after they last saw her going to the store on page 172.

There should also be a sense of inevitability about the ending. In other words, readers should feel like this ending is the right ending for this story. Understand that knowing that the ending is the definitive one for the story is different than liking how things turned out on an emotional level. Readers can know that the author made the right choices for the story even as they are sobbing their guts out because the protagonist has met his demise. What shouldn’t happen, however, is that readers immediately start writing alternate endings in their heads because they just know they could have done it better.

Finally, readers should feel that what has transpired has some significance. Readers don’t want to feel like they’ve wasted their time on something completely trivial. One way an ending can disappoint is when it’s obvious. With few exceptions, readers shouldn’t be able to predict the outcome from the opening line—a great deal of the fun of reading fiction comes from not knowing how the story is going to turn out. Another disappointment is the non sequitur—the ending that appears tacked on, because the author either didn’t know how to end the story, or, for whatever reason, just wanted to wrap things up. For example, a serial killer is squashed by a falling piano, whereupon the murders stop, and the detectives in charge of the case quickly put two and two together.

How to end a story depends on both story length and genre. Some kinds of endings are appropriate for short stories, but not for novels, and vice versa: a twist ending to a novel will probably leave readers feeling ripped off, while an epilogue would be superfluous to a short story. Similarly, some endings are more suited to certain genres than others (see below).

When to end a story is almost as important as how. A story should not go on too long after either the central conflict has been resolved or it has become clear that no resolution is possible or readers will become bored and the ultimate ending will be a letdown.

Background Image: naturalturn/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

Here are some ways to end a story. Note that the types aren’t mutually exclusive, and that in a longer story or novel the ending will probably be a combination of the types.

  1. Traditional Resolution: The story builds to the climax, where the protagonist either “wins” or “loses,” thus ending the conflict. The climax is generally followed by a denouement where the author explains what happened as a result and ties up loose ends. The length of the denouement should be proportional to the length of the story. Resolution endings can be “happily ever after,” hopeful (cautiously happy—good if a sequel is planned), or unhappy (though that’s rare in genre fiction—unless the main character is a villain). Common in genre fiction such as romance and fantasy, as well as mainstream fiction.
  2. Epilogue: An epilogue summarizes the future life of the protagonist and other major characters. The summary should relate a result or consequence of the story, not unconnected events. Because an epilogue generally follows a denouement, a story with an epilogue actually has two endings. Suited to both mainstream and genre fiction, but should be used with caution—often authors use epilogues to tell readers what would be better left to their imaginations.
  3. Circular: In a circular ending, the protagonist, who has been on a life-changing journey or quest, now returns home to tell the story. Often the final image/scene is the same as the initial one. A familiar ending in fantasy and science fiction.
  4. Reversal: In a reversal, the ending is the opposite of the beginning. The protagonist can start out with nothing and end up with everything; or conversely, start out with everything and lose it all.
  5. Train Wreck: Unlike most endings, with a train wreck there is no element of surprise to the reader. The protagonist’s life spirals toward an inevitable disaster that readers can see coming, but the protagonist can’t. Suited to meta-stories, where the author is making a statement about something and the surface story is a mere conduit.
  6. Twist: To be successful, the revelation must genuinely surprise readers, but it also must be logical and plausible in hindsight. It shouldn’t rely on coincidence or a random event. Trick endings are hard to do well; if handled clumsily, they can come off like the punchline to an extended joke.
  7. Puzzle: In this ending, a mystery is solved or explained. Usually the reader is enlightened at the same time the protagonist is, but sometimes the protagonist will remain in the dark even after the reader solves the puzzle. Suited to mysteries and thrillers.
  8. Bittersweet: Here the protagonist must make a difficult decision. It generally involves a choice: the protagonist must sacrifice one thing to obtain something else. This type of ending will work in a variety of genres.
  9. Open: In an open ending, the author may hint at what happens next or what the protagonist will do, but the final interpretation is left to the reader. Alternatively, the author may leave the protagonist with two equally plausible courses of action, and the reader must decide which the character chooses. Suited to literary fiction; also speculative fiction.
  10. Illuminating: There is no resolution in the traditional sense, but this ending does clearly indicate what will happen to the characters. This ending often feels abrupt on first read; readers may feel the story “just ends.” The implication is that life will go on as it has through the story. It’s meant to be a realistic depiction of what life is. Suited to literary fiction.

With ideas from: “Is it really over?” by Rita Marie Keller, “How to Write Successful Endings” by Nancy Kress, and “Writing: Plot” by Damon Knight.

Final Poll Results

The First Novel Marathon

Absolute Blank

By Stephen W. Simpson (Macfisto)

The novel is the marathon of writing. Most fiction writers can knock out a short story, just like most people can finish a 5-k race with little training. But even many of the best 5-k runners stay away from marathons because they’re too daunting. They require a level of commitment, sacrifice, and pain that most runners can’t fathom. I suspect the same is true of the novel for writers.

I’ve run five marathons but I’ve only written one novel. I wish I could tell you that I discovered the secret of writing a novel my first time out. I can’t. I’m in the middle of the fourth draft and don’t even have an agent. However, I learned a few things that might help if you aspire to this lofty goal. You only need a little talent, a good idea, and some courage to get started. But if you want to finish something that someone other than your friends and Aunt Sadie will read, enjoy, and purchase, you need three things:

Background Image: Rawbert|K|Photo/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Endurance. Probably one in ten people say they want to write a novel “someday.” Of those, maybe half write a chapter or an outline. Almost no one finishes it.

In my first marathon, I made the classic blunder experienced runners warn against: going out too fast. I got too excited and dashed out with fantasies of a record-breaking time. Ten miles in my quadriceps tightened up. Fifteen miles in my hamstring said, “I’m getting off here.” By mile twenty, I didn’t know my name, where I was, or what possessed me to do such an excruciating, stupid thing. Reaching the finish line seemed impossible.

Something similar happens to most aspiring novelists. They might dash out of the gate with a flourish, maybe a gripping first sentence or intriguing characters in exciting circumstances. Then the work starts. Plot and character development take longer than expected. Building up to those pivotal moments starts to feel more like work than titillating creative passion. Then they “hit the wall.” This usually comes in the form of dropping the story, with sincere plans to return to it “someday.” When you start a novel, understand that it’s going to take a long time. For your first novel, give yourself at least a year.

But that year should be structured. Marathon training requires several runs a week as part of a consistent program. If you only run whenever the mood hits you, can forget about crossing the finishing line before dark. The same thing applies to writing the novel. Set a schedule and stick to it, whether it means you write a page a day, three on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So your muse is hiding under the covers during your scheduled time to write? You’re too worried about cleaning out the gutters? Write anyway. The novel requires you to no longer be a slave to your creative impulse. It has to be the other way around or you won’t finish.

The thing that got me through was a commitment to write something every night but Friday and Saturday. On those nights, I kept writing as long as I felt the words flowing. If they didn’t, I wrote until I got to a logical stopping place even if I was turning out nothing but verbose crap. Once I finished, I rewarded myself. I wrote e-mail, visited TC (highly recommended), or played video games. Thursday nights I’d have a beer. But I didn’t treat myself to any of these unless I wrote something first.

Don’t even think about reaching the end until you’re almost there. In the meantime, enjoy reaching smaller goals, such as the end of a chapter. Otherwise, you’ll hit the wall before you get started.

Humility. You are not as good a writer as you think you are. Neither am I. It’s actually good that we don’t know this, because we might never start. It takes at least a little arrogance to write something you hope thousands of people will pay twenty bucks a pop to read. Nothing wrong with that. But be prepared to think a lot less of yourself soon after you type the words “the end.”

A friend of mine decided to run a marathon without doing any training runs above eight miles. Everyone told him this was a bad idea and that he needed to work up to twenty. He was a great athlete and figured he didn’t need the advice of “recreational runners.” He finished the marathon—in six hours after limping through the last seven miles. He injured his foot and didn’t run another step for six months.

Listen to what other people tell you. Brush up on your craft by reading books on technique and ask for feedback. In On Writing Stephen King says you write the first draft “with the door closed” and the second draft “with the door open.” Seek out those who will be honest with you. It’s wonderful to hear how much someone loves your work, but it doesn’t help you. A true friend in this process tells you when they get bored or confused and points out your mistakes. Listen to what they have to say and be ready to make changes.

You don’t have to change every little thing someone doesn’t like. However, this is where Voltaire’s maxim “The masses are asses” doesn’t apply. The more people who don’t like something, the more reason you have to change it. Yes, I know that you love that section where the protagonist has an epiphany in the middle of cornfield because it showcases your dancing prose. Change it anyway. Some of what you regard as your most brilliant work will have to go. And it hurts, which brings me to the final lesson.

Self-Amputation. No, don’t start cutting yourself when you get negative feedback. Take your medication and hang in there. But get ready to start hacking away at your story.

I did something else stupid while training for my first marathon: I ran too much. I thought I needed to do every training run I read about, including stuff that was out of my league and unnecessary for finishing the race. I was doing over 65 miles a week when I really only needed 50 to reach my goal. My left knee paid for it on marathon day.

I write too much, too. My main character is breaking lamps and throwing four-letter words all over the page, but I feel obligated to tell you that’s he’s angry. I’ll take three paragraphs to describe his seething inner turmoil. Heaven forbid you don’t know exactly what I mean, even if it bores you to tears and ruins the flow of the story. The best advice I got from a friend about my novel is “show don’t tell.” And I love to “tell” my readers every detail, scared to death they might miss something.

On my latest draft, I’m cutting like crazy, using a machete rather than a scalpel. I began doing this as an experiment, deleting everything that was not essential to the story. I took out everything possible as long the reader would still understand what was happening. It was mortifying. I highlighted paragraphs written with agonizing care and slapped the delete key. It felt like loping off an appendage. I was ripping out the soul of my novel. Shuddering, I went back and read all that I’d maimed.

It was better. It was more like the stuff that I like to read than the stuff I like to write. It was a realization born of pain and humility, but it was undeniable. If I’m ever going to get this novel into the hands of paying readers, I have to chop every superfluous word. It might not be worth it to you. That’s fine and you’re in the company of many great writers and Anne Rice. But it’s worth it to me if it means more people will read my story.

That’s what I’ve learned so far. But I’m not finished. If this is a marathon, I figure I’m at mile eighteen. That’s where the pain usually sets in. That’s where I start to think this was dumb idea to begin with and I feel like dropping out. At this point, it’s not about training, ability, or even courage. The courage got me started. Now, it’s about determination. When the rewrites hit double digits, when the rejection letters come, when your best friend says, “Will you shut up about your stupid novel and get back to reality,” you have to persevere.

When my wife waits for me at the marathon finish line, I can’t leave her waiting around for hours, only to go to the results board and read “DNF” (“did not finish”) by my name. It’s a good idea to enlist supporters before starting your novel marathon. Have somebody waiting at the ten-mile mark to read your first few chapters. After that, ask them to drive down to the finish line and wait for your first draft. Imagine the crowds of cheering readers waiting for you to finish what you started. There are people who want and need to read your story. Don’t let them down.

Final Poll Results

Stepping Back

Absolute Blank

By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)

Before going on, take a look at the photos here. Study the images. Why are they arranged the way they are arranged? Why are some twisted? Can you see any pattern to them?

Sometimes during the writing process, the details can take over. Perhaps our characters have been studied in infinite detail. We know what our heroine eats for breakfast on Sundays, what our hero is secretly wearing underneath that jacket. Or perhaps we’ve crafted the rules and history of our little world into a document larger than the story itself.

Even if we haven’t spent time pre-thinking details, we think a lot about them during the writing. Is that exactly the right word? Do I have too many adverbs in that scene? Does this scene further my character’s development? How can I imply that the antagonist had a horrible childhood without resorting to “As you know, Bob, I had a horrible childhood” dialogue? As we write and rewrite, every scene, every word is carefully considered until each scene accomplishes the purpose we’ve assigned to it.

So. Now it’s time to step back and see what you have.

Background Image: Murray Thompson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Remember the collection of photos you looked at? Just like a writer stringing together the scenes of a story, the collage maker selected each photo and placed it where he did for specific reasons. But there’s more to the picture than the individual photos. Step back and take a look at the same collage from a distance here.

Each photo is part of a larger whole. The photos were selected for the impression of color they would give at a distance. All the individual detail boiled down in the end to a blur of color in a larger mosaic. Each individual picture contributes to an overall impression that is, itself, a detailed picture. They didn’t necessarily work as they were taken originally, however. Some needed to be rotated so the colors would flow from one box to another.

Stories, particularly longer ones, should have a similar effect. When all the reading is done, the reader may remember a scene or two in detail, just as you may remember one or two of the individual pictures that caught your eye in the mosaic. However, it is the look from afar that readers will carry away with them. It is the look from afar that you should craft with as much loving care as you crafted the details.

No matter how perfect each scene, each word is, if they do not fit together to make a coherent mosaic you will not be telling the story you wanted to tell. Each scene leaves the reader with a certain impression or feeling. It is how these scenes run together that determines if you have a mosaic, or just a collection of photographs. Some scenes may be just fine on its own, but need special tweaking or twisting to flow within the entire story. When all is said and done, your story needs to work as a story, not as a collection of scenes.

Step back from your story. Let it sit for a while, then read it with a fresh eye toward the bigger picture you are trying to paint. Keep these things in mind as you read:

  • Don’t read for the details. Read it for the big picture. This can be hard when you’ve sweated for so long over the details. If you can’t do it yourself, find someone who can do it for you.
  • Identify the themes of your story. They may not be what you originally intended, but a big picture read should give you a clear idea of what they actually are. Are your main themes consistent throughout, or do you have random themes in random places? While it’s ok to have multiple and minor themes, there should only be one or two main themes that consistently guide the action.
  • A photo out of place will spoil the effect of the mosaic, and create a jarring gap in the image. Do any scenes or chapters do something similar? Or do they run seamlessly together to build the story? A perfect scene or sentence may be entirely out of place when you look at the story as a whole. You may want to look at Murder Your Darlings, by James Patrick Kelly, if you need some help being ruthless.
  • Does your main character grow in a way that is consistent with the overall image you are trying to paint? Character development, like scene development, should fit within the overall picture. Readers will be jarred by characters whose actions aren’t contributing to the overall story.
  • A small imperfection in the details of one image won’t spoil the overall effect of the hidden image. Remember that the details are there to contribute to the final, distant image, not to exist for themselves.
  • The big picture should not be superimposed on the story. Rather, it should be the natural outcome of the choices you made writing the story. Don’t go hitting your reader over the head with your big picture or refer to it outright in the text. Let the readers step back on their own and see it for themselves. They’ll appreciate the discovery of it more if they make it on their own than if you constantly tell them it is there.
  • And most importantly, is the story revealed by the big picture the story you wanted to tell? You may think you’ve gone in one direction, but the image revealed by a big picture read may show you’ve gone in another direction entirely. Many times this is just fine, but sometimes it isn’t. Either way, you should identify what your overall story is actually saying.

Big picture thinking is important for every story, but it is particularly important for book-length stories. It’s the big picture that will keep the reader on track and interested. It also gives the story re-read value. If they love the big picture, they’ll return over and over again to see how each piece fits into it, to find the details they missed to see how those build the image too. The details and the big picture should work together to make a fascinating image that works both close up and from a distance.

Step back. Pull your head out of the details, and view your story as a whole. It may surprise you.

Final Poll Results

Just Call Me Trickster: Six Ways To Write What You Don’t Know

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Write what you know. It’s right up there with “show, don’t tell” as one of the adages that writers hear most often. But what exactly does “write what you know” mean?

When I first heard the phrase uttered by my creative writing seminar leader in my first year of university, I took it literally and wrote about, well, what I knew. Unfortunately, “what I knew” was rather limited, and this approach was greeted with polite derision. Perplexed and frustrated—I mean, what did this mean? Was I not supposed to write at all then?—I reacted by writing instead about obviously fictional subjects. This didn’t go over any better, but at least the snippy remarks and glazed eyes didn’t hurt so much. Then one day, bored in English class, I wrote a poem (see sidebar) that was inspired by the smell of fresh cut grass coming in the open window. It was about a death.

exampleNow at this point in my life, I’d been to exactly one funeral, that of a guy in my grad class who was a friend of friends, i.e. not someone I knew well. And while my maternal grandmother had died when I was five, her death didn’t have a strong impact on me, probably because two years prior we’d moved cross-country, and had only been back to visit twice, and so the difference between death and distance was negligible.

So death? What did I know? Not much. And yet, this poem kicked the folks in my seminar out of their ennui. I could tell that for once they were actually listening, and when I finished reading, they had questions. At the top of the list: “Who died?”

I was probably too quick to admit that no one had, and too flippant when I told them the real story of how it had come about. At first they didn’t believe me—or they didn’t want to—and when they finally did, they acted as if I’d tricked them. Maybe this was because a lot of people think of poetry as being non-fiction. Or because people take pride in their ability to spot the fakes. Or because they wanted to believe I had a deep, dark secret I’d eventually share. I can’t know for sure. What I do know is that the fact that they wanted it to be real meant it had worked.

But why? How? I’d written something that had fallen into a gray area: it read “true” and yet was fictional. If one had to write about what one knew in order to have legitimacy, had I somehow written about something I did know and didn’t realize it?

As it turns out, there’s quite a lot in this poem that I did know. The “I” in the poem was on some level, me. The settings and situations—aside from the internment—were ones I was familiar with, and so the sensory awareness was real. The kicker, of course, was the emotional punch. What I had described was a real reaction to a loss, personified by a death. I had used what I knew to write about what I didn’t know. And that, in my opinion, is why it worked, and is what “writing what you know” is really about.

There are three main things to remember when writing what you don’t know:

  • you know more than you think you do,
  • it’s easier than you think to expand your experience-base, and
  • don’t forget your imagination.

Background Image: Jessamyn West/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Here are six techniques to help you write what you don’t know:

  1. Extrapolate your own experience. All of us have a wealth of experiences. The problem is, most of them seem so ordinary that we don’t think of them as “experiences” at all, and thus we dismiss them or don’t even consider them. But everything is an experience, and no matter how seemingly ordinary, it probably can be used in some way: a person who likes to cook on an amateur level could easily stretch and write about a character who’s a chef. When you’ve decided what you want to write about, take an inventory. Go back as far as you can in your memory and make a list of all the experiences that may assist you. For example, if you’re writing about a character who has to deal with the death of someone close to them, your list might start out something like:
    • death of beloved dog, Spike
    • favorite aunt moving to Timbuktu
    • boyfriend of 5 years breaking up with “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse
  2. Simulate the experience. There may come a time when you want to write about something that you haven’t had an experience even approximating. Say your character immigrates to the New World on a ship and you’ve never been on a boat of any size. In some cases, like this one, it may be difficult or even impossible for you to experience exactly what your character does. You’re unlikely to be traveling across the Atlantic by boat these days, either in first class or as a stowaway in the hold. However, you can get out on the water, even if you’re not near an ocean. A lake or river will do just fine. There are lots of options: hop on a ferry, ask a friend for a ride in their ski boat, go on a cruise. Feel the wind and water spray on your face and get your sea legs. Then write about it.
  3. Do it yourself. While killing someone near and dear to you to “see how it feels” is not an option (no, it’s really not), there are lots of things you can do, you just haven’t. A writing friend once asked what beer tasted like. Why’d she want to know? Because she’d never had one and her character was drinking beer. In a situation like this, the best option is to just do it. Go out to a pub and have a pint, or buy yourself a six-pack to sip while you write. Not all situations will be so easy to rectify, but if skydiving plays a big role in your story, then you should probably skydive, at least once. You don’t have to get serious about the activity; a tandem jump with an instructor will do the trick.
  4. Interview. Non-fiction writers use this technique all the time, but fiction writers often forget to consider it, even though we often get ideas from things that happen around us, things that happen to friends or family, or that we read about in the newspaper or see on TV. If you have a idea for a story based on a real-life event of which you were not a participant, ask someone who’s experienced what you’re writing about to share with you what the experience was like. For example, if one of your characters is pregnant, have a chat with someone who’s actually been pregnant. Not only can a personal interview back up or verify any research you do, it’ll help authenticate your voice, because you’ll pick up on the little quirks that each person has that make their experience unique.
  5. Research. Some things aren’t possible to experience or simulate—and there won’t always be someone around to ask. The further in time or distance your subject is from your personal experience, the more likely it is that you’ll have to do research. Anyone writing historical fiction, unless possessed with the ability to time travel, will need to do some research to get the period details right. Research is all about incorporating just enough recognizable truth so that the fictional elements you introduce seem just as real, and aren’t questioned by your readers: if you’re writing science fiction, your fantastic ideas will become believable if you ground them in legitimate science.
  6. Use your imagination. Sometimes your only option—or your best one—is to break the rules. Start with what you do know and play “what if?” What if that time you car slipped on a patch of black ice, you hadn’t managed to control the spin? What if you hadn’t married your spouse? What if you wrote 500 words a day instead reading blogs? What if you said what you wanted to your boss instead of biting your tongue? What if humans had tails? Scary? Unlikely? Outrageous? Maybe. But characters who lead boring, safe, ordinary lives aren’t very interesting. We want to read about the harried assistant who lashes out at her boss, thereby setting in motion a wacky chain of events, not the one who quietly hates her job for 40 years but never says or does anything about it (yawn!).

So you see, you can write about what you don’t know— and if you use one or more of these techniques, you can “trick” readers into believing you know what you don’t.

Final Poll Results

Slap! Assigned Writing

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By Mollie Savage (Bonnets)

Assigned writing. Do thoughts of ugh, yipes or never again run through your mind?

At some point in our lives, in school and possibly at work, we have all been asked to write about a topic that hasn’t carried much interest for us or was so overwhelming that it seemed like drudge work. Remember all those ‘boring’ reports and essays you had to write in school? Have you ever considered entering a writing contest, like those we sponsor at Toasted Cheese, read the topic and said to yourself, “Yipes, I couldn’t write about questioning authority in 48 hours to save my life.” This is about how to get beyond the notion that assigned writing is work, and discover ways to enjoy and effectively write about anything.

Background Image: Alex|movetheclouds/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

I remember an assignment in junior high, “Write your autobiography.” I’m sure I wrote something extremely boring, beginning with “I was born in Michigan.” My best friend Nancy, however, began hers with, “Slap! I entered the world screaming and haven’t stopped making noise since.” I wish I could tell you the rest of what she wrote but that was over 30 years ago. That opening line, well, who wouldn’t remember that?

Nancy took a fresh, vibrant approach to her assignment. Having fun and successfully writing something assigned is about excavating beyond the rubble of what you think is expected and writing about the unexpected.

Consider a short story contest with the theme natural disaster. You may think of an earthquake, for example, but take that notion beyond an earthquake and write about what might feel like an earthquake. A car rams into a house shaking it, two teenagers are having sex, the girl freaks, “I knew it was a sin” and runs from the house to see her parent’s car smashed into the house. The mother dies. Death = natural. Build the story: tell of how the family disintegrates = disaster, conclusion the rebuilding of the family = how nature recuperates from disaster.

Some editors may not feel that you addressed the subject. BUT, if you write well enough the editor(s) will recognize your innovative approach and consider your submission, and who knows you may even win!

The same holds true for non-fiction writing. If you want to get published, local weekly papers are a great opportunity. Offer to attend the school board and city council meetings not covered by the paper. Yes, they can be boring, but there is always a story there. Dig among the rubble: new textbooks? Don’t just write about that, go behind the scene, ask what was the decision-making process, who was involved, why did they choose a particular publisher. It’s fun; teachers and administrators love to talk, unless they’ve made a bad public decision, and then you have a field to explore. Dig deep, be polite and think creatively.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, here are a few things to consider.

Remember your readers. Successful writing makes the reader think of life in a broader context. When possible, move from the specific to a universal theme the reader can relate to.

Use the active voice. There are three basic elements to a sentence: subject, verb, object. Example: Mollie, bite, mosquito. Depending on what happened you could write: The mosquito bit Mollie or Mollie bit the mosquito. DO NOT write in the passive voice: the mosquito was bitten by Mollie. Believe me, when I try to bite a pesky mosquito as I enjoy the setting sun it is very active. Engage your readers in the present.

Be descriptive and lively as you tell your story. You’ve read a million times: show, don’t tell. This is true and can’t be repeated enough. Use the active voice and tell your reader, “As she enjoyed the quiet sunset, the buzzing of a mosquito disturbed Mollie. She waited, moving her jaw in anticipation. When the menacing pest landed on her arm she bent forward in a slow, practiced manner. Chomp, she bit the pest.”

Gag. Just so you know I slap. But you get the picture don’t you?

Final Poll Results

Poetry 101: Getting Started

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By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

  1. If you want to write poetry, you must read poetry.
    …and I don’t mean stuff posted on message boards by other amateurs.

In a recent Newsweek article, “Poetry is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?”, Bruce Wexler wrote, “[P]oetry is the only art form where the number of people creating it is far greater than the number of people appreciating it. Anyone can write a bad poem.” Oh, so true. When I was hosting a poetry forum and chat, this is the thing that bugged me most about the so-called poets who posted and chatted there. They didn’t read poetry, which meant they had only a vague idea what a poem was, let alone a good poem. Few owned a book of poetry and most were hard-pressed to name a living poet.I simply don’t understand this. Why would anyone want to write in a genre they don’t enjoy reading? Who’s ever heard of a mystery writer who doesn’t read mysteries?

If you want to have any sort of credibility as a poet, you must read poetry. Hokey verses in greeting cards don’t count. Focus on contemporary poetry, just as you’d read contemporary novels if you were a fiction writer. Many would-be poets, if they read anything at all, seem to stick exclusively to classics. I surmise this is because most pre-twentieth century poetry rhymes, and they see rhyming poetry as being “real” poetry. Reality is, poetry is comprised of many elements; rhyme is but one.

A good place to start is Poetry Daily, which features a new poem every day, culled from literary journals. Many literary journals have online versions, some featuring excerpts from the latest issue. We have an extensive listing of journals at Mustard & Cress. You can find print versions in the magazine section of most bookstores (keep in mind that most lit mags have small circulations, so which ones are available will depend on where you live).

If you find a journal you especially like, consider a subscription. If you find a particular poet whose work you enjoy, look for a collection. Reading an entire book by a single poet is a different experience than reading poems piecemeal. And, as John Hewitt says in his Poetry Writing Tips, it’s important to “[g]ive back to the poetry community by reading (and paying for) the works of others. If you don’t, what right have you to expect others to do it for you?”

Poetry 101: Getting Started

Background Photo: takomabibelot/Flickr (CC-by).

  1. Learn to analyze and critique.
    …and for the record, “I liked it!” isn’t a critique and “I don’t get it” isn’t an analysis.

A poet must understand how the genre works: how poets use and combine words to convey meaning, how the rhythm of poetry is different from prose. I guarantee that learning to critique will make you a better poet. Once you can identify what other poets have done right–and wrong–you’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to your own work.For many, this step will dredge up memories of bad high school English classes. It did me. In school, I had a love-hate relationship with poetry. I loved how the words made me feel when I read them aloud without thinking; I hated dissecting those words to find the “hidden meaning”–the shreds that were left were always so much less than the whole.

I knew there was something desperately lacking in this approach, but not knowing what it was, I simply scoffed at the whole process. My experience isn’t unusual. Rhia Perkins, freelance writer and Toasted Cheese host, says, “I hated studying poetry in high school, because all we did was tear it apart. When I got to university, I had professors who taught me to take it apart gently, then put it back together again, and I had a wonderful time with that.”

In his poem “Introduction to Poetry“, American poet laureate Billy Collins describes how he wants his students to gently probe poems, “But all they want to do / is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it.”

Undoubtedly, these students were taught the machete-attack approach to understanding poetry in high school. But as Collins indicates, it’s not the only way, nor the right way. Karen Swank-Fitch, a poet who writes the Coffeehouse for Writers “Writing Perc” newsletter, has outlined six steps to understanding poetry: question, clarify, listen, summarize, paraphrase, and put it all together.

In my high school English classes we concentrated almost exclusively on clarifying the meaning of figurative language–something that’s not satisfying or meaningful without context.

Remember Dead Poet’s Society? Take your time approaching a poem. Don’t gloss over what the words make you see or feel. Read it, then read it again. Set it aside and come back to it. Read it aloud. Ask yourself what you think the writer wanted to say. Ask yourself what it means to you. Ask yourself how you’d approach the same topic.

When you’re done, don’t forget to put it all together. One way to do this is to write poems you like out longhand. When you do this, you’ll find your hand moving as the poet’s did, your breath as the poet’s did. You slide inside the poem and it becomes yours if only for a moment. Keep a notebook, and copy into it poems that inspire you, that make you want to write. When the book’s full, you’ll have your very own personalized anthology–one that isn’t just good reading, but is a document of your growth as a poet.

  1. Practice, practice, practice.
    …and then practice some more.

Take time to just write. Creativity guru Natalie Goldberg advises beginning writers to simply write–fill notebooks–for two years before even thinking about publishing. In Wild Mind, she notes how her students often balk at this advice: “But I’m taking this time to write–I have to prove myself. I have to publish, do meaningful work. I can’t just fill notebooks.”But writing isn’t any different from any other skill–it requires practice. Think of it this way: if you were an athlete, would expect to make it to the Olympics the first time you attempted a sport? Of course not. It’s bizarre how many people seem think all they have to do is decide to write, and there will be an audience waiting to read what they have to say. The truth is, every conceivable topic has been covered thousands of times before. What’s going to distinguish your work from someone else’s is not what you have to say, it’s how you say it.

I’ve found that beginning writers usually fall into one of two camps: those who don’t realize that their writing sounds childish (or teenager-ish) and those who do realize it, and despair that they’re stuck there.

When the first group rushes to submit, it leads to bitterness and anger– they don’t understand why their poems keep being rejected. When the second group rushes to submit, it leads to doubts about their worthiness and writer’s block.

More than anything else, beginning writers need to realize they’re re-starting where they left off. This means if you haven’t written a poem since you were eight, you’re going to write poetry like an eight-year-old, not a 27-year-old or a 43-year-old or whatever your chronological age is. But also realize this: practice and you’ll improve, far faster than you did as a child, because now you have an adult’s intelligence and years of experience to draw upon.

There’s no money in poetry, so there’s no reason to rush to publish. You’re going to have to keep your day job regardless of how successful you become. So take your time. It will pay off in the end.

One more thing: Even if poetry is your primary genre, write some prose occasionally. Margaret Atwood’s “theory is that poetry is composed with the melancholy side of the brain, and that if you do nothing but, you may find yourself going slowly down a long dark tunnel with no exit.”

  1. Take a Class.
    …not because it will teach you to write, but because it will teach you about writing.

Pretty much the only things I kept from my first year of university were my Norton Introduction to Literature and the pieces I wrote in my creative writing seminar. It was my favorite class, even though my seminar leader, poet Patricia Young, didn’t like my writing, and I didn’t think she offered much helpful advice; her suggestions always seemed geared to making everyone’s writing–especially their poetry–sound like hers.

My writing back then was awkward, unpolished, trite. I was 18, had grown up in a series of small towns, and had never had the opportunity to take a writing class or discuss writing with anyone before. Anything of interest that had happened to me was still too fresh for me to have enough perspective to write about it in any meaningful way.

So why wasn’t it an unmitigated disaster? The class gave me my first opportunity to discuss the writing process with other writers, to workshop writing: read my writing aloud and feel the sting of criticism and, infrequently, the rush of praise. Almost subconsciously, I absorbed the names and work of various writers and poets. I even learned a little about the publishing side of writing; I’d been so green I didn’t even know literary journals existed. I also learned that writers can be cliquey and self-centered. That good writers don’t necessarily make good teachers. That “good” is subjective. The culture of writing I steeped in that year has lingered and resonated. It has ended up being something I could build on.

At its core, writing is a solitary activity. A class isn’t a substitute for long hours alone with pen or keyboard; it’s a supplement. A class can jumpstart your writing, or sharpen it. Sharing your work forces you to step back and look at it from an outsider’s point of view–it gives you perspective.

There are classes to meet every budget and schedule: night classes at colleges, summer writing programs, online workshops. Find one that works for you. And remember, even if the teacher turns out to be a pompous bore or your classmates don’t “get” your writing, you will have still learned something.

  1. Don’t sabotage yourself.
    …write poems that have a fighting chance at publication.
  • Write in free verse. Writing in rhyme and/or form is a challenge, and can be a great exercise — as Hewitt says, “[M]ost of my favorite poets learned how to write in forms before they discarded them. Writing in form is a challenge. It makes you think.” — but it’s not what editors are looking for. It’s extremely hard to rhyme well, and most poets who try to rhyme end up choosing words that aren’t the best choice just to force the rhyme. Instead of rhyme, try consonance (repetition of consonants), assonance (repetition of vowels), alliteration (repetition of initial sounds in words). To add form, try repetition of lines with similar numbers of syllables.
  • Describe a moment that implies a story, rather than telling the whole story. Consider what Marge Piercy has to say about a poem’s birth: “Poems start from a phrase, an image, an idea, a rhythm insistent in the back of the brain.” If you consistently find yourself writing complete sentences, narratives, or developing characters or plots, perhaps your ideas are better suited to prose.
  • Lie. One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is sticking rigidly to the facts. You’re a poet, not Joe Friday. Yes, poetry is often based in real-life experiences, and many poems seem autobiographical, but listen to Atwood: “About no subject are poets tempted to lie so much as about their own lives; I know one of them who has floated at least five versions of his autobiography, none of them true.” If you are willing to blend fiction with fact, you will write better poems.
  • Avoid tackling “big” subjects–e.g. love, hate, war, peace–head on. Instead, write about specifics that are representative of grander themes. As Hewitt says, “[t]he bigger your point, the more important the details are.” I think it’s best when a poem about something like love doesn’t mention the word “love” at all–and especially not in the title.
  • Show emotion in an understated, subtle way. Don’t be melodramatic, and don’t tell readers how to feel. An image of a woman pulling a blanket out of an empty crib and breathing in the milky baby smell is much more poignant than repeating ad nauseum how sad the mother is because her baby has died.
  • Don’t write poems so arcane an explanation is required before anyone gets something from them. On the other hand, do allow room for interpretation. Hewitt: “Say what you want to say, let the reader decide what it means. Don’t explain EVERYTHING”. I’ve seen poets get angry when a reader interprets the poem differently than what the poet intended. When you send a poem out into the world, realize that you let go of control.
  1. A first draft is not a final draft.
    …even if John Tesh steals it.

The appeal of poetry to beginning writers is simple: one can sit down and write a poem in a few minutes. It seems easy. Or, at least, far easier than writing a novel.In On Writing Poetry, Atwood remembers how the day she became a poet “a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of [her] head. A poem formed. … It was a gift.” While I don’t remember anything as dramatic, I am sure my first poem came to me whole. I suspect many poets had a similar experience, which is why they later confuse initial inspiration with polished poetry.

If you’re writing for yourself, as a way of freewriting, journaling, or even therapy, write what you need to. But if you plan to inflict your poetry on anyone else, you have to edit. Writing poetry for publication is work. Inspiration is just the beginning. Therapeutic poetry can be a stepping-stone, the writing practice Goldberg speaks of, a way of getting in touch with your “wild mind”, but it is never a finished product.

The conciseness of poetry means there is little room for error. We can forgive a few ho-hum paragraphs in a book; after all, there we’re talking at least a couple hundred pages. A lame sentence or two might not ruin the overall effect of a short story or article. But one misplaced word can destroy a poem. Poems must be rewritten and revised until each word is perfectly chosen and perfectly placed.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of poems being composed today are dashed off by amateurs in moments of “inspiration”, and then shared, posted, or submitted without further thought, much like the “Seven Minute Poem” John Tesh has been accused of plagiarizing. This, what Piercy calls “overvalu[ing] the spontaneous”, is rampant on poetry forums.

Resist the urge to share your work immediately upon its completion. Instead set it aside for a time after writing. Write something else. When you return to it, give it a first edit. Cut clichés. Eliminate unnecessary words; be ruthless with adjectives and adverbs. Make sure that your nouns and verbs are strong, and that you’ve used fresh images and comparisons.

Piercy: “When I rewrite a poem, I go back into the space of the poem and contemplate it. I read it aloud. The only other time when I work on revising a poem is the first or second time I read it to an audience, when all the weak and incoherent parts suddenly manifest themselves big as the writing on billboards.”

Trying it out on an audience can mean posting on a forum or sharing in a class, as well as the literal audiences of poetry readings. But with poetry, reading aloud is an essential part of the editing process. Word order, line breaks, and punctuation all affect where breaths are placed, which in turn affects the cadence of the poem. If you can’t read for an audience, consider recording yourself reading the poem aloud so you can play it back and listen.

  1. Be Discriminatory.
    …no one’s going to give you $20K for a 20-line poem. Honest.

Always read at least one issue of a journal before you submit to it. You’ll be looking for a journal that’s a good fit style-wise, but also ask yourself if you’d feel comfortable or even honored to have your work featured amongst the other work you see there. If no, strike that journal off your list and look elsewhere. The last thing you want is for publication to be an embarrassment.Avoid journals that publish indiscriminately; a credit in one of these does nothing to enhance your credibility. It’s okay to publish in this type of journal once or twice just to get some practice querying and submitting, and to build your confidence, but take them for what they are, and move on once you’ve got the hang of it.

Beware of poetry scams, in particular the kind that promise big prize money, tell you’re a finalist in a competition, and try to seduce you into buying an expensive anthology, e.g. the International Library of Poetry ( A good rule of thumb with poetry: if you’re promised more than a copy of the journal or an honorarium, be skeptical.

Don’t be afraid to publish poems individually, but make sure you retain the right to republish your work. Poetry collections usually consist of previously published poems. The market for poetry is small, and a publisher generally won’t consider publishing a collection until the poet has established herself, unless she’s already famous for some other reason (e.g. Jewel). A reputable print or online journal will explain what rights they want up front, usually in their submission or writer’s guidelines.


Margaret Atwood, On Writing Poetry
John Hewitt, Poetry Writing Tips
Marge Piercy, Life of Prose and Poetry — An Inspiring Combination
Miriam Sagan, Write Poems That Get Published!
Karen Swank-Fitch, Six Tactics for Understanding Poetry, in Coffeehouse for Writers “Writing Perc” newsletter
Bruce Wexler, Poetry Is Dead. Does Anybody Really Care?, Newsweek (May 5, 2003)

Final Poll Results

Making Smiles: Writing sex scenes outside the erotica and romance genres

Absolute Blank

By Trina Talma (Banker)

“One thing you can be sure of: antiques and sex are scary,” muses Jonathan Gash’s womanizing antiques dealer, Lovejoy. “Which one’s more frightening than the other, I don’t really know, but they run it close.”

For many writers, of course, the answer is easy: sex is scarier. At least, writing about it is. For romance and erotica writers, the sex scene is usually a requirement for the story. Sex can be an important part of stories in other genres as well, and learning to write about it can be an important part of your writing education. But before your characters start “making smiles” (my favorite Lovejoy euphemism), there are a few things to consider.

Making Smiles


As George Michael once put it, “Sex is natural, sex is good/Not everybody does it, but everybody should.” But this doesn’t always hold true for your characters. The most important thing to ask yourself when you consider writing a sex scene is, “Is this necessary for my story?” Does it advance the plot? Does it help develop the characters? If your answer to these questions is “no,” skip it. Don’t throw sex into the plot out of a desire to make the story “more interesting” to your readers, or in an attempt to make the story more saleable. Discerning readers will recognize gratuitous sex for what it is, and will be less likely to respect your work.

Think about sex scenes in your favorite books or movies. Can you as reader or viewer recognize the reason(s) why they were included? When you know your characters well enough, you’ll know whether they should “get together”—or why they shouldn’t. Although we’re concentrating mainly on writing novels or short stories here, it can be instructive to look at movies as an example. A lot of beginning writers these days unfortunately seem to get their ideas about storytelling from movies and TV rather than from books. For example, you can hardly watch an action movie these days without being presented with at least one gratuitous sex scene. Some of them are well done, certainly (though I’m having a hard time bringing one to mind), but do they need to be there? Except in the sense that they give us a little breather from flying bullets and car chases, the answer is usually no.

Fortunately there are fewer examples of gratuitous sex scenes in literature, probably thanks mainly to editors who can spot the problem and get rid of it. It’s too bad Clive Cussler didn’t have one when he wrote about the encounter between his manly action hero, Dirk Pitt, and lovely scientist Dana Seagram in his book Raise the Titanic! The scene mainly seems there to prove that every married woman (represented by Dana) secretly longs to have an affair with another man; true or not, that has little to do with the rest of the book. Cussler should be especially ashamed of the way he begins the scene: “‘Dirk, Dirk!’ she whispered urgently. ‘Nothing makes any sense any more. I want you. I want you now, and I don’t really know why.'” The movie version of the book is even worse: Dana simply says, “Take me now!” While that sort of dialogue may be appropriate for a romance novel, it doesn’t belong in the action-adventure genre. And as the sex itself has little impact on either character (see the section “Did the Earth Move?” below), the scene comes off as pointless.

In the Mood

The most memorable sex scenes are those that create a suitable mood for the scene. In the movies this can be done with lighting and music, but in writing you don’t have those options. You can set the tone for a sex scene the same way you can for any other scene: the characters’ surroundings, the weather, the time of day, etc. All of these contribute to the mood, whether it be serious, comic, or somewhere in between. Setting the right mood can help define your characters and their relationships to one another, serve as symbolism, and even foreshadow future events.

We’re all familiar, from movies and TV, with the “angry sex” scenes: the hero and heroine have utterly loathed each other through the entire story, then suddenly, in the middle of a heated argument, they start tearing each others’ clothes off and rolling around on the floor. Events taking place before the sex can be as important in setting the mood as those taking place during it. Again, this will depend largely on the characters’ relationship with each other. If they’ve never seen eye to eye, having them argue before sex is just part of the whole experience. They may argue afterward too, which would probably be more realistic than having them suddenly agree on everything because they’ve had sex. I’ve never written an “angry sex” scene myself, simply because I find them clichéd and unrealistic in movies and TV shows, but that’s not to say they can’t work given the right combination of characters and circumstances.

In The Doomfarers of Coramonde, author Brian Daley sets a mood of love in wartime, in a scene between Vietnam veteran Gil MacDonald, who has been transported from our world to another, and the Lady Duskwind. In her bedroom they are interrupted by an alarm announcing a sighting of the evil sorcerer Yardiff Bey and Gil, ever the soldier, forgets seduction to deal with the threat:

“I have to go,” he said. “This changes things. We’ll be awfully busy before long.” His thoughts were already on how they might counteract this disadvantage, make it work for them.

He moved to the door, and she felt a chill breeze that didn’t come of night airs …She didn’t want him to go out just now, to order the affairs of battle and let warm possibilities become cool.

Duskwind quickly changes Gil’s mind:

…Her skin was amazingly warm and the scents of her, the perfume at her throat and the exotic, unnameable aroma of her hair, made blood beat at his temples.

He kissed her harshly even as her fingers found the buckle at his waist. But she pulled her head back.

“Softly, my friend,” she whispered in his ear. “I’m no rough soldier’s woman. The night stretches ahead; shall we squander it in impatience and haste?”

The two find not only love, but also a respite from the terrors and exhaustion of war.

The fun part about setting a mood is that the details can vary as much as characters themselves do. In Jonathan Gash’s book, The Grace In Older Women, from which the quote at the beginning of this article is taken, we first discover our hero Lovejoy in the middle of a hurried sexual encounter in the woods, with a woman he’s hoping to seduce out of some valuable antiques. Readers familiar with the character will recognize this as typical behavior. Later in the book, Lovejoy is summoned to the bedroom of a wealthy client, where he watches her eating pastries in her bed. The always-starving Lovejoy can’t decide which is more seductive: the lady or the food:

God, but the grub was tantalizing. I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Roberta cut herself a slice of some chocolate-covered thing …I heard myself moan with lust. Roberta, I noticed, as she started on the new slice, was slowly shedding her nightdress …Her breast appeared. She ate on, baring her shoulders …Her eyes closed, ecstatic at the taste. Her tongue flicked her lips …It was marvelous to watch her eat, except the word eat sounds too indelicate for the way which the morsels were chosen, inspected, and elegantly assimilated into that beautiful mouth. To think it actually became part of her, a total act of union. Like watching osmosis to music …It was beautiful to watch the selfish bitch eat while I starved to frigging death. Then the covers parted slowly to admit me.

There wasn’t a single crumb in the bed!

At last, he chooses the lady: “I abandoned all other appetites in appeasement of the great human hunger.”

The Not-So-Dirty Details

When it comes to the sex scene itself, you have two choices: close the (literal or figurative) door and let the characters have their privacy, or stay and find out what happens. If you’re writing a short work with a word limit, you’ll probably want to skip to the aftermath to save some literary time. If your sex scene is part of a novel, you may want to take the time to explore things more fully.

To a large degree your choice may come down to your comfort level. A fellow writer confesses to having written sex scenes in coffeehouses—although she says she writes “really small.” Other people prefer to be behind closed doors, while still others cringe and blush at the very idea of writing about sex. If you find yourself in the latter category, yet still think your characters should have sex, your best option is probably to leave your characters alone in the bedroom. Time and practice may change your mind; you might try taking a plunge and reading some erotica for a look at how other writers deal with sex scenes.

Before I wrote my first sex scene, I was definitely in the cringe-and-blush category. This was partly due to my own inexperience with writing about sex, and partly due to the question, “What will people think of me when they read this?” But I struggled through, wrote it, and revised it several times until it said what I wanted it to say. Meanwhile I read sex scenes that other authors had written, both in erotica and in other genres. I still prefer privacy when I write about my characters having sex, although I write anything better when I’m left alone. These days, though, I no longer worry about what readers will think of me when they read my sex scenes—unless they’re thinking I’m a bad writer!

Speaking of bad writing, it seems that the area of sex leaves itself wider open for language pitfalls than almost any other subject. Your choice of language will depend on your genre and writing style, and hopefully will continue in the tone that you began to set before the sex scene. It will also depend on your level of comfort with the subject; it’s fairly easy to tell when a writer at any level of expertise is embarrassed to be writing about sex. One writer I know did a very good job of setting up her sex scene, but the act itself was described as “engaging in the exercise of love.” (Unique euphemism, but it sounds like they’re having sex at the gym.) Fortunately there is a wide area to tread between clinical descriptions of genitalia on the one side, and the purple prose of heaving bosoms and throbbing “manly organs” on the other. Many writers outside the erotica and romance genres choose to let their readers know what’s going on by implication rather than direct description, but avoid awkward euphemisms that can spoil the mood. In The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence details the marriage consummation of Tom Brangwen and his bride, Lydia:

…She was soothed by the stress of his embrace, and remained quite still, relaxed against him, mingling in to him. And he let himself go from past and future, was reduced to the moment with her. In which he took her and was with her and there was nothing beyond, they were together in an elemental embrace beyond their superficial foreignness.

Others choose to be more explicit, like V.C. Andrews in Petals on the Wind:

…He was slippery and wet with sweat. My legs were raised and clutched about his waist and I could feel the terrible effort of his restraint …Then he groaned and gave up.

Hot juices spurted forth to warm up my insides pleasantly five or six times, and then it was over, all over, and he was pulling out. And I hadn’t reached any mountain high, or heard bells ringing, or felt myself exploding—not as he had. It was all over his face, relaxed and at peace now …How easy for men, I thought, while I still wanted more.

For your own work, it’s your choice.

Consistency of tone and style with the rest of your story or novel is an important consideration. A thriller, for example, should not suddenly turn into a rapturous exploration of the wonders of love. Your hard-boiled-detective narrator should not start spouting Shakespearean sonnets to his one-night stand (unless he’s not really as hard-boiled as he seems). The better you know your characters and the more you develop your own style, the easier this will become.

Did the Earth Move?

What comes after sex can be more important than what comes before. This is a good place to further explore the relationship between your characters, especially if they’re having sex for the first time. In the movie When Harry Met Sally …, Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan’s characters rush off soon after sex to share their guilty feelings with their best friends. In the example from V.C. Andrews above, the narrator is clearly left disappointed by the sex. F. Paul Wilson, in The Keep, presents the thoughts of both Magda Cuza and her new love, whom she knows as Glenn, after their first sexual encounter. First we see Glenn’s point of view:

…it was wrong to let her care when he didn’t even know if he would be walking away from here, Perhaps that was why he had been driven to be with her …He couldn’t afford to care now. Caring could distract him …And yet if he did manage to survive, would Magda want anything to do with him when she knew the truth about him? …He did not want to lose her. If there were any way to keep her after all this was over, he would do everything he could to find it.

While Glenn worries about the future, Magda’s emotional response is more immediate:


That’s what it was. Magda had never imagined how wonderful it could be to awaken in the morning and find herself wrapped in the arms of someone she loved. Such a peaceful feeling, a safe feeling. It made the prospect of the coming day so much brighter to know that there would be Glenn to share it with.

In most cases your characters’ lives will have to go on after they have sex, and it is up to you to decide how much of an impact their liaison will have on the rest of the story.

Science fiction and fantasy writers have a unique opportunity in exploring the impact of sex on their characters. In invented worlds, the characters having sex may not be men and women; they could be elves, ghosts, alien species, even machines. Characters of different species may find themselves in an uphill battle when contemplating—or committing to—having sex with each other. Fans of the TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will be familiar with Buffy’s travails in her relationships with vampires Angel and Spike. In Tanith Lee’s The Silver Metal Lover, the life of the narrator, Jane, is changed forever when she falls in love with, and loses her virginity to, a “better-than-human” robot named Silver. Kati, the heroine of James Glass’s Shanji, finds that she can’t overcome the bigotry of a man who discovers her true nature during sex:

…His hands pushed against her shoulders as she reached climax; she lost his mouth at that instant, and what came from her was not a woman’s cry of pleasure, but a deep, rumbling growl that went on and on.

She opened her eyes as the growl subsided, and Lui-Pang was still straddling her, eyes wide and staring …his chin was covered with blood from a wound in his lip.

“What have I done?” he said, looking terrified. “What was I thinking of? I should have known, I should have—oh, I can’t! I just can’t do this! We are not—alike!”

Non-human characters are bound to have different morals and sexual habits than humans. They may even have more than two genders. Exploring what happens when they have sex with each other—or with humans—presents a challenge for fantasy or sci-fi writers, one that they have met in many different ways.

Afterglow— er, —word

Like any other part of your writing education, learning to write about sex is best accomplished in two ways: read what others have written, and keep revising your own writing (with the help of other writers’ critiques) until you feel you’ve done the best you can. Sex scenes provide some interesting challenges for a writer, and they can also bring the rewards of adding depth and dimension to your characters and plot. It’s up to you to decide how far you and your characters will go, but getting there can be fun.

Final Poll Results

The short, sweet guide
to writing query letters

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Updated April 2009

Ah those blissful days when you first finish your novel. You might take a little time to bask in your own glory or you might dive into rewrites. In any case, sooner or later, you have to do it: find an agent to sell your novel to a publisher, so that others will bask in your glory for you.

Maybe you don’t write fiction at all. Maybe you had an idea for an article for your favorite magazine so you decided to give it a try and darned if it doesn’t look pretty good. Maybe they’d buy it from you, if only you knew how to get it into an editor’s hands.

If you write for publication, you have to query. If you write short stories, creative non-fiction or certain kinds of non-fiction, you might never have to write a full-blown query letter. A few lines to introduce yourself and your story could be all you’ll ever need to send to an editor.

Some of you have a novel finished or a collection of short stories. Some of you have a few how-to or “personal experience” articles rattling around in your mind or collecting dust on your hard drive. You want people to read your work, right? So introduce yourself and your work to the right people with a query letter.

Background Image: Make Me Local/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

What’s a query letter?

A query letter is used to approach editors or agents about manuscripts. You’re saying “here’s what I have” and “does it interest you?” There are two possible responses: “yes” and “no.”

The agents I’ve queried have been cordial and professional. Some have asked for more based on my query. Some have said, “Not for me, thanks.” Some have sent back a form letter that they are not taking on new clients. No agent has ever sent back something like, “Are you serious?” They won’t do it to you either.

The worst response you’ll get is no response at all and, so long as you’ve included an SASE, anyone who doesn’t have the courtesy to reply is not someone with whom you’d want to work anyway.

Who to query

Send your novel’s query to an agent, not a publishing house. Reputable agents may be researched online at or in books like the annual Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. More information about how to choose an editor is available at

If you are querying an article, contact the publication directly. Make sure the editor you’re writing to is the right person to read your article and make sure that the person you’re contacting is still with the magazine.

For novels, novellas and short story collections

Many authors admit that writing a query is more difficult than writing a novel. Approach your query as though you were selling the story to the reader, not to an agent. Make every sentence count. If you bore the agent in a query, he might fear being bored by your novel.

Be general about the story. Don’t delve into your themes and symbolism and subplots. Leave them for the agent to discover. However, don’t be so general that the agent has no idea if the book is for his agency or not. Your summary should read more like the inside flap of a dust jacket than the back cover.

In writing the synopsis paragraphs, be vivid and economical with your word choice. Identify your intended audience or genre, if it’s not obvious. If you believe your book has an element that will make it stand out from others in the genre, tell the agent.

Some agents like an outline instead of a plot synopsis. In this case, your outline may be included on a second sheet of paper, separate from the query letter itself. Don’t get fancy; just write a tight outline and follow any suggestions laid out in the agent’s guidelines.

One way to structure your letter is as follows:

  • Paragraph 1: Begin with the reason you’re writing, the name of the book, the word count, the genre, etc. (example: “I am seeking representation for my mainstream novel, WHITHER THE EMU, complete at 80,000 words.”) For your word count, round to the nearest 1000.

Begin your synopsis by focusing on your main character and his predicament. Describe some other important characters. What is at stake? Where is the conflict? If you have room, you may want to make this a separate paragraph.

  • Paragraph 2: Continue your synopsis by getting into the book itself. Stay factual and open. Don’t try to rouse the agent’s curiosity by keeping plot twists to yourself. What’s the action? How do the characters interact? How does your main character change during the novel? How does the conflict manifest itself and how is it resolved? Remember: characters + problem = conflict and conflict + action = resolution and change.
  • Paragraph 3: This is where you get to introduce yourself as a writer. Include a line or two about why you wrote the story. Tell the agent about your qualifications, publishing history and any other relevant information. Following the guidelines you read when researching this agent, let her know that chapter samples, the first fifty pages or whatever samples she requests in her listing are available.

Stay professional, not personal. Don’t include information like what kind of dog you own or how many kids you have unless it’s relevant to the book or the market. Don’t confess that you’ve never been published.

Close professionally, with your contact information (phone number, e-mail address, etc.), and thank the agent for her consideration. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply.

For articles

If you use a formal query for your article, you will have an advantage over 90% of the writers submitting pieces for publication. Even if you submit electronically, follow the query letter format.

Follow the same basic structure of the novel query. For your word count, round to the nearest 100 words if your article is under 2000 words; round to the nearest 500 if the article is over 2000 words. Identify what section of the magazine you believe is best suited to your article. This will have the added benefit of showing the editor that you are familiar with the publication.

For your opening paragraph, present the idea up front (example: “Rumors abound as to the best way to get pregnant. Could some fertility myths be true?”). Be specific and persuasive. Use these paragraphs to showcase your writing style.

For your middle paragraphs, give an idea of how the article unfolds. Include bullet points, sidebars and any other information relevant to the layout and presentation of the article once it is in print. If you have illustrations or ideas for illustrations, some editors want to hear it and some don’t. The best thing you can do is to follow the editorial guidelines. If you have illustrations or photographs to include with the article, mention that. The editor’s reply will include whether or not she is interested in the illustrations or if the magazine will use its own art department or freelance artists in this capacity.

You may also want to include a paragraph about why you have chosen this magazine for your article. How will the two compliment each other?

For your closing paragraph, include previous relevant publishing experience. If your work has been printed in similar “rival” magazines, mention it. It shows that your work is suited to this type of publication. Let the editor know why you are qualified to write this article. You have a little more leeway here than writers submitting novel queries. Mentioning personal experience can be a boon and do so, if it has bearing on the subject.


  • Use unusual fonts, colored paper or other “tricks” to stand out. Let your professionalism and writing ability create the “stand-out” quality you want
  • Call your novel a “fiction novel”
  • Send samples with your query unless the guidelines say you should
  • Send more than the agent asks for as a sample
  • Use pseudonyms. If the agent is interested in your work and takes you on as a client, you can discuss pseudonyms later
  • Mention how often your work has been rejected and/or by whom
  • Mention that you’ve never been published or are an “amateur” or that you write as a “hobby”
  • Tell the editor or agent that the piece “needs work” or ask for any upfront editing advice.
  • Discuss copyrights or payment
  • Query more than one piece of work per letter
  • Query the same agent or editor repeatedly after being rejected


  • Be professional from beginning to end
  • Limit your query letter to a single page, using a formal business letter format
  • Let your tone should reflect the piece. If it’s funny, have a lighter tone. If it’s serious, stay serious
  • Hook the reader in the first paragraph. Keep this paragraph 100% about your work, not about you. You’ll have the opportunity to talk about yourself at the end of the query
  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation must be perfect. Don’t leave it up to Word; ask someone to give it a once-over or come back to it after a cup of tea
  • Make sure the market matches the piece. Query relevant magazines. Query agents who specialize in your genre
  • Get to the point and stick to it
  • Research the agent or editor. Her guidelines supersede any advice in this article. Editors like to work with professional, respectful writers. Your query illustrates that you fall into that category
  • Respond quickly when an editor or agent shows interest

One more bit of advice

  • I believe the best rule of thumb is this: if your query sounds anything like the lyrics of “Paperback Writer,” start again from scratch.

Final Poll Results

[ April 2009 Update ]

In the six years since publishing our Absolute Blank article “The short, sweet guide to writing query letters,” the way in which we query has changed.

These days, agents accept more electronic queries (some take e-queries exclusively) and this means they want your hook right up front. Why? So that when the opening of your query shows in the agent’s inbox, they will see your hook. Agents, like anyone, love to be thrilled and they like to see a hook that compels them to open an e-query immediately.

So here’s how to structure an electronically-submitted query (e-query):

Paragraph 1: Your first or only line should be your hook. A hook is a single line meant to intrigue the reader. Agent Colleen Lindsay writes, “A strong hook in your initial query is going be the most effective tool you’ll have to help all of these other publishing and bookselling professionals sell your book.” Here are some examples of hooks from agent Nathan Bransford’s blog:

  • A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)
  • A reclusive chocolatier opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
  • A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
  • A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)

AgentQuery also provides guidance on how to craft your hook.

You can segue into your synopsis from here or leave your hook as a single-line paragraph. I recommend going into the synopsis, since some of that might show in the agent’s “preview” of the content of your e-mail as well.

Begin your synopsis by focusing on your main character and his predicament. Describe some other important characters. What is at stake? Where is the conflict? Talk about the action of the story without mentioning every plot point. Remember: you have one paragraph and one entire page to accomplish your query.

Paragraph 2: This information is unchanged from the original query formula we presented in 2003.

Paragraph 3: Here’s where you give the title of your novel, the word count (rounded to the nearest 1000 words), the genre and the fact that the novel is complete. If it’s not, you’ll need to hold off on your query.

You should also put your writer’s biography here. Include your credits (if any), and any personal data that’s relevant to your novel. For example, if your book is set on a horse ranch in Montana and you spent your college summers cooking toasted cheese sandwiches for ranchers in Wyoming, you might want to include it—or not. At a minimum, you’ll want to include your contact information: Name (Pen Name, if applicable), e-mail address, mailing address and phone numbers.

Thank the agent for her consideration and say that you look forward to hearing from her.

For land mail queries, you can follow this structure or the structure we presented in 2003. The trend is toward this structure but some agents might prefer the older style.

Additional resources:

-Stephanie Lenz

So you wanna be a reporter, huh?

Absolute Blank

By Rhia Perkins (Kittlekatt)

Writing journalistic nonfiction is one of the easiest ways to break into paying markets. And while there are pricey journalism schools out there that purport to teach you how (and they do! I went to one), following the basic tenets of good journalism will let anyone do a great job on reporting on local events and characters.

Remember, journalism is just storytelling. The main difference is that you let real people and events form the basic facts of the story. You must use the actual words of real people, and suppress your voice as much as you can. But the weaving of the piece is still up to you.

What are these basic tenets, you ask?

  • Be Fearless
  • Ask Good Questions
  • Never Assume
  • Focus
  • Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

Background Image: eltpics/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Be Fearless

One of the most important things a reporter must do is find the “experts” who can provide the information for a story. This can be a person who you are profiling, a researcher at a university, a public official, or just about anyone.

Once you’ve identified who you need to find and back up the facts of your story, you have to do the scary thing–cold call them.

Don’t be afraid–but don’t feel bad if you are. Just pick up the phone and dial. Generally, people will be more than happy to speak with you. But be persistent–even if they’re busy, they’ll often make room in their schedules for you if you explain exactly what you want, and how long you think the interview will take.

Make sure to be polite to receptionists and secretaries. Very often they’re the ones who’ll control whether or not you get a chance to talk to your expert. But be extra polite when you are calling individuals. They may be nervous about talking to you, so you must work hard to gain their trust.

Ask Good Questions

The only way you will get good quotes for your story is to ask good questions.

Make sure to ask questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”. Ask one question at a time, and make sure it’s a question, and not a statement.

The best open ended questions start with one of the 5 Ws. Who? What? Where? When? and Why? Don’t forget the H-questions, too. Asking “How?” can get you great detail.

Make sure to follow up on answers.

  • “What happened next?”
  • “What examples of that can you give me?”
  • “How did that make you feel?”
  • “What does that mean?” or better yet “How would you explain that to a six-year-old?”
  • “What led up to this?”
  • “How much did it/will it cost?”
  • “Where will you find the funding?”
  • “Who will benefit?”

If you’re working on a profile, ask questions that will give readers an idea of the person’s personality. (You could even ask your characters this kind of question when writing fiction.)

  • “What’s your earliest childhood memory?”
  • “What’s the scariest thing that ever happened to you?”
  • “How do you feel when you do XX?”
  • “Where’s the most exciting place you’ve done XX?”
  • “If you could be anyone in history, who would you be?”

And always end interviews with the following questions:

  • “Is there anything I’ve forgotten to ask you?”
  • “May I contact you again if I need clarification or more information?”

Be scrupulous in writing down your subject’s answers. Use a tape recorder if your notetaking can’t keep up with the conversation. But most important…

Never Assume

You cannot assume that your interview subject is telling you the truth.

They may not be lying, but may be working under false assumptions themselves. This means your probing questions are essential. If you have reason to doubt an answer, it’s okay to ask, “How do you know that?” or “What documentation do you have?”

For facts and figures, always try to get the paperwork. Try to confirm factual information through other means (the Internet, encyclopedias, library databases). Interview enough people to ensure you’ve looked at as many angles as you can. If there’s a point of contention, call back your subjects to confirm or clarify.


Now that you have your interviews, your additional research, and a good idea of your story–it’s time to focus it.

The scope of your article depends greatly on its length. If you’re writing 500 words, you can only look at one or two very specific aspects. If 1,000, you can dig a little deeper, or write a little broader. At 2,000 or more words, you’re reaching a point where you can look at all the aspects of a simple story, or the most important ones of a complex story.

Identify which points are essential to your readers. This is the meat of your story, those five Ws and one H. Next, you should identify the motivations, the causes for the what. These two aspects must be in every story. The next step is to write a clear focus statement: This person is doing this thing BECAUSE this reason is happening.

Hang the rest of your story off that statement. If a detail doesn’t apply to that sentence, it doesn’t belong in your story. And remember to tell most of the story through your QUOTES.

Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy

This phrase is often referred to as the three tenets of journalism. What it means is, GET EVERYTHING RIGHT! Sounds easy, right? It’s not, always.

Some good tips. Ask people to spell their names, and those of any people or organizations they refer to. Don’t assume you know how to spell a name. There are always alternate spellings. (Spike Jonze for example.) Repeat figures back to the person giving them to you (or better yet, get the paperwork.) Look up addresses in the phone book.

Go over your work several times to make sure you’ve got the facts right. There’s nothing that makes a writer look worse than a letter saying they’ve got basic facts wrong. But don’t worry, everyone screws up sometimes.

And make sure all the information is attributed to its source. Use “says”. “According to” makes it sound as though you doubt the source.

Basic Structure

When you sit down to create your story, keep just a few things in mind.

  1. A strong lead is essential. Your first sentence should grab the reader’s attention and get them reading. Stay away from wasting it with clichés (It’s that time of year again…) and from dry recitations of too many facts (Claire St. George, 43, was run over by a blue Dodge Neon at Barrington and Gottingen at 5:45 Tuesday morning). But do try and get enough detail to get people’s attention. Try: A fatal accident in downtown Halifax Tuesday morning marks the city’s 5th traffic fatality this month.
  2. The most important info goes at the top.
  3. Weave together info and quotes. Make sure to attribute all your quotes, and to insert plain paragraphs between quotes.

Now who do you write for?

A great market for beginning journalists is the alternative media. Look around the town you live in. It’s very likely there are several small publications distributed free of charge. Start picking them up. See what sort of stories they run, what sort of viewpoints they look at, what sort of audience they cater to.

When you’ve found one that interests you, make an appointment to speak with the editor, whether you have story ideas ready to go or not. You can even telephone or e-mail, but be sure to introduce yourself and give the editor an idea of your background and your interests. Ask them to assign you a small story when they have one. When they do, ask them if they have an idea who you should call for info.

Meet your deadline. Ask for feedback. Because most alternative papers publish weekly or less often, there’s a good chance they’ll be able to spend some time going over your story with you. Pay attention to their feedback, and be sure to follow up on any questions they’d like to see addressed.

You may have to write several drafts, but don’t lose hope. When you and the editor agree the story is ready to go, you’ll get your byline in the paper, and a cheque (hopefully!) to boot.

And when you’ve built your confidence, don’t be afraid to roam further afield. Try alternative papers in nearby towns, or send off an idea to a magazine. There’s nowhere to go but up.

Final Poll Results

Talking the Talk: Creating Language

Absolute Blank

By Lisa Olson (Boots)

If you’re writing a fantasy book, you have probably already begun creating a unique language for your world. Your characters are probably not named “Tom” or “Linda.” Your landmarks and towns are nearly impossible to pronounce, and your favorite animal so far is called the “fargachn.”

It’s almost unconscious in fantasy writers, our need to create new, unusual and strange words. It’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to this genre. We want to go outside the boundaries of the known into the unknown. We love to color outside the lines and it shows from the very beginning of our novels.

For about a year now, I’ve been creating a language for an online role-playing group of Amazons. (You can read more about this in my Fan Fiction article, “Working With A Net”, April 2002 here at Toasted Cheese.) It’s been both a chore and a labor of love. I’ve learned a lot in my struggle and decided to share a few of those hard lessons with you.

Background Image: eltpics/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Look at what you have before you start.

The major character names and the names you’ve given places are a good place to start looking at how your people speak. Did you add vowels to the end of all their place names? If so, consider doing that with the more common words, as well. What’s the ratio of hyphenated words to regular words? What’s the average length of a word? How much meaning does the word incorporate? These are all good indicators of how your regular words should shape up.

From Children of Dune by Frank Herbert:

He thought: Sietch Tabr is mine. I rule here. I am a Naib of the Fremen. Without me there would have been no Muad’Dib.

You can tell from the context what these words mean. All are place names or titles and each one helps you get into the story and remind you that you aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Keep it simple.

The temptation to create a hundred-word dictionary for your language is great. Unless you’re going to publish it as an independent novel, or as a companion to your novels, try to restrain yourself. Keep a list and keep track, but don’t bog yourself down by feeling as if you need all the words ever. Create what you need, and leave the rest.

Make it important.

As with all things in a novel or story, create important words instead of common ones. Titles, endearments, places and words of power will take your story farther than objects, colors, or normal activities. Give your words meaning and weight and make sure they’re furthering your story, not just cluttering it up.

From The Magic Of Krynn: The Legacy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman:

Quithain…” Plain repeated to himself. “Means… congratulations. Congratulations, Magus…”

He gasped, staring at Dalamar in disbelief.

“What does it mean?” demanded Caramon, glaring at the dark elf. “I don’t understand–”

“He is one of us now, Caramon,” said Dalamar quietly, taking hold of Palin’s arm and escorting him past his father. “His trials are over. He has completed the Test.”

Here, Palin realizes the importance of what Dalamar has told him in elvish. He also lets the readers in on the secret as he figures it out. Both words are important and are the only elvish used in the story, increasing its impact.

Don’t make it hard to say.

You should be able to speak your own language. If you write, “glrbsxnakl,” be sure your readers will be able to say it in their head. Words that are too long or full of vowels and consonants shoved together are going to be hard to get a mental handle on. Keep things easy to understand.

Use it sparingly.

Just because you created a word, doesn’t mean you should use it. As with all language, a certain amount of repetition is good and will help the reader learn your language in context. However, most readers want things plainly spelled out and easy to read. Pepper your language through your text instead of using it and only it.

From The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien:

“Elen sìla lúmenn omentilmo, a star shines on the hour of our meeting,” he added in the high elven-speech.

“Be careful, friends!” cried Gildor laughing. Speak no secrets! Here is a scholar in the Ancient Tongue.”

Here Bilbo speaks enough elvish to Gildor and his friends, proving he is worthy of their friendship and interest. For the rest of the conversation, including a song, no elvish is spoken, just referred to. We know it’s different and we know it’s there, we just aren’t hammered with it.

Use it yourself.

A great way to see if your invented word or phrase works is to use it. Say it out loud, for starters. Find where the inflection is or could be.

Consider using language markers, e.g. umlauts, to show where the emphasis should go. There is a vast difference between “Noel” and “Noël” when spoken aloud. To someone named “Noel”, it can make all the difference in the world around Christmas time. These little accents can bring your language color and flavor and texture.

Try using the same word in a different context. For example, if you create a word for “cup,” try using it both as an object and as an action. Will it work?

Remember it isn’t English.

This is actually a hard one to avoid. Your language should not mirror English, if possible. All language has structure and rules. Take some time to look at foreign languages and learn their unique style. German and Chinese have vastly different grammar rules from English or American. Studying these can help you lay a foundation for something truly your own.

Perhaps your language has a complex simplicity, where many words are summed up by one word. Perhaps there are no prepositions in your language. Perhaps there are no pronouns. Perhaps your language is a combination of dialects from throughout the region and it has a little bit of everything mixed together. Be creative and be unique.

From the Amazon (Tae’Nah) language:

“It is coming, Valkyra,” Deoris said. “I have seen it.”

Ahu,” the Queen whispered with reverence. The beginning and end of all things. She looked up at the Ti’Sa. “What can we do?”

Here, one word carries a lot of weight in the conversation. It encompasses an idea, instead of a single item.

Too many cooks can spoil the stew.

Your language might improve if you share your created words with others. Having a buddy to bounce ideas off of is a great way to be sure your language is easy to understand and readable. I suggest only one or two people, however. Everyone has an idea of what works and what doesn’t and you can go around and around over the simplest of words. Remember in the end that the final decision is yours. If they hated “fargachn” and you loved it, go with your instinct and override them.

There is no Amazon word for “help.” I have submitted no less than twenty possibilities, from the normal to the insane, trying to please a panel of four judges. There always seems to be a reason to reject it. It’s too long, it’s too short, it looks too much like this word over there, whatever. In order for a word to be created, I will have to ignore the panel and simply make a call and choose something.

Resources are out there.

There are many Web sources available for language creation. Toasted Cheese has listed several on our Resources page, Mustard and Cress. Look under the “Dictionary” heading. Check out online dictionaries for old or dead languages and for foreign languages. Some of my best words come straight from Latin and some are Turkish with a twist. It’s a great source of inspiration and information.

From Amazon: high = archila

This is an overview of how I got the Amazon word for “leader” or “first rank”, which all ended up as the word for “high.”

Since our Amazon tribe is historically placed in Turkey during the years of Julius Caesar’s reign, I started with Latin. The Latin-American Dictionary was suggested at Mustard and Cress. I typed in “leader” and was given several possibilities. I scanned the list and decided none of them sounded right to me, but “rector: guider, leader, director, ruler, master” was the closest in meaning. I followed some of those words and came upon “archos: ruler” which I thought was great, but a little too obviously Latin.

Looking through the words I’d already created, I noticed a tendency to end the words with vowel combinations such as “la” “za” “ra” or “li” “zi” “ri.” Drawing on that, I came up with “ila” as an ending for “arch” instead of the Latin “os.” Archila became the word for “high” and was added to the Amazon Dictionary.

As you can see, creating a unique language can be a difficult and time-consuming process. The rewards are wonderful however, giving your world a depth it might be missing. Don’t be afraid to explore this interesting avenue of creation.

Final Poll Results