Category Archives: Writing Tips

It’s a ‘T,’ not a ‘D’

2015 logoOur local high schools and most colleges around here have just wrapped up graduation festivities, but I know some kids in other parts of the country are actually still in school for another couple of weeks. So, in honor of those who haven’t yet walked across the stage as part of the Class of 2015, let me share a quick spelling lesson.

It’s one of those lessons that I want to share every year, without fail. One of those misspellings that absolutely drives me crazy. What is it, you ask? It’s simple.

The word is “congratulations,” not “congradulations.” Yes, that’s a “T” in the middle of the word, not a “D.”

I realize some marketing agencies and greeting card publishers think it’s cute to play off the word “graduate” by changing the “T” to a “D.” And some of these groups can actually get away with it by writing the word in a way that makes it clear they’re using a play on the word.

But for the rest of us who are posting signs outside businesses or writing notes in cards or decorating cakes? Keep the “T,” folks, because otherwise you look illiterate.

End of my annual springtime rant that embarrasses my family and makes them roll their eyes. ConGRATulations to all you graduates!

Super Quick Grammar: Affect vs. Effect

affect effectI’ve seen it three or four times in the last week – mix-ups of “affect” and “effect.” So, since little things like that drive the editor in me crazy, here’s a quick grammar lesson on what the words mean and how to correctly use them.

The basics: In everyday language, “affect” is a verb that most commonly means to influence something. For example, “The storms will affect whether the tennis team plays its match.” “Effect,” on the other hand, is normally used as a noun that shows an outcome – the result of something happening. “She began to feel better when the medicine took effect.”

Of course, like many words in the English language, both affect and effect can have other meanings and be used as other parts of speech. “Affect” can be used as a noun to describe facial expression. (“She affected a blank expression.”) “Effect” might sometimes take on verb form. (“The new principal effected some positive changes in the school.”)

I won’t drag on about other nuances and possible uses. If you’d like to read more, check out this info from Dictionary.com, Grammar Girl, or Vocabulary.com.

A trick: And, as Vocabulary.com suggests, one way to keep “affect” and “effect” straight is to remember that “affect” comes first alphabetically, and an action (to affect) has to occur before you can have a result (an effect).

Your turn: What words do you often see getting mixed up (either by you or by other people)? Let’s straighten them out!

5 Things to Remember During an Interview

question markIt’s OK to be a little nervous before interviewing someone, but don’t let it worry you too much. If you’ve followed the steps from last week about preparing for a great interview, you’re already moving in the right direction. Now that it’s time to talk with the person, follow these five things to make your interview a success.

1. Be the reminder. Just like you can’t remember every possible question without writing them down, the person you talk with might not remember why you’re interviewing him or her. Take a minute to remind him or her that this is for the school newspaper or a history class assignment or whatever. If you have certain things you’re supposed to include in the interview, mention that, too. It will help your interviewee to know the kinds of questions you’ll be asking.

2. Double check everything. Once you’re ready to begin the interview, take one very important step before asking the first question on your list. Ask the person how to spell his or her name, and verify other details you’ll be including in your article. For example, if you’re interviewing an author about her new book, you’ll want to get the title right. If the new coach says he went to college at USC, ask whether he means the University of South Carolina or the University of Southern California. Every detail matters.

3. Let them talk. You don’t want the coach to talk about his vegetable garden when you’re trying to learn his plans for basketball season. But you also don’t want to be so focused on your list of questions that you don’t give him the chance to talk about some things he enjoys. You might learn some great stuff once he starts talking about something a bit different, but don’t let him hijack your whole plan.

4. Ask the best question. Even after many years of writing, I’ve learned that no matter how well I prepare, I’ll still probably leave a question off my list. That’s where my “one best question” comes into play. When we’re nearing the end of the interview, I ask, “What would be the one thing you’d want people to know about _________?” I fill in the blank or maybe change the question a little, depending on the situation. For an author, I might ask, “What’s the one thing you hope people will learn by reading your book?” For the grandfather who flew in World War II, I might ask, “What was the one thing that surprised you most about flying during a combat mission?” The “one thing” question has given me some of the best answers during interviews with all sorts of people. It can work for you, too, no matter who you interview.

Large wooden doors5. Leave the door open. Just because your time runs out doesn’t mean the interview ends. Once you sit down to write, you might think of other questions or you might need help remembering something. That’s OK – professionals can find themselves in the same situation. As you end the interview, thank the person for his or her time, and ask if you can call or email if you have questions once you start writing the article. I can virtually guarantee they’ll say “yes.”

Your turn: If you could ask one person one question, who would it be and what would you ask?

 

5 Steps to Prepare for a Great Interview

Interviews aren’t just for people on the news. You need to interview people sometimes, too, even if you don’t think of it that way. Maybe your teacher wants you to talk to your grandparents about something for history class. Or maybe you’re supposed to write an article for the school newspaper about the new basketball coach.

QAHowever you look at it, you have questions and that other person has the answers.

Find the answers for yourself – and make sure it’s a success – by following these 5 steps to prepare for interviewing the person.

1. Research things ahead of time. Learn about the person you’ll be interviewing and some basic things about the subject you’ll be discussing. You don’t have to know everything (that’s what the person you’re interviewing is for), but you need to know enough to feel comfortable asking questions.

2. Remember the point. Know why you want to talk to this person – what you want to learn – and keep the interview focused on that. Be sure the person you’ll interview also knows the purpose so they won’t talk about everything else. The other stories might be interesting, but if they don’t relate to your assignment, they won’t do you any good. If you’re supposed to write about your grandfather’s experience as a pilot during World War II, talk about that. Save the recap of last week’s fishing trip for another time.

3. Create your list. As you decide on the questions to ask, write them down – preferably all in the same place, so you can keep track of everything. The list will grow and change as you prepare, and that’s OK. Try to write questions that can’t just be answered with “yes” or “no,” because that will give you much better information to work from when it’s time to write.

4. Prioritize. Once you have all your questions written, prioritize them so you’ll always be able to cover the most important points. Years ago, I scheduled an interview with a retired professional athlete for an article promoting things for a local hospital. We scheduled a 30-minute time slot and I researched and organized things again and again to prepare. When I called for the interview, I learned that my time had been cut from 30 minutes to 10 minutes because some other commitments had filled the athlete’s calendar. Oh no! I didn’t even have enough time to panic. But I had prioritized my list, so I was able to get answers to my top three questions before our time ran out. If I hadn’t rewritten my questions in order, I would have wasted precious minutes trying to figure out a game plan.

checklist5. Confirm details. When you schedule the interview, confirm all the details before ending the conversation. Verify the time and date you’ll be talking and whether you’ll talk over the phone or face-to-face. If you’ll be calling, get the best phone number to use. If you’ll be interviewing in person, get directions to the place you’ll meet (unless you’re absolutely sure). Also write down the person’s email if possible, so you have a back-up way to contact him or her if needed.

Your turn: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever interviewed? Or, who would be the one person you’d love to interview more than anyone else?

Next time: Now that you’ve done the prep work, make sure the actual interview goes smoothly. I’ll share 5 ways to make that happen – including my best interview question, no matter who the person is or what we’re talking about.

Showing Romance in YA Fiction

 

love noteValentine’s Day is tomorrow, so today’s writing tip ties in with the “day of love” – how do you include romance in your story? And another good question might be – what do you think about romance in YA and middle grade fiction? Is it true to life?

One online dictionary I found defines romance as “Love, especially romantic love idealized for its purity or beauty.”

So how is that shown in YA or MG novels, when you don’t want to get into bedroom scenes or other physical things that can get too deep? Many times, we can show it by the physical reactions your characters might have (those stomach flips, pitter-pattering hearts, or heated faces) or the little things they do to show the other character that they care (texting a “<3,” leaving a note in the character’s backpack or locker).

Here are a few examples from MG or YA books I’ve read:

  • Walt Jenkins is looking at me, and his eyes are the same blue as the sky above. He’s a handsome man; I’ve said it before. I remember our one awkward dance at the Avengerette last year and the whispering it caused. I remember the rough warmth of his hand in mine. … I blush furiously, and Walt notices it. (Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith, pg. 264)
  • Turning, Olivia expected to find her mom and Jake, but she ran right into Justin. “Where are you off to so fast?” Piercing blue eyes sparkled just inches from her face. Welcome back, butterflies. (The Wishing Pearl by Nicole O’Dell, pg. 340)
  • Hand in hand, we walk toward the Pit. I monitor the pressure of my hand carefully. One minute, I feel like I’m not gripping hard enough, and the next, I’m squeezing too hard. I never used to understand why people bothered to hold hands as they walked, but then he runs one of his fingertips down my palm, and I shiver and understand it completely. (Divergent by Veronica Roth, pg. 333)

Merchants DaughterSee, you don’t have to go into lots of detail or get super wordy to show romance in YA or MG books. You also don’t have to paint every single detail. After all, readers are smart and can figure out what you’re telling them. Just give them the idea, and it’ll work.

Your turn: Which is your favorite example from above? Which one can you “feel” the most when you read it, or does one seem more realistic to you than the others? Tell us what you think!

Adding Taste to Your Writing

Today we’re taking a closer look at the senses, specifically how to incorporate the sense of taste in your writing. What do your characters taste? Do you ever think about that when you’re putting that story to paper?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAGranted, it usually comes more naturally to write about what your character sees or hears or even smells. But taste? That can be a tough one because we don’t always have food scenes in our stories.

But … food isn’t always the only thing we taste, is it? What if your character gets in a fight and the other guy busts him in the mouth? Think your guy will taste blood? Pretty likely. How does that blood taste? I’ve often read stories when the author described the taste of blood as metallic. Do you know why your blood tastes like metal? It’s because of the iron in it (your science tidbit of the day). Saying the blood tastes “metallic” or “like metal” might be accurate, but the next time your character’s mouth is bleeding, try to push your creativity to the next level and come up with a description of your own instead of one borrowed from another story. How about:

  • sharp
  • tangy
  • like the keys your character stuck in his mouth when he was 3

And then there are the times when your character does actually eat something. That’s the perfect time to slip in a couple of details about the food and add another layer to your storytelling.

Imagine it’s a cool fall day, and your character plucks an apple from the tree. She bites into it. Yum, it’s crisp and juicy. How does it taste? Tart like a green Granny Smith apple? Smooth and mellow like a Golden Delicious? Or in between like a Fuji – with a little kick to it, but not sour?

Just like when you include details about the other senses, whatever you write about taste doesn’t have to be long or super involved. It just needs to get the idea across, so your reader gets pulled a little deeper into the story.

And, who knows? Writing about food just might call for some taste testing of your own so you can describe it just right. 🙂

Your turn: Imagine you’re eating your favorite food. How would you describe its taste to someone who’s never tried it?

For more on including the senses in your writing, check out my posts on sight, smell, and making sense of senses.

Happy writing!

Smelling Your Character’s World

baconQuick, think about the first thing you smelled when you woke up this morning. Was it bacon frying for breakfast? Or the pile of clothes on your floor from that extra hard ball practice last night?

Either way, chances are you had a physical and mental reaction to whatever the smell was.

  • If it was bacon, your mouth might’ve watered and your stomach might’ve growled.
  • If it was the sweat-soured clothes, you might’ve coughed or held your nose. Or buried your head back under the covers.

We’re so used to seeing, hearing, and feeling everything around us that we sometimes forget about how much we smell every day. But did you know that …

  • On average, human beings can accurately recognize more than 10,000 different types of smells.
  • Research shows that humans can accurately recall a photo or visual image only 50% of the time, three months after seeing the original image. But we can recall odors with 65% accuracy over a year after having first smelled them.
  • Your sense of smell is directional, just like your hearing. That means you can tell where a smell is coming from around you.
  • Our ability to detect odors changes from one day to the next. So even if you smell that same type of coffee every morning, some days it might smell a little different.

sPretty interesting, huh? That’s why it’s just as important for us to think about smells when we’re writing — we need to smell our character’s world. Where is your character? What kinds of smells are around him? Do those smells remind him of something? Those are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself as you’re writing or editing.

But — don’t think that including smells in your story means you need something in every paragraph. Just like some of those perfumes at the store, sometimes a little goes a long way!

Here are two examples to help you see what I mean:

  • And through the sounds, the smells: climbing into every corner, every cart, every cloak. The rich scents of ground cinnamon and chili powder, the sickening sweetness of bricked molasses, the dusty aroma of carved oak and pressed cedar. Sage and garlic, petals and powder, feathers and fur. (Aurelia by Anne Osterlund, p. 32)
  • I turned the sandwiches over and pressed them down as flat as I could with my spatula. They sizzled as the buttery and cheesy aroma rose to the ceiling. (Carrying Mason by Joyce Magnin, p. 89)

See? (And speaking of seeing, you can also check out my post on using sight to write better descriptions.) Can’t you smell all the things in the market? Does the thought of that grilled cheese sandwich sizzling in the pan make you hungry? Just a few well-placed words can build an even more realistic picture of where your character is or what he’s doing.

Your turn: What’s the best (or worst) thing you’ve smelled in the last couple of days? How would you describe it to someone else?

Showing Your Story World

Today I’m back with more about using better descriptions in your writing, especially the sense of sight. I’ll remind you of the description I posted here that I thought used sight really well (remembering that Horizon is a horse). It’s from Aurelia by Anne Osterlund:

The gray mare stepped with ease onto a narrow dirt trail, and Horizon followed in her footsteps through the sunny stand of white birch, across a speckled meadow of gold and green, and over a sloping hill. At the foot of the hill, a slender creek burbled its way over shiny stones.

Only 2 sentences — 52 words. But, wow, what a picture she gives us. We know that:

  • The riders are on a narrow dirt trail.
  • It’s a sunny day.
  • They ride through a patch of trees (where it’s shady) and across a meadow (where they’re back in the sunshine).
  • They cross over a small hill and see a creek bubbling over and around stones — stones that are shiny from the water splashing along.

What a clear picture of where the characters are and what they’re doing! How do you do that yourself? By putting yourself into your own story world and seeing it so clearly in your own mind that you can help your reader see it, too.

Easy? No. But worth it? Yes!

Start by deciding where your characters are — the time of day, the place, what kinds of things are around them. Think about what’s happening in this part of your story and how the time, place, and objects can affect what’s happening. For example, let’s say your character is outside at night. You might ask yourself questions like:

  • Is it pitch-black dark? Is there a full moon? Are clouds blowing across the sky and making the moon appear and reappear? Are shadows distinct  or fuzzy-edged?
  • What time of year is it? Are the tree limbs bare, or are they overloaded with leaves and flowers?
  • What objects are around your character? Is it bright enough for your character to see some colors or other details? If so, what little bits can he see? Or does everything look like a black blob against the night?

Now, don’t worry, you don’t have to include all your ideas or descriptions in your story. That would be a case of information overload, and your reader would get so bogged down by the details that they might miss the point of the story. Once you get a good picture of the scene in your mind, pick the best parts — the parts that will help your reader see things most clearly — and stick with those. Your reader will start to see the story world just like you do, which is just where you want him to be. Because once he’s in your story world, he’ll keep reading.

Making Sense of Senses

The goal of every writer is to pull readers into what’s called the “story world.” You want to write in a way that’s so real that anyone who reads your story feels like they’re right in the middle of it. They know your characters, they understand what the characters are doing (and why), and they want to know what happens next.

What’s one of the best ways to pull your reader into your story world? Details.

Imagine if you went through every day only seeing things in shades of gray. If you couldn’t hear your favorite song. If you couldn’t smell the burgers Dad grills for supper, or taste them when they’re on your plate.

Sound crazy? Maybe for going through everyday life, but that’s exactly how your readers feel if you just tell a basic story and don’t try to take your writing to the next level of “wow.” Just thinking through things and adding a few extra words (details!) can take us from:

The dog ran.

to

The shaggy black dog ran into the woods.

There’s nothing technically wrong with “the dog ran,” but “the shaggy black dog ran into the woods” tells us a lot more. With only 5 extra words, we learn what the dog looks like (shaggy and black) and where he ran (into the woods). That helps your reader picture the scene a lot better and get pulled deeper into the story.

Remember those 5 senses you learned about years ago? That’s the first place to look for details:

  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Sound
  • Touch
  • Taste

Now, saying you should include all 5 senses doesn’t mean you include something for every sense in every little paragraph. That would be serious sensory overload! Instead, look for ways you can include a few little things to pull your reader in.

My next few posts on writing tips will focus on each of the senses, and how you can work them into your writing. I’ll be using a lot of examples from a novel I read a few months ago, Aurelia by Anne Osterlund. It was the first of her stories I’ve read, and I fell in love with her descriptions. Here’s a sample to get you thinking about how to help readers see the scene (just FYI, Horizon is a horse):

The gray mare stepped with ease onto a narrow dirt trail, and Horizon followed in her footsteps through the sunny stand of white birch, across a speckled meadow of gold and green, and over a sloping hill. At the foot of the hill, a slender creek burbled its way over shiny stones. (Aurelia, pg. 156)

Can’t you see it in your mind (even without the photo I included)? The trail, the trees, the meadow and creek? I’m betting you can. Next time we’ll look at some ways you can do the same for your own readers.

Crying for Darth Vader

In my last post I talked a bit about antagonists and protagonists, and the difference between the two. This is a continuation of that long-ago post, with with a writing “must” you might not’ve though of. Ready? Here goes:

When you’re writing a novel, you must make your antagonist likeable … at least in some way.

Are you surprised to see that? Maybe so, considering the antagonist is usually the bad guy who keeps messing everything up for the main character. The antagonist is the one who spoils the fun, bullies others around, plots to kill and destroy the hero. So why do we want to like him?

Because even if your antagonist seems to be bad to the bone, he (or she) needs to have something nice about him or something decent that can help your readers relate to him. Every antagonist/bad guy believes he’s doing the right thing by trying to destroy whatever the hero is working for. But why? Once you’ve figured that out and can hint at it in your story, you’ve made that antagonist even more real to your readers.

Two classic examples from the movies:

Do you know why Joker from Batman fame looks so hideous? Because his wife (yes, he was actually married at some point) was in some type of horrible accident and her face was terribly disfigured. I don’t remember exactly what happened to her, so bear with me for a minute. The Joker (who I guess wasn’t really the Joker at that point), stuck a switchblade in his mouth and cut himself all up. He tells Batman it was to show his wife he didn’t care that she wasn’t beautiful anymore — he loved her no matter how she looked. But she couldn’t handle it and things went downhill from there. That one quick scene with Batman shows us that Joker wasn’t always an awful guy, and that he willingly disfigured himself because of someone he loved. Hmmm … maybe he has a heart after all, somewhere deep down under the wickedness.

And let’s not forget Darth Vader. I’ll admit my age and say that Star Wars first came out when I was in about 4th or 5th grade. After years of movies and always seeing Darth Vader as the ultimate villain, I was completely unprepared for something in Revenge of the Sith — I almost cried for Darth Vader.

What?! Cry for Darth Vader? Yes, I almost did.

He was well on his way to be sucked over to the dark side, but was also still human enough to care for Amidala. Her pregnancy and her life were at risk, and Anakin was frantic with worry over her. The Sith Lord promised that if Anakin came to their side, Anakin would have power over death and that Amidala would be OK. Anakin’s love for Amidala and his desperation to save her pushed him right over the edge.

So why did I almost cry? Because it was the first time I saw Anakin’s move to the dark side through his eyes — and he believed he did it to help someone he loved. Most of us can relate to loving someone and probably know what it’s like to give up something to help someone else. Did knowing that side of Darth Vader turn me into a Dark Force fan or make me cheer for him in the other movies when he battled Rebel forces? No, it didn’t. But it did help me connect with him, even if it was only for a few minutes — and that’s exactly what the writers wanted.

The more you can learn to do that with your own stories, the more real your antagonist will be — and the more your readers will relate to him, whether they want to or not. And being able to create characters that make people keep reading is is what it’s all about.

 

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