Archive for October 2016

Character: 4 Rules for Writing and Revising

by Jesikah Sundin

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

Polonius, in Hamlet

In the Elizabethan era, the audience understood Polonius’ message to mean that a well-to-do person in society could still be good to others, even if he sought his own interests first.

Words like “self” and “true” carry different meanings in our modern culture. Memes plaster cyberspace with pithy reminders. Forget the unearthed skull. It’s a kitten contemplating her reflection in a rain puddle that motivates our morale and grounds our courage. But at the heart, the aim is still for authenticity. We expect “true self” in personal relationships—and also with characters we read in books. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that perhaps readers hold fictional characters to even higher standards than they do real people.

Ever read a book and found yourself annoyed when a character deviates from their personality? I’m not talking about the personal growth and development the character naturally undergoes as they battle myriad conflicts to reach their end goal. Allow me to elaborate…

Maybe she’s a total klutz and lacks the normal grace of most upright human beings. But, suddenly, she whips across the page like a ninja formed from the night, full of aerial moves, dancing in the wind, taking down bad guys without a single hair of her own moving out of alignment. If she had attended the University of Badassary for the Hopelessly Clumsy and struggled until she gained supernatural skills, I might find the character change believable. Might. Otherwise … No.

Or perhaps the character is an alpha male, a bad boy with a heart of stone. But a girl turns him into a slobbering puppy dog, and suddenly he’s this mushy teddy bear of a man, spouting poetry, all toughness melted away to beta status, heart of stone now beating as the flesh-and-blood organ it should have always been. An awakening of tenderness? Sure. Becoming the total opposite of who he was? No.

So why do storytellers unwittingly create a character arc identity crisis? I’m not sure, exactly. In my writing, however, I often find my desire to help the hero conquer their inner demons, or prematurely comfort their pain, disrupts the flow of his or her journey. My empathy eventually changes who they are to make their reaction to suffering and revelation different, more bearable. But fundamentally inauthentic.

For this reason, when writing and revising (or while beta reading for another author), I follow these four rules:

  1. Characters should never become a device to fit the plot, dead leaves blowing hither and dither in the windy gusts of scene changes. The plot should unfold as a reaction to the character’s true-self choices.
  1. Constantly ask: “What would [insert character name] do?” Some characters will react similarly. But the best stories are those with a diverse cast. For example, best friends interested in the same boy should react differently. Judy might send visual invitations with coy smiles, lingering glances, loud giggles, and more pronounced body language. Mary might avoid eye contact, even when face to face with said boy, and stutter when answering questions, her palms sweaty. Once a personality or environmental reaction is established, be consistent. Expected changes with true-self growth? Sure. Readers want that. Not the opposite.
  1. Break the rules only when the character needs to be “out of character.” Perhaps Mary starts wearing gaudy makeup to overcompensate for her quiet presence and boisterous friend. Judy moves to the shadows and watches the boy take notice of Mary without trying to upstage Mary. The reader gets that they are not being their true-selves and that learning this lesson is part of the journey. But if this is suddenly who they are? No. Well, except…
  1. Characters might change as a result of trauma or benevolence. Good guys become villains. Villains become good guys. The base personality comprising those characters should still remain the same. Think of it as editing a photograph. We can adjust the highlights and shadows. The subject true-self is still the same, just lighter or darker depending on how we want to present the image. Same is true of characters.

Struggle with wobbly characterization in your writing? How do you ensure your character is true to their own self? And not false to any man… er, reader?


untitled1AUTHOR BIO:  Jesikah Sundin is a sci-fi/fantasy writer mom of three nerdlets and devoted wife to a gamer geek. In addition to her family, she shares her home in Monroe, Washington with a red-footed tortoise and a collection of seatbelt purses. She is addicted to coffee, laughing, and Dr. Martens shoes … Oh! And the forest is her happy place.

Forward with Strength: Launching your Book into the World

by Susan Sloan

In July I wrote about taking a crash course in marketing my new book and a piece about why it was important to document Fred Fragner’s story. Today, I’m writing about why book launches and writer’s events in general are essential to celebrating community.

The book launch of Yishar Koach: Forward With Strength is scheduled for November 10 at Village Books. So, what’s a book launch? Well, it can be whatever the writer decides it should be.

It could be about shameless self-promotion a la Kardashian style. And it’s always about book sales because there’s no reason to write without getting that book into the hands of readers. And it’s also about celebrating because wowee zowee, you just spent “x” number of years creating and now you are ready to party with some people who appreciate what you’ve accomplished. And it’s about celebrating and sharing the content of your book and the contribution it makes to the sum total of human knowledge. So the author will most likely talk about their book and do a bit of reading from the book to share with their audience. And, at the other end of self-promotion, there will likely be many, many “thank you’s” handed out at a book launch.

So what do these things all have in common? Well, it’s all about celebrating community.

I have a quote in my book from Dietrick Bonhoeffer—the Lutheran pastor who was one of the few German theologians to staunchly resist Hitler and who was eventually hanged on April 9, 1945 for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer said:

The mark of solitude is silence, as speech is the mark of community. Silence and speech have the same inner correspondence and difference as do solitude and community. One does not exist without the other. Right speech comes out of silence, and right silence comes out of speech

What Bonhoeffer says is profound and it is in many ways the sum total of what it means to be a writer and why book launches and author events are such an important part of the writing experience. Writing, just like speech, comes from silence and solitude, and a rich internal life and probing introspection. But once we take pen-to-paper, we move towards community. And if all goes well, our right speech has the power to change the world. And it has, time after time after time.

If you are available on Nov. 10, I hope you’ll come celebrate Fred’s story. It took him many years before he was willing to share what happened to him but when he realized that he was one of the few remaining witnesses to the Holocaust, he began speaking out. And what he had to say has great significance for our time

forward-with-strengthAuthor’s Bio:  Susan Lynn Sloan is an author and communications specialist who has lived in Maple Falls, Washington since 2004. Susan was born in Chicago and she’s a transplant from northern California. Her interests include family, gardening, snorkeling, books, and film. Her biography of Holocaust survivor, Fred Fragner, is due out this fall. It’s called Yishar Koach: Forward with Strength. Susan is hoping it will inspire readers to understand the importance of persevering even in the midst of the most daunting challenges.

For the Love of a Good Sentence

By Rae Ellen Lee

While on a hiatus from writing, I have been reading and listening to books. But after setting aside many of them, I now realize this has to do with the quality of the sentences. If a book’s sentences lack strong verbs, specific nouns, smooth connection to the sentence before or after, or musicality, it doesn’t matter (to me) how strong the plot, how quirky the characters. What a joy, though, when a book does deliver glorious sentences.

Here is a random sentence from The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, a book that was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, a book filled with terrific sentences. “Charlie knocked his boot heel on the floor and a spry old man in a sagging undershirt emerged from behind a heavy black-velvet curtain.” While I don’t recall if Charlie also knocked his boot heel on the old man’s head, which he was prone to do, I do know DeWitt’s sentences held me captive through the brothers’ entire romp across California during the gold rush.

Another book, listened to on a recent road trip, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, kept me mesmerized across three states. Each sentence is an exquisite construction that carefully reveals an epic story. Then, of course, there is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. His sentences are linked as if they are climbing Mt. Everest. I could not stop reading the book.

Those who write non-fiction or genre fiction might dismiss the need to create beautiful sentences. But with so much competition for readers these days, giving more time to crafting great sentences might just increase our readership. In any case, why not strive to elevate our writing over just ordinary? Why not strive to delight the senses of our readers throughout the whole story?

As I prepare to write another novel, I’ve learned some fascinating tidbits about crafting this basic unit of language and I’d like to share them with you:

  • Put statements in positive form (“I’ll always remember you.” vs. “I’ll never forget you.”) Unless the character doing the talking is in a bad mood.
  • Vary the length of your sentences. This will usually force you to change the sentence structures and wording, often for the better.
  • Write for your ear—for rhythm and musicality. Write short sentences for emphasis mixed with long, involved sentences for depth and color. Reading your work aloud will tell you what to do.
  • Push yourself to ask, What if I add more detail to this sentence? Or less?
  • Practice writing cumulative sentences, those in which you amplify (qualify and make particular) the basic noun and verb. This is a good way to turn ordinary writing into prose that is more sophisticated and offers greater depth, meaning, and delight for your readers. (Example: Take the basic sentence, “They huddled.” Here is William Faulkner’s cumulative sentence: “Calico-coated, small-bodied, with delicate legs and pink faces in which their mismatched eyes rolled wild and subdued, they huddled, gaudy, motionless and alert, wild as deer, deadly as rattlesnakes, quiet as doves.”)
  • Aside from painting vivid word pictures using strong nouns, precise and vigorous verbs, and metaphors with muscle, rewrite each sentence to end with words that express the emphasis of the sentence. (Ordinary: “It was a small, dark room, poorly lit, and airless.” Or this: “The room was oppressive, like a tomb.”)

As Ursula LeGuin wrote in Steering the Craft, “Keep the story full, always full of what’s happening in it. Keep it moving, keep it interconnected with itself, rich with echoes forward and backward. Vivid, exact, concrete, dense, rich. These adjectives describe a prose that is crowded with sensations, meanings and implications.”

I could go on. I could mention expressing contrasting ideas in parallel form, for instance, but I must excuse myself for now to write the first draft of my next novel so I can revise and expand its sentences.


rae-ellen-mary-alice_2AUTHOR’S BIO:

Someone once said to Rae Ellen, “So, do you make bad choices so you’ll have something to write about?” Yes, well there was that haunted old Montana mining camp brothel she bought for the price of a used car and lived in while renovating it–resulting in the novel, The Bluebird House–A Brothel, A Madam, A Murder. Following that adventure, she lived aboard a sailboat in Bellingham with a new husband. The resulting memoir is titled I Only Cuss When I’m Sailing. Following that debacle, they owned a business on a Caribbean Island with the motto, “You can do anything you want, as long as the rest of us know about it.” While there, her husband turned sixty and evolved into a woman. Since the world needs more “funny,” she wrote My Next Husband Will Be Normal–A St. John Adventure. She also authored a novel, loosely inspired by a sister’s work history, Cheating the Hog–A Sawmill, A Tragedy, A Few Gutsy Women. A life-long geezer enthusiast, her most recent book is A Field Guide to Geezers–An Illustrated Look at a Curious Branch of Hominids. Rae Ellen fully intends to write one sequel that serves both of her novels, even though none of the characters have ever met. For more see:

Cultural Appropriation: Rights and Wrongs

by Frances Howard-Snyder

Is it wrong for a white woman to write a novel that includes black characters? I keep hearing people – locally and internationally – saying yes. Lionel Shriver recently said no. Her speech at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism and counter-criticism. Both sides erected ugly straw men versions of their opponents’ positions and then knocked them down. If we listen to both sides more carefully, though, we may find considerable agreement.

First, I’d like to set aside the issue of whether writers have the right to write about various things. I often read or hear the thought that “I can whatever I Goddamned please. No one’s going to censor me!” The word “right” is ambiguous. But it is clear that (at least) American writers have a constitutional right to write about anything, and the same constitutional right to express outrage at the writing of others.

But we need to distinguish the question of whether someone has the right to do x from the question of whether doing x is wrong. I think we can all agree that some writing and other speech can be morally wrong. Donald Trump has a right to talk about grabbing a woman’s genitals against her will, but such talk is still wrong. Similarly, fiction can be morally wrong if it describes minority characters in stereotypically and inaccurate ways. E.g., Westerns portrayed Native Americans as blood-thirsty and cruel. So, I think we can agree that some portrayals of characters, even if protected by First Amendment rights, are morally wrong.

I am interested in whether it is always wrong for white writers to write about black characters, or for heterosexual writers to write about gay characters, or abled writers to write about disabled characters, or for that matter, for men to write about female characters. Surely not, at least when it is done well. We shouldn’t ban Othello, or To Kill a Mockingbird, or Huckleberry Finn. Even short of banning these books, it would be a mistake to boycott them, just as it would be a mistake to boycott Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, on the grounds that its author was of a different ethnicity from its characters.

Maybe we can all agree on this point. Maybe even Shriver’s most vociferous critics will agree that it would be absurd to tell white, middle-aged, straight women to write only about white, middle-aged, straight women. Surely interesting stories happen when people encounter others who are different from themselves and deal well or badly with them? Surely, trying to get into the mind of someone different from ourselves has the potential to increase our empathy? As my friend Laura Rink says, any constraints on who can write what diminishes the pool of art and creativity.

If we all agree on this, I can stop. Bad portrayals of people from other groups are morally wrong. Good portrayals are fine. We might disagree about whether a particular portrayal is good or bad – e.g., about whether Shriver’s The Mandibles or Stockton’s The Help do a good job of portraying their black characters, but that seems to be a subject for another venue – e.g., for detailed critical reviews of the particular works. I would urge that an imperfect but well-intentioned and carefully researched characterization should be critiqued as imperfect but not held up for moral opprobrium.

But I do get the sense that some of Shriver’s critics do want to argue that whites should not write about black characters at all, not just that they shouldn’t write stereotyped or distorted descriptions of black characters.

According to Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the woman who walked out of Shriver’s speech in protest, “It’s not always okay if a white guy writes the story of a Nigerian woman because the actual Nigerian woman can’t get published or reviewed to begin with.”

Here is the charge of cultural appropriation. Whites, even when they do it well, shouldn’t write about blacks because when they do so they are taking something they have no right to, they are depriving others of something that belongs to them.

But this is a false dilemma. My writing about a subject doesn’t prevent you from writing about it. Your writing about a subject doesn’t prevent me from writing about it. A white man writing about a Nigerian girl does not prevent Nigerians from writing about Nigerians, or Nigerians from writing about white Americans for that matter. There are infinitely many fictional story possibilities. My writing one doesn’t decrease the number available for you to write.

There are lots of wrongs that white people have done and continue to do to members of other races. We should acknowledge and address those wrongs. But this is not one of them. This is the wrong target.

Author’s Bio:  

frances-hsFrances Howard-Snyder teaches philosophy at Western Washington University but prefers to explore ideas through fiction. She has published short stories at Cirque, Oxford Magazine, Everyday Fiction, Silver Pen, Wordhaus, and Short Fiction Break. When not writing, she enjoys time with her family, reading, walking, and playing chess (badly). 


A Shout Out for the Write Out, or The Most Important Part of a Writer’s Body is the Butt

In 1911, Mary Heaton Vorse told Sinclair Lewis that the “art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” As an absolute basic bottom (heh) line, the statement is the truest advice a writer can receive. I personally think often that I should be indenting a seat—when I’m teaching, when I’m eating, when I’m washing clothes, and when I’m falling asleep. Oh, and when I’m in the shower, prior to running out the door to some meeting. My pants don’t contact the chair as often as they should, and it’s not because I write naked.

If I were the only writer with this problem, I would not burden you with more detailed advice than Ms. Vorse’s. But while a gratifying number of my writer friends have gotten recent book deals or have written something short that has been published or at least read live, some of you are still waiting for the stars to align, perhaps in the shape of a chair with a human form sitting on it.

There’s no such constellation. You have to align the stars yourself.

I’m sure no one among my writer friends is surprised that I am going to suggest my usual cure for Failure to Sit Down and Write (FSDW). I recommend a Write Out. I’ll give you a brief look at how I decided that Writing Out was valuable for getting stuff done, then I’ll give you good reasons why it will probably work better for you than you think it will.

I grew up the oldest of eight children. In our chaotic household, I never sat to write. I still have pages I hand-wrote on my lunch hours in high school. The controlled murmur in the cafeteria served as a wall between me and other students, and no one called to me to take out the garbage or find the sibling who was supposed to be in the custody of another sibling. For me, the problem was not constant noise, but distractions of an acute sort. That includes such self-made excuses as deciding to go for a bike ride because the words weren’t flowing.

In college at Indiana University, I did some fiction-writing in the floor lounge in my dorm. I did more, however, at the Runcible Spoon Café, an iconic coffee house where many writers did their thing. Just feeling like a writer made me write more and, perhaps, better.

In every city where I lived after I left Indiana, I sought a replacement Spoon. In Bellingham, I find my best writing vibe at the Black Drop, but I have learned to make just about any venue work for a good round of productive writing.

In order to begin to build a platform, I decided that my blogging shtick would be to rate venues on their Write Out worthiness (and that’s when I decided on the term for the practice). I developed a set of metrics important to the would-be writing patron, and I started going everywhere for blog material. And I wrote a lot.

Cami Ostman, a renowned writer who co-founded a writing organization called Red Wheelbarrow Writers, suggested that I translate my enthusiasm for sharing data on venues into creating field trips to venues with other writers. She was right (of course); a number of writers who joined me at some point have become fans of the practice.

Here’s why I write better in the “isolation” of a public venue: As Cami noted in her WhaMemWriMo class last week, your inner critic works hard to get your pants off the seat. You have to wash those pants, you know. Or you have to get the knees dirty in the garden. Or you have to take them off so you can nap more comfortably. Or you have to go buy more pants because the ones you’re wearing are too loose. Or you forgot that you can’t write in jeans, just linen pants. Or, or, or.

At home, you can take care of all of that. You don’t have to stay glued to your notepad or keyboard. You are free to roam, free to eat, free to drink a bottle or three of wine, free, free, free! Freedom is what the writing life is all about. No boss, no pressure.

Nope. You are your own boss. You’re running a small business. You’re flying by the seat of your pants, but that seat needs to stay on the pilot’s seat. What happens to me when I Write Out? I settle in at a coffee shop, I sip my drink a couple of times, I start writing, and then I hit a moment when nothing is coming. Time to do laundry—except that I’m three miles from home. Time to pee—except someone will steal my computer or, heaven forfend, swipe my story idea. If I lean back in my seat and close my eyes, I just know everyone in the café is thinking “There’s a wannabe writer who has no self-discipline.”

So I don’t think about laundry, I don’t close my eyes, and I don’t pee. Even not peeing doesn’t keep me from getting back to work when another chunk of words presents itself to my grateful fingers. I write, and I write some more, and when I have met my wimpy goal of five pages, about 1,500 words, I’ve done my duty to my cottage industry. I’m free then to pack up, pee, and head home. Then I do laundry and walk and drink tea, relaxed because my daily quota is done.

I have written two 400-page novels this way, the first in three months. I finished the second one in the food court of the mall in Saint Cloud on the last day of the second month of writing. When I stick to my routine, I’m as prolific as Stephen King’s kid. When I don’t make time to hang out somewhere, and especially when I don’t make Write Out dates with my peers, less of my writing gets done.

“Ah, but Mr. Dwyer, I didn’t have a seven-sibling dystopia to delay my development as a teen writer. My parents built me a writing cottage and piped in Mozart, and they hired a scribe to take my dictation, and I learned to write with just the peeps of distant birds to slow my stream of consciousness a titch. But my dad shooed the birds away so I could write unhindered. And so, I write best in utter silence.”

How nice. For the other seven billion of us, let me toss some science your way. Let’s start with Hemingway. He liked to write in cafés and bars, with a murmur of conversation surrounding him. You don’t want to be like him? Check out the new scientific explanation for why your brain works well on coffee (shop noise) from Dr. Ravi Mehta. When your brain is slightly distracted for a moment by ambient noise, you stop obsessing on your inability to solve a problem in your writing (my paraphrase). I’ll also refer you to an article he co-wrote with Julie Zhu and Amar Cheema: “Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition,” Journal of Marketing Research, 2012 (R. Mehta, J. R. Zhu, and A. Cheema).

I should note that not all ambient noise works for me. You might say you can work at home if you throw on some tunes. Not so for me. I’m hyperaware of music in my world, so if I write at home and I hear nothing but music, I become engrossed in the melody and shut down my writing brain altogether. I’m even worse off if my music has words; I stop listening to the voices in my head and start engaging with the lyrics. In a café, though, I hear clinks and slurps and laughter and music as one big white noise, and I find myself cocooned in that ambience.

If I have gotten you a bit interested in trying out the café scene, you may still resist because you don’t want to shed your PJs and don your yoga pants to go buy a coffee. In that case, you can test your response by heading over to from your own home workspace and trying out three different coffee-shop backgrounds. Don’t blame me if you walk away from your writing to do laundry. I told you to Write Out.

If you’re dead set on staying home but don’t want dead silence, another option is to soothe your brain via this binaural music that is supposed to make you creative:

And finally, for those of you who really believe you need utter silence to create, fly to Minnesota and let the quietest room in the world persuade you that you’re wrong: I do hope to do a solo Write Out there and report my findings, if I survive with my current level of sanity intact.

I have used my experiences and prejudices as examples in this essay, but I’m not really thinking about me when I write these words. More than anything, I love to see my friends’ work see the light of day. If you’re struggling at all with productivity, what harm is there in trying my Write Out model? If you’re thinking you’ll never get around to trying it because you don’t have someone to push you, ask me to bug you. If you’re afraid that going alone will put your materials at risk for theft when you need to pee (that’s a common worry of mine when I drink caffeine or wine, or especially shots at the Trainwreck Bar in Burlington), let’s go Write Out together!

If doing so will encourage you to get the seat of your pants on the seat of the chair, ring me up at 818-4-SDWYER, or drop me a line at, and let’s join forces. If you prefer to go with your favorite writing pal, check out my woefully behind-schedule blog at for a few venues you can use to your benefit.

More than anything, find a way to plant yourself in the perfect writing space for you, and write. Then bring it to the RWB Happy Hour and share it with us.