Archive for the ‘best writing practices’ Category

Writing From the Source – Creating Believable Characters

What is the source of your writing? Is it your everyday environment? Is it your cultural influences? Is it creating believable charactersyour gut or is it imaginary voices in your head? I have often thought the source of my writing was my imagination. While that is partly true it comes from a much deeper more primal ingrained place in my head and my heart. Oh…that sounds a bit trite but let me explain:

I am a child of The South. My parents were born and bred in the hot steamy kudzu jungles of the Mississippi Delta’s loam hills. My father’s family has been there before the state was a state. My mother’s family trickled in some early some late but they all ended up in the same place…Little Yazoo…sort of maybe? You see Anding and Satartia are so small they don’t really appear on most maps so we all say Yazoo County and most folks from MS know what you mean.  When your ‘people’ are from a place with history as rich as the state of MS you can’t help but have a colorful family member or two tucked away in your family tree.  There was the auntie who went senile fairly young but was referred to as merely a “dear ole gal” and the cousin who preferred to live with his mother and never was able to hold down a job was merely eccentric. These are the glimmers behind the characters I populate my stories with and sprinkle through out the various scenes and chapters.

Recently I had a wonderful Facebook conversation with my cousin who is the Arts Department Chair at a Mississippi College. He was preparing a lecture on all things southern and the influences that our culture there has on the arts. We talked first about men’s fashion. It appears that every southern male must own a seersucker suit and either a bolo or bowtie to be used for court appearances and tea with the aunts. One never wears seersucker to church or to funerals and NEVER after Labor Day…much like a lady’s white shoes and handbags that is ‘just not done’!

William Faulkner It’s one of the few cultures where an older man can call a girl of any age “honey”, “sweetheart”, etc., and you KNOW that he doesn’t have any ulterior motives and isn’t trying to be a letch or a flirt. Adults are always known to kids as Ms. Jennifer or Ms. Shannon. That’s a thing that some of my Northern friends just don’t get.

We like to eat a lot in the South and any life or death event brings out big hair and big hearts. The more dire the circumstance the higher the hair gets piled (and the coke can rollers required to get that look get resurrected from  the back of the towel closet) the heavier the lacquer hairspray gets applied. Hell, I’ve seen my momma go through an entire can of hairspray just before heading over to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for a ‘viewing.” This is serious stuff and there is a certain protocol and etiquette to be observed if you don’t want to be seen as low and crass.

One thing I’ve always noticed about Southern hosts is their willingness to cook massive amounts of food with a smile and make sure everyone is really well fed. Nowhere does this hold more true than a funeral. Home visits mean you take a ham or two pies or a mess of fresh snapped beans or some butter beans. You have not had a good funeral until you have a dining table that overflows and a deep freeze so full you tossed out all the bags of ice, freezer pops, and unidentifiable tupperware containers stuck in there last summer sometime.  That poor family suffering from their loss is just not going to feel like cooking for awhile and so the community works overtime to care for them. Nothing says community love like coconut creme pie and a slice of Grandma Shannon’s buttermilk cake at my house!

No matter what we do we seem to always do it with food as the backdrop. Southern fare is not for the weak of heart as everything is dipped, battered and deep fried or smothered in gravy.  We inhale our grits, black-eye peas, cornbread, crawfish, pickeled eggs and pickled pigs feet. Nothing is better on a hot summer day than an RC and a moonpie, unless it is a half frozen cane coke stuffed full of salted peanuts. Delish! Southern food is fried catfish and anything grown in your own garden. Yankees eat stuffing with their turkey but we eat dressing with gizzards and eggs and maybe even oysters or sage sausage cooked up in it. We pour pepper sauce on our vegetables and make comeback sauce to have on cream cheese for a fancy appetizer. Buttermilk’s for dipping your cornbread and biscuits are for sopping up sunny side up eggs and redeye gravy. We love our collard greens and turnups, chittlins, pecan pie and chocolate chess pie with a good cup of chicory coffee. We eat pimento cheese sandwiches and vienna sausages out of our lunch boxes at school and can’t wait to get home to a good crawfish and shrimp boil, cooked dressing cole slaw and chowder peas.

Funeral customs in the South are a bit strange too. As soon as the dead is hauled out we stop all the clocks, unplug the tv’s and the radios, collect all the bright colored cushions on the sofa and on the swing on the porch and hide them in a pillow. Then we cover all the mirrors in the house with black draping and put on dark clothes. No jewelry, no heels to speak of, just sensible and sedate. Somehow a guest login book shows up and is put on an end table or tv tray near the front door. If they told me to keep one on hand in cotillion lessons it must have been on one of the days I was out back pitching pennies with the old men behind the AP right off Catfish Alley. I wonder what other tidbits of good breeding I missed while playing hookie? Things like men opening doors for women, always say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am’, help your neighbors even though you can’t stand them and always say ‘bless your heart’ especially when you have don’t have anything nice to say? My cousin apparently never attended religiously too as he is never sure which  fork to use to pop open his PBR?

Women in the South do not chew gum or partake of alcohol in public. This was pretty much beat into my soul by my mother and my Aunt Jerrie.  Funny their mother while not a gum chewer did love her rough cut Tops Brand Snuff. I am sure the ‘aunts’ will shudder that I divulge this secret to the masses. But there, it is a piece of our turn of the century country folk culture. Grandmother always had a napkin wrapped soup can for her spittoon and would always have to “wash out” her mouth before leaving the house. Sometimes when Maw kissed you on the cheek she left a little remnant of the sweet stuff.  Everyytime they hand me a “sample” spoon at the ice cream shoppe it reminds me of her dip spoon! I miss her every day and I think of her and can still smell her hint of snuff mixed with White Shoulders dusting powder.

Daddy always said you never say anything hurtful about a person ..just not done and bad manners. Papaw always said manners are what you still have even when you are dirt poor. You can’t sell them or buy them, they are a gift to guard and tend to because even the polite homeless man down on Jackson Square is going to be ok as long as he has manners. For a poor relatively uneducated man my papaw was rich with manners! It would be ill mannered and down right mean spirited to point out anyone’s weaknesses or foibles. We never say anything unkind about another person no matter how ugly or how fat they might be. We still ‘bless her heart’ and talk about how she comes from ‘good people’ and how she is obviously a ‘great cook.’ Or croon, “Sugah, that girl! With a sweet smile like that she should never be saddled with a behind that looks like two pigs fighin’ under a poke sack…bless her heart!” If a woman is bold or wears clothing that is too revealing at Church or at work we would call her a hussy behind her back and discuss how she comes from good people and her momma ‘must be rollin’ over in her grave.’ And then we would make a hurried call to the church prayer circle hotline and immediately add her name to the special intentions list. The ladies of the altar guild would toss in “bless her heart, the child just cant help it” then whispers ” you know her momma” for good measure. A real Southern woman can toss out an insult with the lingering sweetness of a soft kiss.

We take our football seriously in the south. We love football so much that Ole Miss fans would never consider dating much less marrying a Mississippi State fan as that would be marrying outside our faith. We don’t celebrate years of marriage…we celebrate seasons! Why Larry and Kay Nell got married right after the Rebels beat Notre Dame directly in the Grove and Jerry Wayne and Mary Katherine got hitched with cowbell clanging in the press box at that egg bowl when it snowed!

We drink lots of soft drinks in the South and they are all cokes to us:

You want a drink?

Yeah, a coke, please.

What type of coke do you want?

What ‘cha got?

We have Seven up, Dr. Pepper, co-cola, and diet coke too.

If you ask for a ‘soda’ or a ‘pop’ they know you’re not from ‘around here.’ It is so damn hot we drink a lot there. If it isn’t coke or sweet tea its bourbon or whiskey in the cooler months and gin and tonics in the summer time. You need a good stiff drink to keep the mosquitoes and water moccasins from carrying you right off the veranda on a sultry summer night!

I wonder if painting houses a bright blue to keep snakes and ghosts and other evil things away is just a southern thing, too? We call it ‘haint’ blue. I don’t know if it works as good as chicken bones in a circle in your yard but heck, whatever works!creating believable characters from real people

And then there is Garden Club and Pilgrimage in places like Columbus and Natchez. Hoop skirts and pantaloons, little boys in miniature butternut grays, and plump middle aged women with decollete that pushes the limits of matronly propriety.

This is a place where the Mardi Gras societies and the Churches are still racially divided and the locals here (bless their hearts) worship their football teams on Saturday and their God on Sundays with equal fervor. It is an odd colloquial place but it is a rich character study of people and places and the source I go to when I need to add “real” characters with meat and bones on them in my writing.


Write A Book in a Weekend by Donna Kozik

Title: Write a Book in a Weekend

Author: Donna Kozik

Date: 2009

Write a Book in a Weekend is a bit of a misnomer. It could be better titled Write an Ebook or Booklet in a weekend or How to Outline a Book in a Weekend. While the premise is enticing, the reality of authoring a full length book in a weekend is a bit daunting. Kozik’s book is a terrific resource for getting started or getting motivated to get the initial draft of a book done. Highly motivational, this book is a great jumping off point for the business person seeking a non-threatening easy to implement system for starting their first draft of a work that they can then use to exhibit their business expertise.

What I found lacking was more in the detailed in-depth elements of writing a book. I am guessing that Kozik covers the more difficult but seminal elements of creating a book like: establishing a goal for your intended reader, consider how the reader benefits from your content, what problems does your book solve and how do you introduce that to readers, how do you make your ‘voice’ connect with your reader,  the role organization plays in making or breaking a book, and how to show and not tell in a book.

Kozik’s book is a good place to go to break the ice on writing a book and gather ideas and strategies for your book. Full of great quotes and strategies for organizing your thoughts to narrow down your topic, this book is a useful exploratory on if writing a career related non-fiction book is for you.If you are an experienced writer and serious about writing a full-length (50,000 words or more) than this book is not advanced enough for your purposes.

Call Donna and explore her weekend class if you want to actually make your “book” happen. Her contact information is in the book and on her website. She does a great job motivating and inspiring the most reluctant author. Really.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Title: The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Author: Jack M. Bickham

Publisher: FW Publications

Price: 12.99

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes and How to Avoid Them is a solid writing reference book to have if you are serious about your craft. Beckham’s to the point style is easy to follow and highly motivational for both the beginner and the seasoned professional. Filled with positive affirmation and butt kicking motivation, Beckham navigates authors through the minefields of fiction and takes you successfully through to the other side to best writing practices.

Sample chapters include:

  • Don’t have things happen for no reason
  • Don’t forget stimulus and response
  • Don’t lecture your reader
  • Don’t mangle characters’ speech
  • Don’t be afraid to say “said”

Inexperienced authors often fall into one of these patterns and Beckham has the guidance to help them rework their material and free it from such structural catastrophes. Whether you are a windbag or a minimalist, Beckham’s professional insights to fiction writing are useful and highly relevant to the professional seeking publication and even more important a reading audience. This book is a great buy at full price!

The Power of Point of View – Make Your Story Come to Life by Alicia Rasley

Title: The Power of Point of View-Make Your Story Come to Life

Author: Alicia Rasley

Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books

Date: 2008

Price: $16.99

Every character has a voice. That is one of the foundational elements of story telling. When you write the character’s voice should be as clear to you as your own, if not you run the real risk of losing your reader. This is perhaps the most critical element of story telling that authors struggle with most. The Power of Point of View is an excellent writing reference for anyone who struggles with POV and character development.

From specific instruction in character, plot, and POV to  freewriting exercises Alicia Rasley has crafted an excellent guide that will take any writer and guide them through POV development and take their work to the next level. As readers become more character aware and plot savvy and more discerning in their choice of books makes it imperative that authors truly hone their writing craft. To make your story come to life, The Power of Point of View is a solid investment for your writing reference shelf.

Story Structure Architect – A Great Resource for Fiction Writing

Title: Story Structure Architect

Author: Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D.

Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books

Date: 2005

Price: 19.99

As an author, writing mentor, and developmental editor this book is an invaluable resource. Story Structure  Architect is a handy reference guide to building drama into any work and for understanding the ins and out of creating compelling characters. Classically trained (ie: MFA’s, English Majors, etc) are taught how to identify classic story motifs but the weaving of them into original stories that move the plot along can elude the best of writers at times!

Schmidt’s book helps the novice and expert alike at moving their stories from plodding scenes to scenes that engage and motivate the reader to keep moving through page after page of a good book. Conflict, subplot development, and dramatic situation analysis and design are all covered in this handy writing reference. Easy to navigate, chock full of handy tips and help,  Story Structure Architect should be on every serious writer’s shelf. A great investment for your career, this book belongs right next to your laptop!

How to Write a Bio for Web and Print Use

Do you want people to listen to you? Do you want to be seen as the professional you are? People will accept your word as an authority if you present yourself as one.  Make people see you as the professional you really are by following this outline to make your bio stand out:

1st Paragraph:

Define who you are, your specific skills, where you are from, and perhaps a positive a brief pertinent professional testimonial quote.

2nd Paragraph:

What are you doing right now? What professional activity are you currently working on or what new product or service do you have rolling out? Clearly state why you have the need to get this bio out to the world.

3rd and 4th Paragraph:

Include important background information on your company, past experience, accomplishments, and awards should be presented here. 1-2 more testimonials are useful here.


Don’t be flowery and don’t waste words. Economy and brevity are needed as you really only need a 1 page bio.

Where to sprinkle your bio:

Article Marketing

Press Releases

Media Kit

Professional Organizations

Your Website

Editing Part 2

The nit-noid editing for spacing, capitalization, and usage is just a matter of training your eye to seek out the errors. Reading a paragraph word by word backwards will often identify all kinds of typos to the casual editor. Spacing can be corrected using word processing tools like “replace.” A few of the other annoying parts to examine are:

  • Font and type size
  • Margins
  • Headers and Footers if required
  • Table of Contents and Header Consistency
  • Spell check
  • Content for missing paragraphs, sections, etc

With patience and plodding thoroughness you can make your way through the document with confidence. A little more work on the front end of the project will get your work into your audience’s hands faster.

Story telling is a good way to keep the reader hooked on the material so they will continue reading; however, make sure your stories have a point. For every story make a point and for every point have an illustrative story. When looking at your work with an editor’s eye look for the way the words and the story work together. Learn everything you need to know about how to write to be read.

Writing to be read means thinking like the reader. Speak to the reader in a way that is appealing and engaging and appeals to them on an emotional level. Use varied sentence lengths but avoid constructs that are really complex to follow. Make your point quickly to keep the content moving. Avoid excessive use of adverbs, passive voice, and other empty words that add nothing to the overall content.

You may craft some really cool sentences that you have to part with in the interest of good fast moving content. Good editing makes the work more effective and more likely to make you look like the content genius you are!