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Tips for Writers

This page has links to articles, web pages, and commentary especially of interest to writers.

Also see my Articles for Writers page.


Point-of-View Characters Whose Gender Is Not Yours

We had a discussion in my Advanced Novel Writing Class at NYU about the difficulty of capturing a character who is of a different gender from yourself. Writing about people unlike yourself– by race, ethnic group, age, and certainly gender or sexual preference– is always a big challenge, but also of great interest to a creative writer.

One class member spoke of an excellent contemporary novel written by a woman and narrated by a man. The class member said he admired the book but that it was only about 98% believable as a male narrator. That is, of course, pretty darn good. He said that it was hard to put his finger on exactly where the 2% resided, but thought it might be in certain words or phrases that weren't quite– manly enough? Something didn't quite ring true.

Another class member asserted that a male writer who gets it right with male and female point of view characters is George R.R. Martin, the fantasy epic writer whose vast A Song of Ice and Fire series appears on HBO as Game of Thrones. I am an admirer of Martin's work, and indeed I was impressed and inspired by his enormous cast of point of view characters, male and female. Martin does not, however, use first person narratives, but rather close third persons. He also works in relatively short chapters, often moving on to a new character.

There are a couple of great advantages here, including that in third person, you don't have to attempt to capture every nuance of the character's thought and experience. I was inspired to use something like Martin's technique in the novel I'm just now finishing. I have six point of view characters, three male and three female. Like Martin's, these are close third persons, and the chapters vary in length but are short enough that I can focus on one moment in time, or only certain memories for each character.

That is to say, I may skip (if I choose) quintessentially male things like a boy's sexual awakenings or being kicked in the genitals or shaving your face– all kinds of activities that I might or might not be able to imagine or do research on. The focus in my novel, as I see it, is not on the entire consciousness and life experience of any one character, but on certain events and on the interplay of the six people and others. Whether my three men are believable men remains to be seen, of course.

I do have a reasonably successful experience writing first person male, and that is two children's novels in the voice of a boy named Marco, The Secret Super Powers of Marco and Marco's Monster. The reason I was comfortable with this is, I believe, first that Marco is prepubescent; second, that I relied heavily on writing and storytelling by children I had worked with in New York City public schools. Third, my own son was just about Marco's age when I was drafting it. Finally, my interest was on story, on a certain voice I knew. Marco is not an angst-ridden teen-age outsider but a third grader who is telling his adventures to readers in a quasi-formal tone: "When I was about three years old," he begins, "I had a little red cape I wore every day. My mother says I was so cute, she used to keep a picture of me in the album in this cape with my arms stretched out like Superman...."

These notes are just musing about this issue of how to get deep into people unlike you. My advice is to experiment: Try writing a passage about a character very different from you in his or her own voice. You may not keep what you've written in its original form, but you are highly likely to learn something.





A Late Revision Technique


I was revising a novel that was abut to be published as an e-book (hard copy to follow). This book was really finished, and had been given an excellent editing a while back by my then-agent. Still, this was an opportunity to go over it one more time, and I tried a technique I've advocated but never actually used myself. This revision technique is only for the end stages of writing a big project. The idea is not to get caught up in the momentum of your own story. Simply put, you go over the final chapter, then go over the penultimate chapter, then the one before that. I did Chapter 29, then Chapter 28, then Chapter 27, and so on all the way back to the beginning.

When you do this, you tend to be annoyed by anything extraneous– you're less likely to skip over things. I'm a big fan of moving forward fast as you draft, but now I wanted to do the exact opposite: to slow down and find as much as possible of what was wordy or unnecessary. I didn't find a huge amount to cut and correct, but plenty to make me glad I'd done it.

One interesting thing I noticed was that the end of the novel seemed richer and stronger than the beginning, which I had, in fact, polished a lot more. This suggests to me that my novel got better with the accumulation of what had gone before. It's a good layer of revision. For more layers of revision, see my article in The Writer.



Revising the End of a Novel

I'm at the end of writing a novel I've been working on for a few years. About six months ago I completed my "real" draft, which I felt had all the right characters and points of view and plot points etc. This summer I've been revising it. This was a fast revision in which I looked for what I could cut, for discrepancies in chronology and continuity. I wanted to approximate a reader's experience of it.

You can't really do this, of course, but it's a useful exercise to try. My next step is to get a couple of outside readers, and I'm sure I'll have changes to make from them and from my own final editing, but this draft feels like it is the real novel. That further changes will be to the surface, not the heart of the story.

As I was working on the final section, I made a major structural adjustment. This final section, Part III, consists of two chapters, a 12 page one and a 30 page one. The climax of the plot is at the end of part II, so Part III, set a few months after the previous events, is, in effect, a long denouement– the resolution of events and lives, the clarification of questions raised.

I like denouements, both as a reader and a writer. In a long form like a novel, there are many characters and many threads, and while plot and event create the momentum and shape, I am equally caught up in results of the events. I like after-effects and thoughts about the future. I probably also just hate to leave the people I've been involved with for the duration of the book. Again, this is both me the reader and me the writer.

Part III of my novel was meant to do all that– to answer questions, to suggest some possibilities for the time after the novel is over. My earlier draft ended with the 30 page chapter from the point-of-view of a teenage girl who is part of the novel's central family. She is both a link to her mother's childhood (her father is an old boyfriend of her mother's ) and, because of her age, a link to the future. It felt logical to me to end with the opening up of the future.

But I changed my mind.

I cut a scene from this section that I really liked because it didn't do enough, went over some issues I'd already treated. I told myself I might someday write a YA novel using this passage and these characters. I didn't want to let go of this girl, I realized. I wanted to start something with it, not finish something. The end of the chapter, in particular, didn't feel like the end to the whole book.

So I experimented with using the teenager's long chapter to open Part III, and the shorter chapter for the end. In spite of all the scenes with children and young people, it is really a novel about adults, two sisters and their husbands and a sour, eccentric friend of the sisters.

This friend, Richie, has the very first chapter in the novel, and I liked the symmetry of having him end it as well. He has some material that suggests his future, too, and I liked his jaundiced world view– and the fact that his world view has probably shifted more than anyone else's in the novel, although he would never admit it. Richie is the novel's outlier. All the other point-of-view characters are related by blood or marriage to the others.

To end with Richie was to end with a grown-up, with the one with most distance on the others, and also with formal closure. Making this change meant that I had to adjust the chronology a little and go over the chapters closely to make sure everything fit, but a sign that the change was working was that there really weren't many adjustments to make.

I'm much more satisfied now: I've got the outward push of the young person; I've got the adult's take on how things came out. I have a nice frame.

I think this is going to work.


                                   Meredith Sue Willis





A Few Questions and Answers


Q. I know it matters what you name characters, but do you have any practical hints?

A: Here's one: watch out for alliteration because it's one of the ways our brains connect things.

I am just at the end of a novel draft, and one character has two boys in her life. As I was revising, I realized that I was getting them confused. If I, the writer, am getting Travis and Tyler confused, how could I expect a reader not to be? So I replaced all appearances of "Tyler" with "Harrison," only to realize there was also a place name in the story called Harrison. Coincidences abound in real life, but in fiction, we tend to expect everything to have meaning, and I didn't want this boy linked to a county.

I did another search and replace, and at the moment the second boy's name is "Jason," but I'm not absolutely satisfied with that either...



Q: Doesn't a piece change when it's worked on for a long time as the writer's mood changes? I feel I started writing more light-hearted passage when I felt happier and less daunted by the act of writing. Isn't the reverse true, as well?

A: The answer is a resounding Yes! Moods change, you lose momentum, change the focus of your interest. I know people who have taken ten and fifteen years to write a novel. Their entire life changes: family members die, physical conditions change.

This is one good argument for drafting as quickly as possible, to capture the original impetus and mood.



Q: How do you balance writing and life?

A: The life part is obviously a challenge. Even people who have set aside a summer or retired or otherwise made space for writing, often find that the rest of life gets in the way. Those of us who have been working in offices or schools or other settings full of social interactions may have accumulated a ton of great material for writing, but probably not the habit of being alone for long hours and figuring out how to stay creative without others. The loneliness of writing can be a huge problem for some people.

I know a couple of writers who have dates in coffee shops and bookstores with a writer friend. They drink coffee and write on their laptops. No chit chat, but just a little company. A former student of mine knows someone who makes a lounge available at her office. They invite people to come and write together. The organizer provides prompts, but no one has to use them.

On my writing days, I often do a lot of desk work before getting to writing. I'm not sure this is good, but it seems to clear my brain and enable me to write intensely for a fairly brief period of time (45 minutes to an hour or maybe an hour and fifteen minutes). I can work much longer at revision or copy editing, but I'm speaking here of the time when I am really "in that place," as I call it to myself-the place where my full attention is on the world I've created.

Part of the discipline of writing is figuring out how to get it out of yourself: do you need others? Do you need long periods of time? Do you need music? Silence? So different for each person.



Q: How do you think about and manage your writing time? What helps you be more creative and more productive?

A: In a recent Advanced Novel workshop class at NYU, one class member said that she writes at least four hours a day, roughly from the time she drops her children at school till she picks them up. I, the teacher, felt full of envy. She is in the first flush of writing her first novel. Nowadays, I often work only an hour, and often none on teaching days.

To answer this question, I observed my writing habits for for a few days. What I realized was that (a) I do a lot of desk work before getting to writing- clearing my brain, as it were; then I write very intensely for a fairly brief period of time (45 minutes to an hour or maybe an hour and fifteen minutes). This period is when I am really "in that place," as I call it to myself-the place where my full attention is on that created world. Then, coming up for breath, I am physically restless, starting to think about chores that need doing, phone calls to be made, etc.

At that point I usually go for a walk with my Nordic walking sticks (not a Nordic track but these things). As I walk, the next scene of my project often rises at the back of my head, then like a projected image before me. Out of my unconscious? Not really, because I had been focused on the idea. Out of repetitive physical activity? Maybe. Either way, I take it as a gift. Sometimes I scribble down these ideas on a piece of paper as soon as I get home. Sometimes I don't get to them till late in the afternoon, when I squeeze in a second session of writing.

Sometimes, I don't get a gift for my writing at all. Sometimes I get an idea for what to do with the leftover chicken in the refrigerator.

I don't know if this is useful to anyone or not. The real message is to find what works for you. Maybe for you it's a full long day set aside to go deep in your work. Regularity, I know, is important, whether it's daily or weekly or only on holidays. Personally, I know I am carrying my stories around with me all the time, mulling them over, letting them ferment, consciously or unconsciously.



Q: I am considering self publishing a book. I found a company on the Internet, but since I probably know almost as much about brain surgery as self-publishing, I wanted to ask you what you think of this particular company.

A: The company you're considering has a lovely web site. There are many these printers that do a good job of making attractive books and then making them available on the Internet.

There are two important things to keep in mind, though:

(1) Whatever they say, you have to do your own publicity-- write to everyone you know, set up speaking engagements, get a reading at your local bookstore, etc. etc.  The press will make the books available, and make them attractive, but they won't market them in any serious way.

(2) Another important consideration is what it will cost to buy books to sell on your own.  What will the press charge for a supply of books?  When you go to speak or whatever, you want to have books to sell. Some of the companies sell them reasonably;  some make big profits selling the books.  

I have a couple of short write-ups on my website about experiences that are worth looking at:  Marion Cuba did well, and also look at Bert Murray, whose comments are just below hers.  I know someone who used Lulu, and I've heard good things about a company that puts out a nice free newsletter, Self-publishing.

These companies (and many more) are legitimate businesses, and most do what they promise:  the trick is to be clear about what they promise-- and what they don't. Be prepared to do the hard work yourself.  



Q: I'm doing a final edit of my novel and need to know the most common publishing house style to show that words should be in italics. Do you actually italicize them or underline them?

A: I googled "using italics in preparing writing for publication" and came up with something from the MLA style sheet (Modern Language Association).  They and other sources all specify italics, not underlining.  Underlining, I believe,was used to indicate italics back in the day because typewriters didn't have italics.  Today, since most publications and publishers insist on digital submissions at some point, italics transfer nicely from the writer's word processor to the publisher's.  So I think this is a clear win for italics.    



Q: How do I punctuate thoughts in fiction?

A: Generally, I save quotation marks for actual spoken-aloud dialogue. You can almost always do thoughts simply by saying:

This is getting ridiculous, she thought.

Some people like italics:

This is getting ridiculous,she thought.

I prefer the fewest possible markers, grammatical and otherwise, but the bottom line is that there is no rule. You want clarity and transparency. That is, you don't want a reader being confused about whether a comment is thought or said aloud, and you want readers to move forward without noticing how you've done what you've done, if at all possible.



Q: I'm confused about when I can use contractions. Right now I'm using them everywhere except in summations and narratives. But someone told me I should only use contractions in dialogue. Is there any rule?

A: Definitely use contractions in dialogue, because it's how we speak, but fiction is a generally informal type of writing, and I'm quite sure I use contractions in my narration as well as within quotation marks. I believe the way to think of it is as another tool: if I wanted to slow down a passage of narration or create a formal tone, then I might well write, "I would slow it down" But if my authorial tone is lighter, and I want speed, I might write "I'd speed it up with contractions." No hard and fast rule in novel writing, except that normal people in dialogue tend to use contractions.



Q: I have a question about copyright - namely, what do I do to protect my work if I want to show it to someone else, but it hasn't been published yet? Is there a way to do that?

A: About copyright: you own your writing by the act of writing it. You own the copyright, whether you've done anything official or not. Here's some information, but the bottom line is that fiction is rarely stolen– what you don't own and can't copyright is your idea– that is, someone else can do a similar plot and you can't do anything about it.



Q: How do you punctuate titles? It seems like I do it differently every time!

A: Here's a great discussion of that on Grammar Girl at Capitalizing Titles.



Q: How do you use quotation marks in dialog when the
character is telling something about the past and quotes someone else talking?

A: The usual way is to use single quotes inside regular double quotes. So you'd have: Jane said, "I was rushing to the office when I ran into Frank, and he said, 'Janie, I've got some bad news!' "


Q: What do you do when you've written different endings and like none of them? I keep telling myself something will come, something I haven't thought about, but so far it hasn't.

A:I usually think in terms of hypothetical endings. I'll do a whole draft of a book and know that the end is weak, but at least I've had the satisfaction of writing “The End.” Then I'll lay it aside for perhaps a couple of months, then go over it from the beginning, and plunge on through. Of course, I may end up with another imperfect ending, but when I've finally made enough drafts, I usually have finally found the "real" ending, or at least a good place to stop.



Q: How do I create realistic characters? I'm not striving to write great literature. I want to write a thriller, and I'm best at action and suspense.

A: People who take my writing classes tend to fall into one of two categories. Some start with characters and have trouble finding stories for them; and some start with plots and have trouble with characters! It sounds like you are one of the second group. One good trick is to write back stories for your main characters-- mini biographies (or even resumés). Try to figure out the person's age, where they grew up, education level, ethnic background, what they want out of life, what their favorite food is-- all kinds of details, that might be useful in your story, too. Here's a list to get you started.

Also check out this advice from Writer's Digest about motivation and the arc of change in a character.



Q. What about verb tense? The present tense is so much more dynamic. I am using past tense as in a story telling mode. Which is better in fiction?

A. I use the present tense sometimes, but it isn't my favorite. I like it best for very short pieces. In general, especially for longer works, I prefer the plain old story teller’s past myself. There are plenty of good books and good writers, though, that use the present tense extremely well. So, on the one hand, good writers make anything work. On the other hand, a lot of younger writers use the present tense because it is something of a fad. Take a look at Present tense for some thoughts on pros and cons.



Q. What about working on two novels simultaneously?

A. This, like many other things, depends on you. When I get stuck, I go on to a new project, so I often have two or even more books and a couple of stories and articles going at once. I also trust that I'll be able to get back to the things I've left.



Q. I'm writing a novel and having a hard time with technology. Do I include cell phones? Facebook? Twitter?

A. That's a tough one. The clearest way to deal with it is to consider every novel a historical novel, even if it is set in 2013. Make sure you have the right technology for the year. There are also lots of tricks-- your character can be the kind of person who always misplaces her cell phone or lets it run down, for example.



Q: I have my first paid writing gig. It's for an online travel website. Do you think it's unusual or bad that they own all future rights to the article, or is this standard?  From their website: Publication Rights: We are only interested in articles that aren’t yet published, and we own all future rights to the paid pieces you publish through us. If you prefer to maintain future rights, please submit your article through unpaid articles program.

A: Writing for Hire  (which is what you're describing-- the publisher owns the rights) is not great, but it's totally common.  In other words, it's done a lot, especially with nonfiction, but also with some things like popular series books for kids that have different authors for each volume.  It's not a scam, just not ideal.  What I have done in such circumstances is to write a separate version of the piece, longer or shorter, maybe fiction instead of nonfiction, or using different examples to make the same point, or whatever, if I want to use it again. They can't buy your ideas and experience, just the words you've written in the order in which you've written them.





Word Usage, Grammar, and Some Pet Peeves

Article from Writers Digest on Underlining Titles Versus Quotation Marks
I just got caught misusing "mitigate" when I meant "militate!" Here's a good article about the difference. Short version: You almost always "militate against," and never use "against" with "mitigate." Burning fossil fuels militates against our present standard of living lasting into the next century. Keeping forests healthy may mitigate the effects of burning fossil fuels.
Here's a good blog entry at Grammar Girl on grammar and Fiction: Grammar and Fiction.
Take a look at this essay on the phrase "Begging the Question," which we all seem to use incorrectly.
Do you have a problem with commas? Here's a terrific article to set you straight.
Do you know Grammar Girl? This grammar blog is terrific on how to use practical, graceful grammar and punctuation. Here she is on the ... ellipsis: Quick and Dirty Grammar Tips
There are certain words that get misused a lot-- one is the word "heft," which means most often, weight or heaviness, or sometimes importance or influence. But a lot of people use it in what is really a rare and archaic way, as if it meant "bulk." A lot of students write, "He lifted his considerable heft out of the chair." It ought to be "He lifted his considerable bulk out of the chair." Correct uses are "The heft of a good hammer" or "Some synthetic fabrics are nice and warm, but I prefer wool because it has more heft." The word is a related to "heave," on the same pattern as "weave" and "weft."
Another word that irks me when it is misused is "smirk." This is a verb I would only use if I really didn't like a character or really didn't like a character's attitude at that moment. The dictionary definition (quoted from the Houghton Mifflin eReference) is "to smile in an affected, knowing way." Sometimes when writers really want a character to grin or smile humorously, they use "smirk," and it always sets my teeth on edge.
There are also certain words and phrases, all perfectly good English, that I avoid in my writing. I find that I have in the past overused them, probably because I actually like them. One word I have sworn off is “shard.” "Shard" sounds like what it is, a broken piece of something, but I’ve come to over-use it. It seemed like every time a glass broke or sun was refracted through a window in my prose, I would call it “shards of glass” or, metaphorically, “shards of light.”

I also avoid certain phrases I used to love as a beginning writer: "visibly shaken" was one I used to look for excuses to use, as in "When she heard him say her name, she was visibly shaken." When I was a child, I adored "gathered up her skirts!"  That's got to be what Cinderella did when she fled the Ball, and I was always looking for excuses to have someone gather up her skirts and run away.  Do you have such words and phrases on your personal Avoid list?

One member of my writers' peer group can't stand the word "quotidian," which she says no one uses in real life. We were critiquing a novel-in-progress of mine, and another group member said, yes, but that word was used in context in the voice of a character who likes big words. This was an interesting case: no one disputed that a pretentious character can, in quoted dialogue, use words I wouldn't use myself, to fit the personality. But how about in the close third person, as in this novel, where the diction slips between the author's words and the words a character might use or think?



A Couple of Articles from Writers Digest (for my fuller list of articles for writers, click here)

Here's an interesting Writer's Digest piece aimed at commerical fiction, but worth thinking about: Brian Klems' "Confessions of a Story Coach."

At one point, he says, "...give us a hero facing a challenge or a goal that changes their near-time life, launching them on a quest to solve the problem or attain the goal, with something opposing that objective (usually the villain, but sometimes a force; in either case, the story works best when that opposition is external rather than an exclusively internal demon), with meaningful stakes hanging the balance."

Some of the greatest novels I know ignore most of that advice, but others follow it.


Here's another one from Writers Digest on writing dialect.



Also, Check out Jessica Murphy's piece on avoiding Gawking Characters at Inspiration for Writers, Inc.


A Visual Artist on Writing her First Novel

I'm having a bout of "infantile omniscience" – Gee, all I have to do to fly is to go up on the roof wearing a cape and jump off with my arms spread – that adults can suffer from when having to learn to learn new protocols, skills, etc. when they, otherwise, feel competent and assured.

The constant challenges of learning to write continue to surprise. It feels like the opposite of peeling an onion. I keep thinking the last layers are in place, when they're not. Ironically [a jerky, overused word] the challenges are, in part, what motivates me to write.

I came to a point with my painting when I didn't feel there were any left. A death, of sorts. Writing feels like trying to solve a mathematical equation or one in physics – both of which I know nothing about. Moving things around. Getting them to connect. Shaping an elusive mass of disparate stuff. Also, a painting is there forever. Doesn't go out of print. Usually, doesn't get passed along or thrown out.





The Balancing Act One: Balancing Our Lives

I want to talk a little bit about balancing our writing in our lives and in the work itself. The life part is obviously a challenge. Even people who have set aside a summer or retired or otherwise made space for writing, often find that the rest of life gets in the way. Those of us who have been working in offices or schools or other settings full of social interactions may have accumulated a ton of great material for writing, but probably not the habit of being alone for long hours and figuring out how to stay creative without others. The loneliness of writing can be a huge problem for some people.

I know a couple of writers who have dates in coffee shops and bookstores with a writer friend. They drink coffee and write on their laptops. No chit chat, but just a little company. A former student of mine knows someone who makes a lounge available at her office. They invite people to come and write together. The organizer provides prompts, but no one has to use them.

Personally, I depend a lot on physical exercise. On my writing days, I often do a lot of desk work before getting to writing. I'm not sure this is good, but it seems to clear my brain and enable me to write intensely for a fairly brief period of time (45 minutes to an hour or maybe an hour and fifteen minutes). I can work much longer at revision or copy editing, but I'm speaking here of the time when I am really "in that place," as I call it to myself-the place where my full attention is on the world I've created.

When I start coming up for air, I usually go for a vigorous walk, during which I often get new ideas or solutions to problems, or, sometimes, just an idea for something I need to pick up at the grocery store. But I almost always get something.

Here's an idea from a student: Sit down with a friend, and have the friend read a chapter of your work aloud to you. Just listen. "The tone of her voice was lovely as she read.  For the first time I grasped how it important it is that I appreciate what I have written."
One of my students says, “The more I think about it, the more I understand ... that giving the right cues to the reader, cues that will help he/she journey along the work – is one of the biggest challenges confronting a writer. [The writer needs] to ease the reader into the beginning of the story. Being hospitable is what I strive for when you come to my home, so it only follows that I should extend that same consideration to readers of my work. In no way should it diminish the story’s impact or style.”
Two interviews where I talk about writing: Creative Writing Now and one by Tricia Idrobo with me on Writing and Illustrating: Sharing Information about Writing and Illustrating for Children . Both sites have a lot of good information.
In typing in corrections to a manuscript, and I decided to do it in reverse order, or at least Chapter 21 followed by Chapter 20 followed by Chapter 19 etc. It feels uncomfortable, but keeps my focus on the sentences and words. To read in order is to get swept up in story-- ideal for a reader and for the writer as she drafts!-- but it means you tend to skip little rough spots and even outright errors. So even though this isn't the most fun, it is a good technique, IMHO.
The biggest hint of all is to find a time in your life for regular writing. It doesn't matter if it's every day or every week-end or six weeks in the summer-- you need a period of time you can depend on. You may also occasionally get an inspiration that sends you rushing off to your notebook or computer, and that is great, but it is an extra-- a gift from the universe! To edit and revise and continue and finish work, you'll need that regular place and time.
Separate your critical brain from your drafting brain. Try writing at least three paragraphs (or even better, three pages) before you go back and fiddle with the words. If possible, don't read over what you wrote today until tomorrow or at least after lunch. It will be much easier to make changes.
Try not to do just one thing if you can do more than one. Don't give the information that he ate a steak, rather, show both that he ate a steak and that he was angry when he was eating it: "He stabbed his fork into the slab of sirloin and and slashed off a piece with his knife."
After you've written your draft, go through it looking to see if all the essential conflicts have been dramatized. This is an especially good technique if you feel that your dialogue is flat or boring. Put the dramatized conflicts into the dialogue.
Put thinking, contemplation, and dramatized flashback scenes at a point in your story where it would be natural in real life too: riding a train, lying awake at night when the character can’t sleep, etc.
Click here for hints from writers, editors, and agents.
And here for what some writers have to say about writing and literature.






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