Sunday, August 28, 2011

Writing Tip ABCs, Part 3, G-I

This week's Writing Tip ABCs proceeds to letters G, H, I.

We might as well get right to the tips!

G is up first.

GESTURES a character makes tells a reader something about him, his mood, his attitude, etc. If a character raises his middle finger toward another character we know he's made a disparaging remark, whether any dialogue is involved or not. If we read that a civilian character has given a proper salute to an army colonel, we could conclude this person has a military background.

All main characters in a story must have GOALS. Story is about characters attempting to achieve goals. If a book stars two protagonists with opposite goals, the story will be more compelling. For example, in my book "Laura's Lost Love," a love story which is set in the early 20th Century, the unmarried heroine's goal is to take in a little girl from the orphan train. The hero is tasked with denying placement of orphan train children with anyone who is not married. Hero and heroine goals are exact opposites.

Sometimes a GLIMPSE into a character's past can tell a reader all she needs to know. There is no need to do a complete psychological study on why a character won't go on picnics when all a writer needs to do is let a thought cross the character's mind. "'You want me to go on a picnic?' Joe asked. 'No thanks.' He hadn't been on a picnic since he was five and his brother Harold hid a handful of ants in his pork and beans." If the reader doesn't need to know the character had nightmares for years or that the experience caused a bed wetting problem why bore him with unnecessary details?

Up next, the letter H.

HEROES in all genres are larger than life, but they aren't perfect. Give them flaws. Make them human.

HEROINES may be demure or kick-butt women, pretty or average looking, but they, like heroes, have inner strength and human flaws.

HUMOR livens up the most serious of scenes or stories. Remember the scene in "Goldfinger" when James Bond is about to be sawed in half? Bond says to his nemesis who is watching as Bond's life is in jeopardy, "I suppose you expect me to talk." And Goldfinger replies, "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

And finally, the letter I.

INTERVIEW characters while fleshing them out in pre-writing creation. Learn everything about them so you'll know exactly how they'll react to the problems they'll face in your story.

Readers love characters who can IMPROVISE. Think James West of "Wild, Wild West," James Bond and MacGyver. A character who creatively improvises in sticky situations adds a new dimension to your story.

An INCITING INCIDENT happens near the beginning of a story. This event causes havoc in the protagonist's life and puts his/her life terribly out of kilter. It is because this event happens that the hero/heroine sets goals which are probably different from the goals he/she had when the story opened. For example, a tornado carries Dorothy's house to Oz. (The inciting incident.) Dorothy sets her goal: she wants to return to Kansas. (Before the inciting incident, Dorothy's goal was to save Toto from Almira Gulch, the nasty lady on the bike.)

If you'd like more Writing Tip ABCs, visit my Twitter page at

Next week we'll take a look at tips starting with J, K, and L.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, August 22, 2011

Writing Tip ABCs, Part 2, D-F

Writing Tip ABCs continues this week featuring letters D, E, F.

Let's get right to it!

Starting with D:

DESCRIPTION can be a tricky little demon to handle. How much is too much, and how much is too little? The goal is to give the reader enough information so she can get a good mental visual of a scene, person, object, etc, but we don't want to bore her, and we don't want to bog down the pace of the story.

It is usually best to filter in description a little at a time. Check out these two examples for comparison so you can see what I mean.

1. Robert wore a gray suit, white shirt and bright red tie. His black hair was heavily oiled and combed back neatly. Though his nails were neatly groomed, his hands were definitely those of a laborer.

2. Robert nervously tugged at the middle button of his gray suit jacket. "Hello," he said to a chunky, older, red-headed woman he passed in the hallway. He noticed none of the other men in the crowded corridor was wearing a tie. Would his bright red tie be too flashy for the interview? It really stood out against his white shirt. "Excuse me," he said to a tall, dark-haired man in his forties, "Could you tell me where I could find Mr. Johnson's office?" As the man gave him directions Robert ran his rough but manicured hand over his neatly arranged, oiled hair.

Description number one is efficient and short. Depending on the circumstance, it may work well in your story.

However, did you notice how active description number two is? Slipping in bits of description, connecting how Robert looks with what he's feeling greatly enhances our narrative. Readers not only see how Robert looks, they experience the anxiety he's having about how his appearance might affect the outcome of his upcoming interview with Mr. Johnson.

One more thing about description--a rule of thumb: give three facts about each character on stage in any given scene. In example two above, did you notice the brief points given to describe the woman and the man with whom Robert interacted in the hallway? The limited information about these people who are passing insignificantly through Robert's life gives us a glimpse into who they are.

Here are three important things to remember about DIALOGUE. 1. Make it sound real. 2. Be sure the dialogue is material to the scene/plot. While we real people say lots of things which are not significant, characters should not. 3. Good dialogue divulges information about characters.

Set reasonable DEADLINES for your writing projects, and be sure to meet them.

On to E:

Readers have buried themselves in your book in order to ESCAPE the hassles and problems in their real lives. Be sure to entertain them thoroughly.

Once the climax has passed END your story quickly. Be sure to tie up any and all loose ends.

EDIT your book meticulously. Your copy should be immaculate.

And finally, F:

Although they are sometimes necessary, FLASHBACKS should rarely be used. They interrupt the story, bog it down. They can frustrate readers too. It is usually better to filter in events of the past here and there so the reader has the needed information without having to be interrupted by something like: "Oh, wait a minute, I've got to tell you what happened to John ten years ago."

Unlike flashbacks, readers tend to enjoy FORESHADOWING. Giving them hints of what may be coming can make them feel more like participants in a story rather than mere observers.

People whose FEELINGS are roused while they're reading a story will be more engaged. Readers enjoy stories in which they can laugh, cry, love and get revenge along with the characters. Give readers what they want, and they'll eagerly read more.

If you'd like more Writing Tip ABCs, visit my Twitter page at:

See you next week with letters G to I.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing Tip ABCs, Part 1, A-C

Starting this week, coincidentally beginning with the resurrection of the school year, we're going to be "studying" the ABCs of writing. :-)

Each week I'll focus on tips such as A for "action," B for "back story" and C for "character." We'll work our way through the alphabet as best we can (not sure about Q, X, Z) until we've completed our ABCs.

Let's start at the beginning: A.

ACTION is essential in every story. Action shows the reader what is happening rather than telling him. Action is much more exciting and engaging for the reader than narrative is. Example: Harry thought the joke was funny. (telling; no action) Harry laughed until tears rolled down his cheeks. (showing; lots of action)

ADJECTIVES (and adverbs). Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Strong nouns and verbs make for better story telling.

AUDIENCE. Remember who your audience is and write appropriately. Your voice, the words you use, the way you unfold the story should be suitable to your genre readers.

On to B

BEGINNINGS must hook the reader. They must be provocative and engaging. If the reader is bored by the opening lines, paragraphs, pages, why would he continue reading?

BACK STORY. Giving too much back story up front will bore a reader, maybe even irritate her. Filter in back story a little at a time as needed for clarification, characterization or any other reason which is necessary to the plot. Do not give background information just because it interests you. Back story must have an influence on the character or the plot or it is not needed.

BRIDGES. Make transitions from one scene to another, one point of view to another, etc. as clear, smooth and easy to follow as possible.

And, finally, C

CONFLICT. Without conflict there is no story. Who cares if Mary has a crush on John, and he likes her back? However, if Mary is in love with John, and he is married to Mary's sister we have conflict. And when Mary starts to plan how she is going to get rid of her sister so she can have John for herself, we have more conflict--we have a story we can sink our teeth into.

CHARACTERS. As with conflict, we have no story without characters. In the above example, if we were to write Mary's and John's story, we'd need to clearly identify who Mary, her sister and John are. Unless we know these people intimately, we writers would have no idea how they would react in whatever circumstances they meet.

CLICHES do not belong in stories, most of the time. We're writers. We ought to be able to come up with better phrases than "quiet as a mouse," "hard as a rock," or "cool as a cucumber." However, our characters may not be as clever as we are, and, once in a while, our stories may contain people who use cliches rather liberally because that's just who they are.

We've got a good start now on our ABCs. Next week, in part two, we'll cover D-F, including dialogue, editing and flashbacks.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, August 8, 2011

Clouds and Rainbows

When was the last time you "wasted" time staring at clouds or rainbows?

It seems we always have a ton of things to tend to on our "to do" lists, so many things, in fact, that we forget how important it is to take time to stop a while and just relax.

Stare at clouds, sniff fragrant flowers, examine the colors of the rainbow, pull a leaf from a tree and notice its veins, color and texture. Take hold of your child's (or grandchild's) hand, feel her warmth, look into her innocent eyes. Pet your dog, play with your cat, laugh at your pet's silly expressions and activities.

Fill your heart with a sunset, catch a breath of August evening air as it cools from the heat of the day, walk through an orchard or a garden.

It is in relaxation that we are refreshed in mind and spirit. When our spirits are refreshed we feel better, look better and produce better.

In other words, just in case you need an excuse to make yourself take some time off, know your "to do" list will shrink much faster if you relax a while and refresh your spirit because you'll be more productive after a soothing break.

Sound good? I think so.

Have a great week, and don't work too hard.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author

Monday, August 1, 2011

Reunions and Love

Like many of you, we had a couple of reunions this summer.

I won't mention exactly which year my husband and I graduated from our two high schools, but it was in 19 hundred something, and we just returned from reuniting with our classmates.

I suppose to an outsider the people we went to school with aren't anymore outstanding than those you knew growing up, but to us they are TOP NOTCH. They are real, humble and proud, hard working, loyal, friendly, sweet, strong, God loving and lovers of their country. They aren't perfect, but they are none-the-less wonderful.

While it was sad to know some of our childhood friends couldn't be with us because God had called them home, we understood they were with us in spirit, sharing their humor and their love with us.

Those of our classmates who were able to return to their roots shared warm hugs, heart-felt smiles, a few tears, tremendous joy and a few drinks and eats.

Life is full of so much sorrow and pain at times. Having lived for a number of decades, our former classmates and we understand this well. So do you, even if the number of decades you've lived is no more than two. That is why, when we are fortunate enough to reconnect with people from our past we are gloriously willing to put behind us the sad things from our childhood and rejoice in each others' successes in family, hobbies, love and friendship.

NOTE: [and this comes from a former teacher :-)] The most important part of our education has happened since high school.

In the years since graduation we've learned that loving and holding onto each other is better than anything else life has to offer.

Receiving love from and giving love to God, our families, our friends, our countrymen and our classmates--this is the secret to happiness.


Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author