Watch Movies to Improve Your Writing

Students, former students, and anyone else with a yen to write are invited to submit questions on my Feedback page. As many as possible will be answered in future blogs.

Today, I’ll wrangle with a question posed by a former student: How do I make a piece of writing appeal to readers? The easy answer: Appeal to the identify factor.

To elaborate, here’s a trick that works for me. A cinema buff, I often reflect on how movies work when writing fiction or nonfiction.

As a child, I loved Saturday afternoon matinees, which cost only a dime then. The Rand was the only theatre in Randleman, where I grew up, and nineteen times out of twenty, the show would be a Western. I knew nothing of the west and cowboys. So how did the director and actors lasso me in?

First, they corralled me by endowing the lead character with unexpected details. Of course, all those memorable cowboys such as Red Ryder and Roy Rogers had similarities: ten-gallon hats, spurs, horses. But to add appeal, savvy screenwriters made each leading role cowboy unique by flushing him out with unexpected details. For instance, adventurous Lash LaRue always dressed in black and battled with a whip instead of a gun. He had little in common with mild-mannered Hopalong Cassidy. Gray-headed and distinguished, Hopalong appealed to me because he reminded me of my grandfather. Those cowboys in Grade B movies captured my interest, in part, with their daring do, but also because they remained one of a kind. When writing about yourself or someone else, revealing what’s unexpected might be even more compelling than creating a hero.

Though the territory on screen wasn’t familiar to me (Back then, I’d never been to Nevada, where most Westerns were filmed), the scenery convinced me that such a place existed. A movie visually creates a locale. A writer must do so with words. How does the place you describe look? What are the textures, the sounds, the colors, and how do things move? To make what you write real to the reader, you need to appeal to the senses and be specific. The Lone Ranger didn’t just ride a horse; he rode Silver, a huge stallion who frequently rose up, lifting his front legs. And cowboys don’t just eat dinner. They chow down on chili so hot it makes their eyes water.

Oh yes, those old matinee movies knew how to entice. Sitting there on the second row, before I’d even finished my popcorn, I’d be transported to the screen, holding onto Silver. Miraculously, I’d become the masked man and with Tonto’s help, I’d surely catch the bad guys.

Entice your readers with words and send me your questions. In the meantime, happy trails to you.

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On Critiquing and Rewriting, Part 2

In my last blog, I made suggestions for critiquing the first three pages.  Now for the rest of the story.  Does the plot  work? The reader expects conflict in both fiction and nonfiction. Personally, I detest stories with too much sunshine. I want the protagonist (main character) to have obstacles to overcome or difficulties he can learn to live with. Go easy with the sugar. Too much sweetness will rob your writing of vim and vigor. Life is, after all, a rollercoaster, with many ups and downs. Describe the wild ride when you put words on the page. When critiquing, pay attention to tensions. What helps the protaganist get what she wants? What stands in her way?Most stories are a marriage between narrative and dialogue. Use narration for accurate descriptions and observations of places, people, and feelings. Enliven the narrative with figurative language such as metaphors (comparison of two unlike objects), personifications (describing inanimate objects as if animate) and alliteration (repeating initial word sounds) to add lyricism. Balance the telling by including bits of dialogue. The use of dialogue serves one of two purposes: carries the story forward or helps characterize the person speaking. The trick for effective dialogue is making the conversation sound natural without its being natural at all.  To be effective, dialogue needs to be pared down from the way people actually speak.

Though it’s permissible to add a bit of hyperbole or exaggeration to make your story more dramatic, make sure what you write conveys truth.  Get the facts right.  In a novel I wrote, I described a gingko tree in the backyard of my protagonist’s home. If a botanist hadn’t read my chapter, reminding me that gingko trees didn’t exist in North American during the 1800’s (when my novel took place), I would have made an embarrassing boo boo. If  writing about a train or horses or pole dancing, or whatever your particular topic might be, find an expert on that particular subject and ask him to read what you’ve written.

In a traditional story, the protagonist changes. The change might be prompted by an epiphany or by the passage of time. In coming-of-age stories young people learn by several experiences or the influence of others. When a moment of clear realization is reached, the story is essentially finished. But most writers add falling action. Here’s a corny example to illustrate what I mean: Two people meet and gradually, after many ups and downs,  decide they’re meant for one another, but skillful writers add something else such as the wedding or the honeymoon, so the ending isn’t too abrupt.

Last check the title. Does it  add something relevant which doesn’t appear in the story? Make your title a tease or a hint or simply interesting enough to be memorable. “Grandpa” isn’t a suitable title. Instead let your title reveal some secret about Grandpa or about your relationship to him.

Keep editing and keep letting others critique what you write. Like the best silver, manuscripts, if they are to shine, require a great deal of polishing.

Have a question about writing? Send it to on my Feedback page.   I’ll attempt an answer in a future blog. In the meantime, keep writing; keep loving to write.

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On Critiquing and Rewriting, Part 1

“A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” William Stafford

One of the participants in a memoir writing class I facilitated asked a question I’ve heard many times before: How do I critique my writing and the writing of others. That’s a complicated one, so today I’ll describe how I critique the beginning (one or two pages). In my next blog I’ll deal with the rest. Here goes.

First, right away, have you made your reader comfortable by indicating the place, time, and people involved? Readers hate to have essential information withheld from them, but do attempt to find subtle ways of conveying such essentials. Though there’s nothing particularly wrong about beginning with a date, finding a well known event occurring on that date or describing the weather or prevalent fads of that time, will add additional appeal. Example: Instead of “On November 22, 1963,…” a more interesting way to start a story taking place on that date might be “On the day President John Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald, …” then go on to state what happened to you or your character on that same date.

Indicating the climate early on also helps you connect with your readers. Most stories have two climates–the exterior and the interior. The exterior consists of actual weather and how snow, rain, or sun, affects the character and what happens to him. The interior climate reveals how character(s) feel inside–angry, peaceful, irritated, happy, for example. Often writers contrast the interior climate with the exterior. Example: Though Joe’s heart ached during the graveside service, the sun shimmered in a clear blue sky, promising better days ahead. Of course, comparisons of interior and exterior climate can also be effective.

Early on, include a BIG CLUE concerning what your story or book will be about,  preferably the first or second paragraph. Even better, provide the BIG CLUE in your first sentence. Here are a few made-up examples: “After we married, I discovered my husband was a vampire” or “Mary left the Alabama farm where she’d always tended chickens and drove straight to New York City” or “Arnold, who loved to chatter, woke up one sun-kissed morning in July, unable to speak.” A well-placed hook makes it impossible for the reader to put your work aside.

What else do readers expect in the first few pages? A convincing voice, compelling descriptions which appeal to the senses, active verbs, concrete nouns, and a uniqueness that flows from the writer’s own personality and beliefs. Don’t forget to check the spelling and punctuation.

What’s the rest of the critique process? Check out my next blog.

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How to Begin

Writing tips will be offered in this space. Students, former students and anyone else with a yen to write are invited to submit questions to my Feedback page. As many as possible will be answered in future entries.

Recently, a young woman contacted me. She wanted to know how to begin a memoir.

Begin by simply writing, I advised her. By doing practice writings, as Natalie Goldberg advises in her phenominal book, Writing Down the Bones, your subconscious will help you locate the bones of your story. Perhaps the spine of your life is an illness you battled, or staying married to the same person for over fifty years or how education changed your life or even, how humor gets you through the day. Each section you write needs to either contribute to the goal you sought or work against it.

Some writers need prompts (or suggestions) to jumpstart their brains. For example, when I say “apple” to my students, one might recall her grandmother’s apple pie, warm from the oven; another might recall once climbing an apple tree and falling from its branches. For both, the word brings back a forgotten memory that could add relevant description to what is written.

Natalie Goldberg’s book, Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir offers hundreds of prompts presented in a variety of creative ways.

In addition to practice writing, read the memoirs of others, figuring out how they’re organized and what makes them successful. Be sure to set aside a specific time for writing. The more time you spend putting words on a page, the better your writing will be. Finally, believe in your own ability to get it down. Don’t get hung up on perfection. Critiquing comes later.

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