Category Archives: writing tips

5 Reasons to Go to a Writers Conference

by
Jessica Nelson

I just got back from the three-day West Virginia Writers Conference in Ripley, WV. It’s one of the best gatherings of writers in the tri-state area. For the past five years, I’ve attended the weekend conference. I always have fun, and I always learn more about writing. And I always come back inspired to dive back into my various projects. So in honor of conference season, I’m giving you five great reasons to go to a conference.

1. You’ll learn something new. Writers conferences are a great place to learn new tips, techniques, shortcuts, and methods to improve your writing. Most conferences offer a variety of workshops in a variety of genres; you can learn more about your chosen genre, or you can branch out and try something you haven’t written before. If you go to a workshop on a genre you don’t usually write, you can learn something new that will help you with your current projects. A poetry workshop will teach you the importance of the perfect word and how to hear the musicality of your lines. A workshop on fantasy or sci-fi will teach you world-building, while a workshop on thrillers will teach you how to build suspense.

2. You’ll have fun. Writers conferences can be a blast! Workshops are filled with laughter as you learn and share stories. Meals are spent swapping stories with new friends and old. Free time is spent chatting with strangers or browsing books. And at the West Virginia Writers conference, nights are spent either around the bonfire with s’mores or hanging out on the back porch with music and adult beverages. Or, if you’re me, nights are spent in the room with your roommates, alternately kicking butt and getting your butt kicked at cards and listening to the Hamilton soundtrack.

3. You can build a network. Having a network of authors, agents, editors, and publishers can be super helpful later down the road. And conferences are a great place to build that network! Many writers conferences will bring in a publisher or an agent or some other kind of book-industry representative. Go talk to them. Say hi. Get their business card. Pitch your novel. Make a friend. These are the kinds of people you will want to help you when it’s time for you to get your novel out into the world.

4. You might be able to go for free or at a reduced cost. I’m not sure about all conferences, but West Virginia Writers allows high school and college students to attend the conference for free in exchange for working as interns. Which is fine by this college student, because it means I do everything I normally would anyway, plus I get to help in workshops and get close to the presenters. This year, WV Writers offered conference scholarships in the name of Terry W. McNemar, a former WV Writers president who recently passed away. Do some research on your local conferences. They might offer scholarship or reduced rates. But you’ll never know if you don’t look.

5. You’ll make new friends. One of my favorite parts of conference is seeing the two dozen or so friends that I only get to see once a year. Sure, I keep up with them on social media, but it’s nice to catch up in person. And every year I make new friends. All I have to do is sit down next to someone and ask an opening question: Where are you from? or What do you write? Then I let the conversation flow. It’s great to listen to fellow writers animatedly talk about their current projects or favorite books. Let’s be frank: it’s just awesome to be surrounded by people whose weird matches your weird. Because those people, my friends, become your tribe.

Pacing

by
Sandy Tritt

Pacing is a tool writers have to control the speed in which a story reads. Lush, descriptive segments slow the pace, giving readers a breather. Rapid-fire dialogue speeds the pace, leaving the reader breathless. It is up to the writer to decide when the pace needs quickened and when it should be put in slow gear.

Perhaps the easiest way to judge is to ask questions as you read. Do you start drifting? You need action. Is the conversation or action moving too quickly? You need narrative to even out the pacing. Beware, though, not to use repetition to slow your pace. Instead, find new things to say or new things to focus on. For example, during a highly emotional scene that is moving too quickly, allow the character to study a picture on the wall or watch children playing nearby. Or allow him to remember a conversation from the past. Or focus on one of his other senses, such as the smells or sounds in the background. This can add depth and an emotional layer, as well as slowing the pace.

We can also slow the pace of a chapter or even the entire manuscript by adding more description, more exposition (background information) and more internal dialogue (character thoughts).

Let’s look at an example:

 

Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob’s Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother’s feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. “We gotta talk.”

            “I get off at three.”

            “Now.”

            “What’s up?”

            “Let’s walk.”  

            Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. “What did the doctor say about Mom?”

            “He put her in the hospital.”

            “Why?”

            “He got the tests back.”

            “And?”

            “What did the doctor say?” Gary repeated.

            “She’s got cancer.”

            Gary stopped walking. “Cancer?”

             “Something about a mass in her brain.”

             “Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?”

            “He says there ain’t nothing they can do. He says it’s too late.”      
 
            “Too late? Too late for what?”

            “Dr. Brown says . . .” Ray rubbed his head. “He says it’s too late. He says she ain’t coming home.”

            “What’re we gonna do?” he said.

            “About what?”

            Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. “The boys.”

            “I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat.”

            “I don’t mean now,” Gary said, opening the cigarettes. “Until they’re grown. Who’ll take care of them?”

            “Mom will.”

            “You okay?”

            Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. “They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do.”

            Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

 

This is an important scene, filled with kinetic emotion. Yet, it passes so quickly we don’t feel the full impact of it. This is where we need to slow the pacing down. To do this, we add two things: internal dialogue and description. In our rewrite, I will put the internal dialogue in red and the added descriptive passages in purple. See how slowing the pace adds power to the words:           

            Ray walked the mile from the hospital to Bob’s Sunoco. He found Gary in the bay, changing the oil on a pale blue Cadillac. He kicked his brother’s feet until Gary rolled from beneath the car. “We gotta talk.”

            “I get off at three.”

            “Now.”

            Gary stood and wiped his hands on an oily rag. “What’s up?”

            “Let’s walk.” Ray feared his brain was going to explode. Too much was going on, too many things were changing. He’d read the front page of the newspaper over and over while waiting in the doctor’s office. The Apollo 7 astronauts were heading home after eleven days in space. President Johnson was negotiating for the release of fourteen North Vietnamese POW’s. And Jackie Kennedy, the dead President’s wife, was marrying a Greek billionaire the very next day. He didn’t even know if it was legal for the President’s widow to marry a foreigner.

            Gary followed Ray outside and toward town. “What did the doctor say about Mom?”

            “He put her in the hospital.”

            Colorful leaves swirled around their ankles, the drier ones crunching under their heavy steps. Gary kicked them out of his way. “Why?”

            “He got the tests back.”

            “And?”

            A young mother, her sweater flapping in the wind, pushed a baby carriage over the uneven sidewalk with one hand and pulled a stubborn toddler with the other. Ray stepped into the street to let her pass.

            “What did the doctor say?” Gary repeated.

            “She’s got cancer.”

            Gary stopped walking. “Cancer?”

            Ray slowed down until Gary caught up. “Something about a mass in her brain.”

            Gary was quiet for a long time, then spoke softly. “Does she need surgery? Does she have to take chemo? Or radiation?”

            “He says there ain’t nothing they can do. He says it’s too late.” Ray remembered that part very well. He’d argued with Dr. Brown, insisting there had to be something. She had three young boys who needed her.

            “Too late? Too late for what?”

            “Dr. Brown says . . .” Ray rubbed his head. “He says it’s too late. He says she ain’t coming home.”

            They walked slower, silently, past the library and into the park. Pre-schoolers played on the swings and slide, laughing and shouting.

Gary leaned against an oak tree, his dirty gray jumpsuit blending into the trunk.“What’re we gonna do?” he said.

            “About what?”

            Gary took a new pack of Marlboros from his pocket and tapped it against his palm. “The boys.”

            “I guess we gotta pick them up from school and fix them something to eat.”

            “I don’t mean now,” Gary said, opening the cigarettes. “Until they’re grown. Who’ll take care of them?”

            “Mom will.”

            “You okay?”

            Ray scratched the five-day-old stubble on his chin. “They made a mistake. We just gotta find Dad and get this all straightened out. Dad will know what to do.”

            Gary lit a cigarette and slowly exhaled.

            Ray watched the smoke disappear into the October-blue sky. A foreigner. Two hundred million people in the United States and the President’s widow was going to marry a foreigner. No wonder the world was so damned screwed up.

 

 Likewise, to speed the pace, omit everything except for the direct action or dialogue. Ignore descriptions, ignore reactions, ignore anything other than the bare necessities. This is necessary when the action is more important than character reflection. Let’s look at the following example, in which Gary and Ray are trying to repair a barn roof destroyed in a storm when the storm comes around again. Gary slips on the wet roof and is now on the steep slope of the roof, his weight partially held by a fragile drainpipe below. Ray is able to extend one hand, which Gary has grabbed onto. David is trying to reposition the ladder so Gary can climb down. Here’s how NOT to do it: 

            “Can you reach the ladder with your foot?” Ray asked. He wondered how long it would be until the drainpipe gave way.

            “If I move it,” Gary said, “I won’t have anything to hold onto.”

             “Just me.” Ray’s arm ached from holding Gary’s weight. He hoped David had seen what was going on and would try to move the ladder. Someone had to do something. Otherwise, Gary would fall.

            “I don’t trust you that much,” Gary said.

            “Looks like you ain’t got much choice.” The rain still fell. Ray looked at the sky. Dark clouds hovered even lower. The rain was there to stay.

            The ladder vibrated again.

            “Shit,” Ray whispered. “I wish they’d stop shaking that thing.” It made him nervous. Surely David knew that shaking the ladder also shook the gutter. And any little movement added pressure to it. It could snap at any time.

            “I wish they’d stack up some hay underneath me.”

            “Hell, as much rain as we’ve got today, you’d just land in the mud. Ain’t gonna get much softer than that.” The mud had to be deep. But still, he knew it was a long fall and Gary would most likely break some bones or worse. He remembered when he’d broken his leg in tenth grade. It was so difficult trying to get around the school on crutches and it seemed that his leg itched all the time. He’d stuck an unbent clothes hanger under the cast to scratch his leg.

            “You trying to tell me to jump?”

            “Nah. You’d probably pull me down with you.” Ray knew Gary wouldn’t really do that. But he also knew Gary was still angry with him for spending the money on the drum set.

            “I’d damn sure try.”

            “Let me have your foot,” David’s voice said.

            “No,” Gary answered.

            The roof shimmered in the rain. If the situation had been different, it would even have been beautiful.

            “I’m right underneath you,” David said. “If you lift your left foot, I’ll put it on the rung.”

            “Shit,” Gary said. “I’m trusting Ray to hold me and you to guide me. I might as well jump.”

            “Or apologize for being such an ass all the time.”

            Ray smiled. David had a point. All the boys had taken Ray’s side of the argument. Except maybe for Joey, who hadn’t said anything. But then, Joey never did talk much.

            “I’ll jump first.”

 

It’s difficult to be too worried about Gary with all the internal dialogue muddying the situation. Let’s look at how cutting all the internal dialogue and description adds immediacy and excitement to this scene: 

            “Can you reach the ladder with your foot?”

            “If I move it,” Gary said, “I won’t have anything to hold onto.”

             “Just me.” Ray’s arm ached from holding Gary’s weight.

            “I don’t trust you that much,” Gary said.

            “Looks like you ain’t got much choice.”

            The ladder vibrated again.

            “Shit,” Ray whispered. “I wish they’d stop shaking that thing.”

            “I wish they’d stack up some hay underneath me.”

            “Hell, as much rain as we’ve got today, you’d just land in the mud. Ain’t gonna get much softer than that.”

            “You trying to tell me to jump?”

            “Nah. You’d probably pull me down with you.”

            “I’d damn sure try.”

            “Let me have your foot,” David’s voice said.

            “No,” Gary answered.

            “I’m right underneath you,” David said. “If you lift your left foot, I’ll put it on the rung.”

            “Shit,” Gary said. “I’m trusting Ray to hold me and you to guide me. I might as well jump.”

            “Or apologize for being such an ass all the time.”

            “I’ll jump first.”

 

Reading our prose aloud is perhaps the best way to judge the pace. Listen as you read and consider if the action is happening too fast or not fast enough. And remember, there is never one right answer. The pace of your story is just one more element that contributes to your unique writing style. Experiment, study, write. But in the end, use your own judgment.

The After-Conference Afterglow: Seven Ways to Keep the Creative Fires Burning

by
Rhonda Browning-White

You’ve put your life on hold for a weekend, a week, or even longer. You’ve attended a fabulous writers’ conference, and you’ve come home with a load of books, handouts, and scribbled notes. You’ve made dozens of new best friends who actually get you, who understand that it’s okay to have morning coffee with the voices in your head. You’ve found your tribe, and you’re inspired to write, write, write!

And then there’s the laundry. And the grocery shopping. And the kids and pets. And the day job.

How will you ever maintain the momentum and apply the advice you garnered at The World’s Greatest Writers’ Event, when you have to face the real world?

Here’s a list of sure-fire ways to keep that exciting energy flowing from your mind to your manuscript. Let me know how they work for you!

1. Sleep. Yes, this sounds counterproductive. However, chances are good that you rose early, stayed up late, and have jet lag or are road weary. You’ve also been away from your family and friends, and if you want their support throughout your writing career (you’ll need it!) then you must revive and reconnect. Twenty-four hours of R & R won’t sideline your journey to the bestseller list. In fact, once your brain is rested, you’ll be more productive, and since you’ve caught up with all that’s happened in your family’s life, you’ll feel good about shutting the door to your home office while you get some serious writing done.

2. Sort. All those notes, handouts, and manuscript suggestions need an organized home. If you don’t have a folder for handouts, make one now. If you have several handouts, consider sorting them by topic: characterization, plotting, publishing advice, and so on. Hopefully you thought ahead and took a notebook with you, so all your snippets of advice are in one handy place. If not, transcribe the best notes into a notebook or onto index cards, so you’ll have them at your fingertips when you revise your work. Then gather all the business cards and contact lists you’ve received, and set them aside. (We’ll get to those later.) Lastly, if you’ve been lucky enough to attend a conference with a workshop, sort all the critiqued copies of your manuscript by page number (all page ones in one stack, page twos in another stack, etc.). Then, when you revise your manuscript, you can work through one page at a time on your computer, applying what you wish to use in your story, then discard the rest.

3. Write. Yes, you have a stack of signed books you can’t wait to read. Yes, you still have laundry to do. But before you do any of those things, take fifteen minutes (or two hours, if you’ve got it) and write! Tell yourself that this is a requirement for your conference. Use a prompt from a class that you didn’t have time to work on during the event. Or go ahead and begin tackling those revisions to your story.

Sometimes we return home intimidated by the amount of work we think we need to do in order to make our manuscripts publishable. The truth is, however, that unless you start working on your writing, those manuscripts will remain unpublishable! Start where you are right now. Don’t worry: if you mess up, your computer has a delete key.

4. Say “Thank you!” That perfect snippet of advice you received about transitioning from one scene to another? The recommendation a published writer made to his editor? The handout that you plan to post on your bulletin board as a roadmap to finish your novel? Say thanks! Pull out those business cards you collected, and drop a handwritten thank-you note in the mail. Don’t have a street address? Send a thoughtful, personalized email thanking the presenter or mentor who shined a light on your writing path.

5. Connect. While you have those business cards, presenter list, and workshop critique schedule in hand, update your social media accounts. Add to your Facebook friends list, follow your new connections on Twitter, and update your Instagram. Be sure to follow the blogs of your favorite presenters, authors, and new friends. If you’ve become especially good friends with a few of your fellow attendees, ask them to return the favor and follow your blog, as well.

6. Read. Finally! You’ve caught up on the business end of writing, so before you nod off to sleep, grab a book from the stack you’ve brought home from your conference. When you’ve finished each novel or book, be sure to review it in at least two or three places, such as on Amazon, Goodreads, or Facebook. Better still, write a formal review and submit it to a literary magazine or newspaper. If it’s accepted for publication, you’ll have yet another byline for your bio!

7. Now, back to work! While we’d love to get lost in reading the great works of our peers and researching details for our stories, our job—first and foremost—is writing. Build off the momentum you gained at the conference. Remind yourself that another conference awaits you in a few months, or next year, and you’ll want to have a polished manuscript to present when that time arrives. If an agent or editor has asked to see your work, be sure to have it professionally proofread or edited (Inspiration For Writers, Inc. can help with that!), and send it out as soon as you can. Include a note reminding the agent that she requested your manuscript at XYZ Writers’ Conference. Then, once it’s out the door, get back to work! It’s time to start your next story!

Join Us at the WV Book Festival

by
Sandy Tritt

Exciting news for those of you in the West Virginia/Ohio/Kentucky area—the 2015 West Virginia Book Festival is back! An exciting line-up of authors includes Homer Hickman (October Sky, Rocket Boys), Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Coraline, The Graveyard Book), Jodi Picoult (Songs of the Humpback Whale, Harvesting the Heart, Picture Perfect, My Sister’s Keeper) and so many more. Go to http://www.wvbookfestival.org/ to see the line-up.

Inspiration for Writers, Inc., will have a booth at the festival, so if you’d like to meet some of our editors and staff, please be sure to stop by. We’ll be in the center aisle right next to West Virginia Writers, Inc. We have lots of freebies—pens, spiral notepads, whiteboards, sticky notepads, tote bags, Writing Wrongs cards, Comma Usage cards, glossy copies of “The Writer’s Prayer,” and more to share with our visitors, and some of our editors will bring books for sale. We will also debut our new, improved, 50% larger Inspiration for Writers’ Tips and Techniques Workbook. Oh, and door prizes. We’ll be giving away a special prize every hour, including a gift basket with a copy of our workbook, lots of goodies, and a gift certificate for $200 good toward any editing or writing service. But, mostly, we’d just love to chat with you and answer your writing questions in person.

Admission is free, and the festival will be in the Charleston Civic Center. Kickoff is Friday, October 23, 2015, with a writing workshop by authors Cat Pleska and Fran Simone from 10 a.m. until noon. The marketplace, where we will be, is open from 1–5 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday, October 24, the used book sale starts at 8 (be there early for the best bargains!) and the marketplace will be open from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

The Charleston Civic Center is located at 200 Civic Center Drive in Charleston, WV 25301. For directions, go to http://www.charlestonwvciviccenter.com/directions.aspx.

We look forward to chatting with you. See you there!

10 Things I Learned at the WV Writers Conference

by
Jessica Nelson

I wanted to title this blog “10 Super-Cool-Awesome-Amazing Things I Learned at the WV Writers Conference,” but, alas, all that would not fit into the title bar on Blogger. But I digress.

So this past weekend was the annual West Virginia Writers Conference in Ripley, WV. This was my fifth year in attendance and my second year working it as an intern. As always it was a great time, but the thing I love most about it is that every year I learn something new. There is always an abundance of knowledgeable presenters to lead workshops and panels. Since many of you are non-West Virginia natives and may not ever make it to a WV Writers Conference, I’ve decided to share the top ten things I learned this year.

10. You have to be brutally honest with yourself. In particular, you need to be honest about your style and your work ethic. This came from Sheila Redling’s workshop. One example she gave was if you are the type of writer who only writes five words a day, you will not feasibly be able to put out two books a year. If you know you are easily distracted, take care of anything you know will be a distraction before you sit down to work. Hold yourself accountable for your work.

9. Sometimes when you’re stuck, it’s because you’re out of sync with your characters. Also from Sheila Redling, this advice resonated with me. On a fundamental level, it makes sense. How can you tell your character’s story when you and your character are not on the same page? So sometimes you need to take a step back from the story and focus on the character. When you and your character have reached a new understanding, go back to the story and try again.

8. Monsters are metaphors. Now, I know that not everyone writes fantasy, sci-fi, or horror, but this advice applies to almost any antagonist. Monsters in particular are metaphors, or embodiments, of our worst fears. A couple of classic examples instructor Frank Larnerd gave were Frankenstein’s Monster (fear of science) and Freddie Kruger (fear of being punished for our sins). And your monster metaphor should match your hero’s fear/weakness/past. That is how you “build a better monster.”

7. When making a “monster” (or villain, or antagonist), do a “monster sketch” that addresses the following: what makes him/her/it a monster? Why is he/she/it like this? What is one noble/good thing this monster does? This came from Marie Manilla’s workshop “Monster Theory…” and forces us as authors to create a fully formed, three dimensional, realistic antagonist. Seriously, try to answer these questions with your antagonist in mind. You will have no choice but to explore all the facets of your character.

6. For anyone writing in verse: the first word and last word of a line hold the most power, so choose your line breaks carefully. This can also apply to prose. The first and last phrases are the “power words” in a paragraph. I participated in a workshop by Kate Fox where we took a handful of lines, written out like prose, from famous poems and each re-wrote them into verse the way we thought they should go. Even though we were all using the same words, our choices in line breaks gave each version a different meaning and different effect on the reader. Even the length of the lines impacted the tone and message of the poem. So make sure your line breaks contribute to the intended effect of your verse. 

5. Start with a believable context. This applies mostly to fiction writers, especially those writing fiction with outrageous or paranormal or fantastical elements. This advice came from storyteller and champion liar Bil Lepp, who made us all believe he’d been smashed into the ceiling by a dentist’s chair. You want to know how he did it? He eased us into it. He started out telling us about a toothache he got, the subsequent trip to the dentist’s office, and getting bored sitting in the dentist’s chair while waiting for the dentist himself to come into the room. So he started playing with the pedals that made the chair change position. The story started so normal and familiar that when odd things started happening, we all subconsciously suspended our disbelief. We trusted what was happening in the story, because he made it fit and work within the context. This is great advice to fiction writers, because if you get too crazy, too quick, you lose your reader’s trust. And even if the point is to be fantastical and out-there, the use of real, normal, and familiar details helps to ground the reader and allow them to connect the story to their own lives.

4. Writing without “emotional language” (“I love this” or “she hates that”) allows the details to “show” your feelings without being sappy or overly sentimental. This nugget of wisdom comes from Jon Van Kirk. He discovered the truth of this statement when he did an assignment with his students at a university. He told his classes to describe a lost-to-them but still familiar location. In the first class, he told them not to use “emotional language” and the students produced vivid descriptions that evoked a range a heartfelt emotions—without ever once naming those emotions. The second class did not produce the same results. Because he forgot to tell them not to use emotional language.

3. In the first few pages of a novel, set up the character, conflict, setting, and voice. This advice came from Edie Hemingway’s “Strong Beginnings” workshop. It applies to any genre of writing and can even be adapted for short stories and other styles of writing. Basically, you want to set up everything the reader needs to know in the first couple of pages. Who is the story about? What are his/her age, race, education, and (to a lesser extent) appearance? What is the conflict of the story? You don’t have to spell it out, but you can start to hint at it or get the ball rolling. Where is the story taking place? And—this is very important—you need to establish the voice, which, ideally, is a combination of your voice as a writer and your character’s voice. Most importantly, establishing all that in the first couple of pages not only grabs the reader’s attention, but it will also hopefully grab a publisher’s attention and keep your manuscript off the slush pile.

2. Don’t get stuck on the first page. Chances are your original first page will change or the story will ultimately start somewhere else. This also came from Jon Van Kirk and his workshop “The First Fifty Pages.” Basically, you don’t have to write your draft in chronological order. You can write any scene from any point in the novel at any time you want. Then, when everything is written, you can figure out the order. For someone like me who gets stuck on the first few pages (every single time), this came as quite a relief. It was like I had been granted a stay of execution. Now if only I can get myself to walk away from the chopping block.

1. Writers are amazing people. Technically, I am re-learning this, as I do every year at the conference. And it’s something you learn from the conference as a whole. Writers are big-hearted, friendly, encouraging, and just all-around-awesome people. Not to mention talented. I’m always thankful that there are writers willing to share their talent and knowledge—not just in the form of presenters, but the attendees as well. And writers are just nice. I had nearly half a dozen people or more come up to me at some point over the weekend to tell me I was doing a good job, or thank me for my hard work, or tell me that they liked my writing. I’m not sure there is anything that makes a writer glow more than another writer complimenting her work. I also had one woman call me over in the parking lot on the very last day. She handed me a copy of her poetry book with the handwritten inscription “Thanks for all you do,” which left me a sentimental puddle all over the asphalt. And, of course, every year I make new friends and reacquaint myself with old friends. Let’s be honest, a conference is only as good as the people who are there. And if you are at a conference that’s filled to bursting with writers, it’s guaranteed to be amazing.

Writing Conferences

by
Sandy Tritt

The first time I attended a writers conference, I was scared to death. No, that doesn’t accurately describe the way I felt. Let’s say that if my knees were made of china, they would’ve shattered. I’m not usually shy, but here I was, Nobody from Small Town, Nowhere, going to a real, live WRITERS CONFERENCE. The people there would all know so much more. They would all be published. And, of course, they would all be snobs, putting me in my place in short order. 

Except it didn’t happen quite that way. Instead, I was welcomed and embraced. Yes, there were a lot of published writers there. And an agent. And a couple of publishers. But everyone was kind and friendly and willing to share of their knowledge. They treated me like I was important, too. I attended several workshops where I learned how to be a better writer. I listened to authors talk about how they found an agent and a publisher. I chatted with people who were a lot like me until late into the night, talking about writing and challenges we were facing.

That was 22 years ago. I have not missed the West Virginia Writers Annual Conference since. There were times I commuted back and forth because one of my kids was graduating, in a ballet recital, or in a body cast, but I always got there. In fact, I went from “the stranger” to giving workshops to being conference director to stepping back and just enjoying the process. It’s the place I find my closest friends and my annual inspiration.

So, if you don’t have anything to do next weekend, June 12 – 14, come and see me at the WV Writers Annual Conference. Voted “best conference for the money” by The Writer Magazine, it’s a fabulous weekend of relaxation, workshops, panels, and entertainment. Read more at http://wvwriters.org/home/annual-writing-conference/ or email me at SandyTritt@gmail.com and I’ll be happy to answer your questions. And I’ll greet you when you arrive so you’ll start your weekend with at least one friend.

If the beautiful hills of West Virginia are too far for you to visit, be sure to research writer conferences near you. Just go to your favorite search engine and key in “Writer Conference” followed by the state or country you live in. You’ll be glad you did. 

See you next week.

The Body Language of Deception

by
Charlotte Firbank-King

Body language is must-have knowledge in a writer’s arsenal of writing tools. It’s important to understand that people communicate through body language, whether intentionally or not. Studies have shown how important body language and tone are when people speak face-to-face. Therefore, if you expect dialogue—your character’s words—alone to communicate his emotional state to your reader, you’re expecting way too much. It’s critically important to replace those ho-hum dialogue tags (he said/she said) with body language or action. Let your reader see the way the speaker’s fist is clenched when he talks or the way a character’s head tilts toward her lover. Those are the clues your reader needs to figure out what is really going on.

I strongly recommend picking up one of the many books on body language and keeping it with your other reference books. Body language can a great array of emotions, and we couldn’t possibly cover all of them in one blog article. Therefore, we’ll talk today about the body language of deception.

The Body Language of Liars

A liar will often cover his mouth, as though to keep the deceitful words inside. He may lick his lips or giggle, and, when he speaks, he may hesitate, stutter, or slur, or, he may have an overly controlled tone. Most liars will speak with less inflection, tending toward a monotone. When asked a direct question, he may repeat the question, or say, “Do you think that I would do this?” or state his opinion on the subject—which is likely to be violently opposed to any such activity that he’s being asked about—instead of directly answering the question. For example, if asked if he mowed over the daisies, he’d say, “There’s no excuse for sloppy mowing. Mowers should be aware of what they are doing at all times.” He’s also likely to hesitate before answering, especially if asked a question for which he’s unprepared. 

Liars will normally avoid eye contact. Some liars are aware that this will give them away, so they will instead force eye contact, which feels unnatural. Pupils constrict when their owner lies, which may be why liars blink rapidly. They may glance away or glance sideways. 

A liar wants to be invisible—or, at the least, take up as little space as possible and not draw attention to himself. Therefore, he may have an overly stiff posture with controlled movement, and his hands and leg movements are toward his body core, not outward. 

In some people, the hands may be animated, as though the extra movement can help move the words through the air with added integrity. However, a liar will not cover his heart with his hand—that is, unless he’s aware this is a sign of being open and honest, and he does it to deceive. An honest person will often have a hand that is turned up, with the palm exposed, while a liar will keep his hand clenched or his palm down. A liar’s hands may touch his face, throat and mouth, or touch or scratch his nose, upper lip, or behind his ear.

Emotional Gestures and Contradictions of Liars

When someone tries to deceive, the timing may be off between the emotional gestures/expressions and spoken words. For example, a character may say, “I love it!” when receiving a gift, but then smiles after making that statement, rather than at the same time. The gestures/expressions may also fail to match the words spoken, such as smiling when saying “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or shaking the head while saying, “Yes, I’ll take care of that for you.”

Expressions are limited to mouth movements instead of involving the entire face when faking emotions. For example, when someone smiles naturally, his whole face is involved. He has jaw/cheek movement, his eyes light up, and his skin crinkles at the corners. A liar’s eyes remain expressionless when he smiles.

Interactions and Reactions

A liar is uncomfortable facing his questioner/accuser and may turn his head or body away. He may unconsciously place an object, such as a book or a newspaper, between himself and the other person, or he may move objects around, indicating discomfort.

If an accuser believes someone is lying, he should change the subject quickly. A liar follows along willingly and becomes more relaxed; the deceiver is relieved the subject changed. An innocent person may be confused by the sudden change in topic and try to return to the previous subject.

Final Notes on Lying

These are just a few of the body language clues that a deceiver may use. In fact, entire books have been written on just this one area—on the body language of a liar or how to identify a liar, so it’s a subject that can be studied in-depth. 

It’s also important to note that when trying to clue your reader that a character is lying, the character should respond in a way that is not normal for him. And, of course, just because a character exhibits one or more of these signs does not make him a liar. 

If a character is a psychopath, these indicators may possibly not apply—psychopaths have no real conscience, and therefore do not have the guilt that causes many of the reactions listed here. Some psychopaths may even be cunning enough to behave in an acceptable manner—and are good enough actors to get by with it.

Writing is a craft with much to learn. We encourage you to sign up for our newsletters, this blog, and glean our website for the many tips offered there. We’re also here to help you along the way. Just shoot us off an email at IFWeditors@gmail.com. We’re here.

Top Ten Writing Tips

by
Sandy Tritt
 
 
1. Get it on paper. Once you’ve written it, you can edit it. But until your story is on paper, in black and white, you have nothing. 

2. Focus. Write one sentence—yes, one sentence—that states what this manuscript is about. Once you have that, you can refer to it to know if a scene belongs in this manuscript. If a scene doesn’t support the focus statement in some way, it doesn’t belong. 

3. Ground your reader at the beginning of each scene. Make sure your reader knows where the scene takes place, when the scene takes place, and who is present in the scene. If you’re using a controlled third person point of view, the first character mentioned should be the viewpoint character for that scene.

4. Know who your narrator is. If you are using the omniscient point of view, your narrator will be an invisible character who is present in every scene, but will not be any one character (although your narrator will have the ability to pop into any character’s head). If you are using a first person point of view, your narrator will be the “I” character. If you are using a controlled third person point of view, your narrator will be standing right next to your viewpoint character and will only be able to see, hear, smell, etc. what that character sees, hears, smells, etc.   

5. Act it out. Yes, it’s been said over and over, but it’s still the first rule of writing. Don’t tell your reader what is happening—allow your reader to experience it through action and dialogue.

6. Use active voice. Don’t start a sentence with “there is” or “there are” or “there were” or “there was.” Doing so automatically puts you in passive voice. Instead of saying “there were seven cheerleaders at the mall,” say “Seven cheerleaders shopped at the mall.” Likewise, try to avoid words like “when” or “while.” “When John looked to his left, he saw the army advancing” is passive and has a gawking character. Instead, say: “John looked to his left. The army advanced.”

7. Use the strongest verbs possible. Replace “was” with “moved.” Replace “moved” with “walked.” Replace “walked” with “strolled.” Constantly search for stronger and stronger verbs. For truly, it is verbs that give a manuscript its power. Avoid adverbs—instead of saying “He walked slowly,” say “He strolled.” 

8. Use an action or body language instead of dialogue tags. Challenge yourself to replace EVERY dialogue tag with an action by the character speaking. You’ll be surprised at how your story comes to life. 

9. Never name an emotion. If you say, “He was angry,” you’re telling, not showing. Let us see him slam his fist on the counter. Let us feel the breeze as he storms by. 

10. When in doubt, leave it out. If a sentence makes sense without “that” or “of,” leave it out. Leave out any word or phrase or paragraph or scene or chapter that is optional.

The Secret to Using Flashbacks

by
Sandy Tritt
 

As writers, we have many tools (or devices) available to us. These devices allow us to do things a normal human cannot do, such as travel in time, know what characters are thinking, and hop from one location to another. However, if we indiscriminately used all the tools all the time, our readers would be so confused they wouldn’t be able to follow the story. Therefore, we try very hard to follow the action line of our story chronologically, revealing what happens in the sequence in which it occurred. We also try to stay with just one character’s thoughts at a time (our viewpoint character), and we limit each scene to one location (unless the viewpoint character is in motion, in which we move with the viewpoint character).

However, there are times when we need to give background information about a character—and there are times when we need to act out that background information. This acting out of something that happened in the past is called a flashback. Since flashbacks interrupt the current action of the story, we must always weigh the advantages against the disadvantages. Are the benefits we receive (a glimpse into a character’s past) worth leaving our characters dangling in time while we go into the past? If so, don’t hesitate to use a flashback. If not, continue with your storyline and find other ways, such as exposition, discussion, etc., to entwine the past with the present.

If you choose to use a flashback, you must follow the secret, unwritten rules by doing two things that will tip the reader that you are leaving the present. First, you must provide a transition statement, such as, “John remembered the day his father died.” Second, you must shift your current story tense to a more distant tense. For example, if your main storyline is in present tense, you’ll need to slip into past tense for the flashback. However, if your main storyline is already in past tense, you’ll need to use past perfect tense (“had”) once or twice. Do note that if your main storyline is in present tense, you should present the entire flashback in past tense. However, if your main storyline is in past tense, you should only use past perfect once or twice. That’s enough to clue your reader that you’re going further in the past, and, by then reverting back to simple past tense, you avoid the clumsiness of remaining in past perfect. 

This combination of transition and tense switch is what lets the reader know they have stepped into the past. So, your job now is to act out the flashback scene with action and dialogue, and, when you are finished, clue the reader that you are returning to the present by using past perfect once or twice (if your main storyline is in past tense). Then, revert to your normal tense, and, if necessary, include another transition sentence (“But that was then and this was now, and John had to let the past stay in the past.”) that further clues the reader the flashback has ended. Here is an example:

            Danny remembered more about his mother’s death than he’d ever told anyone. The day she had died, she had called each of her sons to her bedside individually.
            “Pour me a cup of fresh water, please,” she said, her voice thick with the Polish accent that decorated her words when she was tired or sick.
            Danny filled the cup, careful not to splash it on the bedside table.
            “Now, hand me my lipstick.”
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            “Be good,” she finally whispered, her voice raspy.
            He went to the door, started out, then stopped and turned around. His mother tapped several tiny white pills from the lipstick case and shoved them into her mouth. She gulped water, then dumped more pills into her palm and swallowed them. Three more times, she had repeated the process.
            Even now, Danny felt responsible for her death. He looked at his father and swallowed hard . . .
 
As with all devices, it’s imperative you don’t overuse flashbacks. They are spices to be sprinkled lightly, used only when absolutely needed.
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Write Every Day–Are You Kidding Me?

by
Rhonda Browning White

We’re now fully immersed in the hectic, er, joyous and peaceful, holiday season: Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Yule, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Kwanzaa, Watch Night, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day . . . and the list goes on. We have shopping to complete, presents to wrap, trees to decorate, cookies to bake, parties to attend, dinners to host, football games to watch, and stories to write. What! Do you mean we’re supposed to find time to write over the holidays? Have you lost your mind?

That’s what I think each time I see a Facebook post, a blog entry, or a web article admonishing me to “Write Every Day!” Perhaps these reminders are popping up with increasing frequency in advance of the New Year’s Resolution craze. Or perhaps they’re showing up more often to drive me insane. Either way, I’m not falling for it. 

You see, over my twelve-year career as a ghostwriter, professional editor, and author, I’ve kept a giant secret, but I’m now going to share it with you: I don’t write every day. Sometimes I go two or three days without writing. Sometimes I go a full week without penning more than a simple grocery list (which I usually leave at home, only to discover it’s missing when I reach the dairy aisle—is it heavy cream or half-and-half I need for that recipe?), and, believe it or not, my writing never suffers from the break.

In fact, it often improves. 

How is this possible? For starters, you should know that I don’t believe in writer’s block. (I call it “writer’s laziness.”) Writing is a form of mental exercise, and, just like physical exercise, overdoing it can cause problems. The mind, like the body, needs time to rest and recharge. The best ways to recharge the writer’s brain are to read or to do something creative other than writing. Reading a great story—you can squeeze in a short story before bedtime, while sitting in the doc’s office, or waiting at the airport even on the most hectic days—or a writing craft book never fails to refill my writer’s well of ideas. Another prolific author shared with me that baking helps her put together scenes or chapters she’s struggling to work out in her mind. A poet friend paints gorgeous artwork between writing poems. Yet another author—a bestselling, award-winning author—told me he does some of his best writing while staring out the window or sitting on his porch for hours at a time, without touching a writing implement for days. 

Downtime is necessary for some writers to regenerate the creative part of the mind, and never is downtime more necessary for me than during the holidays. I’ll admit to you, though, that when I’m not in front of my keyboard or notepad, I’m often still writing. The idea for this blog entry came to me today when rushing through the grocery store. And while watching a little girl in red tights, a green sweatshirt and a motorcycle helmet stand with her hands on her hips while her father pushed a stalled Harley through a store parking lot, I came up with a great idea for a story scene. Were my hands on the keyboard? Nope. Did I have a pen in hand? Nada. Was I writing? Yes, I was. 

Tonight, when the house is quiet and the Christmas tree’s winking lights are reflecting on the wall outside my bedroom door, I’ll pick up the fabulous book of short stories I’m reading this week, and I’ll refill the writer’s well within my mind with strings of words that sparkle brighter than any light on my tree. And when the holidays are over, and my world has reached some measure of calm, I’ll again sit at my desk, and I’ll write.