Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Be a Cinematic Novelist

Charlotte Firbank-King

As a break from my study of the novel, I’m studying scriptwriting. In the process, I realized that perhaps we novelists should follow the scriptwriter’s methods—meaning we should write more concisely and keep the action moving at a fast pace. Most movies are just under two hours long, some less. Can you read your novel in that amount of time and pack in as much action and drama as a scriptwriter does? Scriptwriting is all about economy of words.

When explaining what makes a good story, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Life, with the dull parts taken out.” We need to visualize the movie and write with that vision in our brains. The story needs to be all about action—showing, not telling. For example, we can eliminate internal monologues and allow our reader to reach his own conclusion about what our character was thinking by the way we’ve described a look or an action.  

Scriptwriters can argue that writing is easier for a novelist. They can switch heads at will and go into any character’s head, whereas a scriptwriter has to show all this. So, take a break from all the tools you have available and try writing like a scriptwriter by showing your reader. When you’re about to switch heads to tell the reader how the other character feels, pretend you’re making a movie. How would you make the audience see what you want them to see?

When we first learn to write fiction, we may think that writing dialogue is all about making it sound like real life. More experienced writers know it’s basically smoke and mirrors. You make the reader feel as though they’re reading real dialogue, but it can’t be, because real-life conversations are mundane. Listen to people talk. Most talk is repetitive and downright boring, even if the dialogue is a heated argument. I would go so far as to say record an argument on your mobile phone and then edit it—you’ll take out most of what is said.

Dialogue is a tool used to illustrate a character’s personality or even the character of the person being addressed or discussed. It’s a way to reflect a character’s mood and emotions, or it can convey the relationship the characters have with each other. Dialogue can expose a motive or hide it. Dialogue must always have a root in what was said or what happened before and must lead smoothly into what happens next. It must convey meaning pertinent to the story, and it can be a portent of what might happen next. Above all, dialogue must be concise and easy to understand, not convoluted like real life. Again, see dialogue as if it is in a movie. Make your characters act it out rather than telling the reader what happened.

Scriptwriters have what they call subtext. It’s the understated scene. For example: 

A single mother comes back from a double shift at work. She worked the extra shift to help a friend who needed to attend her little girl’s school play. Dark rings underscore the mother’s eyes and she drags her feet as she walks into the sitting room. Her teenage son sits hunched over, glaring at the TV.

The mother drops her bag on the floor. “How was your day?”

He transfers his glare to her. “Just great!” He jerks up and stomps from the room, punching the wall on his way out. 

The mother sighs heavily. But as she’s about to walk to the kitchen, she stops and stares at her shattered glass-top coffee table. An MVP Trophy lies in the center of the ruin. Tears fill her eyes and she bites her lip.

He said his day was “just great.” Obviously, it wasn’t. He feels rejected and angry that his big day was forgotten by the only parent he has. We can see she feels guilt and regret. She sacrificed her son’s big day of getting this prestigious award so a small child’s mother could see one of perhaps many plays.

This is the under text. It isn’t served to the audience on a plate. They must figure it out on their own. On a subliminal level, this makes the reader/viewer feel clever for having figured it out. Although the writer could have done the work for them and written the scene out with a lot of dialogue and argument, it would still be showing. Many times, the understated is best.

Leonardo da Vinci said: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

As a novelist, we need to kick it up a notch and describe the scene because it isn’t a movie and the reader cannot literally see the characters in action. But if we can start off by doing what a scriptwriter does by just describing the action, then later we can add the bits between. With clever writing, our characters’ actions, emotions and dialogue should have filled in most of the blanks—the things a reader can’t see like a movie-goer can—and we should have a tighter story that is much more powerful.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Secret to Using Flashbacks

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.”
            “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.

If you have questions about any writing craft issue, please leave us a comment and we’ll be happy to address your concern in a future blog. Our editors are professional, published authors who are experienced in all the tricks of the writing trade, and we are here to help you. If you’d like a free sample edit, visit our info page at If you’d like more great writing tips, sign up for our newsletter or purchase our Inspiration for Writers Tips and Techniques Workbook at Thank you.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Social Media Platforms: Are They Really Necessary for Writers?

Rhonda Browning White

Short answer? Yes! But because you’re smart, you want more than the short answer, right? You want reasons. You want to know that taking time away from working on your novel, your memoir, your short story collection, and your self-help-slash-how-to book to update a Facebook status, tweet on Twitter, or write on your author blog is worthwhile and productive to your career as an author.

First, know that even the most well-established authors are embracing social media as a way to acquire new readers and maintain relationships with current and past readers of their work. Don’t believe me? Check out megawriter Stephen King’s regular posts on Twitter, or bestselling author J.A. Konrath’s blog for writers. 

Not everyone has time for regular blogging or cares for Twitter and its 140-character limitations, however; author Karin Gillespie reminds us that each author should choose the form of social media that works best—and is the most fun—for them. “I’m very sociable, so I love Facebook,” she said in a recent email to me. “I rarely think of it as promotion. In fact, very few of my posts have a promotion element; they are more about naturally foraging relationships.” 

Because of Karin’s active blogging and Facebook posts, she’s received opportunities to write elsewhere. “I got asked to do a Drinking Diary interview (if you saw my FB posts you’d understand). At least it gives me some name recognition. The world is all about connections, and people like doing business with those they feel like they know on some level. Thus you never know what social media might reap.”

Inspiration For Writers, Inc., client Don Kesterson recently learned firsthand what social media efforts can reap when he received a phone call from a London television director who—unbeknownst to Don—followed his author blog and subsequently offered him a spot as an expert witness on the American Heroes Network national TV show Myth Hunters. Keep in mind that Don’s a fiction author, yet his excellent history research—about which he regularly blogs and that is the basis for his novels—pegged him as an expert. (You can check out the episode’s trailer in which Don is featured here.)

In multiple chats with agents and publishers, I’ve been told repeatedly that a new writer’s social media presence is especially important, because the publisher equates Friends and Followers with potential book sales. It also demonstrates that the unproven author is familiar with self-promotion and networking—two activities that are crucial in driving book sales for unknown writers. Author Leslie Pietrzyk recently moderated a panel of agents, editors, and publishers at the Hub City Writers Project’s “The Writer’s Show,” in which panelists discussed the importance of social media for writers. You can watch the very informative episode here for great advice: 

So how much time should one devote to creating and maintaining a social media presence? This is a tricky question to answer, because it’s different for every writer. If you find yourself spending more time on Pinterest and Instagram than pounding out paragraphs for your work in progress, you may need to rein it in. Some authors set aside half an hour in the morning and a half hour in the evening to Tweet and update their Facebook statuses. For others, a couple of times a week are all they can devote to building a social media presence. The important thing is to begin. Get started. Familiarize yourself with a variety of social media platforms (browse a book on them, do a Google search for more information, or—when all else fails—ask a teenager), then choose one, and set up your account. It’s okay to start slow; just get going! When you determine what platform works best for you, commit to it, and post regularly.

Though I’ve been active on Facebook for several years, started a Twitter account about a year ago (@RBrowningWhite), and have regularly blogged here and at, I’ve only recently started my own author blog: I have to tell you, writing a couple of blog entries for my personal blog each week, in addition to ghostwriting and editing for Inspiration For Writers— while still making time for my own personal writing—is tough. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I had to get up half an hour earlier each day to fit everything into my schedule. But that’s okay—we make time for what’s important to us, and writing is a huge part of my life! 

I’m not suggesting that you set your clock half an hour earlier and guzzle coffee along with me—though I welcome your company!—but I do believe that if, like Karin Gillespie and Don Kesterson and Stephen King and scores of other breakout and bestselling authors, you want to get and keep the attention of agents, publishers, producers and, most importantly, readers, then it’s time for you to consider establishing a social media presence. 

Remember that Inspiration For Writers, Inc. is here to help you every step of the way, and this includes assisting you with establishing a social media presence. Whether you want social media coaching via email or phone, or simply need a professional editor to proofread your blog essays, we are available to you. 

And, since we practice what we preach, don’t forget to Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter (@WriterInspirer). You’re already reading this blog post, so we know you understand the importance of connecting with other writers and readers, so while you’re here, click on the Follow link to the right. 

Once you establish your social media accounts, don’t hesitate to post a link in the comment section below, so we can connect with you, as well. See you on the Web!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Confusing Words: How to Tame the Problem Children of the English Language

by Sandy Tritt

Some pairs of words—for various reasons—give us headaches. Sometimes it’s because they are spelled similarly; sometimes it’s because they have common tenses; and sometimes it’s because the rules have changed somewhere along the way. And sometimes it’s because certain words simply are born like that. 

I’ve made a list of the brats I see most often, as well as the tools you need to keep that problem child on his or her best behavior. 

Further/Farther – Without further ado, let me state the not-so-obvious: further and farther are not swappable—they are not synonyms. Further (as in “further ado”) refers to ideas. Farther (which contains the word “far” in it—hint, hint, hint) refers to distance. So, we travel farther to further our growth as humans. 

I’m convinced these next two sets of twins delight in getting each other in trouble. Because the first pair contains a word that isn’t a word, and since this pair is similar in construction to the subsequent pair, we become confused and believe it’s already that isn’t a word. But already is a word! Here’s how to keep these little rascals separated and behaving: 

Alright/All rightAlright is never all right. Alright is not a word. Therefore, you don’t have to remember the differences between these words. You only have to remember that alright is never all right. 

Already/All readyAlready is an adverb that means “prior to a specific time.” All ready is a term that means “completely prepared.” “I’m all ready to go.” “Too late now. We’ve already left.” 

Lay/Lie/Lie - If you have trouble with these troublesome triplets, you’re not alone. They have kept writers awake well past bedtime. Here’s their story:

Lay means “to put” or “to set.” “I’m going to lay my lunch on the table.” Lay is a transitive verb, which means it requires an object (this book).

Lie means “to recline or rest.” “I’m going to lie down for a bit.” Lie is an intransitive verb, which means it does not require an object—the action occurs to the subject of the sentence. 

Now, we can complicate this situation a bit more by adding a different definition of lie—the one that means “telling a fib.”

But it’s when we look at their tenses that we grow tense, so let’s perform a simple conjugation of these verbs:

To put or set
To recline or rest
To fib
Present tense
Past tense
Past participle
Has laid
Has lain
Has lied
Present participle
Is laying
Is lying
Is lying

If you look through the various tenses, you’ll see the past tense of lay is laid. And the past tense of lie is lay. Yes. Lay. So now you understand the problem with these problem children. If you need to, print this little chart and keep it next to your computer—or save it to your “things to remember” document (you do have one of those, right?). 

Affect/Effect – These are the hooligans who have caused me the most trouble. I think the reason is because I grew up in West Virginia, where it’s common for folks to pronounce these two words the same. But they surely are not. Affect is a verb meaning “to influence or make a difference to.” Effect is usually a noun and means “a result or influence.” Of course, the powers that be have mixed it up a little to keep us on our toes, so effect can also be used as a verb meaning “to bring something about as a result.” And the effect of that decision continues to affect us today. 

Then/Than – These imps behave badly throughout the world, but in some areas of the country, they are pronounced the same—and that makes our intuitive feeling for a word lose its intuition. Then is usually used as an adverb and refers to time. Than is a conjunction that shows comparison. If you experience problems with these little guys, practice pronouncing them correctly. If you do that consistently, then they’ll behave much better than they did in the past. 

Lose/Loose – Again, I believe the problem we have with these guys is based upon pronunciation. Lose rhymes with blues and means “to misplace something” (and you’ll have the blues if you lose something important). Loose rhymes with caboose and is an adjective that means “not tight”: if the pants on your caboose are too loose, you might lose them. Easy peasy, right? Well, fasten your seatbelts, because we’re going to race right past these guys to the next disturbing duo.

Past/Passed – These evil urchins are pronounced exactly the same—and that’s only the beginning of their orneriness. The word past has several meanings, but it usually refers to “time before the present” or indicates “movement from one side of a reference point to the other side of that point.” Past can be used as an adjective, an adverb, a noun or a preposition

The word passed is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” To pass often means to move past, and this is where we get confused by this pair’s antics. Of note, to pass can also mean to race past, to fly past, to sprint past or to any-other-movement-verb past. To help keep these twins in their appropriate corners, remember this: if you’ve already used a verb that indicates motion, you’ll want to use past and not passed.  

Its/It’sIt’s always its—unless you can substitute the word “it is” for the “its.” In that case, you need the apostrophe to show the missing letter—no missing letter, no apostrophe. 

I realize these represent just a few of the delinquents who taunt us. What problem children provoke you while you’re writing? Be sure to comment below or email us at and we’ll be happy to address your concern. If we get enough comments, we’ll run another blog on the subject. 

If you have a multitude of miscreants, please consider hiring one of our supernannies—er, I mean, editors—to get those brats back in line. You don’t want your reader or potential agent/publisher to be the first to scowl at your problem child.