June 26, 2017

Tips to Avoid Cliches–That Dreaded Word

I understand what that means, and I work hard to avoid those ‘trite’ expressions that haunt every writer. But, I do know one thing. People talk in cliches. Have you ever heard anyone say something like, “I’m colder than my mom’s house in the winter”? That’s a great way to say, “I’m freezing to death.” The first is not a cliche but the second is. When writing descriptions or back story or internal dialogue, avoiding cliches is easy. But when writing dialogue it’s hard because it’s hard not to make the dialogue sound stilted.

Let’s look at the definition of cliche:

A phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought:

“the old cliché “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.””

synonyms: platitude · hackneyed phrase · commonplace · banality · a very predictable or unoriginal thing or person:

“each building is a mishmash of tired clichés”

Indeed, good writing is original thought. A turn of phrase that surprises the reader with its originality. Of course, unless you’re a poet, every word of phrase can’t be original. Cliches creep into our writing because it creeps into our thinking and our natural vernacular.

Nonetheless there are ways to avoid cliches. Here are some tips you might try:

  • Imagine the feeling you’re trying to express. Put yourself in that character’s skin before he or she speaks. Then express how that feeling affects that particular character. If you can make the feeling relevant to the character’s history as the example above, that’s the best. Perhaps the feeling, however, relates to the events around the character or the setting. Here’s an example: When I stepped onto the pavement, my feet sizzled (cliche: as if walking on hot coals) like the steaks my dad threw on the grill every Saturday night.
  • Dialogue is the hardest place to eliminate cliches. As I said before, we talk in cliches. But, here’s an example that Fredrik Backman employed with Britt-Marie. (He used this type of dialogue with Ove as well). When asked what she thought about the neighborhood drug pusher, she responded, “He has a very neat cutlery drawer.” That was a perfect response from this character’s point of view. It said everything.
  • Trick you mind to think outside the box. That in and of itself is a cliche. But it states what must be done. Go beyond and stretch. Ask yourself to come up with a description that doesn’t sound like all the other’s you’ve heard. Here’s an example: Cliche: Bugs danced around the light like moths to a flame. Non-cliche: Bugs danced around the like like happy partygoers.
  • When writing your first draft, don’t worry about cliches. You can capture them in the editing process. For the time being, you need to get the words on the page.

These are a few of my suggestions for ways to avoid cliches. What suggestions do you have?


How do Writers Choose Character Names? Some Tips

When we write a book, a fully grown person pops up. They have a history and a life that we know nothing about. Who are these people? What is their history and what in the world do we call them? Naming newborns is hard enough. Some parents spend months trying to come up with the perfect name. And these little people have no history yet.

People with history have characteristics that help name them. For example, if you have a character from a Latin American Country, you would want to name him Boris. That might be an easy and extreme example. But, how about a strong protagonist who tends to be hard-headed. Would you name her Celeste? Or Megan? If you have an extremely beautiful character, you might name her Kimberly rather than Jane.

I’ve learned that characters tend to name themselves as I go through the development of the story. Sometimes that means I have to change the name. That is hard because I’ve often gotten attached to that name. I recall years ago my husband and I had a friend whose name was Jack. I met him as Jack and he went through the first sixty years of his life as Jack. But, his actual name was Roland. At age 60 he asked all his friends to call him Roland. He demanded we do so. It took me a long time to accustom myself to Roland, but I finally did. Some of his friends never could and still referred to him as Jack.

Last names are equally hard. A last name connotes a heritage. My main character in the mystery series is Jenna Scali. I named her Scali because her dad was Italian. Quentin Pearson, her trusty side-kick, was named Pearson because he’s from the UK. The name Quentin took me many renditions. I wanted a particularly British name but one that was a little unusual. When I lit on Quentin, it seemed perfect for his character. He’s a bit quirky.

Here are a few things I’ve learned about naming characters:

  • It’s okay to make up names. Many people have make-up names. But, if you make one up, be sure it’s easy to say if said out loud.
  • Be sure your character’s names are distinguishable. Don’t name one character Bob and another Bill and another Bert. You readers won’t be able to tell them apart. Was Bob Lisa’s husband or brother? Or was that Bert? Don’t make you readers go back and check.
  • Personally I don’t like lettered names, like V.A. or B.W. Those kinds of names make punctuation hard.
  • It’s fun in a mystery to put some mystery around a name as Colin Dexter did with his famous detective, Morse. The readers never learned his first name until much later in the series. That gave the character a certain mysterious texture.
  • If a name doesn’t work–for example if your Beta readers agree the name is weak or not reflective of the character–change it. Find and Replace is a great function in Word!
  • Maybe you don’t need to name a character. I loved that in Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman didn’t actually name a couple of the characters. He called one Somebody for the entire story. That reflected the thoughts of the main character. Another he called The Girl in the Employment office. We never knew either name but it didn’t matter and it added to the quirkiness of the book.

How do you like my characters’ names, Jenna, Quentin, Marlene, Starr, Ralph? Thoughts?

Check out my characters in this book trailer for e-Murderer. 

Grammar Conundrums or is it Conundrum?

My head aches with grammar conundrums. Actually I thought conundrum was both singular and plural. But apparently the plural is okay. What about genre? That’s another one that causes my head to throb. Putting an ‘s’ on genre screams WRONG!

My most recent book: A Painting to Die for comes out in the fall. When we were editing that book, one of my more attentive Beta readers asked, “Is it I could care less or I couldn’t care less?” Lord only knew? Believe me I had no idea. Being a Southerner who speaks Southern, we tend to leave off excess syllables. My reader was from the mid-West and enunciated much better than I did (or than my characters do). So, I Googled it and guess what the answer was? Maybe you already know. I couldn’t care less. Trust me, that’s not what many people say!

As for my current work-in-progress, another one of those little colloquial expressions cropped up. Again it came from a Southern speaking character. This time my Beta reader asked, “Is it cut and dry or cut and dried?” Good grief! Again sweating bullets, I had no idea what the answer was. My characters tended to use that expression frequently. Mr. Google helped out again. What in the world did we do before Google? Anyway, do you know the answer? Would you have caught it in my manuscript if you were an early reader? The answer according to Google is “cut and dried.” Again, my lazy Southern characters always said, cut and dry.

Finally today I had a friend ask me a question. Friends do this because I’m a writer and they think I know everything. Anyway, she said she was completely inflexible or is it unflexible? Do you think I had the answer on the tip of my tongue? (or is it tips of my tongue?). This time Mr. Google copped out. Here’s the answer:

Unflexible is a synonym of inflexible. As adjectives the difference between unflexible and inflexible is that unflexible is not flexible while inflexible is not flexible; not capable of bending or being bent; stiff; rigid; firm; unyielding.

Can you figure that one out? My computer keeps auto correcting unflexible to inflexible. So… maybe the computer knows.


Crafting the Perfect Words that Describe Your Book–Blurbs!

Inkripples is a toss into the pond. Take a look at the ripples… Add your own… Mary Waibel’s World at Katie Carroll Observation Desk and at Kai Strand’s blog.

For those of you not aware, blurbs are the few paragraphs about a book that appear on the back cover or in today’s world, on online book seller pages. Those words are the first thing the potential reader sees about your book. If they clearly describe and entice, the reader will hit the purchase button. I can’t emphasize enough how important the blurbs are and how hard they are to write.

Taking my 80,000 word book and distilling it into a few paragraphs–a few enticing, enchanting paragraphs–is one of the hardest tasks I have as a writer. Perhaps if I was a more structured writer, it would be easier. That is, if I had a clear theme and outline going into the project. But, being a pantser writer–or one who moves with the flow of the book–it’s quite difficult. Often I begin a book with a theme or idea and it totally changes as the book moves forward. This makes blurb-writing a huge headache!

Here are a few things I’ve done to get through that arduous task:

  • Read other blurbs. I search for books similar to my book. I look for what captured my attention about that book and how the writer managed to entice me to buy it.
  • As you focus on the big picture, also think about your characters. Your characters drive your story and if they are compelling, they need to be front and center in your blurb. Who are the people in your story and what incited them to act?
  • Once you get the words on paper and you’ve streamlined them as much as you can, give the blurb to your Beta readers. Let them help you crystallize your thoughts.

Even with all these tips and ideas, I still struggle over my blurb. Does it really capture the reader? Does it showcase my book in the way it deserves?

I remember one of my dearest friends saying she didn’t enjoy the book All the Light We Cannot See because she said the back cover was deceiving. I did enjoy that book, but I understand her response. The back cover and the one-liner for that book talked about how a German boy helped a blind girl during World War II. If you read that book, you know that the two did not meet till close to the end of the book and then for only a few pages. The majority of the book was about something totally different. My friend was correct. The blurb and the one-liner tricked readers into buying. I liked the book anyway because it was a good book, but I’m sure there were readers like my friend who felt betrayed.

Tricking your readers into buying is not a good plan. Many readers feel betrayed and they will say so in your reviews. You might not be as lucky as Anthony Doerr was and win a Pulitzer!

I’m struggling over a blurb for my Work In Progress. I’d love your comments. Would you pick up this book? Is it compelling enough? Where does it hit and where does it miss?

Detective Sargent John Melani is losing sleep over the Langley case. All his instincts tell him it’s a simple story of depression and suicide, but something deep inside gnaws at him. Questions fill his head. He can’t let this one go.

Four women sit in a psychiatrist’s waiting room. Meredith imagines stories about the others, too insecure to learn their truths. Kat sits like a mannequin, hoping to get in and out without notice. Paige compulsively turns the pages of a magazine without seeing any of the photos. Dillon scolds her son but never stops him from coloring the office walls with crayons. Lois enters and suddenly everything goes from quiet to noisy, from dark to light.

Was it a suicide or murder? And who was Lois Langley? Detective Sargent John Melani begins probing and what he uncovers shatters everyone’s world to the point that he wishes he’d written suicide on the final report when it first graced his desk.

Deception is a story about one woman’s power to deceive, which ultimately leads to her destruction. It’s a story that probes the inner mind and taunts us with the question how well can we really know one another?



Writers Tips for Showing Feelings

The word, “feel,” connotes telling. When you say Jake felt anger, you are telling.

This becomes a major conundrum in the world of creative writing. We want our characters to have feelings, strong emotions, but how do we convey those emotions in different ways to our readers?

Here are some tips I’ve found useful:

  • Show the emotion through nonverbal cues. Jake lifted the chair and threw it across the room. That action shows the reader how Jake felt. A tear rolled down Mary’s cheek. We know Mary felt sadness. Let’s say Mary’s situation was different. Something really funny happens and Mary gets tearful from laughing. If you simply say a tear rolled down Mary’s cheek, the action seems inconsistent with the situation. You’ll need to show more. For example, Mary chokes back the laughter that bubbled inside her. But unable to do so a moment longer, she howled with mirth till tears ran down her cheeks.
  • Use another character to describe someone’s emotion. Your point-of-view character may be in a better position than you are to share how characters feel. Here’s an example: Mark watched the color change in Louise’s cheeks. Her face went from pink to crimson in the span of a few seconds. Clearly, he’d hit a nerve. Again, Mark is showing us Louise’s reaction to the situation.
  • Fredrik Backman is a masterful writer. He’s the author of A Man Called Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here among others. One thing I love about his writing is the quiet way he shows emotion. He does it within the context of the character. I’m going to share some of my favorite examples from Britt-Marie Was Here

She looks at him as if she just bought a new bag and he vomited in it. Think about that description. Yes, it’s telling, but wow, it tells so much. We know exactly what she thinks about this person she just looked at. I’d say total disgust, wouldn’t you?

She says the word “team” in much the same way as Britt-Marie says “cup” when she’s got a plastic mug in her hand. Here the author describes the feeling by using that character’s quirks. Britt-Marie hates plastic mugs. In fact, she considers anyone who drinks from one rather uncouth. Again, we sense the feeling without the author telling us what that feeling is.

…looking at them as you might look at a stranger on the underground who just sneezed in your face. Backman is so creative with his words to describe feelings that I found myself marveling page after page. Again, in this example, just image how you’d look at someone who just sneezed in your face?

The reason we want to show the reader feelings rather than simply tell them is it challenges the reader. It makes the reading more enjoyable. If I simply say, “Ted felt sad when he looked at his wife’s dresses hanging in the closet,” I’m leaving nothing to the readers’ imaginations. When I use some of the techniques above, I allow the reader to imagine the feeling. The worst thing you can do as a writer is to show and then tell. By this I mean, Imagine if Backman had written, “She looks at him as if she just bought a new bag and he vomited in it. She felt disgust.” Had Backman done this, I probably would have thrown the book across the room and never read another word of it. (What feeling might that have expressed?).

Here are some more tips from my writing desk.

A Time to Work and a Time to Rest

If we want people to come up with new ideas or create exciting stories for books and films, we must allow them time to rest and sleep as well as work. Perhaps we’ve always known this truth. Often people ask writers about their writing day. How many hours a day do you write? That’s what they are really interested in. A surge of guilt runs through us when we realize our writing time might not be the prescribed eight hours a day. In fact, many of us write four hours or less.

Recently I read an article (the Week Magazine 5/12/17 A Better Way to Work) where researchers have discovered that people indeed perform better when they spread their work out and take frequent breaks. The article discussed how many of history’s most creative people rested versus labored. Charles Darwin, for example, began work at 8am for about an hour and a half. At 9:30 he would read the mail and write letters (our equivalent to answering emails) He resumed work for another hour until he ate lunch. After lunch, he’d answer more mail and then work another hour before taking a nap and later taking a long walk. He worked after the walk until dinner at 5:30. Notice all the breaks and the hour to hour and a half stints of work. This schedule enabled him to write 19 books.

As for me, my writing schedule varies from day to day. But, when I am in the middle of a work-in-progress, I usually spend about two hours writing after I’ve done some form of exercise. Later in the day, I do social media or write blog posts. That two-hour period of writing must be uninterrupted. Sometimes I work longer, depending on my mood and how the project is going. When I’m editing a work, I do more work in the afternoon. Clearly, I take a lot of down time when my mind can roam about. That’s often where I get my best ideas. I can imagine Darwin on his long walk, observing creatures and coming up new theories that he later expanded into a book.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, the Outliers, he discussed how successful people spend 10,000 hours a year practicing their craft. But that 10,000 hours is not continuous. Instead, the most successful people spend no more than 4 hours a day on their work. The rest of the time, they are resting their minds and bodies. In fact, the authors of this article point out quite rightly, that these people spend 10,000 hours a year in deliberate practice, 12,500 hours in deliberate rest and 30,000 hours of sleep. How about that!

So, no more guilt for the time you spend, walking, exercising, making lists, answering mail, or resting. All these activities will prepare you for your deliberate practice of writing.

How Important is Your Website? A Writer’s Guide

They spend as little time and money as possible tossing something up there. Then they wonder why their books are not found for review or for purchase. I’m in the process of re-vamping my own website. I’ve explored those of other writers to get a notion of what I might do. Of course, I can’t spend tons of money, but there are some things that will make my site more attractive and appealing.

It’s the place where readers, publishers, agents learn about you. Either they will be impressed or they will turn away from the site, thinking you’re not serious about your work. The website reflects your professionalism. If you are writing for a “hobby,” as a pastime that you never expect to go anywhere, then, sure, don’t worry about your website. But, if you take your writing seriously, if you study the craft of writing and are always looking for improvements, if you want more readers to find you, and if you are proud of your work, then, pay attention to that place where the reader’s first impressions are made–your website.

Here are some tips:

  • Keep your website up to date. If you had a new release when the site was developed, but that book has been out now for over a year, don’t show it as a new release or available for pre-order. You should constantly monitor your site and create new and interesting content for it.
  • Don’t get too wordy. Write like your poet friends where every word counts. Keep your language short and snappy. Today’s viewers will not spend time reading long descriptions on your site.
  • Use catchy, modern, colorful pictures. Your book covers are a great choice. Also, pictures of you talking to groups of readers are especially nice.
  • Include tabs that tell about you as a person, not just your books. But, be careful not to spend too much time talking about your dog or your hiking experiences. People tire of too much, but they want to learn a little. Create a balance.
  • If you have a book trailer, include it on your site. I love Amor Towles site. Take a quick look. He has written several books, some very well-received, but his author site really focuses on his newest release (very up-to-date) and the book trailer (which btw is excellent) is the focal point of the home page.
  • You also need tabs for your other books, for your blog, for your awards, for your events.
  • Make sure you have lots of opportunities for visitors to your site to be social with you. Easy clicks onto Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest enable this and spread the word.
  • If you have author interviews on YouTube, be sure to include one of those on your site. Publishers are particularly interested to see how you present yourself.
  • Make sure your site is mobile friendly— that means the words and images must translate to a mobile device and be easy to navigate there.

Take a look at one of my book trailers. What do you think? Like it? How might you change it?


When Something Doesn’t Work, Why Not Delete It?

. If a scene doesn’t work or no longer moves the story forward, rather than trying to fix it or repair a broken phrase, why not delete it? Nonfiction writers don’t have that much freedom. They deal in facts and some facts can’t be deleted.

In fiction, however, we can delete people, scenes, even chapters. Yes, we can be unmerciful with the delete button and often that strengthens and streamlines the work.

They leave passages in the work that confuse or annoy readers and many often wonder what was that all about. They refuse to delete the long, soap-box diatribes from characters who are really speaking through the author. Once the writer creates a scene, it’s so hard to let it go. After all, it’s beautiful writing. Right? And what about deleting characters? Perhaps there are too many people cluttering up your story. To axe someone is quite difficult.

When I’m struggling to fix a scene or to make it fit in a story that has evolved into something else, if I cut it all out—you know—just to see what it would be like without it (but, of course, I’m gonna put it all back), much to my surprise, the story works better, much better. I often save the scene or the character or whatever I’d deleted for use later or in another book. But, in truth I rarely go back to it. Saving it, though, makes me feel better.

If it’s not so good, I suggest you see if you can work on improving it. My two-cents. What’s yours?

#WriterTips for Using Pinterest

Sometimes we wish we could bury ourselves in our writing and never face the social world. But, more writers are learning that the way to get the word out about their books is through social media.

I always thought of Pinterest as a place to post pictures. I couldn’t imagine it as a place for writers. But, things have changed. As for me, I find a lot of good content on Pinterest. There’s a wealth of information for writers and readers. People post a picture with a link and that link takes the interested viewer to a website with a blog post or a book review. Pinterest doesn’t work without pictures, but we can add a lot to the pictures we post.

Here are some things I’ve learned about Pinterest:

  1. Post a catchy picture. One that will attract a viewer to click on it.
  2. Include a title. Something like, “Writing Tips for Using Pinterest.”
  3. Be sure to add the link to the picture. I’ve see some interesting titles and pictures that have no link. That’s frustrating because I want to read and tweet the post.
  4. Add the Pinterest icon to your browser address bar. That way you can easily pin photos you like whenever and wherever you see them.

In addition to posting your own articles and links, you can find other content that might interest you and your followers. Add those to your boards. Pinterest also suggests similar topics and I find those very helpful.

What kind of content might you post on Pinterest? Check out these ideas.

  • Post tips for writers. I love to read what other writers say about the craft of writing.
  • Post the reviews on your books. You can link back to a review on Amazon or to your own website.
  • Post your own reviews of books for readers to see.
  • Create a board that focuses on your characters. In addition to the bio you create for your characters, think about a Pinterest board. What are your character’s likes, dislikes, hobbies. Who are your character’s friends, pets? You can even ask your readers to find a picture of something that they think your character would enjoy. For example, if your character loves chocolate, you could ask people to find a great chocolate dessert to post on that board.
  • Create reading boards with the books you love. I call it my Must-Read board. Here you can showcase your own favorite authors.
  • Your personal boards that illustrate places you’d like to go (or where you’d like to set your next novel), hobbies you enjoy, movies you like, sports events or stars that you follow, tell readers a little about you as a person. It’s much more interesting than a bio.
  • You could create a story board in which you try out story ideas with your followers. This might include pictures from settings.
  • Create boards that showcase your favorite authors. For example, if one of your favorite authors is Agatha Christie, you can create a board that includes her history, her books, her life with links to the many movies and television shows based on her books.

These are just a few ideas for Pinterest boards for writers and readers. You probably have more ideas of your own. Share those here with all of us!

Finally, don’t forget that Pinterest is a social place. Be sure to follow other people whose pins you like. And, comment and respond to pins you find interesting. Add people who have similar interests to yours.

Check out my Pinterest page here! And follow me.


Why is Amazon so Heavy-Handed with Reviewers?

They won’t let family or friends review your books. That makes no sense to me but there you go. According to the thinking at Amazon (do people think at Amazon?), family and friends might write an overly favorable review. My thinking is friends can give authors the best and worst advice. Some of my friends like my books and others don’t. Just like those people who aren’t friends. Couldn’t Amazon have some sort of disclosure when someone writes a review where they put, I’m a family member of this author or I’m a friend of this author. That way the person reading the review could make a judgement on their own. Is that too much to ask?

What really gets me are the other restrictions beyond families and friends. Bloggers are the best people to review books. They put the reviews on both the online shopping sites (Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iTunes) and on their own blogs. Yet, I’ve recently seen where Amazon is coming down on bloggers. If a blogger becomes one of your fans, that is, really enjoys your books and reviews more than one, well, that looks suspicious to Amazon. Good grief. What’s an author to do? Maybe turn to other authors?

Nope, that’s also a problem. According to Amazon, if you’re an author and ask another author to read and review your book (Something I might add that’s been going on for at least two centuries!), and you later read and review that author’s book (That’s just plain polite) Amazon frowns on the review. They will flag you and the other author. Oh my!

All of these regulations are in place because a small group of authors violated the rules. They purchased reviews (only positive ones) from sites that offer to do that or they put together a group of authors to review books only if they gave 4 stars or more. Two bad practices that now has authors scrambling for credible reviews.

I’m saddened by all this. I’ve read and reviewed books for years. I post reviews on nearly every book I read on both on Amazon and Goodreads. Why? I like to read reviews before I purchase. I go through them like any smart shopper. If the review is too glowing, I look at it askance. If it’s too negative, I give it the same amount of skepticism. But, looking at both the positive and the negative and what the people say in the review, really help me make my decision. For example, someone might give a book three stars because it didn’t have enough plot. Perhaps I like to read books without a lot of plot. As a reader I can make a choice as to whether that’s a good thing or not. I don’t need Amazon to tell me.

Authors are the company’s bread and butter. What if we all stopped writing? What if we all stopped reviewing? Then where would Amazon be?

Now you’ve heard my rant.What are your thoughts?