Archive for the ‘Top Writing Tips’ Category

Cooking is like writing. Just ask anyone who has watched me create bruschetta. It is long, repetitive work as I chop the basil, the garlic, and the tomatoes. Out of memory and with frequent tasting, I mix in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and Parmesan cheese as, nearby, the bread toasts in olive oil or butter. From all this we can gain several lessons applicable to writing…

Lesson #1: Don’t give up before the end!

It would be fairly easy in the midst of Michael Buble’s serenading of my tomato slicing to stop. About a half an hour in it seems the task will never be completed. Excuses like, “Company will be here soon,” slip to the tip of my tongue. Yet, if I surrender to the fatigue, it would all be for naught. Writing is much the same. Many would-be authors never finish. Their tales are consumed by the daunting work they fear they could not complete. Just remember: without an ending, your story is only a bunch of chopped tomatoes.

Lesson #2: Revise.

Mere chopped tomatoes no longer, the bruschetta now has all its ingredients. Yet it does not taste quite right. I recoil as I put it to my lips and add a bit more of an ingredient. This is the time for tweaks, fixes, and revisions. This phase takes a pile of bruschetta that could never be served to company and turns it into the masterpiece guests will be talking about for weeks. In writing, revisions are the necessary tweaks that fill the novel with aroma, spice, and color. It is a common mistake to think the first draft is publishable. Chances are, it isn’t.

Lesson #3: At some point, stop second-guessing.

All this revising is well and good. Until, that is, I begin to fix parts of the recipe that were never broken. A chef is his/her own greatest critic. Eventually, well-enough has to be just that. It is time to add the bruschetta topping to the French bread. This is a magical moment, when criticism fades and taste buds rule. When writing, it is perfectly just to spend a long time fixing, reshaping, and editing a story. Nevertheless, an end to the perpetual changes must come. Know when to be satisfied with your work. Consciously choose to experience the thrill of a finished story, instead of always second-guessing yourself.

Keep writing and dreaming, friends,

Jessie Mae



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I suppose it is high time I return to the ‘Writing Central’ folder of this blog and give some practical tips for my fellow writers out there. The lesson for today (one that you and I could both stand to learn/re-learn): the way you phrase and punctuate your writing can drastically effect how your characters are viewed.

Example #1:

A: “We found nothing,” she figured.

B: “We found nothing?” she asked.

Not only is the intonation different, we find ourselves looking at two different emotions and circumstances. 1A  is more confident and assured. Probably, she does not rely upon the person to whom she is speaking. 1B is likely more willing to admit lack of knowledge, more likely to ask for help, and less likely to be the alpha of the group. I should note that the same character might use 1A with one character (someone she considers herself superior to, for example, or to whom she is trying to prove herself) and 1B with another character (someone she trusts, respects, and/or looks up to).

Example #2:

A: “We never should have split up,” he thought.

B: “We should have stuck together,” he thought.

Grammatically, they boil down to the same meaning. But, in the minds of your readers, 2A and 2B subtly display whole different personas. 2A shows more nervousness and regret than 2B. Furthermore, 2B displays a sudden certainty, while 2A focuses on a sudden dread.

All in all, you might find these little changes almost unnoticeable as you write. You may they think are not worth the time to consider. But your reader will pick up on the clues you give them. So every comma, exclamation point, period, and question mark counts. The way you put your sentences together really does matter. So join me in carving out the time to think things through–be it as you free-write or as you edit.

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An array of challenges were set before me when I began Mark of Orion. Chiefly, I had never before limited my perspective to that of two character’s. I had an insanely hard time not jumping from Marcus’ thoughts directly back into Cressa’s. Then, as I tried to add richness to other characters, I found it to be difficult. In this style I could no long enter every character’s mind. As a result of all this hard work, growth occurred. I found a style I liked far more than that I had utilized for my Xsardis Chronicles.

But, today, the point is not perspectives. Today, the point is characters. Marcus is a highly inquisitive teen. He questions everything. Cressa is much more assertive and definitive. I was faced with a challenge. To portray Marcus’ questioning nature I had to downplay all of Cressa’s questions. How? All characters weigh decisions. The answer: simple phrasing.

Instead of, “Will I get sick again when I reenter the mansion?” I wrote, “It is too likely that I will get sick again when I reenter the mansion.” It may seem like a small change. But when perpetuated throughout the novel it leaves a distinct impression that Cressa weighs things while Marcus questions things, that Cressa is assertive and Marcus is passive, and a list of other descriptives I will leave you to uncover when you read the novel this November.

Often it is the simplest change effected over a large portion of text that yields the greatest effect. Character traits are not always ‘love of architecture’ or ‘movie-goer’. Sometimes, they are simple aspects you would see in the real people around you: ‘peace-lover’, ‘go-getter’, or ‘joyous’. Be real with readers–not extreme.

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” ~Charles Dickens’ opening for A Tale Of Two Cities.

This is one of the most repeated first sentences ever. And it is not even the whole sentence. In an epic run-on Dickens adds: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

What Dickens wants us to see and feel and learn and anticipate, we see and feel and learn and anticipate. So profound is his first sentence that even those who have not read the book can quote you those first few words. We authors can learn much from Dickens. We can also take away a lesson from observing countless readers who remember only the first portion of his novel: brevity is a virtue.

As you struggle to write your own first sentence be aware that there are many ways to give the director’s call (mentioned in my last post) and capture the reader’s heart and soul. There is no one, better way.

The dramatic opening. This often utilizes nature to mimic the stormy or sweet or tense tone readers will uncover in the story.

“Thunder rippled across the frozen lake.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Issym.

The unassuming opening. It takes a soft approach, that makes the reader lean into the very ordinary nature of the words.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” ~Charlotte Bronte’s opening for Jane Eyre. This mild opening for a very dramatic novel causes the reader to wonder, “What was there a possibility of?” And so the bond between author and reader is secured. Only the book can answer the question the reader has now latched onto.

“They moved with joint precision.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Asandra. Again, there is something quite ordinary about movement, but it also raises questions like “Why are they precise?” “What makes them move jointly?” “Where are they going?”

The evident opening. There are no hidden questions, no lost meaning, no parallel imagery. This opening, as its name suggests, is evident.

“The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.” ~Jane Austen’s opening for Sense and Sensibility.

“One strike of his sword after another, the youthful warrior barreled through his enemies.” ~Jessie Mae Hodsdon’s opening for Xsardis.

We know we are going to deal with the traditional Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility and that we shall see a medieval adventure take place in my own Xsardis. With unmistakable clarity, there is also a draw. We cut through all the fancy words and jump (in Austen’s work) to a traditional estate and (in my own novel) to a medieval battlefield. As a director’s call this leaves no room for losing a reader, as they are immediately forced onto stage. It might, however, jar them.

The location opening. It is possible to arouse the reader’s curiosity based on opening location alone. It is a risky move. If the reader finds the place uninteresting he will close the book, but, if he longs to know more or has a traveler’s heart, this opening can be highly persuasive. Most readers long to go somewhere. That is why they read.

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien’s opening for The Hobbit.

“Ho Chi Minh City in the summer.” ~ Eoin Colfer’s opening for Artemis Fowl.

The image of a creature living in a hole is captivating. It begs questions like “What kind of hole?” “What’s a hobbit?” “What was it doing in a hole?” “Will it leave the hole?” And while I knew nothing about Ho Chi Minh City when I first read Artemis Fowl, I wanted to learn. The foreign sounding title awoke my sense of adventure.

The problem opening. This opening names a problem from the start. It may not be the problem, but it will point to the climax that will unfold.

“‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” Louisa May Alcott’s opening for Little Women.

“When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.” Anthony Horowitz’s opening for Alex Rider: Stormbreaker.

Financial woes for our young heroine in Little Women and the impending doom faced by Alex in Stormbreaker. Such problems arouse sympathy (even on the part of Jo’s drama, which doubles to show us a good deal of her character) and keep the reader browsing on.

The first-person opening. This is the last opening we will discuss today. Books told in first-person carry with them unique strengths and challenges. Their opening sentences should ignore all location, all weather, all danger, all other characters except the narrator. Unless you have a good reason to break this rule, the first sentence of this kind of book must give readers a glimpse at who they will be following through the entire novel.

“Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood.” ~Rick Riordan’s opening for The Lightning Thief.

Such a comment makes us 1) feel sympathy for his unhappiness, 2) wonder what a ‘half-blood’ is, and 3) want to learn what events led him to wish he was not a ‘half-blood’. This makes for a powerful combo.

Opening types abound. Most are short; some are not. Most beg a question; some don’t. But the good ones all draw the reader towards the content of the entire book–not just the next paragraph. The one rule you should follow is this: make your reader want to uncover the adventure.

(Written 6/27. Scheduled for you while I am away.)

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Writers, do you ever struggle to put the first sentence down on paper? There’s far too much pressure. Of all the sentences in your entire book, this first sentence is both the most vital and the most challenging.

You do not need me to tell you that the first sentence is important. You know that. It is a reader’s initial blush with who you are. Covers and summaries and introductions are all well and good, but the sentence that begins chapter one is like a director’s call to action. Fail to command attention and you lose the reader.

In a few words, you must pluck Average Joe from a bookstore in modern day America and place both his feet on the ground you imagined. In a world of smartphones chirping and media whiplash, how does an author steal away Joe’s mind from all the troubles of his day and all the plans for his night? With a lot of work.

Here are some things to remember:

1) Try and try again. You will need to type out sentence after sentence after sentence until you find what feels right. This is often not accomplished in just one sitting.

2) Walk away. When you just cannot start your book, do not immediately feel shame. If it is the hardest and most significant thing in your novel, then it makes sense that you will not finalize the first few words until you have completed the book as a whole. It shows wisdom and experience for you to walk away from the first sentence and come back to it later with enthusiasm.

3) Ask for help. The last thing in the world I–as a prideful and controlling author–want to do is ask someone else to write my first sentence for me. But there is great merit in asking for help, finding a good idea, and changing it to suit who you are as an author.

4) Seize inspiration when it comes. Your inspiration for the first sentence may come years before you ever know the characters or write the book. Profound phrases fall into our heads before bed or on the top of a roller coaster or while sitting in a movie theater. Write them down in a specific place so that you have a database of ‘epic-ness’ to drawn from.

In my next post I will delve further into the crafting of first sentences.

(Written 6/27 and scheduled for your benefit while I’m away.)

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Do not read reviews of your writing.

It might sound strange. It might even sound dangerous. But I encourage you to live dangerously.

Nothing good was ever gained by reading the reviews of people who make a living by pretending they hold the fates of unsuspecting authors in their hands. Their job is to criticize you. And even if they are a particularly nice reviewer, they will never capture your meaning in the words you so long to hear or summarize your tale in any but a paltry way. Do not be fooled by the title ‘Reviewer’. They are not God. They do not know your target market as well as you and your publisher do.  They did not weigh the decisions you made with as much care and consideration. They do not have the same stake in the success of the book. And as they review book after book they look for flaws. Few readers read your work with the intention to pick it apart (and you should not write for those readers anyway).

There is a place for reviews. Negativity has its time–BEFORE the book is published. After: not so much. There is far more to be gained by observing what wonderful pieces of your work readers hold onto then by worrying over the few things they did not get. So readers, if you hope to influence a writer and you just have to email them, then tell them what you loved, not what you hated. Writers, I suggest getting someone else to skim reviews (be they from professionals or unprofessionals) before you waste your time. More than likely even the kindest words will crawl into your skull and whisper “You’re not doing that right” whenever you sit down with your laptop to compose. Even the words of good friends can destroy the joy in writing.

And before you think that I am blogging this in rage and tears, know: I have not read a review in months. My writing life is not compromised; my mental status is much happier! My advice to you: submit to criticism before your work is released; do not read post-publication reviews.


Someone who learned it the hard way

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Well patient writers, those who have been following this blog waiting for me to return to useful pieces of advice, this is finally a post for you. Later this week on a collaborative blog I will be discussing four writing myths (check out my posts on Fridays: http://writeovertheedge.blogspot.com/). Until then I would like to highlight one of the myths: ‘You have to make a living to be a real author.’

This is a standard that can easily bash in our writing-filled heads as we try to achieve something that is, well, nearly impossible for beginners. Unless a miracle occurs or you are one of the lucky ones with connections (both of which are valid possibilities), a writing career is not born overnight. Nor should it be.

I could tell you to go back and look at my beginning blog posts to see how far I have come. I won’t. Please don’t. It is plain embarrassing. You can watch the same type of growth in my unpublished stories and my published novels throughout the years. Growth came in failures, in successes, and through a lot of learning. It came in bad blog posts, in good ones, and in epic ones. It came in discovering how I liked to write and what people liked to read. It came in budding self-confidence and in an ever-expanding comprehension of the realm of publishing. Growth came and is coming. I should not have been a New York Times Bestseller when I published Issym in 2009. I had no following and I lacked the energy with which to withstand criticism and accept praise. Just as my writing was growing so was I. Today I have the endurance with which to stand much more, the skill with which to wade through conflicting reviews of my books, and the passion to keep going even in the dry spots. The seventeen-year-old author of Issym could have wanted to be famous within weeks of publication. She wasn’t ready.

So, my friends, do not see writing without profit or applause as failure. See it as a means to an end. Every word you write, every article you publish, and every book you finish is growth–with or without accolades. Profit may come, but it should never be the sole reason we write.

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