Tag Archives: writing craft


READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose is a gem of a book for those of us trying to hone the craft of writing. Ms. Prose’s advice can basically be boiled down to five points:


  1. Be able to look at a sentence and decide what to cut.
  2. Read your work aloud, listening closely for cadence and rhythm. It’s best to have a group of friends for this activity.
  3. When you read literature, you should be able to trace patterns and make connections. This is the backbone of literary criticism.
  4. Close reading means reading one word at a time WITHOUT skimming. You should develop this habit.
  5. As you slow down to read word by word, ask yourself what sort of information is EACH WORD conveying.


ReadingLikeAWriterThe book is organized into nine chapters, starting with close reading, and going through words, sentences, and paragraphs to narration, character and dialogue, and finishing with details and gesture.


Ms. Prose has wonderful examples from the work of great writers. She uses the party scene from James Joyce’s THE DEAD as an example of “how to orchestrate the voices of the guests into a chorus from which the principal players step forwards, in turn, to take their solos.” She uses the opening sentence of Katherine Mansfield’s THE DAUGHTERS OF THE LATE COLONEL to show how the construction of that opening sentence contributes to the overall tone and theme of the story. She uses the “daring deployment of the incorrect word” in the first sentence of Joyce’s THE DEAD to show how it momentarily puts us in Lily’s point of view.


Yes, Ms. Prose uses lots of examples. Yes, some of them are very long. But as someone who wallows in wonderful writing, I sympathized with how hard it was for her to let go of that marvelous prose. And this was the way that great writers of the past, like Chekhov or Austen learned to write themselves. After all, they didn’t have the opportunity to study for an MFA in creative writing!

For anyone who wants to improve their writing, I highly recommend this book. Five stars.

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Monday Craft Tips #5: Doing warm-up exercises before tackling your work-in-progress

Word choice.

It is so important to us as writers to use words and to use them well. But how to you do that without getting horribly self-conscious and giving yourself a nice case of writer’s block?

What you shouldn’t do, is read your own work as if you were reading Chekhov. Or Nabokov. Or Hemingway. If I did that, I’d become so intimidated and self-conscious I would freeze up.

Writing craft or a writer’s technique has to be practiced away from the work in progress. It’s like doing Sevcik exercises for the violinist, or Czerny exercises for the pianist. You should start your practice (or daily writing stint) with craft exercises. Buy yourself a big dictionary and hunt for words. Pick up a grammar book and try some exercises for 5 minutes.  Do a daily (or almost daily) writing prompt. Sit in your chair and analyze your writing. What should you practice next? Words? Sentences? Paragraphs? Grammar? Then put that aside and get down to your work in progress.

But before you start your work in progress, imagine. Imagine that you are about to have the best time. You are going to be sly, manipulative and teasing. You will say the most outrageous things. You will be ambiguous. And with those thoughts in mind, start writing. Enjoy yourself. Let it flow. Then wait at least 24 hours before you put on your editor’s hat and analyze.

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Monday Craft Tip #3: Show, not tell, part 2

I don’t know about you, but I find that dictum Show, don’t tell the thorniest piece of advice about writing. It is so hard to get right. Naturally, when I started to write, I did a lot of telling. Then I got the idea that you should put things in scenes. Great! I thought in my naivete. I’ve got that nailed. Throughout 2010, my first novel kept getting rejected by agents, but they didn’t have time to tell me why. I took a writing course at the beginning of  2011, and found out that tells were ingrown into my prose style like a bad case of kudzu. So I’ve been trying to weed them out. Yesterday, I read a wonderful piece of advice about showing and telling that I hope (maybe) will finally put the whole issue to rest. (For those of you who want to look it up, you will find it in DESCRIPTION AND SETTING by Ron Rozelle, pp. 66-72.) Compare the following:

The city suffered significant damage in the blast.

The smell of death was a little fainter than the day before, but the places where the houses had collapsed into tile-covered heaps stank vilely and were covered with great, black swarms of flies.

The first sentence is clearly a tell, the sort of thing you would read in a newspaper.
The second is far more descriptive, the sort of thing you would find in a novel. Notice that the author of the second piece never tells you that the city suffered significant damage in the blast. He or she conveys this but the use of telling descriptions. Notice that I used the word telling, because (of course) the second piece is full of tells. How could it not be? But the tells pull the reader in because the content of the descriptions are powerful and they have been word-smithed by a careful choice of words.

The takeaway message?

  1. Do not make anything you write come off as a report.
  2. Choose to show more often than you tell.
  3. Remember that you will have to tell sometimes, because your novel is going to be very clunky and long if you don’t have some narrative summary.
  4. When you use tells, draw the reader in by using emotionally powerful descriptions, then seduce them by using beautifully crafted prose.

Image: British Pathe

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Monday Tips: Tidbits from the Internet

Here are a couple of sites that I’ve found useful recently:

  1. K. M. Wieland is an historical novelist who lives in Wyoming and mentors other writers via workshops and her blog Wordplay, which won the 2011-2012 Top Ten Blogs for Writers. Her Most Common Mistake series is funny and informative.
  2. A. J. Humpage has been writing fiction for 22 years. Her blog All Write – Fiction Advice won the Stylish Blogger Award and is full of tips on how to polish your prose, how to do flashbacks properly and the art of foreshadowing.

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SEER OF SEVENWATERS by Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier is a talented writer, who can combine tough believable characters with interesting plot lines and wonderful prose. But in this novel, the consensus of agreement amongst other Amazon reviewers, is that she falls short. Based on my reading of the Sevenwaters Trilogy and HEIR TO SEVENWATERS, I have to say that I agree.


One clue to what may have gone wrong can be found in the Acknowledgements. Ms Marillier writes:

“I wrote much of Seer of Sevenwaters while undergoing cancer treatment in 2009.”

As one who has seen many friends suffer from cancer (and had a brush with it myself), I know only too well how debilitating it can be.


IMHO, this novel doesn’t seem to be quite finished. It reads as a very good draft, promising, but not quite there. As an author myself, I know what a tremendous amount of work it takes to write a novel. And Ms. Marillier, as her admirers and critics say, has set the bar very high.


So what I’m offering in this critique is a few suggestions of how to fix the problems, should Ms. Marillier decide to come out with another edition of this novel. Please DON’T read ahead if you haven’t read the novel, as there are SPOILERS in what follows.


  1. PACING: The beginning is too slow, and should be shortened. We don’t need to know every detail of Ardel/Felix’s recovery. A few, well-chosen scenes should do the trick.
  2. POINT-OF-VIEW: In this novel, the story is told from two points of view: Sibeal/s and Felix’s. The trouble with this choice of presentation is that the shift between the voices is jarring. I think the novel would have more focus and a tighter structure if it were told just from Sibeal’s point of view. As a seer, she should have no difficulty working out what is going on around her.
  3. PACING: Shortening the beginning would solve another problem that some readers noticed, that it takes forever to figure out that Knut is lying. A group of hard-bitten warriors shouldn’t be so credulous. And I agree with someone who said that when the community discovers he’s raped Svala, they should be a lot more upset.
  4. VOICE: There is a problem with Sibeal’s voice. She sounds too chatty and too girly, especially at the end. I think that her voice should sound a lot slower, with pauses in between for thought. The reader needs to have some idea of what a great seer she is and how awesome (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) her powers are.
  5. MOOD: The devil is in the details, and some details just sounded too modern. One that jarred me repeatedly was when Johnny kept asking everyone he met with to sit down. There weren’t too many seats in those days, and in any case it sounds too modern and democratic. I understand that Johnny was running the 9th-century equivalent of a hippie commune, but I think it needed to feel older.
  6. MOOD: Unlike all of her other novels I’ve read (the Sevenwaters Trilogy and HEIR TO SEVENWATERS) the mood was off. It needed to be much darker.
  7. PACING: As I’ve observed, the pacing was far too slow in the first part of the novel. The rule of thumb for a writer is to slow the pacing down for moments of great emotional intensity. And only then. There was one place where Ms. Marillier was actually too fast, unusual, because she is a writer who likes slow pacing. That was when Sibeal finally realized that Svalva was a serpent. Instead of TELLING us that she was playing with her paramour, Ms. Marillier should have given us a blow by blow account of Sibeal’s gradual realization, followed by shock.
  8. CONFLICT: As others have observed there isn’t nearly enough conflict in this book. My suggestions would be to:
    1. Have the island community give Felix a much harder time. One reader remarked that he didn’t sound very male. Ms. Marillier could pick up on this and have the men of the community regard him as a wimp.
    2. Felix’s idea of having the community rescue three strangers, who have likely died by now, should be greeted with derision and scorn. This is the perfect opportunity to turn Felix into a hero. How does he convince the community that he is right? It should be an uphill struggle. As matters stand, Johnny makes it too easy for him.
    3. Sibeal should not be let of so lightly. She should have Felix disappear for ages, so long that she gives up on him. When he returns and wants her to marry him, she refuses, and goes back to Sevenwaters to take her vows. Something should happen to make her change her mind and go back for him.
  9. PACING: I think the story as written could be fitted into the first half to two-thirds of the novel, with the last third to a half given to Sibeal’s intense struggle over her feelings, in which she nearly loses her man.


This is just my 2 cents, of course, but I believe these fixes would elevated this novel to the standards of the other Sevenwaters novels.

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Monday Tips: Getting Unstuck

So you dutifully sit down to write every morning, but it just doesn’t seem to flow. You worry about word choice. You worry about whether you need this scene. And what to do about your main character who isn’t very likable?

Suddenly, your novel, the one thing you live for has become a chore.

How about warming up to your work by writing a letter instead? It could be a letter to yourself, someone you love, or a long-dead relative. And the best part about it is that you don’t have to mail it.

Use your letter as a way of getting rid of all those things floating around in your brain that distract you.

Use it as a way to muse about your novel.

Or take a leaf out of John Steinbeck’s notebook and use your letter as an “arguing ground” for the story of your novel, as well as all the fears, ambitions and preoccupations that might be interfering with your work.

When you have finished your letter, put it away, and write that next scene.

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Evoking Mood









I thought it was time for a writing prompt. Here is a great exercise to do, courtesy of Janet Burroway and John Gardner, that you can share with a writing friend.

In five minutes, write a description of one of the following settings. Do not mention the circumstances or emotion.

  • A description of a barn as seen by an old man or woman whose son has just been killed in a war.
  • A description of a lake as seen by someone who has just committed a murder.
  • A description of a grocery store as seen by a mother or father of three small children. The parent is away from the children for the first time in a week.

Read the descriptions with at least one other person. Readers need not guess the circumstances. The point is to give feedback on the mood evoked in the description and to identify the details that reflect that mood.

As a follow-up, write one paragraph to fit a story-in-progress in which the main character’s emotion or mood is reflected in his or her perception of a particular setting.

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I cannot say enough good things about Priscilla Long’s THE WRITERS PORTABLE MENTOR. It is a book for those of us who write, a thorough, yet charming, scrapbook of daily exercises to strengthen our mastery of words, sentences, phrases, metaphors and simile.


But it is not just a book of exercises. It is also a collection of writer’s lore. A book that tells us not only how to handle words, but how to see things as a writer sees them. How to find the right structure for the ideas that we have. And most of all, how to collect words. For anyone who is serious about improving their writing craft, I say buy this book. Five stars.

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Watch out for those ‘tells’ in your prose style

“Show, don’t tell,” is a common thing that you hear writing instructors say to their students during workshops on craft. And there are obvious things you can do to heed that advice, such as putting all of the emotional high points of a novel into scenes, rather than summarizing them.

But there are subtle ways in which tells show up in prose style, that also need to be watched. Today, I am going to share what some of those problems are, something I didn’t realize about my own style until it was pointed out to me in the Self-Editing and Revision course I’m taking from Writers Digest.

Here is an example of what I mean. I have put the ‘tells’ in block caps:

Dominick Rossi had fought in the Great War from April 1917, when the United States declared war on Germany, until April 1919, when he’d finally returned home to Chicago. His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away  unpleasant thoughts, TELLING himself that he must  help free the world of the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around, NOTING that dusk was beginning to fall, and REMINDED HIMSELF that he was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Here is how I re-wrote the excerpt, getting rid of the ‘tells’:

His war had been over for little more than two years and still his experiences haunted him. He brushed away such unpleasant thoughts. He must help to free the world from the evils of war, and make this new decade, the twenties, happy and peaceful. He looked around. Dusk was beginning to fall. He was on his way to his lodgings in Georgetown, Washington D.C.

Why would you want to do this? The problem with too many ‘tells’ is that it has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters. If the point of the craft you deploy is to make your novel un-put-downable, you don’t want to do that. This is why you look over your writing and eliminate these mistakes.

I am very grateful to the instructor for pointing out these subtle errors in my prose style.

Next: I participate in a self-publishing webinar.

Image: The elegant spire of Healy Hall, Georgetown University, Washington D.C. Dominick Rossi is staring at that tower in the scene I excerpted.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.


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