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Topics I've Started

a: Your High School Science Teacher was Wrong (and your creative writing instructor was...

15 December 2017 - 09:00 AM

by Gila Green

Writers must think about description. A lot.

We're told to paint in words, and to use vivid prose. But there's one piece of description-writing advice we hear most: Five Senses.

What many writing instructors really mean by this is to drop the visual emphasis and dip into sound, smell, taste and touch. Mostly, we're diligent about it. On paper every meal becomes a sensual, olfactory, mouth watering experience, or the opposite: even hot Turkish coffee cannot perk our wilted heroines.

Turns out this old-school advice needs a reboot and this is great news for your writing. There may be as many as seven or twenty-one human senses. There are whole worlds of senses to integrate into our descriptions, and no reason to recycle the same old five page after page.

What about incorporating equilibrioception (our sense of balance) into a character? Magnetoception anyone? This is the ability to detect magnetic fields, which is truly handy when you're trying to get somewhere. There are a myriad of ways these senses can be applied to fantasy, sci-fi, magical, horror or realism.

Is your character oblivious to time? The ability to perceive long vs. short periods of time passing may come from two different parts of our brain, but either way, it's a great sense to manipulate in your writing. Who doesn't have it? What are the stakes? One class participant based a story around it. It was about a couple who longed to move to Mexico because they couldn't fit into their time-conscious American society. Ouch! That brings me to pain receptors that are entirely separate from our overall sense of touch. How about a character with a very high or very low pain tolerance?

Proprioception is yet another sense you may not have heard of. It's the ability to distinguish your body from the rest of the world and move it (i.e., we can scratch our feet without looking because we know where they are). What about a character that lacks proprioception? She can't scratch her back without help. She can't find it.

So, should we ditch the five senses? No. But do add to your writer's toolkit when it comes to description. Even the ones we know can sport a new look. Take smell. Many of us learned humans have a weak olfactory system (compared to dogs or elephants, for example). That's a myth. We can sniff over one trillion scents.

Say goodbye to "my character can only pick up on overpowering smells like coffee and baked bread" and explore this sense without worrying that it's unrealistic or reserved for super powers.

As for taste, sweet, sour, salty and bitter are so yesterday. We have savory (cheese, meat) and maybe even fat and calcium. Scientists are split on that, but we're not. Go ahead. Make your heroine bite into that sandwich and be disgusted or charmed by the fatty sharp calcium taste. It will make your story that much more fresh and delicious to read.

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Want to make your story come alive for the reader? Join Gila's latest WOW! Women on Writing class: Writing Fiction: Setting and Description, a four week course starting on Monday, January 8, 2018. Early registration is recommended!

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Gila Green's  young adult novel No Way Home is forthcoming from Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Her first novel, King of the Class was released by NON Publishing (Vancouver, 2013). Her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines in the US, Canada, Australia, Israel, and Hong Kong. Her collection, White Zion, is a finalist for the Doris Bakwin Award (Carolina Wren Press), and her work has been short-listed for WordSmitten’s TenTen Fiction Contest, the Walrus Literary Award, the Eric Hoffer Best New Writing Award, and the Ha’aretz Short Fiction Award. Her short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines including Fiction Magazine, Akashic Books, Many Mountains Moving, The Saranac Review, Jewish Fiction, Pilot Pocket Books, The Dalhousie Review and Noir Nation. Please visit: www.gilagreenwrites.com

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a: Seeing Your Work in a Different Light

14 December 2017 - 01:50 PM

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Yesterday I received an e-mail about an upcoming writing contest. After taking a break from submitting to contests for a while, I have begun dusting off some of my work and taking a chance. This contest caught my eye because it is a Cinematic Short Story Contest—meaning, you submit short fiction that may have cinematic appeal.

I sat back and thought about this. Some of the doubt I have about my own writing ability revolves around me sometimes making things a little too bland—I think my pacing and character development are okay, but there are times I feel a piece may seem more like it’s written for a TV series, or even a play. It lacks the beautiful prose and literary devices I admire in other writers. I thought that perhaps this sort of contest could is a place where some of my writing projects would have a better fit? The fact that the judges are from film and TV production company and two magazines (one mainstream and one literary) also provides a good breadth of professionals examining the work. Two of my projects (one a flash fiction piece and the other a short story around 2,000 words) popped into my mind, and writers can submit anything up to 20,000-word novellas for this competition. I think sometimes you have take a step back and consider possibilities for your writing that you’ve never thought of before—see things in a different light. Contests can really help with this.

When interviewing one of the winners of WOW’s Summer 2017 Flash Fiction Contest I came across this topic (the interview will run on Dec. 26, so don’t miss it)! The author told me her entry was originally part of a feature script that she was working on in order to use it in representation pitches. In trying to complete the script in a month she grew burned out on the project and frustrated. She put it away for a few weeks and when she revisited it, she decided to try it as a much shorter prose piece, which ended up winning second place in our contest. If she hadn’t decided to take a different direction, that story/feature script could still be sitting on her hard drive.

The first novel I ever wrote was part of the “Book in a Month” Challenge (similar to NaNoWriMo). It couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be. It was third person, part in the present, part in the past, during a time period I was in high school. There were multiple characters and backstories woven together that weren’t really necessary. So a few years later I decided to pare it down and tell it from the POV of one teenage character and have it be a young adult novel. I think it worked a lot better (it still needs help to this day) but I had to put it away for a time before finding it a much different home.

Do you have any projects that took a detour from your original plan? Or do you have something sitting on your hard drive that may need a fresh approach? I’d love to hear about it!


Renee Roberson is an award-winning freelance writer and editor who also works as a marketing and development director at a nonprofit theatre company. Visit her website at FinishedPages.com.

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a: The Case for Powerful Flashbacks

13 December 2017 - 08:30 AM

There seems to be a trend lately--with storytelling in movies, television shows, and books--to use flashbacks to deepen the plot. It's not a new literary device--that's for sure. But I remember going to conferences, when I first started seriously writing about 18 years ago, and speakers talked about using flashbacks at a minimum and only when absolutely necessary.

Now look at the popularity of the television show, This Is Us, and all the critical acclaim those writers are receiving--and it's well-deserved. The show is half flashbacks, at least. I am also reading a book, What Alice Forgot, about a woman who bumps her head and forgets 10 years of her life. But throughout the book, the author, Liane Moriarty, uses flashbacks, which are even earlier than the 10 years she forgot, to reveal what Alice's life was like as child and as a young adult. Trends come and go--multiple viewpoints were popular for a while as well as using present tense to tell a story--and I'm sure you can think of many more. I mean, that's a trend--it comes and goes, but I love this flashback one!

My writing group members recently had a discussion about revealing crucial information to the "present-day" plot in a flashback. During this discussion, I thought about this novel draft I had been writing and having trouble with--I had felt stuck and like it was the most terrible manuscript I had ever written--and then I thought, WAIT! I could start in the "present" and flashback, instead of trying to tell a linear story.

Would This Is Us be as popular if it wasn't for the elaborate and clever flashbacks?  No. Would I be out of my writing funk with this novel if it wasn't for the possibility of using a flashback? No. But here's the funny thing. When I googled some information about flashbacks for this post, I came upon this post on author Jennifer Scolluar's website , and one of the first lines is exactly what I was mentioning above. Her writing mentor, Sydney Smith, writes, "A fellow writer told me recently there is a hard and fast rule that prohibits writers from using flashbacks. That was news to me!" Apparently, Sydney hadn't been at the same writing conferences as me back in the early 2000s, but at least I had confirmation that I didn't make that up about authors who shun flashbacks.

Sydney goes on to say, "Think of Wuthering Heights – Nellie Dean tells Mr Lawrence the history of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff. Through her diary, Catherine tells Mr Lawrence more about her relationship with Heathcliff and why he went away. So much of the novel is told in flashbacks of one sort or another that if you take them out, almost nothing would be left." Right? The same is true for This is Us.

So all this thinking about and enjoying flashbacks made me draw a couple conclusions:

1. If you are going to use a flashback, you need a good reason--it is the best way to tell this story, to reveal character traits, to work in the crucial backstory.

2. The anti-flashback movement is similar to the anti-prologue movement or the anti-anthropomorphic advice for picture book writers. Somehow, a few people decided these were no good and got others to jump on the bandwagon. But if your story needs these literary devices and you can write them well, then go for it.

What about you...do you use flashbacks in your fiction? Do you enjoy stories with flashbacks? 


Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and teacher, living in St. Louis, MO. She teaches a novel course for WOW! each month, which includes 4 critiques of your work-in-progress. To check out more about her, go to http://www.margoldill.com. To check out her next class starting January 5, go to the WOW! classroom. 

typewriter photo above by alexkerhead on Flickr.com

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a: Are You Delivering?

12 December 2017 - 11:30 AM


While scrolling through my pile-up of emails last week, I screeched to a stop at a YA title. I don’t recall the writer, but this self-pubbed author had done the first right thing. She’d grabbed my attention immediately with an intriguing title. Yay!

In fact, she’d done several right things, from a marketing standpoint. She’d gotten her new and intriguing title out there in the right places, and, I noticed, she’d already garnered quite a few reviews.

Which is great from my standpoint. When I don’t know an author’s work, I’ll read a couple of reviews. And my favorite place to skim reviews is Goodreads. I feel like I get a fairly balanced bunch of reviews and the reviewers tend to be savvy readers. So when I saw a similar criticism showing up in several reviews, I passed on this YA novel.

The book had a great title, and it had a compelling blurb. But the book itself wasn’t what was promised in the title and the blurb. Time and time again, reviewers complained about expecting a story on a certain topic only to find that the book wasn’t really about this topic at all.

Unfortunately, this author had done one big wrong thing: she hadn’t delivered on what she’d promised.

It’s possible that the author made an innocent mistake; perhaps she didn’t really understand what her book was about. But it doesn’t matter. The bottom line is that she pulled the old bait-and-switch on her target audience. And in doing so, her readers felt duped, and she hurt her marketing strategy. And that was a shame, because she managed to get her book into the hands of an impressive number of readers.

You’re probably thinking that this doesn’t happen very often so you don’t need to worry about your book not delivering. But take it from someone who’s received way more than one critique along those lines. It’s pretty common. In fact, I’m avoiding a revision right now because I know that it requires a major rewrite. I didn’t write a story about what I promised in the title and first chapter.

So how to make sure that you are delivering on what you’ve promised? First, make sure you know what your story or novel is about. If you can sum it up in one good sentence, then you’re off to a decent start.

Next, read your story with that sentence in mind. When or if the story veers too far off the rails from where it began, it’s probably time to stop and get things back on track.

And last, get feedback, either from your critique group, beta readers, or a professional editor. If you hear, “I thought this book/story was going to be about…” then prepare to take notes. You haven’t delivered on your promise.

And please, do this work before you put your book out there. Revisions may not be fun, but they can fix a whole lot of problems. On the other hand, if you’re facing a whole slew of bad reviews? There’s no easy fix when you don’t deliver the goods.


Cathy C. Hall is a kidlit author and humor writer and she will get to that rewrite right after she finishes revising her latest middle grade novel. (She does finish stuff, honest, and you can find out what if you check out Cathy here! Um, check out her blog. Her blog!)


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a: An emotional state

11 December 2017 - 10:30 AM

At a certain level, prose simply makes statements. There are times when all you need to know is that it is raining, but a hell of a lot more is going on. And there are other times when you've got to get into every raindrop.
- William H. Gass, from a 1991 interview with Arthur M. Saltzman


We just finished the persuasion chapter in my class, and studied the effectiveness of emotional appeals to motivate people to action. As writers, we aren't always trying to move readers to act, although some nonfiction does. But when I'm writing fiction, I am more likely to try to convey emotions.

By connecting to my emotions, I am more likely to connect to the emotions of others. How do I convey the feeling of a sunrise? How do I interpret the motion of leaves rustling in the breeze, or do I want to do that at all? I may ask myself if this is this a scene I can describe literally, or compare to something else.

But when a scene or character goes deep, how does that look on the page? Which words are effective to convey the fear of a child who can't find her mother after school, or the anguish of the jilted bride at the alter? How do those emotions turn into words?

I've heard theories about paragraphs containing thought-action-dialog sequences in writing, and to be honest, even when I try to keep that in mind, it doesn't always work. For me, it's more of a feeling that drives my work, and when the emotion rises in me, I try to capture it. But I have to give myself time to try to understand what I am feeling. These scenes take longer to write because I need to let them build inside me before I make that connection.

The process isn't difficult. I like to sit quietly and let my brain process the emotion on its own before I can identify and translate it. I go deep inside myself and try to feel my way out, trying on words to express that emotion.

I have been known to use a thesaurus to capture a feeling, but usually that's not what leads me to the right word(s). Sometimes, while remaining quiet, I am able to hear the language of emotions in my head.

Reading poetry also works because language and meaning are condensed. I may go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop on those around me, or watch videos of author interviews and listen to the way that writer uses language to her advantage. Sometimes a book speaks to me, or I'll interpret my emotion with a random word that I heard on television that shouldn't work, but does.

Connecting emotions to words is not easy, but keep searching for the right words so your readers will become addicted to the emotional state you put them in.


Mary Horner's story Shirley and the Apricot Tree was recently published in Kansas City Voices. She teaches communications at St. Louis and St. Charles Community Colleges.

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