Writing DOs and DON’Ts


If you’ve ever thought, “I could have written that”, it’s time to put your pen where your mouth is. The only way to become a writer is to write. The Writing Work Out is designed to not only inspire you, but to get you writing right now.

                                                            Lesson 63

Sometimes I can’t write in a linear fashion. Right now, I’m having scattered theme syndrome—I can’t settle to one topic or even one genre. I have a short story I’d love to write, two different blog ideas begging for expression, and I’m determined to finish the second chapter of my book. It’s been very uncomfortable. Now, I’m just giving up to it and writing a little here and there. I figure I can edit it all later.

Also, I’ve become used to writing directly on the computer, but I haven’t been able to do that either. Yesterday I took a tablet and a pencil to the beach and wrote long hand. Thank God, the words started flowing. I have no idea if what I wrote was worth keeping, but at least I got some words down on paper. It makes me wonder if a part of me is in resistance to the process…in resistance to actually writing the book. Is fear of failure promoting procrastination?


Do: Keep on keeping on. Keep on writing.

Don’t: Beat yourself up and/or allow writer’s block to settle in. Fight that!

Lesson 62

Getting back to your writing is always challenging. But it can be done. I am doing it myself after a long hiatus including trips, illnesses, family celebrations and family problems, and just letting Life take over.

DO: Go back to Basics. I made myself take out the piece I’d started two years ago and I had to sit with it for a half hour. I didn’t have to do anything but that. Of course, I began to tinker with it. Then the next day, another half hour and my goal was to write a paragraph. (I am now half way through editing it.)

DON’T: give up or be embarrassed that you have been a flake. I am writing this entry after not writing one for a year. If I can do that, you can do anything!

WRITING AEROBIC: It had been her favorite…

ASSIGNMENT: Get out something you had written and never finished. Read it over to decide if it merits being finished. If the answer is yes, grab yourself by the shoulder and sit down at the computer.

Lesson 61

Being organized is important too. We often idealize and promote the creative side, but we need to keep our house in order. I’ve been procrastinating about organizing this blog into a book. No more. I vow that I will start today!

DO: Use FOLDERS, either real ones or virtual ones. They are a quick way to gather work into units. Mine get a bit messy but I’m a bit ADD. (My daughter says my OCD evens me out!) Folders are good in real time and virtual. Organize your work on your computer too.

File Folders are an organizational aid.

File Folders are an organizational aid.

DON’T: wait too long. If you do, you will have a huge mess that will make the task seem insurmountable. (I know this for a fact!)

Writing Aerobic: When the anesthesiologist said…

Writing Assignment:
Choose five of the following and write a story. It could be a memoir piece or totally fiction. Remember to include
The six senses
Dramatic Arc

1. A day of the week
2. Weather problem
3.  A bully
4. Inattentional blindness
5. Feeling of exhilaration
6. A city in Canada
7. Someone who talks really fast
8, Leonardo Di Caprio
9. Marilyn Monroe statue
10. Cell phone
Sent from my iPad

Lesson 60

I just received this email from a student. “ I have had my writing tools on my table for two months.  Barely started on two pieces.  I have a little condo, and have had non-stop company.  Nowhere to write.  I am picking up a friend tonight, and she will be here for a month. Then another one for two weeks.  I will persevere.  Eventually, I will send you something. “

It’s the second week of January and I have been in much the same situation. I was thinking right before I read the email that I need to REBOOT. I agree with my student—I will persevere. This is how I am going to do it.

It doesn't get any better than this!! But I gotta do my work too,

It doesn’t get any better than this!! But I gotta do my work too,

DO use a technique to reboot that has worked for you in the past. My plan is to require myself to sit at the computer for 20 minutes a day—no matter what else seems a priority. (Even cleaning the toilets.) No product is required—this is about putting in the time. No excuses are valid. I know myself; twenty minutes will lengthen into 30 or 40 or 60. So for now, it’s this blog. Tomorrow I will discipline myself to get back to my memoir piece about teaching in the inner city at the end of the Sixties that I’d been working on before I was blessed to be with friends and family. (whew—talk about a run-on sentence!)

DON’T give up. As my student said, “Persevere.” Don’t allow anything else to get in the way of the 20 minutes. That means for me, I am not doing a load of wash right now or watching the Seahawks. I am finishing this and then I will do wash and watch!

WRITING AEROBIC: Twenty minutes later, he …

Lesson 59

                                               Lesson: Being In the Zone

When you are writing, let yourself be totally into it. Keep out the other distractions. (As I write this, I see my husband driving up in a golf cart…. He just brought the guy he’s playing with in to see our condo. It’s 8:15 on this Sunday morning.) The good thing is I’m actually wearing clothes. The bad thing is I was distracted. However, it did illustrate my point, and why I have trouble getting into the zone. I often let  family matters pull me away from my writing. And I’m a touch ADD so this is very important for me to remember. Having a TIME and PLACE to write is very IMPORTANT. Keep that time sacred for you.

Writing Aerobic:  He dug deep into…

Writing Assignment: Write a story that has characters, conflict, dialog, setting and uses the 6 sense. Use these 9 words and word phrases in the story. After you written the story, edit and re-write.

Applesauce, bird song, glitter, phoniness, sway, brisk, high stakes, dark, scissors

Lesson 58

Endings Can be Tricky

Which way to go?

Which way to go?

Everyone always emphasizes how important the beginning of a story is—you need to catch the editor’s eye and the reader’s interest. This is true, but endings are vital to the integrity of a story.

This becomes apparent when the ending just doesn’t satisfy. Some endings seem rushed as if the writer had a deadline and just threw together something that would be okay. Other endings may feel too wide open—that the author copped out of creating a conclusion. Or others just don’t seem to fit—you feel the author should have left well enough alone and ended it before.

This last is true of the novel, The Light Between Oceans. The book, excellent by the way, has a lyrical, other-world feel. I felt it should have ended at chapter 36, but author M.L. Stedman writes a wrap-up chapter that is unnecessary. Worse, it takes away from the whole narrative.


DO know that endings are super important. When I wrote for newspapers and magazines, I knew my last paragraphs could be cut if there wasn’t enough space. Accordingly, my last paragraphs were written to be expendable. Fiction or Essay are a different story. There is a significant build up from Beginning and Middle to End. While I was never upset when the editor cut an article, I would have been if she took the end off of one of my humor pieces. Often, the end was the whole point. The only time I have had the last paragraph deleted from a short story was when my “Her Father’s Daughter” was published. That time I was upset because the story turned on the last line.

DON’T listen to advice about the end of your work unless it makes sense to you. When I finished The Light Between Oceans, I had this feeling that Stedman’s critique group told her she should explain more of what happened. So she wrote a final chapter, but it didn’t grow out of the narrative thread. Sometimes when I finish a story and my husband reads it, he’ll say, “But this isn’t done. What happens?” I do favor open endings, but sometimes I’ll add more for him. This worked well in the “Anniversary Waltz” short story, perhaps because the main character is a lot like my husband.

Writing Aerobic: At the end of …

Lesson 57

Writer’s Digest presents some interesting insights into plagiarism:
“As writers we are constantly fearful of others stealing our work, but what is plagiarism really? What do we have to fear? Also, how are we sure we’ve never committed it?
The definition of plagiarism, according to Merriam-Webster.com, is “to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own” (see how I credited Merriam-Webster! That’s right, I play by the rules.). U.S. Copyright Law takes a hard anti-plagiarism stance and legally protects writers from theft, should there be earnings from the plagiarized work. Consequences of plagiarism range from embarrassment to getting expelled or fired to lawsuits and large financial settlements.
In one of the most famous plagiarism cases to date, bestselling author Dan Brown was accused of stealing a key storyline of Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh’s 1982 book, Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and using it in The Da Vinci Code. The charges, made by Baigent and Leigh, were eventually dismissed in court, but there were many articles and news outlets covering the case and discussing plagiarism—meaning you need to be aware of what constitutes plagiarism and how it may affect you.

Avoiding plagiarism is easy, but protecting yourself against it is a little more difficult. The key is to recognize the main types of plagiarism.
The Four Most Common Examples of Plagiarism

1.    Stealing parts of someone else’s work and inserting it into your own without citation.
2.    Submitting someone else’s work with your name on it.
3.    Paraphrasing someone else’s words and attempting to pass it off as your own.
4.    Taking your own previously published work (to which you’ve sold the rights) and reusing all or parts of it in a new work. (This is called self-plagiarism.)
Familiarize yourself with all four of these and make sure you don’t commit any of them. While you don’t have to answer the question What is copyright law?, you do need to know the basic principles so you don’t unintentionally take work from some else’s copyrighted material when researching your book. Plus, it’s wise to equip yourself with this knowledge to protect you and keep others from others stealing your work.

DO keep the idea of plagiarism in mind, especially when writing something similar to what I am writing. I am constantly trying to update my knowledge and ideas about writing so I’m constantly reading about writing. I have to be careful to acknowledge specific ideas I acquire. While an actual idea cannot be copyrighted, once an idea is put in written form it is. (Now, I just looked this up on-line. Do I need to cite the source or sources? I think not unless it is a full discussion about it and I copy sentences or paragraphs.To be safe, I will include my source, Tonya M. Evans. Look at her copyright at the bottom. Interesting.
Can you copyright an idea?
[excerpt from Copyright Companion for Writers by Tonya M. Evans]
Ideas and copyright
The Copyright expressly excludes ideas from its protection. The American Heritage Dictionary defines “idea” as “something, such as a thought or conception that potentially or actually exists in the mind as a product of mental activity.” Therefore, the idea of writing a book about, for instance, a falsely accused prisoner who escapes from jail to prove his innocence and find the real killer cannot be protected under the Copyright Act.
But the act does protect a written manuscript based on that idea. This conclusion makes sense in light of the way copyright is created. Copyright protection exists the moment an original and creative artistic or literary expression is fixed in a tangible form. Until an idea is fixed in a writing or recording, it is just that – an idea. Once fixed in a tangible form, the expression (assuming, of course, that it is also original and has some modicum of creativity) is protected by copyright.
It is not correct, however, to assume that an idea can never be protected. In fact, the protection of ideas is critical in situations where, for instance, you submit a book proposal to a publisher, pitch a screenplay to a producer or studio, or brainstorm with a collaborator about potential story lines. In such situations, ideas may be protectable under state law related to theories of contract (a nondisclosure agreement, for example), property, or in some cases, misappropriation.
© 2011 Tonya M. Evans. This post may be “shared socially” and republished provided this post is copied in its entirety and copyright and byline information is included for attribution. “This post is republished with permission from http://www.legalwritepublications.com. Copyright 2011 Tonya M. Evans, Esq. Law professor, author, speaker and intellectual property expert”.
– See more at: http://legalwritepublications.com/copyright/can-you-copyright-an-idea/#sthash.gwTv96fX.dpuf”

DO cite sources.

DON’T copy other people’s work.
DON’T drive yourself crazy. Write from within and you’ll be fine. Also, don’t worry about people stealing your work.

Writing Aerobic: Past glories are…

Lesson 56

We all have stories inside of us. Stories that have happened to us. Stories that start with a “What if…”. It’s up to each of us if we want to share our story. If you do, then it requires the time and perseverance to get the story written. What’s the old saying? Inspiration is 10%. Perspiration is 90%.

DO set aside the time to work out your writing muscles. Use this blog as a resource for writing prompts. Then write ten minutes several times a week. If you are working on a story, write ten minutes five times a week as a start.

DON’T get discouraged. Take small steps to begin with. Your initial goal is to write, nothing more. At this point, the writing time is the product.

DON’T procrastinate. Start NOW!

Writing Aerobic: Vanessa picked….

Lesson 55


If you are going to use a character’s voice to tell the story, you have to stay true to that character. Get your own voice out. Think about how your character would say it. Here’s an example. I’m writing a story from the point of view of a 65ish man. My most recent edit was to check for voice.

First draft:

Incense burned by a poster of guru. I remember that when she put out her hand to shake mine, hers were already shaking. And I remember thinking I could smell alcohol on her breath. Whatever, she did give a great massage. She got real deep into the tissues. By the end of the hour, I could stand straight and it only hurt a little.

Second draft:

There was some incense burning by a poster of Guru looking guy, but you could still smell the marijuana. And you could smell alcohol on her breath, too. Whatever, she gave a great massage. It hurt like hell. She got real deep into the tissues. By the end of the hour, I could stand straight and it only hurt a little.

First draft:

I swallowed the piece of pastrami still in my mouth. “What the hell for?”

Second draft:

I’d just taken a huge bite of my pastrami sandwich and almost choked. “What the hell for?”

The difference may be subtle, but well worth the work.

 DO get into the character’s voice if he or she is telling the story. It can dimension to your work. Sustain it throughout.

DON’T use your own voice if you’ve committed to your character telling the story. You must stay consistent to the character’s way of speaking.

Writing Aerobic: Cherry blossoms…

Assignment: List 5 things that have been invented in the last ten years that changes what you write, and how you can get around it.

Here’s an example:

  1. Smart phones: Unless your character doesn’t use one, he or she is always able to be reached or able to reach someone. Your character can also access the Internet for information. This means that you have to rule out their being isolated and without means of contacting help.
  2. Ways to get around it:

The location may not support cell service. A few years ago I was traveling in England while I was reading an Elizabeth George mystery. Her book was set in Devon, where I was. Her character couldn’t get cell service—and neither could I. Totally true that my cell almost never worked for the week I was there.

Other options? The cell phone is left at home. Or it is smashed. Or it’s out of battery. Or it fell in the water. Or it is stolen. Or not functioning.

You get the idea.

Lesson 54

DO learn from everyone and everything. It is not necessary to re-invent the wheel (good cliché, good cliché). I am a shameless absorber of other people’s knowledge or process. This means keeping your eyes, ears and mind open. I am also open to advice. If it is sound and appropriate for me, I take it. Otherwise, I discard it.  One of my Writing Do’s and Don’ts followers gave me an idea that will help me create and organize my book. Every week she has printed up the Lesson. She keeps them in a folder. I am going to do the same and see what I’ve got!

DON’T copy or plagiarize. Learn from the source and create your own product. If you use someone else’s work, give him or her credit. It is both ethical and wise.

Writing Aerobic:  Times goes by…

Lesson 53

 Call me old fashioned, but I believe written work should be error free. With texting and smart phones these days, there are so many mistakes, it’s crazy. People are auto-corrected and/or can’t see what they wrote, and/or don’t read what they wrote. Because of the punctuation set up on Mac appliances, people are too lazy to  switch screens so they don’t punctuate at all. Now we have all these weird messages that get sent with no commas or periods.

I am not immune, but not in something I am going to have published. Even if it’s a short blog. I have too much pride to publish something with typos. I want it to be well received by readers. I want it to be well written. I want to communicate my message in a way that is easily accessible to the reader.

DO develop an editing procedure. If you have time, let the work sit for a time. It will rest comfortably like bread dough rising. Meanwhile, thoughts about the work can marinate in your mind. Now I write mostly on the computer or iPad so I don’t have to in-put the long hand stuff. I edit as I go. I use the Spell and Grammar Check. Then I print up a copy. I read it aloud and edit it on the hard copy. I go back and put in the additions and corrections on the computer. Then I find myself improving what is there, as well. Thoughts pop into my head as its about to hit the pillow. This process works for me; it may or may not work for you.

blog I was editing.

blog I was editing.

DON’T do this kind of editing until you are finished with the first draft. You need a product to tinker with. Don’t block yourself! And Don’t be in a rush. Give yourself plenty of time.


Lesson 52


This is a landmark day for me. One year ago I decided to start this writing blog. I wanted to give people useful hints to improve their writing experience. I wanted the advice to be brief and to the point. I wanted to inspire people to write—give writing prompts and assignments that might light a fire in the writer’s belly. I was inspired to do this by my writing students. “You should be sharing what you do for us,” one said. “Are you writing a how-to book?” asked another. “Everyone should get the chance to do your writing aerobics,” someone else said.

So, I began.  I made a vow to myself that I would write one lesson a week come hell or high water. (I do love some clichés!) Once a week—one do and one don’t. As I continued, I saw that a “how-to” book was in the making. All I had to do every week was write one entry. Here we are one year later and 52 lessons!! It’s a testimony to perseverance, if nothing else.


I learned a lot during this year about writing and about life. My plan is to continue, and also to cull out the best of the lessons, organize through subject, and create a book. I’ll let you know how it goes.

DO keep on, keeping on. Some of the most talented people never succeed because they don’t have what it takes to follow through.


DON’T let the end result get in the way of the job at hand. A student just said, “I have a lot more writing to do before it becomes a book. How many pages do you need?” My answer was, “Don’t think about the end product. It may seem such a massive undertaking that you will be intimidated out of it. Just write it story by story.”

Writing Aerobic: One thing about me is…


Lesson 51

Your opening paragraphs are very important to your work. That’s where most people make the decision whether to read on. Compare the two below. Which would make you read on?

ONE:  Even after all these years, I am still trying to improve my life, and the lives of my loved ones (if they’ll let me). Of course, it’s always easier to give someone else advice than to actually follow through on the advice you give yourself. That said, I’ll share with you my latest project. We live in Palm Springs, California part of the year. By May, it is hot—really hot. It’s a dry heat so it’s more like an oven than a steamer, but it will zap you like a cobra ready to strike. Dehydration is a big problem.  Especially for my husband who doesn’t drink enough water.

A weapon in fighting dehydration.

A weapon in fighting dehydration.

TWO: When the paramedics pounded down my hallway a few years ago, I got out of their way. Their goal was my husband who was lying on the bed like a beached whale.

“I think he’s dehydrated,” I told one of the men as I handed him a print out of my husband’s medications, surgeries and previous illnesses.

They weren’t really interested in my diagnosis, but immediately hooked him up to an IV, standard procedure. My husband started to perk up right away.Then they gave him an EKG. “Oh my God,” the big guy who was administering it said. “He’s already got heart damage.”

“No,” I said calmly. “That’s from his previous heart attack. I think he’s just dehydrated now.

After a two-day stay in the hospital, my initial diagnosis proved correct: dehydration.

DO start with a bang. Get your reader’s attention. If you are writing a blog, you already have your readership. That’s where the first opening would work as a blog is more of a communication between writer and reader.

DON’T limit yourself. Be open to different styles and slants.

Writing Aerobic: The branches of the trees…

Writing Assignment: Describe your closet. How does it reflect who you are? In this assignment you will be practicing writing description. You will see that it begins to describe character, as well.

Lesson 50

Getting Your Facts and Details Accurate

 Have you ever read a story that has a detail in it that you think is untrue? And then it stops you so you have to Google it and find out. And then you’re so disconnected from the story that you don’t go back?

DO get your facts correct. The Internet, of course, is very helpful, but let’s say you have a character who is arrested. You want to know where she would be taken. For instance, my character Dora is arrested for assaulting an officer. She lives near Broadway in Seattle so I went to the precinct where she’d be taken. I explained to the officers what I needed to know and why. They were extremely helpful—even took me to the holding cell where she would be incarcerated. They showed me around the whole station. Seeing the real place helped me understand my story so much better.

DON’T settle for skimming over the facts. It is worth your time to find out what is accurate.

Writing Aerobic: I got my first scar….

 Assignment: Interview someone who is an expert about an aspect of your story.

Lesson 49

April 21 I started an experiment: I gave myself the assignment of writing 6 sentences a day on two different stories. As the days went by, I dropped story one, but continued on story two. Today is May 6 and I just finished the first draft. It’s 9 pages and 2000 words. So in a little over two weeks, I managed to finish a short story I have been thinking of for two years. And I did it, sentence by sentence.

DO give yourself a challenge that is doable. I can tell you that I started with only 6 sentences and then the story took over. DO use discipline and structure.

DON’T expect too much of yourself. DON’T give up.  DON’T think your first draft will be your final draft. But you have produced a product that can be tinkered with!

WRITING AEROBIC: The sand stuck to …

Lesson 48

DO your work. If you have to, grab yourself by the hand and lead yourself to your desk.

DON’T allow yourself to get sidetracked. This morning I actually have time to sit down and write. So, here it is, 11:15 and I’m just getting started. Some is legit—I take a workout class that ends at 10:15, but if I’d stayed on track, I could have been at the computer by 10:30. Then when I got myself seated, I did my email and then started Googling lawn furniture. Not that I don’t need lawn furniture, I do. But…

DO write when the time is best for you. I am a morning person when it comes to writing. I need to sit down at my desk at around 9:00 or 9:30, when I am still fresh and haven’t exhausted myself with other things. Although, sometimes in the evening after I have sat down and been reading, I can get in the Zone.

FYI: TO catch you up on my experiment of writing two stories at once, just 6 sentences a day. What’s happened is that I am now engrossed in writing one of the stories. I only intended the story to be 1800 words at the most and it’s almost that and I have a third of the story left to tell. But once it’s written, I can cut all I want.

WRITING AEROBIC: The putt raced towards the….

ASSIGNMENT: Write a short story about a ten year old girl and her dog. Have danger play a part in the plot.

Lesson 47

Unless you’re a full time writer making mega bucks at plying your craft, you probably have difficulty finding the time to write on a consistent basis. (When I first retired from teaching, I did write every day and finished the novel I’d been writing with my friend, Ellen. But then people realized I was no longer at work. It became convenient for me to be at the one at my aging parents’ beck and call. And then the organizations zeroed in on me. The PTA needed my services, etc. I tried not answering my phone while I was at my desk, but people became incensed at this impertinence. Life events, good and bad, became more important than my work. Slowly but surely, my calendar filled up so I no longer had a regular writing schedule. I’m still trying to get back to one.)

There are many distractions that will get in the way of your writing.

"You're going to do what? Write? "

“You’re going to do what? Write? “

DO develop different techniques to get a regular writing schedule. Having a place to write is essential, complete with a desk and a computer of your own. It sets the stage. (I started with a typewriter in the laundry room in the basement. I now have a lovely office of my own in our house.) But as nice as it may be, it might not be working for you.

Sometimes I need to get out of the house entirely. There’s always something more to do that will keep me away from my brand new iMac.

DON’T be afraid to try different solutions. You may want to go a Starbucks for coffee and writing time. You may need to set a timer that sets the time for you to work.

Right now as I work at getting back to a regular schedule, I have something new I am doing. I’m working on two stories and I’ve told myself that all I have to do is write 5 sentences a day on one or each. They don’t have to be sequential or even good. Just five sentences a day, that’s all.

WRITING AEROBIC: The wind knocked the…

ASSIGNMENT: Figure out a plan of attack. Write five items down that would help you with a writing schedule. If you have a to-do list, put your writing time down as one of your errands of the day.

Lesson 46

Developing Your Voice


How do you begin?
“You have to get to a very quiet place inside yourself. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t have noise outside. I know some people who put jazz on, loudly, to write. I think each writer has her or his secret path to the muse. I’m told one writer stands for six hours with a typewriter on a podium—he stands and types. And I know a woman who has her computer in a closet and she goes in, closes the door, and, with her back to the door and her face to the wall, she writes. “  Maya Angelou

Writing, writing, writing. There is really no secret in how to get better. You just keep writing as much as you can, week after week, month after month, year after year. Then, without seeming effort, your particular way of writing, your VOICE, appears on the page. It’s not a conscious effort; it just is.

DO write a bit each day if you can. Write for twenty minutes, long hand or on the computer or on your iPad or tablet. Write from your heart and just go with it.

DON’T expect too much from yourself. Give yourself time. Be disciplined. I think it’s like losing weight. Keep at it and slowly you will succeed.

DO find a trusted and educated reader who will tell you the truth about your writing.

Writing Aerobic: Before the end…

Lesson 45

 Character Development

Look at how this man is dressed. Notice the bracelets on his wrists. He is a serial killer that killed unwitting couples he met in Europe and Asia.

Look at how this man is dressed. Notice the bracelets on his wrists. He is a serial killer that killed unwitting couples he met in Europe and Asia.

What your character looks like is an important clue to who they are and even their state of mind. How he or she dresses tells about them. Is he sloppy or extremely neat? Is he preppy or sophisticated? Does he sport a buzz cut or long hair? Does she wear make up? Is it heavy or light? (When my mother was in a manic stage, she put on her eyebrow pencil with a thicker line, and sometimes it was slanted.)

DO use your characters’ appearances as a way to show who they are. Notice small details and use them.

You may want to use photos. This is me with my mother's first cousin who is in her 100's. She's a great example to use if I have a character that age.

You may want to use photos. This is me with my mother’s first cousin who is in her 100’s. She’s a great example to use if I have a character that age.

DON’T over do your description. Sprinkle in the details throughout the scene.

Writing Aerobic: Controlling and manipulative…

Assignment: Take a character you have used in a short story before and write another story about him or her.

Lesson 44

Facial expression tells so much. It’s what we use to gauge a person’s reactions. DO: use this in your writing to show what a character is thinking. And pay attention to detail. What do you notice in the picture below? Hint: it’s not in the smiles, but in her hand.


DON’T give two or three facial expressions in one sentence or paragraph. Sprinkle the description in and DON’T repeat.

WRITING AEROBIC: Crushed beyond…

Lesson 43

1970--my last day teaching at Meany. I was seven months pregnant--in those days you were supposed to quit by six months!

1970–my last day teaching at Meany. I was seven months pregnant–in those days you were supposed to quit by six months! I wanted to keep on teaching.

Remember, the key to a great story is a character who wants something and has impediments along the way. This combines plot with character development.


We’ve said this is a rule than can be broken, but don’t tell too much. Let the reader discover what the truth is. Use a combination to make your story work.

Here’s an example:

TELLING: When I was ten, my mother had a nervous breakdown. She didn’t come out of her bedroom for three months. She became overwrought by the slightest thing.  It was a difficult time.

SHOWING AND TELLING: When I was ten, my mother had a nervous breakdown. She didn’t come out of her bedroom for three months.

“Come in,” she said one day, seeing me lingering at her doorway.

“How are you today, Mother?” My tone was hesitant as I walked into the room.

She mumbled something so I walked closer and sat on the edge of her bed.

“What are you doing?” she screamed.

I jumped up.

“What are you doing?” It was more of a shriek this time. It brought my dad running.

“What’s the matter? What happened?” he asked.

“She sat on my bed.” My mother pointed an accusatory finger at me.

By then I was cowering by the Chinese lacquered chest of drawers.

“Go downstairs, honey,” my father said to me. He looked so distressed I began to shake.

“You have to change the sheets,” my mother said. “You have to change the sheets.” Her chant followed my down the stairs.

DO: Tell to get important information in the story without stopping the narrative line.

DON’T: Tell too much. Stop and show what is happening. Let the reader be there, on the scene.

Show what is happening between the son and his mother.

Show what is happening between the son and his mother.

Writing Aerobic: Far from the main street…


Peter needs a kidney transplant. He’s 10 on the list, but his kidneys are failing fast.

Maddie needs to get a college scholarship. She’s the child of a single mother. Her interview is in a week, but she doesn’t know how she can get there.

Sheila needs to get her husband to the emergency room. They’d been at the mall when he started  feeling ill. They are in the car and he’s passed out.

Lesson 42

In every story, you need conflict to give it spark. Conflict can be within or without. Your protagonist can be in conflict with another person, within him or herself, or with the world. You want your reader siding with your main character. You want him or her to win. The higher the stakes, the better the emotional charge. The conflict doesn’t have to be earth shattering, but it has to be important in the scheme of things.

I have perceived that many memoirs or novels are structured now with short stories tied together by narrative. Coming to mind as a novel is “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See.


Right now I am reading “Girl In Translation” by Jean Kwok, which tells the author’s story of first coming to America from Hong Kong. It’s set up the same way. Every story she tells,which may be one chapter or part of several, has conflict in it. In each, there’s always a battle of some kind for the girl to fight. The reader is in her corner and we root for her to win. Then, time passes until the next story. (Her wanting to be part of the popular group didn’t have the same emotional zing as fighting off the roaches in her apartment.)


I think many of us are daunted by the idea of writing a whole book. OMG!! But, writing a story—that we get.

DO write your book story by story, scene by scene.

DON’T worry about the finished product. It will build itself up, story by story.

Writing Aerobic: lemon

 Lesson 41

When you are writing, you can include events of that time to broaden the story’s perspective. Even in a highly personal memoir piece, including historical reference can add depth to the story as well as letting the reader know time and place. In my story, “One Moment In Time”, the family is at the dinner table and talk turns to the Korean War. My piece, “Khrushchev in My Dreams”, centers around the Cuban Missile Crisis. While telling a story from my high school days, it includes the psychological mindset of the times.

17862Do_You_Remember_A_TRIBUTE_TO_BOBBY_KENNEDY_AND_MARTIN_LUTHER_KINGDO use historical references in your work.

DON’T overdo it! Some people criticize the movie “Lincoln” for being too much like a documentary. I don’t agree, but realize that too many facts can deter from the story’s pace.

WRITING AEROBIC: Looking through old….

WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Write a three page story or scene including a historical reference.

Lesson 40

“You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”    Wayne Gretsky

 DO: If you have a story to tell, write it. Get out a computer, a tablet, or a tape recorder and tell the story. Get it in written form that anyone can read.

DON’T let self doubts get in your way. Everyone of us has had a unique life—our life. No one else has lived it, felt it, gone through the ups and downs.

This is the beginning of an essay and memoir piece by Ada Ash.

I was born in 1916 in Feodosia, a small town on the Black Sea.  My first memory is of exploding bombs—The Russian Revolution followed by the First World War.  Even today, so many years later, I still let out an involuntary scream at any unexpected noise. It seems that my early life knew nothing but fear.  If it wasn’t exploding bombs it was marauding Cossacks.  They would come galloping in from the east, screaming, “Kill the Jews.”


Ada has experienced what most of us can only read about in history books. In the original version she wrote that she didn’t remember if the bombs were from the Bolshevik Revolution or World War One. I was telling this to my son, who said, “Mom, get your history right. That was like a hundred years ago.” I looked him in the eye. “That’s the point. It wasn’t history for Ada. She’s 97. She lived it.”

You don’t need to wait until you are 97 to write stories about your life. You can write one today, if you want.

ASSIGNMENT: Write a short story about an event in your life.

WRITING AEROBIC:  The wind whistled through…

 Lesson 39

Conflict is an essential ingredient in a good story. You can take real life events and write about them. It could be of historical significance or something that happened in your neighborhood. Take the recent death of the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius. She was shot four times with the Olympic hero’s gun. What happened? You know it has to be a tragic story…one that will interest readers.


Or think about another sport’s hero: Tiger Woods. What happened in that house after Thanksgiving dinner? We know there was CONFLICT, the best friend of fiction writers, no matter how sad it was for the real life participants.

DO get seeds for stories from newspaper headlines. Take the real life facts and use them as a spring board for your own creation.

DON’T use exact situations as your reader will recognize them. I was in the middle of a story with a character who was reading her husband’s texts when the Tiger Woods marriage blew up. I remember being annoyed that I’d have to change that or people would say I copied the idea from the real story. I had the character, Emily, look at the phone her husband left at the dinner table and think about Elin Nordegrin Woods. Emily decides not to look.

Writing Aerobic:  Sara Ericsen had never…

Lesson 38

Self Help Guide back to Writing:

 When you have gotten out of the habit of writing, writing prompts can map your way back on the road. You are asking nothing from yourself except 10 minutes of writing whatever comes into your mind. It doesn’t have to lead to a story. It doesn’t have to be a certain amount of words. It just is a caress to your subconscious.

DO use the writing aerobic prompts you find on this blog or find a book of writing prompts. Do one a week to keep you in the groove.

DON’T tax yourself with any goal other than writing for ten minutes.

Here is my writing aerobic from last week:

Hana cast the net as her grandfather had taught, throwing it with a light toss that barely skimmed the water. It settled and then dipped below the water. She knew that she must now be patient. To wish for a filled net would bring too much pressure into the Void. She sat crosslegged on the slippery black lava and closed her eyes. She let an image swim in, under her eyelids. It was a hibiscus plant, its leaves green. The hibiscus was yellow and vibrant, full of life. Healthy.

When she opened her eyes, she felt more at peace than she had for a long time. All would be well, she thought. Even if it wasn’t what she wanted it to be.

The last months, watching her mother suffer through the chemo treatments, had been so hard. Her mother faced it all with such bravery, but each day she was thinner than the next. Could the toxic cocktail be too much for her?

Writing Aerobic:  Seven…

Lesson 37

In my writing class the other day, one of students told me he had a problem. “I actually have a terrific idea for a short story, but I just can’t get started. I can’t off the dime,” he said.

This is a common problem when you’ve stopped the writing process for some reason. “I can relate,” I said. “I haven’t written anything for six weeks.” Which was true. I’d been on a trip to New Zealand and Australia, an adventure trip—a trip of a lifetime. It had taken all my concentration and energy.

But I realized the cure was the same for almost everything, and I confided my secret to Martin. “We gotta bite the bullet,” I said. “And just do it.”

DO: get back in the saddle. (Don’t ya just love cliches!) You’ll be happy when you do. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Do treat yourself with respect, but in the end, Just Do It!

DON’T beat yourself up if you’re not writing. Just let yourself be. They is a saying that goes something like this: If you try to grab a handful of water, the liquid slips through your fingers. If you lay your hand in the stream, the water flows smoothly.

Writing aerobic: The net thrown by an unseen…

Here is a short assignment:
Take the word CLUTCH. Write 5 short paragraphs using the word in some form. Try to have different meanings in at 3 sentences. Use the 5 senses.

Lesson 36

Character Sketches

DO try this exercise. Write a page or two about who your character is.

DON’T substitute your character sketch for your actual written story.

 Examples of Character Sketches

  Female named Felicity, wears a necklace made of pukka shells handcrafted by her housemate,Timm Yee, when she lived on Maui. She is a waitress in a restaurant that uses only farm-to-table foodstuffs. She’s trying to make enough money so she can go to Acupuncture School. She feels that at 29 she needs to settle down and create some goals for her life. She wears granny glasses and just recently got a cell phone after breaking hers a year ago. Her hair is curly light brown and braided to the middle of her back. She smiles with her eyes and her mouth.

Scott, a 48 year-old Catholic man with 5 children, works for a mortgage bank. He wears designer suits to work; He got his masters degree at The University of Chicago. His goal has been to make a lot of money and become the CEO of a company. He broke his ankle skating with his boys and was given Vicodin in the hospital. He lives in an upper end suburb in Chicago in a five bedroom Colonial. All of his children attend Catholic school. His three sons play hockey and two daughters play soccer and do ballet. His wife belongs to Junior League and shops at Neiman Marcus. He used to play football in high school but has no time for exercise now. He is 6 feet tall and weights 220. He works until 7:00 in the city, has a 45-minute commute home. Often no one is there to greet him when he gets home. His broken ankle still pains him unless he takes the Vicodin. He is having trouble concentrating at work. He hasn’t gone to Confession in three months.

Lesson 35

 Keys to a Great Story: Know Your Character

 A key to a great story is understanding who your character is:

DO create a Character Chart to better understand your character.

DON’T be a slave to the chart. You can  go off the reservation without impunity if the character maintains authenticity.

Physical Appearance









Patient, impatient

Optimistic, Pessimistic

Quick to anger, slow to anger

Quick to action, Thoughtful

Sense of humor


Environmental Background





Socio-economic status


Favorites/ things around them



Television show

Type of home he or she lives in

Things he or she uses

Lesson 34

A key to a great story is a character who wants something.The higher the stakes the higher the conflict. Ditto if the impediments are almost insurmountable. The character is striving for something and has problems or there is no story.

DO make the character come to life through actions, dialog, description.

DON’T make your character a stereotype. Give them unique qualities that make them seem flesh and blood.

Lesson 33

A key to a great story is to create a plot line that has tension and conflict and is devoid of information that detracts from the dramatic arc.

Lets talk about carving out the story from the whole enchilada. This is especially relevant when writing about a true event–that’s when you may have the urge to include everything that happened whether it’s good for plot development or not.

Let me give you an example. On the day my daughter went back to work after her divorce, she asked me to take care of her twenty-month-old. Everyone was still in mourning over the events of 911. Our country was in turmoil and so was our family. We weren’t alone. Many families saw divorces or desertions in heretofore-stable relationships. People quit their jobs and their marriages. They moved cross-country. Demons long buried rose up to act in destructive ways. For others, they looked at their lives and didn’t like what they saw–that assessment and the dire results of the attack on 911 made them act.

We were just part of the chain reaction. Besides that, my ninety-three-year-old dad had just died after a long illness. The funeral had only been three weeks before this 18th day in June. I didn’t even know if I had the strength to care for an active toddler. Then I got a phone call from my daughter-in-law. She needed to see her OB-GYN. Could I watch Garrett and Evan for her? It would only be an hour. I agreed. Gina had had a miscarriage before this pregnancy and encephalitis. She was eight months along but barely showed. It was worrisome. So, of course I agreed. It turned out that the doctor insisted on taking the baby that day.

Now, everything I wrote is true. But, as the writer/editor, I saw that I wasn’t even to the plot at this point. I start the story after the baby is born and we are taking the kids to dinner. So even if it is true that the boys were wild in my house and the birth was easy for Gina, none of that is in “Midsummer Night’s Dreaming”. It may be the sub-text, but it would have gummed up the works if I included it.

DO cull out the most important details, and also the elements that will create dramatic tension.

DO NOT include information that will keep the story from flowing and/or moving forward.

Lesson 32

Dialogue Rules

With a few simple rules, you will rule with dialogue.

DO: remember that every speaker has his or her own paragraph:

  1. Dialogue is not conversation.
  2. Dialogue should move the story forward.
  3. Dialogue lets us know the character better.
  4. Use attributions to give detail and authenticity.

Example One:

The wind was so loud, I barely could hear the knocking at the door. When I opened it, Hank was standing there.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” I said.

“How are you?” he inquired.

“I am fine except for the slight sniffles I have had since walking in the rain. I went for a walk with Caro last week. How are you?”

“Okay I guess,” he smiled.

Example Two:

The wind was so loud, I barely heard the knock on the door. I put down my paint brush, annoyed with the interruption. I crossed the studio and yanked open the door. Hank stood there, his hair blowing in five different directions.

“What are you doing here?” My hands had fisted on their own accord.

“I want to talk to you,” he said.

I rolled my eyes. “A little late for that, don’t you think?”

DON’T have people exclaiming, crying, sobbing, laughing as part of the dialogue punctuation. Exclaiming is old fashioned. As is using, SAID SHE. The common usage now is SHE SAID.

Good and Welfare Items:

“I want to talk to you,” he said. Quotation marks are around the words said. A comma goes inside the quote.

“What about?” question mark is inside the quotes.

I rolled my eyes—an action attributed to the speaker of that line.

Lesson 31

Verb Tense

 When you are writing, you want to stay in the same verb tense. If you are writing in the present tense: Francesa writes every day, stay in the present tense. If you are writing in the past tense: Francesa wrote every day, stay in the past tense.

DO decide on which tense you want to write in and stick with it. This helps the reader know what’s happening.

DON’T switch tenses mid stream:

Francesa writes every day. She drank her coffee, put in a load of wash, and ate breakfast. Then she picks up her pen.

Francesa wrote every day. She drinks her coffee, puts in a load of wash, and eats breakfast. Then she picked up her pen.

DO stay consistent:

Francesa writes every day. She drinks her coffee, puts in a load of wash, and eats breakfast. Then she picks up her pen. (present tense).

Francesa wrote every day. She drank her coffee, put in a load of wash, and ate breakfast. Then she picked up her pen. (past tense.)

WRITING AEROBIC: The pride in…

Assignment: Re-read something you have written to check for verb tense agreement.

Lesson 30


One of the cardinal rules never to be broken used to be “show don’t tell”.  It adds depth to the story and helps with the flow. Here are some examples.

He was nervous. (Telling.)

He bit his lip. He cleared his throat. He tapped his fingers on the table. (All of these are showing nervousness. Only use one.)

Helen was a wonderful mother. (Telling).

Helen was always at the bus stop to greet her children. “Hi, Tony, hi, Samantha,” she’d say, her smile wide as she hugged them close. (Showing an example of her mothering.)

In 1923, Sidney walked home from school in the bitter cold. He was run down by a trolley. (Telling a story.)

Rain seeped down Sidney’s collar as he hurried along the cobblestone streets. What did Papa want? He wondered. Why does he want me to come by the store?

He stepped off the curb still lost in thought. The clang of the trolley made him look up, but it was too late. All he could do was hurl himself to the side. He felt a crushing pain. Then he lost consciousness. (Developing the story through showing and the five senses.)

DO show what a character is feeling and doing.

DON’T show if it is cumbersome. Then the reader will notice. Also, sometimes just telling does keep the story moving.

Writing Aerobic:  Pumpkin pie …

Lesson Twenty-Nine

 Just as in a game, it helps to know the basic rules, the basic skills, and the basic strategies in the craft of writing. Here they are:

  1. Plot and Story:  What happens and how it unfolds. What is the CONFLICT?
  2. Characters:  Who is involved?  (Basic conflict formula: Human against Human, Human against Nature, Human against Him or Herself.)
  3. Dialogue:  What characters say that tells you about them, gives information about the story and moves it along.
  4. Description, Narrative:  Setting—Where and When the story takes place.
  5. Theme: Why, Motivation.

DO make sure your story, fiction or non-fiction, includes the 5 items delineated above. Remember that every story has a beginning, middle and an end!

DON’T get too cute. You have to be really good to pull off a story where an animal is the main character. “The Art of Racing in the Rain” is a great example of it being done well.

 Assignment: Write a short story, which incorporates the elements above, that tells about a pivotal point in your life. Make your story about 3 pages.

Writing Aerobic: Until the bell…


Lesson Twenty-Eight

In today’s world, a story starts off fast—within the first few sentences, within the first paragraph. You need to grab your reader immediately. Think of a James Bond movie. It always starts off with some incredible crisis and stunts. Action is the beginning, then we move into story development. This may be an extreme example, but readers today are not going to sit still for a slow warm up to a story.

Writer’s Relief, an author’s submission service, advises: “For the short story writer, it all comes down to the first sentences. Because, quite literally, those first sentences are often all that you will be judged on. Our advice? Hit the ground running. Start with some sort of conflict or threat. Grab the reader’s attention with the unusual or the unexpected. Create tension, and make the reader anxious to read more, to learn what happens to this character and how this character will deal with the threat or the change.”

This advice goes for fiction or non-fiction. Right now, I’m writing about my experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I start off with me lying in bed, unable to sleep, sure that I will be dead within a week from a nuclear holocaust. My original beginning was my telling about growing up during the Cold War Era. The writing was good, but I needed action so the reader would be with me on my journey.

Here is the opening paragraph of a quirky short story of mine, “Clueless in California”.

When did thongs start being called flip-flops? Tina wondered as she again tried to pluck the solitary hair from under her chin. The tweezers slipped a little in her grip. Darn, she should have put on the cuticle oil last night, but she’d forgotten. Since her manicure appointment was right before her flight, she’d had to put it on this morning—she needed to soften her cuticles so her nails would look perfect at the reunion. Everything about her had to be perfect tonight—her entire future was riding on it.

Right away you have your main character doing something with high stakes—all right, a chin hair is not a crisis, but to clueless Tina it is. This story is character driven from the first. You know a lot about Tina within a few sentences…and it only gets worse! Tina is counting on her high school reunion to save her bacon. (Love these cliches!)

 DO start your story with action, conflict, or the unexpected. Readers make their decision to read your story within the first few sentences so get to the heart of the story ASAP.

 DON’T start with description or a philosophical treatise no matter if you are writing fiction or non-fiction. People today are texters and tweeters. They won’t go for lengthy introductions.

WRITING AEROBIC: Fifteen minutes more…

ASSIGNMENT: Take one of your stories, memoir pieces,  or essays, and re-write the opening to give it more punch.

Lesson Twenty-Seven

DO things that fuel your creative spirit. (THINGS is not a precise word and we do work for preciseness in our craft. I could have used the word ACTIVITIES and would have if this weren’t a writing blog where I feel I’m communicating with you in an informal way. I made the decision based on voice.)

Certain activities propel the right brain to center stage. Yoga, for me, works so well. It quiets my left-brain, which tends to be overactive, and allows me to get in touch with my creativity. Taking a walk does the same for me as long as I’m alone and not talking on my cell phone. Often I’ll work out a piece of dialog or plot when I’m walking so I carry a small tablet with me or send myself a voice message. (Once my husband picked up the voice message and he thought I’d lost my mind…again. He recognized my voice but what I was saying made no sense. Now he knows.)

DO give yourself the time and space to access your creativity. Find time to listen to the voice in your head. Sit in your workspace and just be quiet. I’m doing that now—I can hear the click of the second hand on my desk clock.

DON’T always use the myriad time saving and mind-blowing devices we have at our disposal to keep us from ever having to be bored. Re-learn how to use your own inner voice to self-soothe.

BTW: As I was preparing to copy this, I looked down at the tool bar on my new computer and saw the Note App, nestled against the Reminder App, which pointed out to me that I no longer need to use a physical tablet or send a voice message—I can use my new iPhone to write myself a note or send myself a text with my brain storm. LOL.


ASSIGNMENT: Do an activity that calms you and promotes your creative spirit. Then go to your writing space and write for a half an hour. After, assess the experience and your work.

Lesson Twenty-Six

 In every piece of writing, you need a plot. Even if you’re telling a story at the dinner table, you need a plot. There needs to be a beginning, middle and end. And SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN that is worthy of a story.

Every story has characters. Some stories are plot driven and some are character driven. Rule of thumb is that popular fiction is plot driven and literary fiction is character driven. All rules are made to be broken, right? Even in plot driven stories you need to have compelling characters who seem like real people. Even character driven stories need to have a back bone.

DO have your characters want something. It is best to have high stakes in your outcome. Your characters NEED to have something.

DO have conflict in your story. Plot driven stories live for CONFLICT! So do readers.

DON’T give up on yourself. DON’T expect your writing to be perfect. It’s a learning process. You didn’t learn to walk on the first try, did you? I watched my baby granddaughter learning to pull herself up. Now that she can do that, she’s learning how to get down. Often, it’s with a plop! But, she keeps on keeping on!

HOW DO YOU GET BETTER AT WRITING? Just like learning a sport, a skill, a craft, a language:  PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!!!!

WRITING AEROBIC:  The streets filled with….

 Lesson Twenty-Five

Two weeks ago, my well had dried up. What else can I share as a lesson? I wondered. Maybe I felt that way because I had a lot on my plate family-wise, and I had no time to create in my head. Or maybe my well was just experiencing the effects of drought. In any case, I snapped back when I was reading PEOPLE magazine and saw a picture of Jay Z and Beyonce with their baby on a Mediterranean cruise.

Look at the expressions on Beyonce’s and Jay-‘s faces. What does it tell you?

When you’re a writer or a poet, you have the instincts of a detective and/or a psychologist. You examine a scene with the eye of a CSI investigator. When you look at a person (or your character) you see details no one else does. That’s what I started doing with the photo in PEOPLE. Is that a smile on Beyonce’s face or a grimace? Does the smile reach her eyes? Is that a sneer on Jay Z’s face or is he concentrating or just annoyed that Paparazzi are lurking?

Beyonce is even covering her mouth in this shot and is looking away from her husband. Is she trying to hide her expression? Jay-Z is leaning toward her, but not looking at her. Are they having a fight? Are they bored with each other? I feel a story coming on!!!

(That is something I witnessed recently when the Osbournes had a wedding in the hotel we were staying at. I hadn’t recognized Kelly because she was make-up free and smiling, but when I looked up from my downward dog and noticed the pink hair, I did. Our eyes met and her smile froze. She knew instinctively, I guess, that I’d recognized her. I looked away, but not before I saw the frown appear.)

Why are Jay-Z’s hands on his hips? Is he angry?

When you’re a writer, or perhaps had a difficult parent growing up, you listen to what people say and how they say it. What does the tone mean? What are they wearing? Is their hand relaxed or their fist clenched? You look at all this for clues to character and story. Then you use what people do in your work. You visualize it and you use it. Your character will some more real and more realistic.

A positive side effect is your greater knowledge of people around you. And people think you are so perceptive…or weird.

DO: observe people, places and things around you. Try to write down anything useful right away.

DO: use a preposition at the end of sentence if you need to. “That is something I observed when the Osbournes had a wedding in the hotel we were staying at.” Should I have written: “…in the hotel at which we were staying.”? My answer is NO. First, when I write in my blog, I use a chatty voice, which is informal. Second, the “at which” is just stilted.

DON’T give up on yourself if you lose your creative MOJO. It will return!!!!

DON’T  always follow all the rules. If you re-read this, you’ll see I’m having a lot of fun with clichés. I do think clichés get a bad rap—often they are sayings which give the writer a short cut in conveying what he or she means.
WRITING AEROBIC:  If only she’d had a…….

Lesson Twenty-Four

DO be more playful in your writing…and in your life. Enjoy what you’re doing or stop for a while.

E.L. James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey for her own entertainment. She enjoyed writing it. “Okay,” she admitted to Katie Curic, “it’s my fantasy.” Fine literature? Tacky? Salacious? Poorly written and researched? Anti-women? Good story and characters? I don’t know—I started reading it because it was such a sensation, but it was so romance novel cliché to me that I gave up. But what I do know is that she finished not only one book, but three. Good for her.

DON’T let the critic get in your way. You got a story in your head? An itch to write? A character you want to explore? GO FOR IT!! Again, editing is the time to RE-WRITE. Again, beware of a Critique Group that doesn’t help you move ahead.
WRITING AEROBIC: A red sky in the morning…

Lesson Twenty-Three

DO set goals for yourself in your writing. Make these goals attainable. Write them down. They should be practical.

You might have a long range goal of writing a book about something. For instance, I want to write a book about the years I taught in the inner city. Then, break that down into segments. “I want to write a chapter a week.” That, actually, is pretty ambitious unless you are able to be in full writing mode, not working at another job or involved in other projects. If you make the goal too difficult, it will become like a New Year’s Resolution—you have good intentions, but they got lost in the every day hustle-bustle of your life.

When you get out of the writing mode, a goal of writing for 10, 15 or 20 minutes a day is a good way of getting back into it.

DON’T beat yourself up if you falter. We are not perfect and if we try for perfection, it is easy to fail. (Very Zen, no?) I made myself a goal about Writing Do’s and Don’ts. “Write one lesson every week.” At the end of 52 weeks or 100 weeks, I might have a book. It’s given me a focus and the task doesn’t seem insurmountable. As Anne Lamont would say, bird-by-bird, I’m creating a how-to writing book. I accomplished the goal for twenty-two weeks in a row. This last week, I didn’t get the lesson done. I had too many other things going on in my life to find the time to even sit down, let along sit down at the computer. If I said to myself: “Self, you broke the string. You are such a loser, you never finish anything. Yada Yada…” it would be destructive. Instead, I am back in the saddle again. (I just love clichés!) It sure does feel good to have done my work–Ray Bradbury always said that and he was so correct!

WRITING AEROBIC: The wrist dangled at an odd….

Lesson Twenty-Two

            It is a good idea to sit down and take stock of your writing every six months.

DO a review of what you are working on and what you plan to work on. Give yourself a framework. Following are some questions you can ask yourself:

  1. What are your writing goals for these six months?
  2. What do you want to learn?
  3. What are your writing strengths? Has this changed?
  4. What are your writing weaknesses? Has this changed?
  5. What is one thing you have learned about writing that you would like to share?

DON’T dwell too long on this. It’s an assessment tool for you.

DON’T  make your goals unattainable. Be practical and kind to yourself.

Please share your results if you wish.

WRITING AEROBIC: The clouds, massing in the western sky…

Lesson Twenty-One

 When I wrote for newspapers and magazines, I was given a small amount of words to use in completing my assignments. It drove me crazy. Sometimes the task was so impossible I had to approach it as if it were a jigsaw puzzle, making the pieces of the story fit. I hated it but it did teach me a heightened awareness of making each word count.

DO make each word count in your story. This is in the editing and re-write phase. It is in the tightening up as below:

Ken has been coming to the desert for years as a visitor.

Ken has been visiting the desert for years.

Ken has visited the desert for years.

It is also in making the best word choice. Here’s where using active verbs can enhance your writing.

Colleen walked across the room to the sink. She turned on the faucet with difficulty.

Colleen shuffled across to the sink. Her hand was unsteady as she struggled to turn on the faucet.


DON’T get caught up in this while writing. Just let all the words flow onto the page. Then you can go back to cut or change words and phrases later.

DON’T over-do the active verbs. If it strikes a false note, your reader will hear it.

EXERCISE: Edit a piece of your work with the intention of making each word count.

WRITING AEROBIC:  The map showed…

Lesson Twenty

 PUNCTUATING dialogue is easy and well worth your time learning.

DO Give each speaker his/her own separate paragraph.

        Use quotation marks around what s/he is saying.

        Put the periods, question marks, exclamation marks and commas inside the quotation marks.

WHEN there are 0nly two people who are speaking, you don’t need to use attributions: he said, she said. Look at the following. You know there are two different speakers by what they are saying and because each has his/her own paragraph.

“So when are you going to get here?”

“That’s why I’m calling. We can’t come.”

“Why not?”

“I’m sick so we’re going to go straight home from the Cook-Off.”

“You don’t sound sick.”

“I feel awful. I think I have a fever.”

“I’ve been counting on you coming. You have to come.”

“Honestly, Danielle, we’d love to see you, but I feel like death warmed over.”

“Don’t worry. I won’t catch anything. You can stay over night.”

“Okay, then. I guess we’ll come.”

“Thank goodness. I really need to see you!”

DON’T deviate from this plan. This gives the reader a road map to the dialogue so s/he can absorb it without hesitation. Remember, a new paragraph for each speaker. Indent. Use quotation marks correctly.

Next week we will look at attributions and how to use and punctuate them.

WRITING AEROBIC:  Nail salons are…

EXERCISE: Write a one page dialogue between two people who have a conflict. Use dialogue only. Write it so the reader can tell it is two different people talking. The dialogue above is an actual conversation my daughter had with a friend. You could do this. Or, you might want to use the photo below as a writing spark.


Remember, dialogue is NOT conversation. Don’t have the characters say hello—unless this would add to characterization or plot development. Get to the nitty-gritty right away. (Is nitty-gritty slang or cliche?)


Lesson Nineteen

So, we know that story is supremo important. Without a good story, there’s nothing. But, in every good story there are characters that are fully dimensional to the reader, even if that character is an animal. (Recently there have been several terrific books with a dog as the central character.)

One of the ways to make a character fully dimensional and to make your story flow is the brilliant use of dialogue. Dialogue has many purposes, none of it idle conversation.

Dialogue Fact Sheet

1.  Dialogue now makes up about 50% of a popular novel.

2.  Dialogue is NOT conversation. There is always a purpose.

3.  Dialogue moves the story along. In dialogue, something has to happen.

4.  Dialogue aids character development.

5.  Dialogue can foreshadow coming events.

6.  Dialogue can reveal background and the past, setting, weather, etc.

7.  Dialogue should be fresh.

8.  Dialogue can reveal character’s age, education, morals, viewpoint, SES.

9.  Dialogue can let us know the underlying goal, the sub-text-humor, drama, and mystery of the work.

10. Dialogue can provide information in place of narrative.

DO use dialogue to accomplish the above. Readers like it. It propels story forward. Most readers today are used to cinematic work: they like to be on the scene, not just reading it. (More about that later.)Do use language that is appropriate for the time and place of the book. The Internet is helpful here—there are all kinds of sites that will give you groovy examples of the expressions of the time period.

DON’T have characters use clichés unless it is to show his/her character. Don’t overdo dialect as it can get in the way of understanding what is happening. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece in the use of regional dialect of the time, but I think he got lost in his pursuit of using all the dialects he’d collected and lost sight of his plot.

WRITING AEROBIC: Henry slammed down the ….

EXERCISE: Write a one-page dialogue between two siblings who are sharing a bedroom. Describe the room through the dialogue.

Lesson Eighteen

Once you have a piece written, you can edit it and re-write at any time. I have just taken a story that I thought was very good and am re-working it. I’ve sent it out a lot and it’s returned. I read it through about a month ago, and thought it technically perfect. But obviously, it’s not being received well.

The main character is a very cool and collected guy—a cold guy. The story reflects that, maybe too much. I’ve decided I need to add dimension to him and to the other person in the story, his wife. The pace of the story is slow and deliberate, as is Richard. (His name was Robert, but I just this minute changed it.) But too slow I think. Now it starts with Jimi Hendrix music—more of pop, I think.

I have ended it with a metaphor, just after giving you Lesson Seventeen, which advises resisting metaphors. But I’m keeping it for now. The character, who is really out of touch with himself, likens himself to Seattle’s Space Needle, which he sees as a symbol of standing tall and proud. So far the story is called “Power Play.” I’m thinking of changing it to “Self Delusion” because that is the point of my story. But is that a give away? Wait, how do you like “Out of Touch”?

DO pay attention to the title of your work. It needs to be meaningful. It needs to be catchy. It is what will first draw the reader to your work. The title may come to you at the beginning of your work or towards the end. I think there is a certain amount of instinct in the choice.

DON’T obsess over the title (as I am now doing). Don’t use clichés like “Gone With the Wind” (ha, ha). Mitchell originally titled the book “Tomorrow is Another Day”, by the way. Don’t worry about using a title that has already been used except for originality’s sake.

WRITING AEROBIC:  High over the Andes….

here is one student’s finished writing aerobic:

High over the Andes the red balloon floated in the light northerly breeze.  It seemed to have a life of its own shifting from left to right.  But the wind was changing and a strong weather front was coming   As if in rebellion the red balloon jerked left and right disappearing from sight in an ominous cloud.

 The red balloon headed north and passed over Columbia’s poppy fields and its armored encampments protecting the drug lords’ valuable drug supply. 

 Then the red balloon was swept up by a mighty storm coming out of Africa and slowly creeping toward the main land of the United States.  The weather gurus gave a name to this storm – Tropical Storm Isaac.  The poor little balloon was dizzy from its spinning and tossing, but then it was thrust eastward – to the very edge of the storm.  It looked out as the eye of the storm made its way over the Gulf of Mexico west of Florida toward New Orleans.

 By now the red balloon was ready to call it quits.  Its helium which had kept it afloat for so many hours was ever so slowly leaking out and the balloon descended upon what looked like a major urban area – the sign on one building said “Tampa Convention Center.” It would feel so good to land, the little balloon thought.  It descended quietly not disturbing a soul.  Now only 7 feet off the ground and anticipating a gentle landing the little red balloon suddenly felt a blast of air.  The large doors of the Tampa Convention Center opened and the red balloon was sucked inside the building, into a massive hall. All of sudden the red balloon wasn’t alone – there were thousands of brother and sister balloons – red, white and blue – falling from the ceiling. And there were thousands of humans jumping up and down, screaming at the top of their lungs some strange words “Romney Ryan.”  The little red balloon didn’t know what was happening when unexpectedly it was grabbed by a reveler.  The little red balloon felt the fingernails of the reveler in its side and then with a loud noise the little red balloon popped and was no more.

ASSIGNMENT: Write a short story about this picture. Send it to me!

Here is one student’s Sunflower story.

The large heavy rock looms behind the wilting sunflower. Its animal face looks like a cross between a horse and a rhino with alligator skin. It’s slanted eyes look almost like he’s daring the sunflower to drop in a sad heap to the ground where another withered bloom that was once beautiful and open lay still by the old unpainted wall. The green leaves with the light yellow cast are old, yet still alive. They’re proof that what follows a withering away the old, new forms of hope and growth is possible. Perhaps the trick is to remain in the afterglow paying attention to the ever-present light. Sometimes when we forget to turn on our own light we can remain a tall drooping sunflower waiting to drop our own bloom on the ground.

Lesson Seventeen

DO resist metaphors and similes that clog your writing.

We all know about phrases like, “She froze like a deer in the headlights.” This has been so overused it’s become a cliché. I am re-writing a short story and I want to describe my character being so stunned by what his wife says, that he just stands there, immobile. I wrote,

His mind froze like a computer on overload. He had thought she was having an affair. The new data—that she was trying to get pregnant—was so beyond the scope of his imagination he couldn’t process it for a minute.

When I re-read it, the simile just stood out like a sore thumb. (ha, ha). Just get rid of it and get on with the story.

DON’T be afraid to write a lot and then cut it out. In this re-write, I have written pages I won’t use, but I understand the characters better. I understand why the story wasn’t working. My dialog is more authentic sounding and I’ve added depth to the characters. I’m also bringing the story up to date by having a character text another, and referencing the economic meltdown.

WRITING AEROBIC: The orchids spilled over….

WRITING ASSIGNMENT: Choose an old story you have written that you are willing to work on. Re-write it. Cut where needed. Add detail to build depth.

Lesson Fourteen, Fifteen and Sixteen are all included in this section.You may do it all at once or once a week for three weeks.

Lesson Fourteen: Five Senses, Continued

Taste and Touch

What would life be like without smell, taste or touch? Very bland , for sure. Using these senses can add flavor to your writing, bringing your story to life.

When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher told us she was writing a book she’d titled,” Tears are Salty.” I remember tasting my tears the next time I cried to test if it were true—it was. I know now that tear secretions are made up partly of sodium, thank you very much, Wikipedia! I’ve never forgotten that English teacher, and always wondered what had made her so sad. You can see how evocative her title was. The sense of taste has remained with me through the years. Characterization is helped by the sense of taste—what kinds of food does a character like—spicy, bland? It may be a clue to the protagonist’s state of mind.

Using the sense of touch can be very effective in story. A handrail made of iron is very different in feel to one of wood. The feel of a baby’s cheek is quite different than a man’s cheek at 5:00 PM. (I’ll never forgot cuddling my two year old close and thinking how could this soft cheek every feel like sandpaper? Now he has three children of his own and sports a goatee. This is another example of a real life incident that can be incorporated into a fictional character’s background.)

DO use the senses of taste and touch to add depth to your story.

DON’T over use them. You want them to blend smoothly into the overall mix, and not stick out.

WRITING AEROBIC: When I wake up, I…

Lesson Fourteen

Five Senses Add Texture, not Plot

The following is an example of how the five senses can develop what you are writing.

(1). Bare bones. Long story short! My daughter and I took the baby for a walk this morning.  (bare bones, basic).

(2). Developed description of the walk.

Sometimes life’s pleasures are so simple we hardly notice them. I woke up Wednesday an hour earlier than I have been. I’m guessing it was because the clouds had dissipated allowing the sun to shine through and light up our apartment. The natural daylight coaxed me out of bed—I felt energized. I got up, threw on sweats and took the dog for a walk. I brought a paper cup and picked blackberries along the way. July is early for berries—most of them were green, but I managed to pick a cup full, only getting pricked once by the thorny stems. I popped a berry in my mouth like I’d done as a girl. Its sourness puckered my lips. Yeah, July was too early.

Bowl of July blackberries.

My daughter texted me about an hour later, asking if I wanted to take a walk. The baby was up and after her bottle, they’d be ready. I texted back, and was out the door.

With the baby settled in her stroller, we set out. The sky was the brilliant blue you can only find in Seattle. It had been rainy and cold for ten days so this was a welcome change. Now everyone was outside taking advantage of the summer-like weather.

Skies are clearing in Snoqualmie.

We stopped to talk to one neighbor about her vegetable garden. I could see a lettuce with yellowed leaves had sprouted a floral top. Next to it, were cherry tomatoes ripening to red on vines. She even had an artichoke plant, though it was a pale green. Not enough photosynthesis happening around here, I thought.

“What’s that?” my daughter asked, pointing to a plant with variegated green leaves.

“It’s my first garden,” June confided. “I think it may be broccoli. I’ll let you know.”

When the baby made fussing noises, we said goodbye, and continued on our way. The high-tech stroller made a clicking noise as its wheels turned on the street. We didn’t go far. Right next door we stopped to say hello to Lisa, who had her baby and toddler playing on their front lawn. Both of her girls have fiery copper curls.

“Look at me,” Dahlia called as she turned a somersault on the grass.

“Good job,” we well trained mothers and grandmother called back.

When baby Joeli began to whimper, we moved on towards the park. The July sun was warm on our backs as it filtered through the trees. It felt good to be outside and have no schedule to follow.

“I’m looking for new sheets,” my daughter said. “We stayed at a friend’s house and their sheets were so soft.” She paused while maneuvering the stroller down a curb. “I was almost going to say the sheets felt like velvet, but that would be wrong. Velvet would be too thick,” she said.

I was working on my five senses lesson on touch at the time, and thought, this would be perfect to share with everyone. With her sensory description, I could picture exactly what she meant.

“And not soft like flannel. I tried flannel once and it was just way too hot,” she said.

“I always wondered about flannel, if that would happen,” I said. “One thing I never got over with menopause was sleeping hot so I’ve stayed away from flannel.”

We continued walking and talking about this and that. In the small town center, we stopped in the Walgreens to buy a few necessities and then headed for Starbucks.  As we approached, you could smell the dark, rich coffee a block away.

When our drinks came, we decided to take them with us. We sipped them as we crossed the street and headed towards home. Ah, the lazy days of summer are so unspecial they are priceless.

Commentary: I wrote this out pretty much as you see it, but I revised and edited many times. My primary purpose was to show the reader how using the five senses develops description and adds sensory detail. There are characters and dialog, but there is no conflict. Originally before I added the beginning and last sentences outlined in green, there wasn’t even a slant or theme.If I want to develop this into a story, I have to add conflict of some kind. Our encounter two weeks ago with hail and lightning was fraught with peril, imagined or real. Much better story structure already there.

DO have conflict or an urgent need so you can have plot movement in a fully developed story.

DON’T meander down a garden path without a destination in mind. A story needs structure. It needs a beginning, a middle and an end.

ASSIGNMENT: Write a description of some small happening in your life. Be sure to include all five senses. You don’t need to have conflict unless you want to for this.

WRITING AEROBIC: Pat looked across the football field….

Lesson Fifteen: Editing and Revision

 When I edit a piece, each time I may look at a different aspect of it. For instance, I just looked at the Morning Walk piece to see if my verb tense was consistent through it. Originally as I wrote, I kept throwing present tense in when most everything was in past tense. There is a combination in here because I am talking to the reader in present time, but the story itself has to be either present or past tense. Once I make the commitment, I need to stick to it or change everything to the one my subconscious is calling to. Either way would be fine as long as it is consistent.

DO choose a verb tense and stick to it. Be consistent.

DON’T mix present and past tenses in your writing. Example:

I walk up the hill towards the blackberry patch, hoping there will be enough ripe berries for me to pick. I see a man with a dog walking towards me. I smiled at him and gave him a blackberry.

Walk and see are present tense words.

Smiled and gave are past tense words.

ASSIGNMENT: Re-write your piece using the alternate verb tense than you already used. How does it change the writing? Which do you like better?

EXAMPLE of RE-WRITE: past tense to present tense

Sometimes life’s pleasures are so simple we hardly notice them. I wake up Wednesday an hour earlier than I have been. I’m guessing it’s because the clouds have dissipated allowing the sun to shine through and light up our apartment. The natural daylight coaxes me out of bed—I feel energized. I get up, throw on sweats and take the dog for a walk. I bring a paper cup and pick blackberries along the way. July is early for berries—most of them are green, but I manage to pick a cup full, only getting pricked once by the thorny stems. I pop a berry in my mouth like I’d done as a girl. Its sourness puckers my lips. Yeah, July is too early.

 Lesson Thirteen

Five Senses Continued: Smell

Smells are so evocative that they can create whole scenes in our mind or even alter our state of mind.  They can be used to develop characterization, as well. Here are some examples.

1. When I smell a certain hair spray, I am taken back to my locker room in high school and I remember the insecurity I felt at 15.

2. The type of perfume or cologne a person uses says something about them or the type of impression they want to create.

3. When our house was on the market, I’d bake cookies before someone came to look—the smell gave a homey feeling to the atmosphere.

DO use the sense of smell to add depth to your story. You can set a scene with this olfactory stimulus as well as building characterization.

DON’T overuse or use too close together. Sprinkle judiciously.

EXERCISE: Make a list of ten smell triggers. Jot down an emotion or scene it could evoke.


Smell of:                                      Scene, emotion, characterization aide

Burned toast:                        character inept in kitchen or in a hurry

Coppertone suntan lotion:      going to the beach with friends in the 60’s,                                                      hoping to meet boys and get a tan.

Turkey roasting:              Thanksgiving afternoon, setting the table,                                                        waiting for the family, hoping that this time                                                        everyone will be happy and positive.

Joy perfume:                   character opening a purse of her dead mother,                                                     smelling the perfume on a handkerchief,                                                                    overcome by grief.

Body odor                        character on a crowded subway, breathing                                                        through her mouth so she won’t gag at the smell                                                      of the homeless person next to her.

There is no right or wrong here. It’s all made up. The same smell can create a hundred different emotions or scenes.

Writing Aerobic: The smell of leaves burning…

FYI: I re-read everything I write, this includes thank you notes. Anything I write on the computer that is easy to correct, I will change. I use the grammar and spell check. Why not? It takes a minute and I rather not look inept.

Lesson Twelve

Five Senses Continued: Sound

Sound is one of the essential senses. Experts say it’s the last thing to go. When my dad was dying, I stayed up all night with him, holding his hand and talking to him. His eyes never opened, but I described how the sunrise was bringing light into the room. I feel confident he heard me. I held the phone up to his ear when my daughter called and though he was close to death, he sighed with relief after he heard her voice. When I had malaria eight years ago, I was too weak to open my eyes, but I could hear the doctor tell my husband my kidneys were shutting down and I had 24 hours left to live.

Those two events were difficult ones in my life, but I will use them in stories, I, like Nora Ephron, learned early that bad days make for good material. People Magazine quotes Ephron saying her parents told her if she came to them with a sad story, they said, ‘Someday you will think this is funny….Everything is copy.’”

Getting back to sound:

DO use this sense to make your story have more depth. Think of the sound the SCRAPE of skates makes, the SCRAPE of nails on a chalk board, the SCRAPE sof metal on metal. All quite different. All evocative.

DON’T overwork sound anymore than you would sight. Also, don’t use onomatopoeia, or use it sparingly. Examples: Beep-beep. Use: She honked the horn. Schwump, schwump.  Use: The wipers swept the windshield clean. Varoom. Use: The car took off.

WRITING AEROBIC: In the stillness of the twilight, the rustle of….


 As I give you specific craft items to work on, I want to remind you to just keep writing. Some of it will be great, some good and some terrible—It doesn’t matter. It’s the act of writing that is important. At a later date, you can become EDITOR.

I carry a notebook around so I can write anywhere. The notebook I’m writing in now I started using in 2010. It’s got some good stuff in it and some bad. Some journaling, some writing aerobics. Half of a short story about my brother-in-law’s mother escaping Nazi Germany.

I’ve been filling the last pages with a piece that’s coming from my real life. I’m not worrying about sequence, description, characterization or whether I’ll write it as fiction or non-fiction. I am getting it down as it comes to me. I’m not where I have a computer readily available so it’s all in long hand. When I in-put, I’ll get into editing mode. All I’m doing now is getting the story down. I know the voice will be authentic because I’m experiencing the emotions as I write. I can use that.

I just read a wonderful book called The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. He wrote the whole book in longhand. Here is what he says about it: “When I write on the computer I’m so willing to go back over what I’ve done and change it and revise it. I just never get anywhere. Whereas when writing longhand I feel like I go at the right pace.” I’m finding that he is correct.

my writing notebook


DO use description of characters and places to add depth to your story. You can make a character chart to help you. Here’s an example of a chart.

Character Chart

What Traits and Descriptions Make the Character Most Real

Gender, Age

Where person lives and has lived

Physical description:


Hair, Eyes, Face, Body build

Scars, moles

Birth date and Place


Work Experience

Family Background, parents, siblings, religion, race,

Marital status


Best friend


Strongest and weakest personality traits

Hobbies, sports,

Favorite: food, TV show, music, books, art, movies, color, expression, clothing style

Favorite Brands: toothpaste, coffee, aspirin, cold medicine, paper towels

DON’T overdo the description. And sprinkle it lightly throughout. You can have the knowledge but your reader might not need it.

ASSIGNMENT: An Exercise: Describe your bedroom. Do this in detail.



WritersDigest.com reminds us that in fiction STORY IS PARAMOUNT!

DO have conflict in your story. In your every day life, you want things to go smoothly. You want to wake before the alarm goes off, get dressed without a snag, and drink the perfect cup of coffee as you drive in light traffic to arrive early at work. In fiction this would be boring. The story comes when the character sleeps through the alarm, has a button come off his/her suit jacket, spills coffee all over the kitchen and hits a traffic jam. When he or she arrives late, there is a confrontation. CONFLICT!!!!

DON’T use or overuse literary devices such as alliteration. Actually, I avoid alliteration altogether. Even if I like it and it doesn’t get in the way of the story, I eliminate it. When I edit and I hear it, I know it could distract my reader from the story. Clara cleverly cleft the clutch purse in half. Yikers!  Clearly, the reader will be looking at the sentence for a while, story forgotten.

WRITING AEROBIC:  I hopped on the …


If you did the assignment from last week, e-mail it to me at writingwithcyndy@gmail.com. I will read and critique it for you. The first draft is about getting the story written down. Then you can have fun expanding it up with details or contracting it down by cutting what is in the way of the story.

DO use the FIVE SENSES to add depth to your story. Let the reader share the visceral experience of SIGHT, SOUND, TASTE, TOUCH, and SMELL. Other senses have been identified by scientists, which we will discuss at a later date, but these five are the important ones. They add details that create a clearer picture for the reader. (PR people often use the five senses to sell us a product.)

EXAMPLE:             1. Ben walked down the basement steps. (Basic)

                                2. Ben stood still on the steps, looking down into the darkness of the basement. He felt for the handrail. The coldness of the iron reassured him of its sturdiness and he leaned against it. He was sure he’d heard a noise. The odor of mildew filled his nostrils, so strong he could taste its sourness. What could be moving around down there? The house had been closed up for a year. (Fleshed out)

Reading number 2, you have a good example of Point of View. All of this takes place from Ben’s experience. We see it through his point of view and from his state of mind.

DON’T use all the five senses in one paragraph. In Example 2, I wanted to show you them all. When you are writing, you’d spread them out. Subtle is best. Too much really doesn’t work, as you can see.

WRITING AEROBIC: Green velvet…


DO: know that STORY IS EVERYTHING. It’s got to be a good story or no one will be interested. A good story has to have vivid, authentic characters and a lively plot that keeps moving along. We will discuss the elements of plot and character in more depth. Next week we’ll talk about plot, but we all have a sense of it. Even when we’re sitting around with friends and telling a story, we start, tell the middle, lead up to the end, and then end. Hopefully. Otherwise, your listeners’ eyes begin to glaze over. The story has conflict. It has characters. The main protagonist is usually ourselves. It happens somewhere at some time.

DON’T: get caught up in the argument of whether plot is more important than character. It’s like the old Frank Sinatra song about love and marriage: you can’t have one without the other. (Wow, that’s a dated concept about marriage…or is it?)

ASSIGNMENT: This is a full on assignment. I will still giving you a writing aerobic prompt but here’s what I also want you to do. We all have stories in our lives that we tell again and again. We have honed them in the telling. I have the story about not knowing I was pregnant with our daughter until I was in my third month. It’s a good story. I know because people always listen to the end and ask questions. Think about some of the stories in your life. Not long complicated ones—just short ones. This isn’t going to be an epic—it’s going to be a short story. (FYI: Epics are made, short story-by-short story.) Make a list of five of these stories.


  1. Time I was two and took a walk with my dad on a late summer night.
  2. Time I was pregnant and didn’t know it.
  3. Time I was teaching in the inner city and the Black Panthers tried to burn down the school.
  4. What I did on the day JFK was assassinated and how it changed my life.
  5. The day I sold my first short story.

Step One: Look over the list and choose a story that is calling to you right now.

Step Two: Write down the story…the whole thing. You may just tell it or you may include dialog as you go. You may set the story in a time and place. Or you may add these in the second draft. Just go with the flow in the first draft. Don’t stop yourself. If you can’t remember what kind of soda pop you were drinking, just leave it blank for now. If the right word doesn’t come, just leave a blank. You can fill it in later. This is all RIGHT BRAIN activity.

The story should be about two pages. It might be more or less, depending on your style. When you are finished, you will have the basic story down. Hooray!!!

Step Three: that’s for next week!

WRITING AEROBIC: The sun rose through….


DO develop your own voice. The only way to do this is to write, write, write. Journaling is helpful. Writing a blog is helpful. You find your own style and writing persona. This doesn’t mean you won’t have a point of view character who has his or her own voice. (More about point of view later.)

DON’T overwrite. If you feel a metaphor coming on, go ahead and write it down. I felt as limp as a piece of celery left too long in the cooler. When you’re editing, you can decide whether it’s a cliché or seems stilted or heavy handed or just stupid. If so, cut it out! Write with the goal of being authentic and getting your story across.

p.s. About Grammar. In my blog today, I wrote “the couple was”. My autocorrect said it should be “the couple were”. It didn’t sound correct to me so I googled: “the couple was”. It came up and I read several grammar entries, then made my own choice. It’s so easy in today’s world!!

WRITING AEROBIC: The banana split…


DO develop a group of trusted writing colleagues. This takes time and experience. I have three people I am willing to share my in-progress work with. My criteria: I love their writing. I trust their judgment. I know they are intelligent and experienced writers. I know they care about the work and not their ego.

DON’T join just any critique group. Critique groups can be extremely valuable. If you look at book dedications or acknowledgments, you will often see thanks given to a group of names. These are people who have helped with each stage of the book’s evolution. You need to make sure that the group you join isn’t made up of know-nothings who want to feed their egos but dissing your writing. Or are no-nothings who give negative feedback just because. Or are no-nothings that want to feed off your knowledge. Or are know-it-alls who don’t know you or get what you’re trying to do. Or are rigid and behind the times.

WRITING AEROBIC:  The eclipse of the …


DO collect interesting or funny or provocative things that people say. They can provide seeds for stories or gems to use in a story. Eavesdropping is one of the tools of the writer. Also, anything friends or acquaintances say may be up for grabs. (Be careful here.) I collect these and put them in a file on the computer called: Sayings. I can go to it anytime in a second. I just looked into the file.  Here are two I will use someday.

You can talk until you’re blue in the gills.

With him, it goes in one ear and out into the universe.

Once I was talking to a friend who said her elderly parents were arguing. “My mother-in-law said, “Pretty soon I am going to be charged for taking a breath, he’s so stingy,” my friend said. I put that in a story so fast, the phone was barely on the hook.

DON’T use anything that is libelous or could get you in trouble.

Years ago we went to dinner with three couples and I was seated next to a man who was drunk. He grabbed my hand and put it on his thigh.

“Feel this, Cyndy,” he said.

Oh my god, I thought when my hand touched something hard.

“You know what that is?” the guy asked.

I almost said, “Proof that Viagra works?” but I wisely kept quiet.

“It’s a .38. I carry it with me for protection.”

I took a gulp instead of a sip of my martini, then gave him a smile.

Now, that’s a good story, but probably one better kept under wraps. We’ll just keep it between ourselves, shall we?

WRITING AEROBIC PROMPT: Antonio dropped his mobile….


DO learn, learn, learn:Take classes, go to seminars and writer’s conferences. Classes, if they are well presented, can give you both knowledge and inspiration on a weekly basis. Seminars or weekend or week-long conferences that offer speakers, author lectures and classes can be a little bit of heaven! All these are opportunities for networking with other writers, as well. Also, there are more writing classes being offered on-line, which could be helpful. (I hope to develop some one-on-one assignments with students.)

Try researching the venue before you commit. Ask around, but be careful out there! I have had excellent experiences and terrible ones. For a long while, I believed people who set themselves up as writing instructors were the real deal. When I’d been around the block more than once, I found out these blow-hards often had no credentials to teach anything, let alone the craft of writing. One was a lawyer—well, everyone knows that lawyers are natural born writers, right? He was so bad that I quit half way through. DO QUIT if the class isn’t helping you. I’ve also had workshop leaders who put me into Writer’s Block (yes, with capital letters). These people usually have a vision of the CORRECT WAY TO WRITE, which is their way. If you write differently, they come down on you hard.You have to be careful, but it’s definitely worth the try to find a class or conference. I met one gifted teacher at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and continued with her classes at UCLA. I met another gifted teacher there who continues to be a mentor to me.

DON’T take everything a published writer says as being the Ten Commandments. A writing teacher should be a coach—someone in your corner that can help you learn how to get ahead. I took a week-long workshop once with a published writer who wrote in a highly stylized way. She didn’t appreciate anyone’s style that was different from hers, and she let us know we were wrong. NO! Her job was to help each person develop his or her OWN style. She also said that you had to begin each day with a re-write. OMG!! That does not work for me and it doesn’t work for most people. The first draft’s goal is to get the story down whatever way it comes. Then you can do the re-write. Otherwise, you could be on page one forever.

WRITING AEROBIC PROMPT: When the light went….


DO use correct punctuation and grammar. You want people to be able to understand your writing. You need a common road map for communication.  The Internet is a fabulous resource for any question you have. Let’s say you want to know the proper punctuation for quotation marks. Just Google: proper punctuation quotations. You’ll find many sites. Here is a short example of correct form.

“Each person who speaks gets his or her own paragraph,” the teacher said. “Quotation marks go outside the words. The comma is inside the quote.”

“You indent five spaces?” the student asked.

The teacher nodded. “Yes. And do you notice the question mark went inside the quote?”

The words, The teacher nodded, is called an attribution. It is an action one of the characters makes. (more about this later.)

DON’T ignore the importance of these tools. If you write without punctuation, it will be a monumental task to put it in later.

Look at this and see what i mean if you think i am kidding. who cares a person might say I jsut want to get the words down. it doesnt matter if they are put downright or spelled riht. but i say that id get tired of tryingt ofigureitout and wood gife up.

WRITING AEROBIC PROMPT: She screamed, “I want to go….”


DO write every day in the beginning. Eventually you will develop a schedule that works for you, but for now, open the tap and get the flow going. Just write for 10 minutes.

You might want to continue with your writing aerobic—add a paragraph or so. Many of my students have developed one of the writing aerobics into a published piece. Try composing the writing aerobic with a pen or pencil. Try it with a computer. Build those writing muscles.

Do the work, finding appreciation in the process.

DON’T worry about a finished product right now. Don’t worry about the outcome. Just write. Save it on your computer in a file. Editing will come later.

WRITING AEROBIC PROMPT: The tinkle of the…


DO: Write, Write, Write and Read, Read, Read

Writing develops your skills as a writer. Write often. Observe what’s going on around you and write about it. Carry a notebook so you jot down what you’re thinking or seeing.

Reading helps you develop a facility for language. It also increases your vocabulary and understanding of story line, characterization and plot.

DON’T: Don’t edit yourself at this point. Don’t worry if you’re writing with a pen or on the computer. Just write. Go with it. Don’t throw anything away.

WRITING AEROBIC PROMPT: Write for 10 minutes without stopping. If you get stuck, write about being stuck. Just keep going.

I never told my mother…

2 responses to “Writing DOs and DON’Ts

  1. Dear Cyndy,

    I miss being in your class and miss my classmates. I am now your eager long distance student.

  2. These tips are great! I love the prompts.

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