Sentence Soup

In talking to the young people about writing sentences that flow well together, I told them that writing a story was like making a good soup.

First I asked, what makes up a good soup?  I got all sorts of answers, from chicken, to veggies, to noodles and crackers.  So we decided that a good soup has a lot of good ingredients, but not too many of any one ingredient.

I then asked them if any of them like pepper on their soup.  Many hands went up.  Then, I asked, “But what if I came over and dumped the whole pepper shaker into your soup.  Would you like that?”  No one did.

So we agreed, that having too much of any one ingredient or spice can spoil the soup.  The same goes with writing. Here are the ingredients that I mentioned to them:

Sentence length: Mix up long and short sentences to make things more interesting.
Describing words: Add some adjectives and adverbs, but be careful not to add too many. (It’s like too much pepper)
Types of sentence beginnings: Sometimes leading with subject and verb, and other times leading with a clause.
Using strong, concrete verbs:  Think of different ways to say common words such as “walk” and “talk” to paint a more exact picture.
Have perfect punctuation: Use it when you need it, but don’t overdo it, such as using more than one “!”

I think the soup analogy really  helped the students grasp what I was saying, and I think it is a concept that any writer should think about.

Please join me next week for another installment, and on Thursday for a review of the first three books of the 13th Reality series by James Dashner.

Bashing Out Bookisms

We’ve all read them.
Heroes ‘trumpet’ and villains ‘hiss’. Sidekicks ‘comment’ and minions ‘sneer.’ Such synonyms for “he said” and “she said” pepper the pages of novels everywhere. They might as well be waving colorful banners saying “This is a NOVEL, where people gasp and exclaim and proclaim and snicker and I just wanted to remind you of that.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating the complete removal of “said” synonyms, but I am saying that some authors try too hard to be descriptive at the expense of distracting their readers.
There are some synonyms that are especially offensive. The following examples came from books that I have recently read, which shall remain unnamed.
For your consideration:
1.      Commented
Say something. Now comment it. Did you do anything differently? There is really no reason to use this word, because it doesn’t add additional meaning.. Basically, it is using three syllables when one will do. Even worse is the “commented + adverb” which is an even longer mess.
Consider: “The dark tower’s sure to be guarded by trolls,” said Ghast.
Compared to:
“The dark Tower’s sure to be guarded by trolls,” commented Ghast thoughtfully.
The first tag is nearly transparent. The second one might as well be a neon sign. It makes it seem like the writer is trying too hard and sounds amateurish.

2.      Hissed
“But”, you might say, “My villain just has to hiss!  It’s a villainy thing to do!”
J.K. Rowling could get away with it.  Lord Voldemort happens to be sort of a snake-like creature himself.  However, villains by and large are not.  Unless your ‘hissing’ character is half snake or uses almost exclusively “S” words, hissing is perhaps not the best word to use.  If you just can’t live without it, it would be best to use only sparingly.

3.      Laughed (and synonyms like “chuckled”, “chortled”, “snickered”, etc)
Laughing is a great thing to do in a story.  Once again, I would ask you to try it: laugh and speak at the same time.  You might speak in between bouts of laughter, but you can’t really “laugh” something.  Consider the following instead:
“You look absolutely ridiculous,” laughed Alex
“You look absolutely ridiculous,” said Alex with a laugh.
Alex laughed. “You look absolutely ridiculous.”
4.      Beamed/Smiled or other things that are facial expressions:

Once again, this is not a way to speak.  It’s a facial expression.  Unless your character is a flashlight or some other type of light-emitting robot, I would stay away from ‘beamed’.  A smile is silent, and thus it doesn’t make sense to equate it with speech.  Consider this:
“This is the happiest day of my life!” smiled Fred.
“This is the happiest day of my life!” said Fred, smiling. 
“This is the happiest day of my life!” said Fred with a grin. 
I’m not trying to step on anyone’s toes, but I’m observing things like this in published works and it is becoming a distraction.  Nor am I immune to this problem in my own writing.  It is something I’m trying to work on so that the dialogue can speak for itself, and the tags will not muddle the waters or remind the reader that they are reading a novel and not just having an experience.
What do you think?  Please weigh in, and point out any types of offenders I might have missed. 

Critique Circle: A good place for review

One of the most important aspects of writing is getting enough varied viewpoints on your writing.  It is nice to have your family and friends read your work, but there is always some doubt as to whether such people can be completely objective when they know you so well.

The internet is a wonderful tool to solve this problem, and my personal favorite recently has been Critique Circle.  It is a simple interface that requires users to create an account and only allows them to get their work critiqued as they offer critques to others.  (You get a certain number of credits each time you critique a story and then each story you want critiqued costs a certain number of credits.) 

Writers can put up short stories, children’s stories, chapters from novels, or just about anything else you would like to have critiqued.  Some readers can be brutally honest, though most try to be constructive.  I have gained invaluable insight into my short stories, which have helped me improve them.

 Click here to check out the site.

The site is completely free to use and has some upgraded features for a small fee.  I have gotten all of my use out of the site without having to pay anything. 

Approaching the Finish Line

I have also been asked what I had to do from the time it was accepted until it was released.

A lot of email and phone time.

I worked with the getting things ready for registering with the Library of Congress. I signed off on the cover. I gave suggestions of what could be edited out to make the book a little shorter. I read through the entire thing to make sure everything still made sense. I wrote a dedication for the front and a bio from the back. I had my picture taken for the “About the Author” section.

In addition, I started getting the word out about my book. As part of my contract, Cedar Fort gave me 10 free copies as well as a number of ARCs (Advance Reading Copies), which are a lower resolution copy of the book, with a black and white alternate cover. I sent these out to people who blog or write about fiction in hopes that they generate some positive reviews for the story.

It has been a wonderful time of waiting and anticipation.

Done Deal!

It was one of the best emails that I had ever received. It was a day in late July and I was home by myself at our apartment in Orem. I have a special folder in my email inbox that catches anything sent to me by Cedar Fort. I had worked for a number of months on polishing the manuscript based on the suggestions I was given by the reviewer, and had submitted it again for their approval at the beginning of the summer.

They had just let me know that it had to go through one more reviewer and then they would get back to me on a final decision. I must have checked my email ten times a day. So, when I saw this one, I had a feeling this was it, good or bad—a process which had already taken several years.

I opened the email, saw the words “I have good news…we want to publish Inside the Box.” (Which was the working title at the time.), and nearly fell off my chair. I reached for my phone and called just about everyone I could think of, who knew I had been writing a book. Everyone from my wife to my parents, siblings and friends who have been so supportive during this process.

I was working a graveyard shift at the time and needed to go to bed before my shift, but I found it very difficult to sleep just then. Leave a comment this week for a chance to win a free signed copy.

Write Right, Right Away

I am sometimes asked what the revision process is like. “Painful, but useful.” It is hard to get away from the feeling that “Hey! Don’t touch that! I wrote it the way I wanted to the first time!” However, chances are, even your most brilliant prose is going to have some errors, or an ever better way you could say something at second glance.

There are different types of revisers, but I prefer the method of getting the whole first draft back on paper and then going back over the whole thing a bit at a time. I look for typos, awkward sentences (prune those adjectives and adverbs! They are a bit like salt: only good in measured amounts) and holes in the logic or plot. I have found that is sometimes good to keep a “character bible” to keep track of what traits you have assigned each person. If you give your protagonist blue eyes on page 2 and on page 12 he has brown eyes, your readers might raise an eyebrow.

By far, the most helpful thing I found, is to enlist the help of others. Let them read it over, and tell you where the weak spots are. Have the write down questions or things that did not make sense. The problem with reading your own manuscript, is that you know how everything is supposed to be, and it all makes sense in your head, so you are liable to glance over problems.

With “The Canticle Kingdom”, I was told that they needed to trim down the word count a bit to make it the right size for what the price they wanted to sell it at. I struggled with what to cut, and in the end took the leap of faith just to let Meg Welton, the editor, use her discretion. To my great relief, she did a wonderful job of trimming a few parts while leaving the core story intact. It can be done. It is hard to let your work fall under someone else’s sheers, but in the end it is worth it.

I would love to hear from the rest of you. How do you revise? What tips can you give that have worked for you? Leave a comment this week for a chance to win a free signed copy.

Wanted: Publisher

I’m also occasionally asked about the submission process. “How did you find someone to publish your book?”

I have to admit that I was pretty intimidated when the prospect first presented itself. I had heard from others and read what others had written about it, and it seemed like you needed to deliver your book with some fireworks or something just to get noticed.

I had also heard the stories about how rejection notices pile up on author’s desks. In submitting my short story work, I’ve found this to be very true. With the “The Canticle Kingdom”, however, I feel very blessed that it was accepted by the first publisher that I presented it to. This did not happen, however, because I used a special kind of scented neon paper (which, by the way, would probably get your submission thrown out), but that I was fortunate to meet a representative of Cedar Fort at BYU’s annual publisher’s fair. I really think that face to face contact helped me get remembered instead of getting lost in a mountain of email or mail submissions.

I’ll have to say as well, that the first answer was a “Yes, but…” They gave me a few things to polish up, which took considerable time. That sort of answer was good enough for me.

You cannot always attend a publisher’s conference, and even if you do, that is still no guarantee. In the meantime, just keep at it. Do you homework about the company and see what else they have published. Write a tight, interesting query letter, and let others critique it. I feel very blessed that I found a match relatively quickly for this book, and I know if you persevere, you can also find that match.

Let me hear from you and you’ll receive another shot at a free signed copy. Thank you for reading!

Slow and Steady – Just Write Already!

I’m also often asked, “How long did it take you to write?”

Well, that depends on which parts of the process you want to include in that. For the first draft, I would have to say “15 minutes at a time over the course of a year.” While I was writing the first draft, I was working full-time and going to school at Brigham Young University full-time, as well as being newly-married. Thus, I did not have time to sit down for hours at a time and pound away at my keyboard. Instead, I wrote in little snatches here and there, and did my thinking and formulating in the little in-between times, such as when I was walking to class or doing something menial like making dinner.

Each day did not seem like much, but over time those little bits really added up, like grains of sand piling up to create a huge mound of sand.
It felt nice to have that first draft, but it was far from the book that it ended up as. The revision took me about another year in all, and so I guess the most accurate answer to the question is “About two years.”

To anyone aspiring to write, I would say this: Writing does not have to take hours of your time every day. Even if you only have 10 – 15 min to devote, this small contributions given consistently can still add up to something you might be happy to call a finished manuscript.

How have you found ways to write even though you are busy? Let me hear from you and you’ll receive another shot at a free signed copy. Thank you for reading!

Countdown Day One: On Target Ideas

When I tell people that I am a writer, or they see something that I have written, a common follow up questions is “Where do you get your ideas?”

I’ve seen other authors struggle with this question and many of them share a similar answer to mine: I’m not really sure. To me, they are like little gifts that present themselves in the strangest places. I’ve heard J.K. Rowling got her idea for Harry Potter when she was sitting on a train or something like that. I don’t think authors generally sit down in their thinking chairs, don their thinking caps and then floor the gas pedals on their brains. For me, most often ideas are triggered my small, common place events that light a little fire in my brain.

For example, for a few months, I rode public transportation, train and light rail, to commute to work. I would often get sparks of ideas from watching the other passengers and wondering about their lives and personalities. I once saw a mother with a blind son who both walked around with long white canes tapping on the street. They looked so happy together and that got the gears turning and eventually resulted in a poem.

Another day, a strange looking man on a train became the inspiration for a short story that I recently published in a short story magazine. (You can read “Subway Survey” until April at

For “The Canticle Kingdom”, the idea came suddenly while I was working on the sales floor at Super Target in Orem, UT. I was just straightening shelves and letting my mind wander. I might have working in toys or something similar, but whatever it was, the idea of people living in a music box who needed people from the outside world just popped into my head. I can’t really explain it, but if this sort of thing happens to you, my only advice is just to act on it. Write it down and save it for later. I keep a rather long list of ideas I would like to develop some day. They may only be raw material now, but I know that if I had not preserved them, I might be missing out on something that has great potential.

To sum it up, ideas are not something that can be forced. You usually find them when you are not looking for them, and when you do stumble on one, be sure to preserve it.

What are your thoughts? How do you get your ideas? Be sure to become a follower and leave a comment for a chance to win a free signed copy of “The Canticle Kingdom” on the release date.

Countdown to Release

It has been great to see people’s response when they tell them that my book is coming out. The most common response has been, “I had no idea you were a writer.” Well, in their defense, it was something that I’ve been quietly doing since about high school and I was not sure if was ever going to be more than a great hobby.

I have been asked many more questions, and to countdown the final week to my book release, I am going to answer one common question I’ve been asked each day starting Monday. I am going to attempt to highlight the entire process of writing the book, from coming up with the concept to seeing it on the shelf. I’ve been finding out that many of my friends and family also have writing aspirations, and I hope that it might be interesting or helpful in some way.

In addition, I would like to reward those who tune in this week. I’m going to give away a free signed copy of my book to one of the followers of my blog. Each day that you view the blog and leave a thoughtful comment, you will recieve another entry into the drawing. I will draw the winner on the release date.

Feel free to drop me a line with any other questions you have. Thanks for supporting my book!