Writing Tip: Mind Your A’s and The’s

Pay attention to what you mean to be saying when you use a or the to designate something. In general, a indicates one of many possibles while the is restrictive to one specific person, place, event, item, etc. For example, saying, “He picked up a book,” implies that there were several to choose from. One might even think it was a random act. If “He picked up the book,” the implications are quite different. It isn’t just any old book. So consider what you mean when you choose a car over the car, the blue velvet dress rather than a blue velvet dress.

Writing Tip: Keep The Story Accessible

Just because you know something doesn’t mean your reader knows it, too. This is often an issue if your story begins with dialogue. Suppose you open your story with the following exchange:

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“What do you think I’m doing? It’s not exactly a state secret.”

“Well let me tell you what you’re not going to do. You’re not going to lie to me any more.”

You may want to draw the reader in by starting with an intense argument, but the reader is completely in the dark. Who is talking? What is their relationship? Are they face to face? On the phone? We don’t know whether there are two or even three speakers, whether they are men, women, or at least one of each. The exchange would be interpreted very differently if the speakers are husband and wife as opposed to mother and daughter as opposed to co-workers, etc. You get the idea.

Give the reader enough information up-front to set the scene, to allow the reader to put the exchange in contest. Otherwise, the reader is likely to give your story a pass.

Writing Tip: Beware Name Dropping

At some point you will have two characters talking–or exchanging letters–and they will mention a third person–or even a bunch of people. And that’s when you must be careful. In your mind it might be perfectly reasonable that one character would say, “Paul gave me your letters when he came up to camp last week.” Because in your authorial omniscience, you know that Paul is a good friend of the speaker and that the person he is writing/talking to would know this. But if Paul is just a vehicle for delivering the letters, he might not have appeared before, and might not be mentioned again. In that case, the reader is likely to be distracted–wondering who Paul is and whether he is important to the story.

Bottom line: if you name a person, make sure the reader can put that person in context. E.g., in the example above, you might say, “You remember my friend Paul? He brought your letters…” Alternatively, work around the whole name thing by naming the relationship–as in, “My brother brought your letters…”

Story Starter: Cockatiel Lost

Strips of paper are left under windshield wipers: Lost, Cockatiel named Burgess. He sings “Jesus Loves Me” and the Marine Corps anthem. If found, call 237-7819.

Write the story. Focus on using all five senses.

Writing Tip: The Distancing Effect of I

Whenever the narrative Point of View is first person, the story is, by definition, about the narrator. In this case, as in any writing, your goal is to draw the reader in. Therefore, if you choose to use “I” as the narrator, you need to present a quest that many readers would care about. That is true even when writing memoir. And to that end, in all cases, use the “I” pronoun as sparingly as possible. The more you use “I” the more personal to the writer/speaker the narrative feels. When you do use “I” try not to begin most sentences with I, I, I. Change-up and vary.

Writing Tip: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Be selective–and restrained–in using exclamation points and italics. More than one of these every few pages probably means you are using these visual markers to shore up weak word choices. Journal editors, agents, and publishers will immediately tag you as an amateur.

You might, rarely, create a character for whom exclamation points or the verbal stresses represented by italics is part of her (or his) voice. Even in this case, take care not to overdo it. And be particularly stingy in using these markers elsewhere in the manuscript.

Announcement: Reading on April 22.

At 2:00 on Thursday, April 22, I am giving a reading at The Virginian, 300 Twinridge Ln, Richmond, VA. This event is free and open to the public. I will be reading selections from my short fiction, with commentary on writing. The event is scheduled for one hour, and I will be signing copies of Dark Harbor after.

Story Starter: Permanent Make-up

Two women decide to get permanent make-up–i.e., they will get their eyeliner and eyebrows tattooed on. One is 79, the other 65.

Write the story. It might revolve around their motivations. Possibly jealousy or competition develop. Maybe something goes horribly wrong. Or maybe something totally different. Think morality tale–or magical realism. Go!