Tag Archives: writing


Recycling doesn‘t have to be limited to aluminum, paper, and plastic. I recycle my prose.

Case in point – a while back I had this idea for an Ugly Duckling type fantasy story. It was going to be funny and meaningful… except that it turned out to be trite. So I shelved it, frustrated that the touching story in my head did not translate to something palatable for others when I put it on paper.

Then I had this really sick idea. Instead of a happy ending, what if I threw in this warped Twilight Zone style twist? I honestly didn’t think it would work – trying to combine sick and twisted with humor. So I ignored my instincts and left the story on the shelf.

Then a friend of mine asked me for a short story for his speculative fiction anthology. I dusted off my trite Ugly Duckling story and gave the new disturbing ending a shot. As it turned out, the storyline I doubted actually worked.

The great thing about writing is, nothing is ever a total failure. Even if the end product is a bust, there’s always a chance you can salvage part of it for another project. Use one of the characters in a different storyline, steal that lovely bit of description in another setting, or try a new, out-of-the-box ending and see what happens. The possibilities are endless. I once took a goofy story I wrote in third grade and made it into a funny sci-fi story.

Being ‘green’ with my words presents a fun challenge. Sometimes the end result is a great piece – and sometimes it’s just more fodder for my recycling bin.

Check out my short story, The Witch’s Cure!





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Readers’ perception

When a reader opens a book, in many cases he doesn’t see what the author envisioned when she wrote her story. He sees his own interpretation of the book through the lens of his personality. He filters the story through his own life experience. Sometimes the reader’s and writer’s versions are almost the same. Other times, they’re vastly different.

I recently had a review of my novel which really surprised me. It wasn’t a bad review, far from it. It was a nice review, but the reviewer mentioned a fact that made me open my mouth in astonishment. What? Have I written it so badly that she didn’t see the main point of the novel? Did she even read it before writing her review?

Some writers engage in disputes with readers over the unwanted reviews or fling accusations around. I think it’s a pointless practice. But I ask myself: what should I do so the readers see the book the way I see it? Is it even possible?

There is a well-known axiom among writers: you can’t please everyone. I’d take it one step further: you can’t deliver the same version of your book to everyone, even though the words and grammar are exactly the same. People are bound to see it differently, to read different revelations into it. Every man and woman, when they open a book, are on a quest for a mysterious artifact, but no one searches for the same object or the same emotion.

Some try to find absolution. Others strive to prove their own worth. Still others long for a spiritual guidance or just want an escape from life worries. And the more people manage to achieve their goals through my book, the better writer I am, no matter what they perceive in my writing. I wish all my readers luck in their search.

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I love the tinkering stage of writing. Once the entire story has been roughed out and I can go back in and add details, smooth out the rough spots. It’s enormously satisfying to enrich the story with description, catch inconsistencies, correct nits. However, somewhere in the process of perfecting my manuscript, I have a tendency to get a little manic.

I can’t believe I describe him getting up when I never had him sit down in the first place. How did I miss that? A ‘you’re’ that should be a ‘your?’ Ugh, what is wrong with me? What color were his eyes again? I know I’ve double checked this already, but I need to be sure. Again, I wish I had a binder with all of my characters’ descriptions and back stories all laid out, but by the time I did all of that I could write a whole new novel. Thank goodness for the ‘Find’ function. ‘Find: Theron’ skim, skim, skim – oh right, green eyes. I knew that. Did they have carriages in the Middle Ages? Does it matter? It’s a fantasy novel, in my world there are carriages. No, I’d better look that up.


I have literally found myself poring over a ten pound dictionary at midnight, trying to determine the origin of the word pants. Hmmm, not showing a Middle English or Latin origin so definitely too modern to use. Looks like it’s short for pantaloons. Pantaloons is an old fashioned word to be sure, but sounds kind of frufruish. What did Medieval people call pants?


It never ends. Thank goodness for deadlines or I might still be tinkering with book one.


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Genres help each other

Besides writing fiction, I also work as a journalist for a local newspaper and I write book reviews for most books I read. GoodReads has 250 of my reviews by now, and I noticed recently how much writing nonfiction improved my fiction.


Writing articles for an old-fashioned print newspaper teaches brevity and influences word choices. In a print newspaper, unlike an online blog, page space is at a premium, and word count is tight, like in a book. I have to squeeze everything I need to say into 800 words, so I learned to formulate my thoughts in the most concise way and to select only the most relevant, truly important points for inclusion in a story. I also learned to use very few adjectives in my writing—no room for flowery prose—and to select the most precise and expressive words to convey ideas. These skills do wonders in fiction.

Book reviews

When I critique a book, figuring out what I like and dislike in a story, I try to use my finds in my own fiction. It’s not as easy with quality, the books I like—these are often highly subjective—but flaws are easy to pinpoint in the other writers’ works. Each one I notice is a lesson to apply to my own writing. A few of the most common flaws—the most important lessons—I list below.

Deus ex machine – this is a No-No! in every textbook on writing, but many writers still use this literary device. It’s very tempting to drop their characters into an impossible situation and then introduce a powerful sorcerer who can wave his wand—and poof! Problems solved. Heroes saved. Or it could be a boss, or Zeus, or a genius rabbit coming to the rescue. Sergei Lukyanenko in his books Night Watch and Day Watch uses this approach. His hero doesn’t solve problems. To keep his conscience clean, he allows others to do it for him, to dirty their own conscience.
I never resort to this trick. My characters always solve their own problems. And if they can’t, then maybe I, a writer, should fix the situation they find themselves in, so they would have a solution available.

Info dumps – another technique frowned upon by all the writing teachers. Still, many writers do it in the beginning of their books. Mercedes Lackey is especially prone to info dumps in prologues. The readers should know the character backgrounds and the world description before they plunge into the story, right? Wrong! Everything the readers should know they could learn from the story later.
I try hard not to use this comfortable and attractive solution. As a reader, I’m bored by the info dumps. I don’t wish to bore my readers, so I start my stories with action.

Unsympathetic characters – this is a border case. I don’t usually finish books where I don’t like any of the characters, but some readers accept this writing quirk, even derive a contrary satisfaction from reading about doormats or villains. In the last decade, a wave of darkness swept the literature, and many writers consider a good protagonist almost a taboo. They add some artificial faults to their heroes, as if a drug user is automatically more interesting than an honest, hardworking non-smoker. I disagree. For me, it feels like a lazy way out for a writer, but liking and disliking has always been subjective. I try to write about characters that I myself sympathize with. I make my characters strong and able, standing firmly on the ‘side of light’. They still have complex problems to solve, so it’s largely a personal preference, but it’s a lesson all the same.

Too many details or unnecessary details – this flaw isn’t huge but it’s often irritating. Some writers don’t even consider it a flaw, they cram their novels with details, but for me as a reviewer, too many details make a book tedious. Every detail, if used, should tell something about the character or be relevant to the story or convey a mood. If it fails to perform any of these three functions, it’s extraneous. I read a book by Alex Bledsoe lately. In it, his hero goes peeing one morning. Who needs this detail? Why is it there? It doesn’t serve any purpose. In my own writing, I try to follow this maxim: no unnecessary details. Sometimes, I fail, but I make an effort.

What other fiction writing technique did you learn by working in another writing genre? Marketing? Technical writing? Communications?

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Being the mother of three boys, I have the pleasure of discussing super heroes and villains on a regular basis.  We all have our favorites, mine being Spiderman and Magneto.  A nerdy smart ass with spider powers and a magnetic villain who has a valid point about prejudice.  Good stuff.

What my children have a hard time understanding, though, is my distaste for Superman.  To start with, he’s an alien.  Hard to trust an alien after that ‘How to Serve Man’ episode of Twilight Zone.  Secondly, he’s a goody-two-shoes.  I like my heroes flawed, something to relate to, a little bad boy to muddy the waters a bit.  And last, but not least, he’s got super strength, x-ray vision, freezer breath, he can fly… he can even turn back time.

Bad guy lights some dynamite, no problem, Superman can just exhale on the fuse.  Something fishy going on in that warehouse?  No problem, Superman just takes a look with those x-ray peepers.  Missile aimed at the White House?  No problem, Superman flies up to meet it and uses his super muscles to punch it out of the atmosphere.  And if he happens to be running late, no problem, he can just fly around the world really fast and turn back time.  Bored yet?

To my kids, having lots of powers seems like a good thing, but if his only weakness is Kryptonite, wouldn’t every storyline have to revolve around the green rock?  I have no idea how they managed to write issue after issue of comic books for that guy.

I gave the characters in my fantasy novel one, maybe two magic powers, tops.  For one thing, my wee brain can only keep track of so much, so keeping it simple kept me sane.  For another, limiting their powers meant problems and conflict that could not be solved quickly and easily.  And isn’t that what makes for compelling reading? Conflict and problems?

She can only transform into the trees if she’s naked, it’s difficult for him to sort through the onslaught of thoughts that bombards him in public, and he needs lots of food and rest after becoming a hawk.  Problems galore.  Plenty of plot-filling fodder.

Even with all of my magical limitations, however, I sometimes find I have written myself into a corner. If he can fly, why is he sticking around to get caught? If he can read minds, wouldn’t he know that already? If she can manipulate his will, why not make him turn all his power over first thing?

With great power comes great difficulty in keeping the conflict going. But in the end, I find it easier to deal with the difficulties associated with magic powers than the difficulties associated with modern conveniences. Cell phones, the Internet, and endless modes of transportation make novels with contemporary settings as challenging to write as a new Superman storyline.  It can be done, but it takes a lot of creativity and is often a bit of a stretch.



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Writing vs. Running

By J.A. Garland
      You may not believe it, but writing is a lot like running. At least, it is for me. Some days I wake up with a smile on my face, put on my running clothes and am ready to go ‘get some!’ Other days I wake up, shove on my fuzzy slippers and can barely stagger to the coffee pot.
      Sure, I concede, writing isn’t exactly physical in nature, but like running, writing requires repetition for excellence. To get up those hills without breaking stride takes perseverance and dedication. Sitting down and writing chapter after chapter takes commitment and devotion. Like you, some days I fall happily into the productive writer mentality with clever words dripping off my fingertips. Other days I agonize over each. And. Every. Word.
      The important thing is: no matter how hard the struggle, either to get out the door and run, or to plant our booties in a chair and write, is that we don’t give up. We keep going over each and every speed bump. We continue to push up that hill, remembering there is a downhill ‘breather’ on the other side. We type with carefree abandon, letting the spirit of the characters and their worlds carry us. Knowing we can edit and polish later.
      Being a dedicated runner and writer for as long as I can remember, I’ll pass this on… You’d be amazed at how many times the BEST run and the BEST chapter came after the hardest time getting inspired or focusing. So, to all you writers out there keep on plugging away. To all you runners out there, keep moving. And to all you readers out there, thank you for giving us motivation!

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