Category Archives: Writing Tips

“She said,” said he

I forget her name.

She was a college classmate returning from an internship where she learned “hands-on” media relations at a real PR shop, some place in Wisconsin where the news never stopped and jaded journalists had to be “worked.” Oshkosh. Or maybe Ashwaubenon.

She was back from the city, back in the student newsroom and ready to share everything she learned from people with an eye for good writing. Not stuff we’d heard from professors, God no, but from the people who cut their teeth every day on the bones of news-hungry journalists. The real-world public relations team plus one, the star intern.

She tossed her hair and delivered the first lesson: We students need to learn about the word said, as in its placement.

She critiqued reporting from The Pioneer Press. “Really, people,” she snorted, “quotes need to end the same way. It’s Director John Smith said, not said Director John Smith! Really, people, you should hear how we laughed at that kind of thing in the office.”

We. She counted herself among a professional we. And she tossed her hair again, which she probably learned from her hands-on PR experience because our professors did not teach hair tossing.

I was a pure journalism student, and the purists considered public relations the Dark Side of the Force. And I would never go to the Dark Side, even if reporters didn’t place said correctly, even if Darth Vader was my father or a cousin twice removed.

A year later, I got a hands-on job at a hands-on newspaper, tossed into that group of people who sometimes misplaced the word said. I wondered if the hair-tossers at the PR office laughed at us my co-workers.

Soon, perhaps my first day, I discovered the difference between PR gurus and PR hair tossers. How? Because we got hair-tosser press releases, with appropriately placed saids, once or twice or thirty times a day:

Dear Food Science Reporter,

How sweet is this news?! Chemical Food Solutions Inc.™ is unveiling a tasty new chocolate additive for the nation’s chocoholics! Thanks to Chemical Food Solutions Inc.,™ your readers will drink up  the drinkable form of our better-than-chocolate chocolate while they read you’re (sic) newspaper. After all, chocolate is a favorite food group!

“The additive has real potential to tickle tastebuds across the country,” Chemical Food Solutions Inc.’s Interim Associate Director of External Marketing and Communications John Smith said.

And that was followed by a couple pages of blah blah blah.

Here’s what would really happen when a press release like that arrived: The Food Science Reporter aka obit writer would pass it around the newsroom so everyone could share a nice morning laugh.

But let’s pretend. Let’s say the hair-tosser kind of press release actually got ink in my newspaper. (It couldn’t actually get ink in my newspaper, but try really, really hard to pretend.)

So, grumpy, hung-over Frank “Frankie-Prankie” “Frankfarter” “Frankenstink” Jones gets the release on his desk and uses it to wipe up a coffee spill.

Meanwhile, the news editor zigzags through the newsroom pleading for copy. “We’ve got a Texas-sized news hole, and what do I have for tomorrow? Jed’s story on corn prices being the same as yesterday. Eric’s column on the color of the new stage curtain at the high school. And a feature piece already headlined: ‘Gingerbread: When Does it Expire?’ Hmm. Nobody seems to be claiming a byline for that.”

Crime guy Robb says, “I got nothin’. Nobody is robbing nothin’ these days.”

Frank waves the press release. “If you promote me to Food Services Reporter, I can get you 20 inches on a new chocolate additive.”

“Absolutely,” the news editor says. “You’ll still be whatever it says on your business card, and you’ll probably take a pay cut, but definitely cough up 25 inches on that chocolate story, plus three photos. By the way, Shelley called in sick so you’ll also be covering tonight’s special assessment hearing for the city’s inflow and infiltration task force.”

Poor Frankfarter.

He didn’t have a PR internship, but he did get a journalism degree. In this forced exercise, here’s two options he would have considered for that quote.

1. “The additive has real potential to tickle tastebuds across the country,” a spokesperson said in a prepared statement.

OR

2. Chemical Food Solutions, Inc., released a statement touting its new product. “The additive has real potential to tickle tastebuds across the country,” said John Smith, a spokesperson for the company.

That’s an A+, Frankie Prankie

So why the long story today? Because last night I had a dream about the hair-tosser. I remembered (or made up) every detail. Her hair, her big teeth and big ego, and the way she laughed at the Pioneer Press from our tiny student newsroom.

This rambling post should make a point that there are no absolutes in writing, I say.

And it should be much, much shorter, say I.

But mostly, it’s driving me crazy that I can’t remember her name.

A writing family, part two

The best part of being in a writing group: celebrating publication.

The best part of being in a writing group: celebrating publication.

In yesterday’s post, members of my writing group responded to my question: What do they get from being part of a critique group? Three answers ran yesterday, and three more follow.

Amy Kortuem. Amy’s a singer and harpist who writes her own material. You can find her CDs and performance schedule at her web site. She writes professionally and recently decided to bring her own writing into the world. Look for her to publish soon. Also, Amy has the world’s best biceps from carrying her massive harp to gigs. Who needs weights?

I think what I love most is the companionship of people who are doing what I’m doing. I don’t have any harp friends, and have done everything in the space of my own head and heart. But in writing, I NEED companionship. I need to talk through ideas before I write. I need to read what others are writing and see that in all stages of drafting so I don’t put all that stupid pressure on myself to hang out with one paragraph for two weeks until it’s “good enough” before moving on. With writing, it’s hard to let anyone read something until I’m in a place where I think it hangs together. Maybe once I get used to the welcoming atmosphere and the genuine support of this group, I’ll be able to share more.

Rachael Hanel is the author of the memoir We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and an essayist. We worked together for six years at a newspaper. That’s where I discovered we shared so much – and so little – in common. Rachael loves winter, enjoys cemeteries, and is devoted to working out. Me? Not so much.

  • I need sets of eyes on my new work. You absolutely need to bounce work off others.
  • Sharing resources: magazine articles, books on writing, notes from workshops and conferences, tips we’ve learned, etc.
  • A group in which to brainstorm ideas.

Judith Angelique “Angie” Johnson is a published poet who also writes essays and fiction. Alas, we’ve been unable to bring Angie into the technical world, so there’s no web site or Facebook page. Angie looks sweet and fragile, but don’t let that fool you. She once hopped in her minivan and chased down a man who’d stolen a bike from her driveway. She raced down the street, yelling “drop the bike, mother****** or I’ll run you over.” And the guy, wisely, dropped the bike.

The group gives me confidence. I like criticism to see where I can improve as a writer and a thinker. The group keeps me balanced: to love the sound of words, but to love – even more – their meanings. Story first. Providing criticism for others has also made me a stronger writer. It forces me to think about audience, purpose, stance and so on, in order to provide feedback that is helpful for others, rather than feedback on how “Angie would do it.” I also know my writing can fall flat on its face and I won’t be judged. Our group is a safe place to fail, and fail hard, and then stand and tighten the belt again.

So there you have it. Six members; six viewpoints.

Tomorrow: what your writing group should not be.

A writing family

Publishing is an untamed beast. Your writing group members are the fence and the people who'd tell you this caption is over the top.

Publishing is an untamed beast. Your writing group is the fence, and the people who’d tell you this caption is over the top.

Writers need editors before they get an editor. They need to huddle with people who understand, people who will never say, why don’t you find a new hobby, something not so frustrating?

That’s your writing group. The members are your pre-agent, pre-editor, pre-reader, pre-reviewer, as well as support system and safety net.

My group has been meeting for nearly 11 years. People have come and gone, people have bowed out temporarily, but if you go to Mankato’s Wine Cafe every other Wednesday, you’ll find us in the back room with laptops and stacks of paper. We know all the regulars. Hell, we are the regulars.

I asked members to explain what they get from being in a critique group. So here we go:

Becky Fjelland Davis. Author of Jake Riley: Irreparably Damaged and Chasing AllieCat. She’s currently shopping a middle-grade novel. She’s a champion cyclist and has the biggest dog I’ve ever seen.

After enough rejections through the years, I find I want other eyes on my work before I send it out. Unless it’s an editor who is buying the manuscript, it’s hard to trust another reader; when you find a group of readers you trust, you want it to stick. Forever.

Kirstin Cronn-Mills. Author of The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind (a Minnesota Book Award nominee) and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. She’s currently finishing a nonfiction book about transgender issues and working on a new novel. She often writes on her deck, the perfect writing den. I have deck envy.

  1. Having someone else’s eyes on your work. It’s good for keeping your zipper zipped. : )
  2. Sharing creative ideas & brainstorming together.
  3. Trusting someone to tell you what works & what doesn’t (makes it easier to kill darlings, for instance).
  4. Not feeling so alone when writing is shit and you want to quit. And I can tell you, I would have quit long ago without the group.

Kristin Not-sure-if-she-wants-her-full-name-used. She’s written under a pseudonym and has enough fascinating publishing stories she could write a best seller about publishing. Did I mention her husband makes the best caramel rolls I’ve ever eaten? I ate three at one sitting, so I say this with authority.

I would agree with what everyone’s said. Mostly, you all keep me from quitting. In fact, you encourage me to keep writing. I think I would have given up years ago.

Awww, don’t you feel a little teary? Because I do.

In the interest of shorter posts, I’ll share three others tomorrow.

Making Shelley a creative girl

A snowy day at Mankato's Wine Cafe, the perfect place to discuss writing.

A snowy day at Mankato‘s Wine Cafe, the perfect place to discuss writing.

I’m keeping notes on my various writing funks.

When a funk hits, it’s usually tied to isolation. Day after day of writing in a house with silence, with nobody to talk to, makes me go a little Stephen King. All work and no play makes Shelley a dull girl. Except I resist the part where Jack Nicholson hacks up his family and talks to ghosts.

Although talking to ghosts sounds fantastic. Company! They could tell me stories about the old days, and I could get them up to speed on Breaking Bad. We could share a bottle of wine. Talk books. Swap recipes. Discuss politics throughout history.

Or I could visit Mankato and rejoin my writing group, which sounds healthier and not as likely to prompt a psych ward visit. I know these writers can drink wine. Lots of wine. Ghosts? I’m not so sure.

The four-hour round trip was worth every mile.

Before the group met, I worked in the Blue Earth County Library. A creative explosion happened on that little table. My fingers have never hit the keyboard so fast. The energy and excitement of being “home” helped pull me into my novel.

Then I went to the Wine Café, a funky place that should be on your Mankato tourism list. On a notebook – and without any wine – I outlined the entire plot of a book that’s defied my wish to write itself.

Group members arrived and helped me solve problems with setting and a device. We critiqued another piece, too, an essay, which worked the adult part of my brain. For nearly an hour, I wasn’t thinking about the minds of kids. No butt jokes or little-girl social crises or bugs brought home in jars–all of which are my personal and professional life.

Then we talked about our projects, chatted about personal stuff, and laughed adult-style.

That’s one reason to be part of a writing group. Look for more reasons tomorrow.

Leonard the Invisible

Crime writer Elmore Leonard died a two days ago. A radio journalist said Leonard’s novel output averaged one book every 18 months. Incredible.

Elmore Leonard died Aug. 20, 2013.

Elmore Leonard died Aug. 20, 2013.

In honor of Leonard, a member of my writing group came to last night’s meeting with copies of Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules for Writing. His goal as a writer was to remain invisible, to let the reader enjoy the story without sensing the writer is trapped in the book.

I won’t share them all, but here are a few nuggets and my comments.

Never open a book with weather. There’s a reason writers and readers laugh at the line, It was a dark and stormy night. They laugh because it’s awful.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. He cried. She muttered. He blasted. She raged. Those types of dialogue tags insert the writer into the character. No reader wants the writer interfering with the novel she’s enjoying.

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip … If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. His quote: I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.

Farewell to Elmore Leonard, the invisible writer.

Watch Breaking Bad, skip the MFA

If you haven’t been waiting for the return of Breaking Bad, something’s terribly wrong with your television. Time to shake up your TV schedule and drop a sitcom or two. After seven years of watching, do we even care anymore how that guy Ted met his kids’ mother? I think those kids don’t even have a mother. Ted’s been stringing them along because he doesn’t know how to break the news.

Break it bad, Ted, like our man Walter “Heisenberg” White, arguably one of the greatest studies in character development.

Arguably. Two episodes into season five, I’d like to offer a counterpoint: Dean Norris‘ character Hank. Yes, Walt will be studied as the gold standard in character development, but the label is influenced by his central role in the show. The protagonist has the advantage of screen time.

Walt and Hank. Friends, family, enemies.

Walt and Hank. Friends, family, enemies.

After Hank discovered Walt’s his suspect, I reconsidered my perspective on skillful character development. The writing gold on the show is the evolution and complexity of Hank.

He’s a good ol’ boy, smacking butts and cracking jokes about Hispanics to the Hispanics in his office. Minutes later, he struts into the elevator and when the doors shut, he has a panic attack.

Hank is not your average meathead.

Jesse is the show’s emotional core and, I once thought, its moral core as well. Wrong. Hank the Redneck is the moral center. Hank is the genuine deal, devoted to family, America, safe streets, God. He’s a brilliant strategist covered with macho and a few spots of Keystone Cops. He’s cocky and brave, but he can be – and is – shaken to his core. Just replay those episodes with the drug dealer’s head on the turtle.

It’s the writers’ job to lay groundwork for revealing character and prodding the evolution. But the actors have to make it believable. Norris can communicate a pool of conflicting emotions with a squint. (Don’t go crazy, Walt fans, Cranston is a master. No arguments.)

Breaking Bad writers initially teased the audience with Hank as the bumbling cop and then slowly added layer after layer. His transition rivals Walt.

In this last season, after closing the meth case, Hank discovered Walt is the real meth king. Hank could ride on the case’s closure. His superiors believe the culprit was found, and Hank got his promotion. Pursuing Walt will only tear his family apart – including the niece and nephew he loves so much.  And it’ll end his career.

The writers give Hank this incredible dialogue, “Look, the day I go in with this,” he says to his wife, “it’s the last day of my career. I’m going to have to walk in there, look those people in the eye and admit that the person I’ve been chasing the last year is my own brother-in-law. It’s over for me. Ten seconds after I tell this story, I’m a civilian.”

Of course Hank’s going after Walt. Moral center, right?

Hank’s become the antagonist-hero. Walt’s become the protagonist-villan. And the writer-fan has always been the student.

Someday, I hope to write character, dialogue, setting – hell, any story that breaks bad like this one.