On Writing


Places, Titles, and Names–oh my!

When you are writing, it is necessary to make connections throughout the work.  A place may have a specific name to show some kind of significance. Maybe the killer in your work lives on Killington Avenue.  Okay, so the connection doesn’t have to be that blatant, but you get the idea.

The importance of the title is self explanatory.  You’ve learned since grade school that a title gives the reader a hint about the work.  You may not get an exact understanding of the work before even reading the first page, but you are able to make a prediction.  At some point in the book, you’ll have an “aha moment,” and you’ll either know that your initial prediction was right, or you’ll realize the true meaning behind the title.  Either way, the title carries meaning.  It ties in to the content.

The characters names should be important to the content.  A character named Faith may be questioning the existence of a superior being.  I have used the name Anna in past works because my character’s plight reminds me of the desperate strength of the character, Anna Karenina, thus making a connection to other literature.

It may be that you decide a character’s name for personal reasons.  Maybe you want to give the child in your book the same name as your favorite niece; maybe the character and your niece have similar personalities.  Whatever your thought process when creating the characters, it simply makes for a more meaningful work if there is significance in the names of the characters.

Take a look at the title of this post.  Do you see a connection?  Need a hint?  Lions, Tigers, and Bears–oh my!  Make sense now?  Let’s expand on this.  I went beyond choosing this title because the three words–places, title, and names–fit so perfectly with the rhythm of lions, tigers, and bears.  I looked at the beginning letters of the animal names and ordered the words in my title according to those beginning letters–the two “t” words are in the middle–“title” and “tigers.”  The first words “places” and “lions” both come later in the alphabet than the words “names” and “bears,” however, they are written first in the title.

It is subtleties like these that give the reader additional pleasure because there’s meat around the bone structure of the work.  It makes for lively conversation around the book club table.  Literary analysis is endless as long as writers make the effort of adding as much meaning to their work as possible.  Chew on this concept and see what you think the next time you’re grilling up a juicy steak of a storyline.



Writing A Query Letter

Writing a query letter is similar to taking that bread recipe from your grandmother’s ancient green metal recipe box and modifying it to meet your needs.  The recipe may need more flour than is called for because she measured out of her head and just put down an approximate number when transferring the ingredients to paper.  You may need to omit the vegetable oil and replace it with olive oil.  It may need more salt as a result of adding flour, and it may be that you’re a health nut and prefer Splenda over sugar and  a little wheat flour as a substitute for part of the white flour.

Just like the bread recipe, query letters need to be focused on the expectations of the agent to whom you are writing.  A good way to figure out an agent’s requirements is to research the agent before writing the letter.

I love using the Agent Query site.  It is easy to use and it is loaded with information about each agent.  It gives a full profile meaning, so I can find out the genre(s) the agent desires, whether or not he or she accepts email queries, agent web addresses, if the agent is a member of AAR, and so on.  By the way, if an agent is a member of AAR–Association of Author Representatives–this is good.  It helps protect the writer, but this is a topic for another day.

If you find that the agent has a site, go to it.  Research, research, research.  Find out if this agent meets your needs.  Is he or she looking for what you have to offer?  Also, learn what the agent expects in a query letter.  All he or she may desire is a short letter via snail mail.  Others may want an email query and the first ten pages of the manuscript.  The agent may specify that the email will be deleted unless all information is sent within the text of the email–in other words, no attachments.  A mistake as simple as an unwanted attachment could cost you representation by that agent.

Several sample query letters can be found on the internet, but I encourage you to do your homework before you send out a letter.  Be sure of the guidelines the agent wants you to follow.  It’s like that bread recipe–you don’t want to feed Nanny’s bread to your favorite uncle who always complained about it at family reunions.  You want to modify that recipe so it’s just right for the person you wish to impress.



Developing Character

If you’ve watched the movie, A Knight’s Tale, and if you are a writer, then I’m sure you remember the best part of the movie when the character who plays Chaucer is telling the men who’ve stripped and beaten him over a gambling debt, that one day he will write them down in history and eviscerate them.  I have used this writing technique myself and it is quite satisfying.  The nice part of this is you can hide behind fiction while getting a silent chuckle at the fact that you’ve just used your arch nemesis as inspiration.  You’ve written them down in history to let the world know that such a bitch or dickhead exists–depending on the gender.

Something else you can do is give your character a quirk.  I read this in a book entitled, Writing Incredibly Short Plays Poems Stories.  It was published in 1973, the year I was born, and yes, I know it sounds like eons ago, but this little tip makes sense.  It says in the book that you should give your character a habit or quirk all his own.  I think this is an excellent idea.  While it makes him unique to the other characters in your work, it helps readers relate to him.  For example, if you give a character the habit of blinking frequently when he or she is nervous, it is inevitable that the reader either knows someone with this exact habit, or maybe, when anxious, the reader is an eye blinker himself. The more real you make your characters the more the reader will be able to connect to your work.

Maybe, on a brilliant spring day such as this very Saturday, you are writing that the father of three teenagers is dismantling the swing set that has long since been forgotten.  Be sure to write in the emotion–the sadness in the pit of the mother’s heart as she remembers pushing her little one’s on the swing.  Write about the bittersweet feeling of the teenagers as they remember the late summer evenings when they ignored Mom or Dad calling for dinner.  Instead of running to the table, they continued pumping their tiny legs for five more minutes trying to swing themselves into the clouds.  And don’t forget to write about Dad who is whistling to himself as he dismantles the very object that has been tormenting him all these years.  Dad is thrilled that finally, he will no longer have to mow and weedeat around this contraption.

By developing your characters, you are giving them unique personalities balanced with sincere emotions.  You create for your work true to life people unique to the other characters and believable to the reader.



Write What You Know

If any of you out there know anything about Anne of Green Gables, then you understand what I mean when I say, write what you know. Gilbert Blythe tells Anne that she doesn’t need to write “high fallutin” material to be successful.  He tells her to write what she knows, and then she storms off in a rage over the fact that he is honest.  It is when she takes this advice that she becomes a successful author–or authoress as they say in the movie.

Gil’s advice proves favorable for Anne, so I’ve adopted his words of wisdom into my own life.  This doesn’t mean I never have to research a topic, but I’m sure as hell not going to write about a city in Peru since I’ve never stepped foot in Peru.  I don’t know the culture, the dialect–who am I kidding, I’d have trouble determining where exactly it is.  Yes, I could do extensive research and learn everything there is to know about the place, but would I really want to make it the main setting in a novel if I’ve never even visited?  I could be completely wrong about this, but for right now, I’m sticking with what I know in my heart to be true and that is anything and everything that I have encountered in my life.

I don’t have to write a book based detail for detail on my life in order to follow the “write what you know” rule.  I’ll admit, I have written that book–you know, the one where you dig all the skeletons out of the closet.  I call it fiction, though, because who can remember every word of every conversation that has occurred in their life, not to mention the fact that it’s much more fun taking a few events and creating an even juicier story line than what actually happened.

Three years ago, I wrote a manuscript entitled CD and the SFS: The Secret Feline Society–a book about a group of cats that brings down a major drug ring.  The main conflict is serious: middle school children using drugs, but the cats and their antics create a humorous aspect that allows such a subject to be explored in-depth.  Through a ton of twists and turns the cats come face to face in a final show down with the antagonist, Money.

Why tell you this when I’m talking about writing what you know?  Because it’s not as if I’ve ever witnessed a group of cats plotting with the police to arrest drug dealers.  I have, however, witnessed the personalities of my own cats as well as cats I’ve owned throughout my life.  I’ve also watched other cats in the neighborhood.  When reading part of this book to some students, one said, “Hey, I’ve seen a cat in our neighborhood where the owner walks it on a leash.”  The student and I live in the same neighborhood.  I beamed with pride that she was able to make a connection between her life and my work.  I explained that the very cat to which she was referring is, in fact, the cat I used as the inspiration for my fictional feline.  While the real life cat is a male named Sam, my fictional cat is a beautiful female Siamese named Queenie.  I took what I knew, what I saw on my daily walks, and I stored that information until I had a use for it.

Every detail of every day life is important to store in your mind for a time you will be able to use it.  Sitting in the chiropractor’s office waiting for your name to be called, you may look at the hands of the elderly lady next to you.  Notice the freckle on the ring finger of her left hand, the thin gold band that fits perfectly in the groove of flesh just above the pointed knuckle.  The gold band is dulled by years of wear.  Then look at her eyes and commit to memory the water that she can’t seem to clear from them no matter how many times she blinks.  Witness the sadness that softens the blue you know in your heart was once the color of sapphire.  When she smiles at you, smile back, all the while tracing in your mind the wrinkles that begin at the corners of her eyes and deepen as they travel down her face and into her once plump cheeks.  Know that she is smiling at you with all of the happiness she’s conjured in her life.  The deep grooves are a sign of the joy of her past.  When your name is called, silently thank her for sitting next to you on this day because she may be just the character you need to write into that book that’s going to be a best seller.



Be Happy With Your Work–advice and audience

When it comes to writing, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to be happy with my work.  If I am not satisfied with what I am writing, then no one else will be satisfied with it.  This doesn’t mean that you should ignore good advice, and it certainly doesn’t mean to write whatever you want without considering your audience.  It is important to get feedback from others to determine if the material is readable.

If someone gives advice and you don’t feel in your heart that the advice will make your work better, then don’t take it.  If, however, the advice makes sense, revise the work.  You’ll thank the person later for being honest about his or her opinion.

If it turns out that a particular piece is not well received, don’t lose heart.  If you love it, then it was worth writing and definitely worth keeping.  Either you haven’t found the right audience, or it is one for you to cherish–a treasure for just you, and there is nothing wrong with that.

As for audience, I wouldn’t write a poem about a funeral if I’m supposed to be writing for a couple about to be married.  Audience is important, but you still have to love what you are writing.  This is part of the passion–without it the material will be flat and lifeless.  Then no one will want to read it for sure.

If you don’t love your work, if you throw caution to the wind and fail to consider who will be reading the work, your labor will be full of effort and those who read it may be less than impressed.  Imagine giving a poem to your best friend on her wedding day.  You’ve had it framed and wrapped.  She smiles and even gets a little teary eyed when she opens it, but she reads it silently rather than to the crowd gathered around her.  Three years later, when you’re helping her pack to move from her apartment to a townhouse she’ll share with her beloved, you find the poem in the back of the closet where she stores the toilet paper.

Do everyone a favor: Love your work, be accepting of good advice, and consider your audience.

Since I used a wedding poem as my example, I leave you with a poem I wrote for my sister-in-law and her husband when they got married.  Because they love hunting, camping, and fishing, I incorporated these ideas into the piece to create a poem unique to the couple.

Love Story

Boy courts girl
and wins a date
Their destiny sealed
by the hands of Fate.

This fragile Love grows
as seasons transform
One Man One Woman
A Unity born.

Leaves refashion
colors splash to the ground
as couple dances
to Nature’s sweet sound.

Love pure as snow
now strong as the hunter
on cold winter’s morn
filled with hunger.

Quenched with soft rains
their Love in Spring
Bound by Beauty
of fisherman’s stream.

Passion ignites under summer sky as
Souls transcend by dimming flame
of campfire reflecting
desire untamed.

Seasons surrender
The cycle repeats
Their story of Love
refuses to sleep.

The date is set
Vows exchanged~A kiss
On Summer’s Eve
Night of bliss.

A future together
A new beginning
Love Forever
Never Ending…

Steve and Bethany Moxley
June Twelfth Two Thousand Four

Written by Missi Magalis


Moving Forward

August 25, 2014

Sometimes, as difficult as it is, you have to be willing to move forward. I’m one who, when I learn something new, I want to go back to previous projects and apply my new skill. Believe it or not, this isn’t always the right decision. It can be time consuming and cost many hours that could be spent on  a new project. I understand making a quick fix, but any overhauling of a work should be carefully thought through before delving in.

Since the publication of How Do You Do, Mrs. Wiley? I’ve learned a ton about formatting. I wanted to reformat the book, shorten the length and, hopefully, be able to lower the price as a result. But, once I got into it, I remembered I formatted that book on a different computer and used a different Adobe program (I actually had to splice pdfs together for that project). When I converted Mrs. Wiley from a pdf to a word document to begin reformatting, I realized I was in over my head. It was a mess. My husband very kindly told me to move on and use my new skills on my next project. He is right. It would have taken a ton of time, not to mention the danger of losing chapters as a result of the way the book was pieced together on the other computer. So, as much as my perfectionist self would love to delve back into it, I am leaving it alone. Even the apostrophe error in y’all (why I didn’t see in the million edits that I had it written ya’ll is beyond me). It grates my nerves every time I find an error in my work, but I know I’d be devastated if I made a bigger mistake trying to fix a small one. Now that I have a new computer with the best Adobe program, fixing errors is much easier than it was before. (Unfortunately, it isn’t compatible with the Mrs. Wiley document. At least not as far as I know at this point.) Still, I’m blessed that I’ve learned so much and continue to learn as I practice the craft of writing.



Stephen King’s On Writing

December 30, 2013

I’m reading Stephen King’s On Writing. It is fabulous!  I’ve learned so much.  For starters, I’ve realized that I might be guilty of the overuse of adverbs in attribution tags sin.  My goal today is to determine if I’ve committed this adverb crime in my latest novel.  Editing begins today.  Wish me luck.



Formatting and Editing

Formatting and editing your own book project? Below you’ll find some great information that I’ve learned since over the course of publishing four novels.

* Make your indent for each paragraph .3 instead of .5. You’ll save a lot of space this way.

* Make sure the first paragraph of every section is NOT indented. Don’t believe me? Check any book. It’s standard practice for the first paragraph of any chapter of section to be left un-indented.

* Space only once after end punctuation. The two spaces at the end of a sentence rule no longer applies. That was necessary when we used typewriters. Now that we have computers the end of a sentence is clear without the extra space. Believe me, you will save a lot of pages if you only space once at the end of each sentence.

* Complete isolated finds when you are editing. Look at every ‘s or s’ or you’re to be sure you haven’t made any mistakes. I realize you probably know the rule, but that doesn’t mean we are perfect. Take it from someone who’s made the mistake–I edit my work what feels like a million times, but it is inevitable. I ALWAYS miss errors. Especially, with apostrophes. To complete and isolated find, click the find button on your tool bar and type in what it is you are searching for. It’s also good to do this for words that you worry about having spelled more than one way (ex. blond/blonde).

* Complete more than one spell/grammar check–do it until you are sick of it. And do not ignore all for any word. You never know–it might be written the way you want it in one place but not in another.

* Use the widow orphan box to keep lines together at the bottom and top of pages, but don’t just trust the program. Check the document yourself, over and over and over again.

* Make sure what’s at the bottom of a page and at the top of the next is what’s supposed to be there. Do this until you have memorized just about every line at the bottom and top of every page. Then, after you’ve sent the book off to be created, check the proof copy more than once to be sure it transferred correctly. Maybe I’m paranoid, but, folks, I’m telling you, I do all of this and I still don’t get it right 100% of the time.

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