Writing Tips From the “Funnies”

Writing advice is free all around us but there’s no place more fun to get it than the Comics. What a challenge comic strip writers have: tell a story, make it funny and often times also impactful, all in three to five frames. There’s a lot to learn but not just tight story structure.

Take the message in a recent cartoon called “Zits”by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman about sixteen year old teenager Jeremy. His mom asks how his day was and he says, “It started. It ended.” Mom of course wants more and asks for the missing ‘middle’. He tells that part is in ‘on a need’ to know basis.

It’s easy to know where a new novel is going to start, and even we Pansters usually have some general idea of how it will end, but the middle is the stuff that makes or breaks it.

Between “it began” and “it ended” what would Jeremy’s mom really want to know? How he walked to school, opened his locker got out his history book, math book and a beat up pad of paper and then dropped his one and only pen, chased it down the hall, and barely made it to home room where he had to listen to ten minutes of announcements including that chocolate milk will no longer be served in the cafeteria? Would she care to know that Mr Perkins wore a striped shirt again and Joe McGinnis called him a clown to his face and got detention or that the he got spearmint gum stuck on the bottom of his sneaker? No she would not.

The description of his day could be told with literary prowess, amazing accuracy, the best writing ever and still be duller than a tax form. What mom might have wanted to know was that he asked Suzy out and now has a girlfriend. Or that an enormous crack appeared in the gym floor and some kids fell into it. Anything but the well, defined mundane happenings of the day.

Point being, make sure the middle of your story is not bulked up with a lot of great scenes that no one cares about.

There’s another gem hidden in this cartoon. The idea of dispensing information little by little on a ‘need to know’ basis. Mom might need to know there would be no gym for a few months or the school would be shut down for repairs, but she doesn’t need to know about Suzy until it’s prom time and he has to rent a tucks (or a limo).

This is a hard one. I often find myself getting caught in the trap of laying down a framework to build my story on. A critique partner recently hinted at this, pointing out how I had a lot of background information but that she likes to give out only a little explanation and then let the questions and gaps lead the reader to find out more.

It’s good advice. I put that into practice with the newest round of revisions. It’s amazing what a story can do without once you start chopping!

To tie it all up, two simple pieces of writing advice – make sure what’s in the middle is what ‘mom’ would really want to know and don’t give her all the news at once.

Write on and write well!

Follow the Leader – Exploring Character Types

What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Have you been there? There’s a sign in the conference room (remember those?)that says when a meeting is over all chairs should be pushed in and clean the wipe board.
Your boss finishes a meeting, you start to tidy up and he says, ‘leave it, we have the planning meeting to get to’. What just happened?
A kid watches his father take two free samples of buffalo flavored peanuts, when the sign says, “one per family”. The star athlete, the star dancer, the star drummer, the star brainiac, the star, starts a conversation with, “did you see what that girl was wearing?”
What is going on here? Someone down the line is faced with a choice. Will that employee heed the boss’ instructions to not make the effort to put the room in order? The boss said it’s okay, isn’t that enough? My dad is a good guy, if he says it’s no big deal to swipe two samples then it must be okay right? If my idol at school makes fun of the quirky kid, then I should laugh right?
When leaders take the easy way, make excuses, they give license to all those below them. They confuse those who know the behavior is incongruent with the authority they represent. But how far does that license go? Only as far as the next person allows, chooses, hiding behind the fault of one higher and disclaiming their own choice in their shadow. Or, they prove themselves to be the true leader. The one who faces each crossroad without looking up but looking side to side. How will my actions impact those next to me, with me, far up the road from me.
Explore that thought when developing your characters. A character can be the one who stands out, does it right, or the one who doesn’t and learns later the consequences and is inspired to change (this happens at least once to every parent) or goes on blithely unconcerned.

Childhood Joys – Writing for Readers

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It is true, everything in my childhood is not pleasant to talk about but that is not the focus of this post. On the contrary, let me tell you about the joys of my childhood.

The joy of swimming for hours on end in the neighbor’s pool. They didn’t have any kids which makes sense since they were two men. They maintained that pool just for us. We pestered Mom into bringing us to the pool after working the night shift. She sat there baking in the sun, watching us. When our fingers were pickled by chlorine water and our lips turned blue, she had to make us landlubbers again though we thought we could turn into dolphins and swim away.

The joy of sleigh riding down the neighbor’s hill (different neighbor). Every kid in the neighborhood slid down that hill. A retired couple lived there. I have no idea if they cared or not. They never yelled at us. We would stay out until our feet were frost bit and could only warm up in cold water.

The joy of neighborhood games like the Little Rascals, no adults supervising, we organized and played with not one parent in sight.
Buildings forts in the woods. Scrap lumber and sheets of siding were never hanging around for long because some kid was going to haul it off and create a fort. We used to spend all day building, ‘furnishing’ and then sitting in our forts.
Wild strawberries from the field, and gooseberries, blackberries, apples, frost plums plucked from trees.
Ice skating on the frozen pond a couple of miles away and yes, we walked there alone, as children and joined the mob of kids already there. Everyone knew if there was water in sight, don’t go on the ice, stay on the edge where the ice was white. No one died.
Bushels of peaches that my mother bought from the farmer’s market and we could feast on as we liked, we liked them a lot! Can’t forget all things Christmas; decorating, Christmas songs blasting through the house, all the glittery, shiny decorations, the lights, the crafts at school (phone book angels that were spray painted gold!), Christmas Eve, stockings stuffed with goodies. Cookies, cookies, did I mention the cookies?

I could go on and on. With all this good, you would think I could say, I had a great childhood. But that’s not my story, only part of it and I’m deeply grateful for that part.
So what’s the writing connection? Writers are always counseled to keep the action, conflict, tension and terror coming on in good measure. It makes for a page turner or what I like to call ‘a book devour’. Even so, in the midst of the trauma and constant impending doom, there needs to be some moments of good. A quick thought of love, enjoyment of a favorite food, cup of coffee, blue sky, something that gives character and reader an endorphin break. The key is to keep it short and sweet so it is only a pause in the momentum instead of a bunny snooze trail.
Write on people!

Did you see the latest post on EnTylerywords.com? Click the link below and read who Tyler left behind.


Press Pause Please

My home office came into existence March 16, 2020. Before that date, the dining room table worked just fine for the occasional stay at home days. I bought the cheapest monitor from Walmart since a laptop screen is too small for continuous work. I set up a “desk” using two folding camp tables. But work doesn’t go on pause just because a setup is make shift. It was full steam ahead, trying to keep track of files, documents, take video calls, eat lunch, with a crazy set-up.
Since I go into work a few times a week, I had to pack my notebooks and files in my backpack and then take them back and forth. In a very short time I was surrounded by chaos, but still to stop and organize, get the equipment and strategy that would make work easier, wasn’t an option. At the end of every extended day, there isn’t anything left to continue another fifteen or thirty minutes to improve the work environment. Until, my brain said, “stop!” and so I did.
One morning when there were no meetings scheduled I took an hour to clear out everything and start over. I used a vanity desk with drawers and a folding table. I positioned my monitors (added another compliments of the company) toward the window so my view was a tree and the garden instead of the neighbor’s deck. I consolidated files and tossed stuff that I no longer needed. I vacuumed and cleaned and made the bed that crowds the space (it’s a guest room) when all was said and done, I started back to work, behind thirty emails but feeling a lot more sane.
Why am I saying all this? Because there is a parallel with my writing projects. I’m so driven to write that even though I know I really should stop, take some time to plot out where I’m headed or listen to that inner editor that asks if a character really needs to be in a scene, I don’t slow down. Take a break? Spend some time researching if the setting is accurate? Not a chance, I’m red hot I can’t stop or else I’ll never get done. That’s the way it feels, always this sense of urgency. But if I take a lesson from my ‘work at home’ situation, I might realize taking time to employ the tools (books on how to write better), or even find the right tools (software for plotting) or just get my workspace and files organized, will result in better quality the first time. If your project is starting to be a cloud of ‘things I’ll fix later’, it might be time to take a morning off, do some planning, tidying up files, taking advantage of tools and finding out, a short pause is not a waste of time but can turn into the energy and drive to finish well.
Write on!

Nostalgic for Normal?

Not in a Novel

Routines are good. I mean they’re good for something. I don’t like to live in routines. It drives me a little batty. However, there’s a nostalgia about what boring normal used to be. The hum drum I took for granted. I feel it mostly in connection with work. Normal was racing from one conference room to the next, dodging my boss if possible because that would mean at least a twenty minute delay of the prerequisite chit chat before receiving a new task. Save that for one on one meetings, got to get to the restroom before I’m locked in another meeting around a table with people who are so passive aggressive that they say, “I’m just thinking about what’s in the best interest of everyone” and then make dissenters look like devils.If not that then being in a conversation that sounds like a loop in the Matrix. Didn’t we just figure out world peace? Are we really back to why you can’t help but it’s a great idea?
Normal was a cafeteria with so many options cooked by a chef who whipped up restaurant quality dishes even vegetarian that couldn’t be passed up. Let’s not even get started on the pastries, cakes and cookies. I’m telling the truth I did not often take advantage of the deserts but just knowing if I was overcome by the need for decadence, it was right there and I could have it with the swipe of my card.
I look back on that time and can hardly believe it existed. Along with all the other things, like trying to get on the road before the school bus traffic, battling the line up of cars at the light with a turn signal too brief to allow more than three of the eight cars in line to go through, and that only if every driver paid attention, which invariably I was for sure, the only one with foot poised on the gas, ready for forward motion at the first nanosecond of green.
I did not enjoy most of the old normal. It was tiring and relentless but my whole being was tuned into it. Auto-pilot worked at least until three in the afternoon when a booster shot of caffeine could take me to the end of the day.
Now that I’m at the end of this reflection of the old, I’m not feeling so nostalgic for what it was. It’s strange though to look through that window back in time. It’s all changed and even when the pendulum swings back to the middle again, it won’t rest in the same spot. That spot is gone, like the spot before 911. That was then, this is now.
Quick tie into writing. Only in the beginning of a novel and possibly even a non-fiction work, can normal exist in the narrative. The happy or sad hum drum of life is presented in the beginning and then very quickly must be shot to pieces. If you fall in love with your characters you may find yourself tempted to put them in normal life situations just to have them play. If you do, be ready to slash it right out again. Everything after the intro of normal has to be upheaval of one kind or another. That’s just the dynamic of a story that keeps the reader engaged. Writing ‘normal’ otherwise is just about the writer keeping himself or herself engaged. That’s not all bad except if you want to be published.

Running the Writer Race

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I’m a wanna-be marathon runner as well as a wanna-be published novelist. I run almost every day a mile or so. Not enough to give even a mini-marathon a chance…yet. I’ve been going faster and further for about five years. Sounds ridiculous to some of you but progress is progress. I’ve found that I can plateau and feel good at where I’m at but when I remember what my goal is, then I’m ready to push myself again; deal with the discomfort of going beyond, when I’m willing again to pay a price that feels like loss at the outset.

The work, the trouble, the aches and pains come before the joy, the bliss, the deep satisfaction of overcoming my own weakness. I was running with a bunch of runners, on a video (ha! ha!), pretending to be the runner who was videoing a race. I found my self rooting for my guy, urging him to pass person after person. It was a seven plus mile run so I had to drop off, live a day of work and pick up next morning. The second day, my runner passed everyone.

How great to be the lead runner, the one who left everyone else behind, the one who had to figure where the trail actually was through pastures, over hillocks, through gates and muddy paths. It occurred to me that being out front has its glory but eventually it feels a little lonely. Running with the group felt like we were all doing something. Making a stand for resilience and strength of the human body. Running out front, it was just the open space ahead. I’m generally not happiest in a crowd but maybe small crowds focused on the same goal are okay. Just when I was missing the sensation of being part of a united people, in the true fashion of real life, suddenly there was a person in front me, then another. They must have been just a few steps behind but out of view. (I run to my own music track). Isn’t that the way it often is? We think we’re alone in our successes, alone in the ground we have to cover, figure out, alone if we fall or fail. But then, just like that, the very reality we’re struggling in shifts and it comes to light that we were never alone.

When I get back to running with this video I’ll learn if the videographer wins or not but I’m a fan anyway. Why? Because I’m feeling like I can run this race and if not, I can cheer on those who pass me and love every mile of it.

Easy Erase

NaNoWriMo Day 7 – 8000 Words

I’ve thought sometimes about the invention of the eraser. Who thought of that? What did they do before words written in lead could be removed, obliterated, made to disappear? We have it too easy now. We can just press a delete button. You can’t tell if I typed this post ten times because I can change it with no record (or at least none that is easy to find).

I’m writing as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and having a blast pumping out 1000 plus words a day on a brand new novel.

[During NNWM – there is no deleting of words! JK ]

Yesterday morning I was typing away and suddenly thought I had inadvertently deleted a few well crafted paragraphs when I moved blocks of text. That’s when I realized, we are now at the place in time when the back arrow will go almost infinitely back. I remember a time when back arrow would only work for one action back; then it was ten or so. Somewhere along the line when I wasn’t paying attention it became forever back. How spoiled are we writers today?

There’s no real point to this post (I blame NaNoWriMo) except don’t take your words too seriously especially whether or not they are snapped up by a publisher. What matters is the people you share words with even terrible drafts. Those that see the lines that,

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If words fall and no one is around to read them before delete did they make a point in the universe?

Half Baked Bread and Words


They weren’t half baked but might as well have been. I followed the recipe, mostly. Used all the right measurements but instead of throwing the flour, butter, eggs, water and yeast together in a bowl, I activated the yeast in the warm water first. That couldn’t be the reason for the ‘Kaiser roll’ fail. Look at the finished product though. They looks  picture perfect. It’s kind of like having all your words lined up, grammatically correct, following the rules for good form, but there’s no enjoyment for the reader.

I’ve written pages and pages of this kind of writing. It’s all sing-songey, melodic phrases, perfectly timed physical attributes secreted between narrative and dialogue, but it’s all junk. I’m talking about the kind of writing that says nothing. Maybe, possibly it has a nice sound to it but there’s no getting lost in the story.

I want to be better than that. I want to plunge the reader into the character’s world with such powerful force that there’s no choice but to read through the night until the story is done. That’s not going to happen if I put myself in a trance over how eloquent I am.

Making good bread doesn’t happen because the measurements are right (unless you’re using a bread machine and is that really making bread?). It happens when the right ingredients, are handled in a way that allows the bread to rise, become something way better than powdered wheat, leavening, salt, milk and butter.

So what am I saying? Don’t buy a bread machine, get your hands into the dough? Actually no, but that’s a good idea. I’m saying don’t get caught up in the mechanics and using predictable writer’s tricks to describe scenes. Get your mind into the story you want to tell, let your creative spirit work its way through until you produce something that is the stuff of life. Isn’t that what good bread is? It’s also what good writing is.

Practice Makes Perfect

Writer’s Tip#2

It’s no secret that running every morning, taking time at the ball field to swing or pitch, playing scales on a piano, riffing through chords on a guitar, or well, any skill that requires physical coordination, improves with practice. But practice writing? Not just writing and revising a project, but actually just writing for the sake of practice?

I had the first ten pages of my current project critiqued by Eric Witchey (http://www.ericwitchey.com/). I have to give a plug for his critique service. I’ve not had a review of my work done more professionally and thoroughly, ever. Worth every penny and then some. I gleaned several tips and recommendations but one that surprised me was to practice writing techniques.

I’m not very good at casual writing. My current project started with the intention of writing a short story to enter in a contest so I could build credits. I don’t how it turned into a novel except that I couldn’t stop writing my character’s lives. There was more to tell than a few thousand words.

So how does a novel writing addict reign it in and just ‘practice’ creating characters and scenes? Before I answer that question, I need to mention that studying characters by putting them into the same situation and writing the scene of how each would respond is a tool I have truly enjoyed. There’s no separation anxiety with that exercise. The characters are on my stage and I’ve got a plan for them.

Back to the question, how to practice without engaging the passion of a project. I found a way by accident. I’ve been known to wander through flea markets with tables piled high with junk, true junk. Chipped coffee cups, mustard yellow electric can openers, rusted adjustable wrenches frozen a quarter inch open, five crock pots in a row and then, if I’m lucky, I’ll find the mother lode, a dirty, ragged cardboard box of books.

Last time this happened, I plucked out three, would have been ten but my husband was hovering nearby and although he would say nothing if I bought ten, he would have shook his head all the way home and mutter ‘you don’t have time to read all those…”.

One of the books I bought was “The Gazebo” by Patricia Wentworth, a British author. I started reading it in the car on the way home from the flea market. The set-up of the story was stellar. Then it hit me. I’ve only read the first thirty or so pages. I’ve met the main characters, but I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do. Why not practice with these? Write them into the scenes I think will happen. I don’t have any other connection to this story except my entertainment.

So, that’s the tip I received and the way to make it work. Pick up a book. Read the first thirty pages or so then play with someone else’s kids. Write on! The world awaits your voice.