Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's Hallowe'en! Time for the Coffin Hop Web Tour!
October 24-31, 2011
 Glowing Green Ghosts image courtesy

What better month than October for horror writers to crawl out of their coffins and spread the Halloween spirit!

Join in to win  great horror fiction and Halloween goodies! I'm entering my newest spooky story, Dark Clouds. Click the tab above to download a FREE e-pub copy!
Enter my contest by clicking the Subscribe button on the right. Every subscriber gets one entry into a draw for a Free e-pub copy (or MOBI, for Kindle owners) of my upcoming Novella, "Initiation Rites" in November. Follow this blog using the buttons in the lower left column for another entry.

Click on the links below to participating authors' websites. Each author has a contest to enter on their site.

Over 80 chances to win!

Dark Clouds:
Chapter One of The Mandrake Ruse

Matt always knew when his mother arrived in town: the wind would swirl from every direction at once, sending the neighbour’s weather-vane spinning clackety-clack and the yellow and brown leaves whirling along the road like a child’s top.
“Let’s get out of here,” Matt said to his wife, Teri. They packed a few things into a single suitcase and drove out of town, over the bridge to Wakefield. “We might as well stay somewhere nice,” he said.
“It’s too bad it’s so expensive,” Teri replied. She looked worried, but not about the money; she was weary of her mother-in-law’s antics.
They arrived at the hotel; Teri loved the way its rustic pretence did not mask its luxury. She lay on the bed and squirmed on the thick duvet. “This is so nice.”
Matt flopped down beside her and tried to undo a button. “There’s lots of time for that,” she said, gently pushing his hand away from her blouse. “I want to take a walk and see the fall colours.” She smiled and kissed him lightly, then sprang off the bed and opened the door. Matt sighed and shoved his feet into his runners again, then followed his pretty wife out.
They found a path that climbed a hill through a yellow and bronze forest. At the top, rock like a shield held the trees back enough to give them a view of the river where it bent to flow south toward Ottawa. They looked for the city’s skyline, holding hands. “Let’s make love under the trees,” Matt said.
Teri pushed his shoulder. “Silly,” she said, but then she frowned as she looked at the sky.
Matt followed her gaze. Overhead, the sky was blue, but black clouds were drawing together to the south, blotting out the sun. A gust ruffled Teri’s hair. She cried out, blinking and rubbing dust from her eye.
A small black cloud detached itself from the host over Ottawa and headed toward them, fast. Matt put his arm around his wife’s shoulder and pulled her back to the path. “We have to get off this hill, now.”
Somehow, the clearing had become wider, and the opening under the trees to the path, where they would be safe from the sky, was farther away. Matt recognized the phenomenon: his most common nightmare involved an expanding landscape that pushed his destination farther and farther away when he was racing against time to reach it. He held Teri tighter and started running.
Too slow. The black cloud got closer, was right on them and turned into a hail of dust, rocks and sticks whirling around them. Matt choked on dust. The wind knocked Teri to the rocky ground and she cried out again.

The Coffin Hop Horror Web Tour—the gory details:
1) Have a spooky fun time!

2) Invite your friends and spread the word!

3) This tour starts: Monday, October 24, 2011 at midnight (PST)
    This tour ends: Monday, October 31, 2011 at midnight (PST)
    Winners will be drawn and posted november 1, 2011

4) Meet and mingle with the authors! Experience a new destination at every stop! Participate in every site's contest and be entered for chances to win multiple prizes! Every blog visited is another opportunity to win!

5) Participation at all sites is recommended, but not required. The more sites you hop, the better your chances of winning prizes.

6) Did I mention to have a spooky fun time?
***Authors have full discretion to choose an alternate winner in the event any winner fails to claim their prize(s) within 72 hours of their name being posted or after notification of win, whichever comes first. Anyone who participates in this tour is subject to these rules***

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Commenting can be a frustrating aspect of blogs

Bloggers who have Comments sections on their blogs: please make sure it’s possible for people to leave comments.

I try to be a good blogger and a good member of my Internet friends’ blogs. But I am frustrated with some of you blogmates out there, even some whom I follow and that are listed in the sidebars. The problem is with the verification systems: if you don’t allow a full range of options, you lock some people out of the comments. For some weird reason, my Blogger/Google account will not always let me use that identity to leave comments.

If your verification system only allows the potential commenter to log in using the Google, OpenID, Wordpress or AIM systems, it seems I cannot log in.

Protecting against spam

I understand why bloggers put verification on their comments: they’re trying to protect agains spammers, bots and other nefarious codes and coders that infest the Internet. But often, they protect themselves against people who want to leave legitimate and often very helpful comments.

Let’s not forget that one of the main reasons blogger enable comments is to increase their profile and spread the word that their blogs are worth reading.

Wordpress blogs seem to handle this security question well. I am always able to enter my name, email address and URL, and then the system posts or at least accepts my comment.

Blogger/blogspot varies: sometimes, the Login list includes “Anonymous” and “Name/URL.” However, almost as often, these two options are not in the list.

The variation is understandable: Google’s blogspot interface can be confusing. The various settings are buried in different parts of the Dashboard, Settings and Profile, and the various tools and gadgets that enable commenting have their own settings.

But blogmates, I implore you: there are so many interesting blogs that I’d love to comment on, and I cannot because of your security settings. Check your settings. I promise, I won’t spam you.

For the techies out there

If anyone can explain to me why I get an error message when I try to select my Google Account in the verification list, I would really appreciate it.

If, under the Comment field, the instruction reads “Comment as:”, and then the drop-down list has “Google Account,” when I select that option, I get this error message:

“Your current account (scott[at] does not have access to view this page.”

However, if the Comments section opens up as a separate window, I usually see this:

“Choose an identity: (Google Account).” That works perfectly.

I only have one Google account. Why does it work in one setting, and not in another?

Any thoughts or ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Third Platform Building Campaign Challenge

Rachael Harrie's latest challenge was to write a 300 word story to "show, not tell" in 300 words or less: 

  • that it’s morning, 
  • that a man or a woman (or both) is at the beach
  • that the MC (main character) is bored
  • that something stinks behind where he/she is sitting
  • that something surprising happens.
Just for fun, see if you can involve all five senses AND include these random words: "synbatec," "wastopaneer," and "tacise."   (NB. these words are completely made up and are not intended to have any meaning other than the one you give them).
So, here is my entry, at exactly 300 words, excluding the title. I've used two of the words, but cheated a little, turning "wastopaneer" into a name. Let me know what you think.
Lakeside Resort
I hate this crappy place. Little wooden dock, little dented boats that stink of gasoline and puff out black clouds. Little ripples on the rocks sound like a hundred cats lapping milk.
I hate all these little kids. And this crappy little beach. It’s not a real beach. This crappy resort just dumped sand on the edge of the water. And the sand is crap, too. It’s rough and won’t stick together to make a sand castle. Anyway, that stupid baby would just stumble over and wreck it.
Oh, no. It’s crying again. Why don’t its parents shut it up?
Its mom picks it up and smoothes its hair. “Tacise, Tacise,” she says, kissing it. What a stupid name!
“Why don’t you go in the water, honey?” Mom says. I try to look up, but the stupid sun is in my eyes. I look at the water, but the ripples reflect the sunlight into a million shards, assaulting my brain.
Ripples. Not white surf like in Sara’s vacation pictures. I slurp up the last of my stale coke. “Nah,” I answer.
“Why not? It’s a beautiful day!”
“It wouldn’t be fun.”
“Swimming isn’t fun?”
“Swimming in the ocean would be fun.”
“My, who’s a spoiled princess?” says Dad, sitting up. I thought he was asleep.
“Daddy, this place stinks!” He just gives me his mock pout. “Literally. People are slaughtering fish over there!”
Cold! I scream and turn around, dripping and splashing. The baby’s annoying big brother, maybe four years old, runs away with a pail, shrieking with laughter. “Wasto Paneer!” his father yells, running after him. “You come back here!”
Dad is laughing. “You might as well get in the lake now, princess.”
Stupid vacation.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Breathless blog contest entry

Brenda Drake, author of Brenda Drake Writes (under the influence of coffee) has launched another contest for writers: "Can You Leave Us Breathless?"

Here's how it works: on October 21, writers post a 300-word excerpt from their work (or write something new) to their blog and enter their links in Brenda's LinkyLink list on her blog. Then we're all supposed to read and comment on others' entries.

It now being the 21st, here is my entry, an excerpt from Chapter 2 of my soon-to-be-released, rule-breaking magic historical realistic novel, The Bones of the Earth. (You can read all of Chapter 1 by clicking the tab at the top of the page.) I look forward to your comments!

From Chapter 2: The Rescue

Krajan dismounted and grabbed Elli by the chin. His mouth twisted into a horrible smile.

“Elli!” Javor yelled and lunged toward them, but his father caught him from behind, pinning his arms and pushing him to the ground.

“No, Javor! They’ll kill you!” Javor managed to break free in time to see the girls’ mothers run out, screaming. Another raider stepped in front of them and hit them with a heavy club. All the other villagers groaned, but no one had the courage to move. The women tried to get up, but the Avar hit Grat’s mother on the head again. She fell into the dust and did not move. Elli’s mother backed away on hands and knees, crying.

Roslaw and some other men ran up with bags of food. “No, please, leave the girls alone! Take the food, take it all, but leave our daughters!”
Krajan backhanded Roslaw savagely. The warrior’s heavy leather and steel gauntlet made a sickening crushing sound as it connected with the headman’s face, and Roslaw slumped into the dirt, bleeding from the nose and mouth.

Mladen, Elli’s father, sprang forward with a scythe, screaming “Everyone together! We outnumber them!” Faster than anyone could see, another raider drew a sword and slashed down. The scythe clattered to the hard ground, Mladen’s severed hand still gripping it. The Avars cheered and laughed; Mladen fell to his knees, gasping and staring in disbelief at the empty space at the end of his arm. Blood spurted over and over again onto the ground, splashing Elli and Grat until the Avar thrust his sword into Mladen’s neck, then kicked his body down. Still on her hands and knees, Elli’s mother shrieked. The village men cried out, but still no one dared move.

Krajan remounted. “We take these,” he declared.

300 words

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Get a GRIP, part 5: the Plan

While this is part 5 of this series of posts, this is the fourth step in pre-writing—the stages you have to follow before you start writing even the first draft of your brilliant document. If you recall, I call the process “getting a GRIP”:
G – goal or purpose—what you hope to achieve with your writing
R – reader or audience—the most important ingredient
I – idea or thesis—what you’re trying to say

Now, the Plan, or outline.

Creating an outline is the biggest favour you, as a writer, can do for yourself.

I know, there are a lot of writers who say they prefer writing “by the seat of their pants.” I’ve learned that approach wears out a lot of pant seats.

With an outline, you can make sure that you have covered everything you need to cover in your document, whether it’s a memo, a report or a novel. An outline is like a road-map: it helps you tell, at a glance, whether you’re getting toward your destination or resolution, what are the obstacles in the way, and whether there isn’t a better route to follow.

I have tried writing both with and without outlines. Once, I interviewed a very interesting typeface designer. I thought he was fascinating, and I even thought I had a great lead. So immediately after the interview was over, I turned on the computer and dove right in. I wrote about a thousand words when I realized I could not logically go any further, and I had not written anything important, or even readable, yet.

So, I deleted everything and started over. I wrote a new lead and another 400 to 500 words. Got stuck. Deleted. Started over again.

Eventually, I realized that I needed to figure out what I wanted to say with this article, and in what order. I moved away from the computer, took out a pen and a piece of paper (I know, I’m a cave-man) and wrote a thesis statement and an outline.

You don’t have to write down an outline; if you can remember a lot of different ideas in the right order, you can do it in your head. But you still need an outline. To put it another way:

The time required to write an outline plus a good document is less than the time required to write the same quality of document without an outline.


Why create an outline

An outline helps you:
- make sure you include everything you want/need
- organize your ideas
- make sure you leave out information or ideas that don’t belong.


How to create an outline

I start by gathering all the ideas, information, facts, quotes, research and whatever else I’ve gathered in my research, then jotting it down (on paper or on screen) in the order I think of it. Someone else a long time ago called this the “scratch outline.” You might call it brainstorming, except that it involves just one person (usually). Write everything down. Some of these ideas are gold, and you might lose them.

Don’t write whole sentences, yet. Just jot or type single words or short phrases. You’re trying to get the ideas down as quickly as possible, while they’re still fresh and hot in your mind.

Once you’ve run out of steam and can’t think of anything else to write down, start looking for links. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for similar ideas and linked facts, and for categories as well as items within those categories. You’ll probably need to make another list after this.

Once everything is grouped, start looking for a logical order to put them in. Here, you have a lot of choice: chronological (for an incident report, for example), or most important to least important (like a newspaper article). Proposals often use the “problem-solution” approach: describe a problem, explain why it’s a problem, the show the solution and its ultimate effects. Advertisements do this, too: “Does the opposite sex run away from your bad breath? You need Moosebreath Away!”

Word processors have outlining tools or views that make creating and rearranging your outline easier.
Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just try different arrangements of ideas and facts. Move them around and imagine the sentences you can craft around the short phrases in your outline. You can fill them in now, if you think of something particularly good.

Don’t be afraid to add new ideas that you realize you had left out, and be even less afraid of taking things out if it seems that they don’t belong.

It really helps if you already have a thesis statement written; however, I sometimes find the main point comes out once I start massaging all the information I have. But a complete thesis statement is a must for a finished outline. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES GO BEYOND WRITING YOUR OUTLINE UNTIL YOU HAVE DECIDED ON YOUR THESIS STATEMENT. Think of it this way: if your outline is your road map, then the thesis statement is your destination. You don’t start a journey without deciding where you’re going, do you? Okay, so do I, sometimes—but when it’s something as important as writing, don’t do it.

Start with knowing your goal, identifying your reader, and writing your thesis statement (although it may evolve)

  • Make a scratch outline
    • brainstorm
    • generate Lots of ideas
    • jot down short phrases or single word
  • Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together”
    • group similar ideas
    • look for general categories and specific items within categories
  • Organize the ideas and information
    • choose from logical, chronological, problem-solution, geographical, etc.
If you’re having trouble deciding on which order to use, go back to the first steps: what are you trying to achieve, who is your audience, and what is the main idea you want to tell them?

I firmly believe in using an outline to write fiction. You need to know your characters and setting, and you need to know where your story is going. Otherwise, it doesn’t go anywhere and your beautiful prose does nothing but bore the reader.

Kirsten Lamb agrees with me (although she may not have heard of me). She has devoted several recent blog posts to the idea of structure of novels. “Novels have rules. When we don’t follow the rules, bad things happen. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.”

You have to know where your plot is going and why your characters are going there. I’ve read a lot of wannabe writers’ blogs, where they say they let the characters lead them. I don’t know if any of them have finished, let alone published a book.

Having an outline for your plot allows you to spot those plot holes, figure out your characters’ motivations and pace your plot developments so they don’t bore the reader, nor leave them breathless.

In future posts, I’m going to put in some exercises on outlining. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone who has been happy with the result of their document, whatever it may be, that did not have some kind of outline at some point. Remember, even if it was just in your head, it was still an outline.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Get a GRIP, part 4: the Idea

What is the one thing you have to say?

The third step you have to take before your write anything is to decide on the main idea of your document. No matter how long or short it is, you have to be able to sum up the point in one clear, complete sentence.

When U2 released The Joshua Tree, Time magazine quoted Bono as saying “Writing songs is easy. Writing good songs is hard.”

Writing anything is easy. All you need is something that leaves a mark on something else. A computer just makes it faster for your fingers to keep up with your brain.

But something worth reading has to be about something. In high school, we learned that “something” was called the thesis statement. It sounds impressive, but all it means is the main point.

A lot of people have trouble with this. They stare at the blank screen or page, or write sentences and paragraphs, then delete the whole thing and start over and over again.

Their problem is that they don’t know what they’re writing about. Before you start to write your document, write that thesis statement: one sentence that sums up the main point.

To do that, you have to go through the first two steps in the GRIP process: you have to have a goal or a purpose for writing—what you hope your document will accomplish—and you have to know whom you are writing for. Once you know that, write your thesis down: the statement that will motivate your reader to accomplish your goal. For this to work, as I have said, you have to know what motivates that reader.

Some books recommend the “hidden words” technique. Start with “The most important thing I have to tell you is ...” After you fill in the blank, you delete the opening clause—“hiding” it.

Every good letter, memo, report or proposal has a thesis—a single sentence that sums up what it’s about. Short stories and shorter poems, too, have to be about a single thing if they are to succeed. Longer novels can be about several things, but there has to be a single main theme.

I just finished reading Too Big to Fail, Andrew Sorkin’s minute-by-minute telling of the 2008 financial meltdown. At 555 pages, plus index and list of sources, it has a single thesis statement: “In the end, this drama is a human one, a tale about the fallibility of people who thought they were too big to fail.”

However, you don’t need to write the thesis statement explicitly in your document. It’s usually best to get to the point immediately, but depending on your goal, your reader and the context, you might decide to put it at the end, or to imply it and let the reader come to that conclusion. That technique is occasionally used in sales and advertising messages, but it’s hard to pull off. Advertisers are very good at this. The thesis of every beer ad is “Drink this beer and you’ll get laid!” Of course, they don’t say that explicitly. But that’s the message.

Writing the thesis statement is not easy. It may not be the first thing that you do. But you have to do it.

First, have a clear conception of the goal of your document. Write it down in terms of action that you want the reader to take.

Next, make sure that you know your reader as well as possible, including whatever motivations might support that action in your goal statement, and anything about the reader that would work against it.

The thesis statement has to compel the reader toward the action of your goal. Take your time with it. Write several versions and think about them. Write down other facts or ideas that will go into your document. But before you actually start writing the body of your memo, report or proposal—or whatever it is—you have to settle on the thesis statement.

“A vote for our candidate will keep your taxes low.”

“The accident was the result of poor safety training.”

“A new copier will save money over a year.”

The thesis can be long, it can be a compound, complex sentence, but it has to be a complete, grammatically correct sentence. Often, the writing of it can crystallize your thinking; I sometimes find that I had a vague idea, but writing it down forces me to make it real and concrete.


Novels can be long and complex. They can be about a lot of different things. But there still has to be a central, main theme that links all the other subplots and conflicts.

Moby Dick: Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale—other subplots include the growing of characters like Ishmael, questions about the existence of God and the nature of good and evil.

One of my favourites, Foucault’s Pendulum: Our imaginations drive our behaviours, even when we don’t know it—plus a lot about the foolishness of conspiracy theories and some touching observations about the different sides in war.

There are many more. Now, I’m going to ask you to enter in the Comments the main themes or thesis statements of your works in progress. Remember, each one has to be a single sentence. I’ll respond!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Get a GRIP, part 3: the Reader

What’s the most important part of writing? Right. The reader.

Consider the readers’ needs. Write for them. Keep in mind why they should care about what you have to say. What’s in it for them? How can you make their lives or work easier or better? Why should they spend time reading or watching or listening to you, when they could be paying attention to so many other things?

To answer those questions, you need to know as much about them as you can:
  • demographics – age, sex, education, income, where they live 
  • occupation: what do they spend their working lives doing?
  • needs: at work, at home
  • desires: some are common: food, shelter, sex, belonging
    o more, however, are specific to each reader’s job, life, demographics
  • predispositions and attitudes
    - perceptions – how will they react to particular words?
Sometimes, it’s predictable: some people respond in a particular way to words like “tea party,” “capitalism,” “democracy.” We probably can all make reasonable assumptions about how the different sides of the Occupy Wall Street protests will react to those words.

What that means is that your knowledge of the audience should help determine the words you choose. You can use common social media slang for a teen audience, but it won't make any sense to seniors. That's obvious. You'll have to work much harder than that, however, when it comes to your own specific communications.

When you’ve drawn a detailed picture of your readers or potential readers, connect it to your purpose (Goal, the G in GRIP): why should your readers do what you want them to do? To answer this, you need to have clarified your own goal. See the previous post.

For instance, if you want your audience to buy your product or service, what benefit will they get from it? Is that benefit enough to motivate them to get over the inertia required to make the change from what they’re doing (or not doing) right now?

For examples: your boss What is he/she motivated by? Interested in? Biggest challenge right now? What has he/she responded to before?

If you want to get his/her approval on a new initiative, such as buying a new copier-printer for the office, first answer “Why should he/she?” How will that action make his/her life/job easier? What about the proposed purchase is similar to decisions he/she has made in the past?

Be concrete. “The new ABC model 123 copier/printer operates 12 percent more efficiently and uses less toner and paper. This means the office can save $1,200 per year.”

Maybe the boss doesn’t care about saving a small part of his/her budget, but just wants copies NOW. “The new ABC model 123 copier/printer has proven to operate 10 percent faster than our current model, and jams 15 percent less frequently. This translates to three fewer paper jams per week at our current volume.”

What motivates your audience?

There are thousands of books and other resources looking into that question. I’ll leave it with this rule: the more you know about your audience or readers, the better you can shape messages that motivate them. Your research does not have to be that complicated, however. Just talk to people. Find out what they like, what they don’t like. And remember, every reader is an individual.


What do fiction readers want? The biggest publishers wish they knew.

Do they want more of the same? Sometimes; multiple sequels and copycats of Harry Potter show that. How many book series about sexy vampires clog the bookshelves these days?

But the breakaway best-sellers, the trend-setters, are books and stories that touch their readers’ emotions deeply. There’s no secret that Stephanie Meyer’s work resonates with young women. Something about her characters and their struggles reaches those readers. I don’t have space, time, or inclination to go into that, here. The point is that these writers have, intuitively or otherwise, given their readers something they want. That something is motivating enough to get millions of people to go to a bookstore (physical or electronic) and pay 15 bucks or so for a copy.


Your challenge

Take out something you are working on right now. Then, on screen or on paper, write down answers to these two questions:

1. Whom are you writing this for? Specifically: your boss? Your sister? Describe what motivates that person. What does he or she like, dislike, need, avoid?

2. What do you want that reader to do? Make this concrete. What specific action do you want your reader to do after he or she finishes reading your document?

Then, put that in the Comments section and I’ll respond.


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Get a GRIP, part 2: the goal

In my last post, I outlined GRIP, which stands for the four steps that every writer should complete before starting to write:

- set a Goal

- know your Reader

- state your main Idea

- make a Plan, or an outline.

This post focuses on the G: setting a goal.

Communication as a tool

If your life or career is a journey, you can think of your writing as a vehicle to get you from where you are to where you want to be. What are goals of a written document?

- Advertisement: to increase sales or acceptance of a product, service, idea or maybe an electoral candidate

- Proposal: to sell a project or get someone to make a decision

- Incident report: to share information so that, for example, a problem can be solved

- Progress report: to show progress to someone in charge, and perhaps to remove obstacles to further progress.

It seems that determining your goal is not easy. A lot of my students used to have trouble with the idea of the “goal” or purpose of writing. “Why am I writing? Because my professor gave me this assignment.” Unfortunately, many people take this attitude into their working lives. “My boss told me to write a report.”

A goal is an essential element of any strategy. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t tell when you get there.

A goal or purpose statement is different from the thesis statement. The thesis statement is what the document or statement is all about. It’s the most important thing that you want your audience to understand. Deciding on your writing’s destination is the last chance that you, the writer, can focus on yourself. In writing down your goal, you focus on your own needs or desires. Ask yourself: what do you want to happen? What result do you want from this document?

After the reader has finished reading your document, what do you want him or her to do?

You have to make this as clear and as concrete as possible. You goal should not be: “to raise awareness of this issue.” Go further than that: “After reading this document, I want readers to donate $x to this specific charity.”

Goal examples

Instead of:
to raise awareness of X cause           

to have readers donate $N to the X society today

Instead of:

to advertise my product

to increase sales in y sector by z percent in the next quarter

Instead of:
to increase my profile                        

Write: to reach up to 2000 Twitter followers by the end of the year

Have a specific, concrete goal so that you can tell quickly when you’ve achieved it. Once you do, then you can set another goal for another document. Every document should have its own goal or goals. Yes, you can have more than one goal for a document: to get the boss to respect me, and to get a bigger bonus at the end of the year.


What about fiction? Can a short story or novel have a goal?

Certainly. One of Dickens’ goals was to raise awareness of, and then affect the poverty in the England of his time; Orwell wanted to warn people about the insidiousness and direction of totalitarianism when he wrote 1984. To Kill a Mockingbird and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are two other very well known novels where the author had a definite social purpose in writing them.

You can also have a goal for the plot itself. What do you want your main character to do by the end? I know that some writers claim they “write by the seats of their pants,” but I find it much better to have a result or conclusion in mind before I start writing. A lot of great ideas for stories or novels begin as an arresting line or an interesting situation. We’ve all done those exercises in creative writing class where we take a picture as the set-up for a story. The question that causes “blank screen syndrome” is, “where to go from here?”

What should your story destination be? Answer this question: what do you think your main character can accomplish? Or at least, what is he/she/it going to try to do in your story? If you have a quest, it’s easy: the MC is going to try to find the holy grail, or recover the embarrassing photo-negatives, or save the girl next door from the biker gang. You might want to picture your end scene: girl and boy at the altar, or relaxing at the luxury resort, or hanging from the gibbet.

The point is, now you have an end point to drive toward. That makes it so much easier to figure out how to get your plot from your opening to the closing. You can have a lot of fun putting in a lot of detours and side-trips, but at least you’ll be able to tell whether a line of dialogue or a particular scene help advance the plot, or just get in the way.

Now that you know where you’re going, it’s much easier to figure out how to get there. But before you get to plotting your course with an outline, you have two other steps. Taking those steps require that you know the first two rules of communication:

- Know your audience

- Know what you want to say.

The next post will address the Reader, or audience.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

How to write, step 1: Get a GRIP

The next few posts on this blog are going to focus on something that I like to tell myself I know something about: how to write.

Since audiences seem to like step-by-step guides, I’ll start with the two basic rules of writing:
  1. Know what you want to say. Be able to sum up your main message, your thesis statement, in one clear sentence.

  2. Know your audience. Know whom you’re writing or speaking to. What motivates them? What are they interested in? What will they likely agree with, and what will they argue about? Why should they care about what you have to say? And if you’re writing advertising or sales messages, why should they do what you will ask them to do?
“But Scott,” you say (I know what you’re saying.) “Writing is hard. Can you make it easier with a step-by-step process we can follow?”

Of course. Start by getting a GRIP. Before you write your next letter, or blog post, or proposal, or novel, before you jot down that spectacular opening sentence that came to you in a dream or in the shower, get a GRIP:
  • Goal—a reason to write, a purpose, something you are trying to achieve
  • Readers—know who they are (see rule #2 above)
  • Idea—your message (see rule #1, above)
  • Plan—make an outline.


I promise, the theory won’t take long and won’t hurt that much. Well, it won’t hurt me, anyway.

We write to communicate, to get our ideas from our minds into the minds of our audience. Here’s the theory part: we encode our ideas or our thoughts using language in the form of spoken or written words. We then transmit those words over a medium to an audience.

That’s the basic model of communication I was taught way back in stone college. The model holds up for every form of communication from speaking to one person to broadcasting radio to Twitter. The theory has four key elements:
  1. Source—the encoder of the information
  2. Message—the information that’s encoded and sent
  3. Medium—the way the message is sent: speech, written words on paper, bits over the Internet
  4. Receiver—the computer, the radio player, but ultimately, the mind of the audience.

I tend to focus on elements 2 and 4, and accept elements 1 and 3 as givens. I can’t do much about my mind as the source (although sometimes I wish I could), so I’ll have to take what I have. And I adapt to the medium as I find it, whether that’s a podium at the front of a classroom, or a telephone, or Twitter, or this blog. I have to adapt the message to the constraints of the medium. I won’t get into the McLuhanesque “is the medium the message” discussion now, because that would break my own rule #1.

Elements 2 and 4 map well to my rules: message and audience. See how all this fits together?

Enough theory. Let’s get a GRIP.

Before you actually start writing your message, whether it’s a memo to the boss, a sales report, an accident report, a proposal, an advertisement or a novel: get a grip.

Writing your document, whatever it is, is like any other major project. You don’t throw your clothes into the laundry with separating whites and colours, you don’t start cooking pasta without boiling the water first and then adding oil and salt, you don’t paint without at least wiping down the wall.

Before you start that beautiful opening sentence that came to you in the shower, write down the answers to the following questions first. You can write them on the computer, but often I find using a nice pen or fine marker on a good pad of paper is more satisfying.

GRIP: goal, reader, idea, plan.

Goal—why are you writing? You could be drinking beer, making love or sweeping the garage. You better have a good reason for writing! Your writing has to have a concrete goal, an aim, something to achieve. You want to sell something? You want people to vote for your candidate? Maybe you just have a story to tell.

Communication is a tool we use to achieve something. Sometimes, the act itself is very satisfying, but writing for ourselves is not really communicating. It’s like masturbation: it feels good, but it doesn’t accomplish anything, and no one will pay attention for long—and those that will, you don’t want to.

Reader—As I said above, you need to understand whom you are writing to. Once you’ve figured out what you’re trying to achieve with your writing, you need to connect your purpose to your audience. For example, if you’re trying to convince your community to elect a particular candidate, you have to be able to tell your readers what’s in it for them. How will they be better off?

The more you know about your audience, the better you can make your message. Do some research. What interests this audience? What makes them pay attention? What do they need that they don’t have? What do they not want to have? What makes them happy, what makes them mad, what makes them turn and stare, goggle-eyed?

There are some things that all people, everywhere, always, want: food, sex, safety, shelter. But the more specific you are, the more effective you can be.

Idea—the message. After you know your goal and your audience, write down your message as one sentence. In high school, I was told that this was the “thesis statement.” I was impressed at the time. “Thesis” sounded like an expensive word. But all it really means is the main idea.

Before you write your undying prose or poetry, you have to be able to sum it all up in one sentence. If you can’t do that, you haven’t clarified it. And if it’s not clear to you, you cannot make it clear to anyone else. Steve Jobs’ message? “Apple computers are fun and cool.” Mitt Romney’s message: “God will smite you if you don’t elect me President.” See?

This is perhaps the hardest part of all. Don’t be afraid to try it several times. Write it down, change it, cross it out, start over, try it from a different angle. Change the order of your words and phrases. Don’t worry if it’s a long sentence. It can be a complex-compound sentence with subordinate clauses and qualifying phrases, but it has to be a single, grammatically-correct, complete sentence. One thought.

Spend some time on it.

I know, it’s hard. But you can do it.

Plan—Now, the part that all my college students hated the most. After you figure out why you’re writing, whom you’re writing for and what your point is, make an outline.

After all, even though your main message, your thesis, is one sentence, you’ll probably need more than one sentence to convince your readers to achieve your goal. If that weren’t necessary, there Apple wouldn’t have such an extensive website.

An outline is like the frame of a house. I always start with a “scratch outline”—just a list, in no particular order, of all the ideas I want to get into the document to support the main idea. I try to make sure I have all the facts that I have found in my research, all the ideas I had as I was working on the other steps, all the arguments for and against the main idea.

Get them all down on paper or screen, then put them into order. Play the Sesame Street game: “some of these things belong together.” Look for categories and items within categories. Then, put them in a logical order.

What order? Well, that depends on your goal, your idea and your audience. You can use a chronological order if you’re writing an accident report: “I pressed on the brake pedal, but the brake did not engage. The car continued until it hit the wall. Then it stopped.”

A lot of proposals use a problem-solution order: “Do you have bad breath? Use Scope!”

In a future post, I’ll present some exercises to help you with making an outline. But for now, I think that’s enough.

Before you want to write, you have to know what you’re writing and you have to know whom you are writing for.

Before you write the first line, get a GRIP: write down your goal, your reader, your main idea, and your plan.

And when you get stuck (all we writers get stuck from time to time), go back to those first two rules: what am I saying? and whom am I saying it to?

I hope to blog to you again soon! And I hope you’re reading here!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Is politics another form of communication? Or is it the other way around?

tIt’s interesting to see that I’m not the only writer with a writing blog who strays into politics.

Jo VonBargen, poet and blogger from Texas and a blog followmate (see how I just made up that word? Am I a writer, or what?) also alternates her posts between writing about the writing process and the daily challenges she faces as a writer (and some of them seem huge!), and writing about her political mileu. Her latest post (as of this writing) states, in part:

“I want to make the politicians fear the voter once again. I want those fat cats up on Capitol Hill to be reminded in a very vivid way that they are the employees…and we are the employer. I want them scrambling and bowing and scraping. And I want to take every lobbyist up there and throw ’em on a bonfire. Oh, don’t get me started…. just keep a light in the window and howl loudly!”

And this, I think, is fair. I called my blog “written words,” intending to write about about good and poor writing that I found on the corporate, political and social scenes. That is, any form of public communication from just about anyone.

It didn’t really turn out that way, and I veered into the political world, too. Well, these are still written words, after all—I wrote them.

But I am really intrigued by how closely Jo VonBargen’s stated views match my own. In the same post I just mentioned, she brings up something I have thought about every US election since 2000: why do the Americans have such a ridiculously overcomplicated way to count votes?

“We want democracy back in the US! Go back to paper blinkin’ ballots! Then the actual vote can be examined—and we don’t have to take the word of some secretive company that their software is accurate.”

VonBlargen’s post voices the often inchoate rage of those like the Occupy Wall Street protesters. In response to that prompt, she wrote to me “I think we're gonna have people in the streets all over America very soon, just like in Europe and the Middle East. As the dollar erodes and people struggle to buy gas and food, the anger level is going to explode.”

Well, I hope things don’t get violent or nasty. But to refocus the topic on communication itself, I am more and more encouraged by the increasing voice that those outside the political, financial and media elites are getting now. Occupy Wall Street was almost absent from mainstream news coverage for the first two and half weeks. Now, I see it in the newspapers and on main TV stations almost every day. And the coverage does not any longer just dismiss this as unimportant, or the flavour-of-the-month for movie stars desperately seeking publicity.

And that, readers, is the promise of all this communication technology realized.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

RABMAD: Writers can make a difference

Do you follow RABMAD? You should, because it’s helping raise money for a host of good causes.

“Read a book, make a difference” is the brainchild of author RS Guthrie. He launched “Read a book, make a difference” when he was inspired to donate the half the proceeds of the sale of his books to support the tuition of a boy named Ben Fieber, who has Down Syndrome and autism, so that Ben can attend non-profit The Joshua School in Colorado for children with disabilities.

Guthrie’s books include The Black Beast (available on his website and through Amazon Createspace), and his latest, Dark Prairie, to be published by New West. You should read his own inspiring story at

But Guthrie didn’t stop there. He registered two URLs, http://www.readabookmakeadifference/.com and, to encourage other writers do follow suit and donate some of their proceeds to good causes. Any good causes the writers choose. became a portal to authors who joined, for free—all at Guthrie’s trouble and expense.

Some of the authors include:

Melissa Foster, author of Megan’s Way and Chasing Amanda, who supports Provincetown Cares, which stages a benefit performance each year during Women’s Week and National Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a way to promote research, education, screening and treatment for breast cancer as well as other serious health issues affecting women

Alan McDermott from the UK, author of Gray Justice (available on Smashwords), who supports the British Heart Foundation and Barnardo’s, the UK’s leading children’s charity

Martha Rodriguez, author of the children’s book A Reel Cool Summer, who supports Literacy Volunteers of Leon County, FL, where she has been an adult literacy volunteer tutor

Bert Carson of Birmingham, Alabama, author of Fourth and Forever and the upcoming Truth—Yours, Mine, Ours, supports the Heifer International agricultural education charity.

There are many others, and the list is growing. So if you’re an author, get involved! You can make a difference. And readers, check out what these writers have to offer. Not only might you discover a talent you didn’t know about before, but you could also make a real difference to people who need help.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

99 %: The message is clear

The Occupy Wall street protest has been critized for not being clear. That's not true. The message is clear for anyone who wants to hear it: the 99 percent of the population is fed up with the self serving of the top one percent.

Photo source:

Occupy Wall Street is finally getting some major media coverage. For three weeks, this demonstration has continued in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district, but has been largely ignored by the mass media. To their credit, the protesters been steadfastly peaceful and ruly, if not quiet.

The protesters have been criticized for being “disorganized,” and “lacking focus.” Indeed, there are several interests represented there: protests against corporate greed epitomized on Wall Street; financial mismanagement or outright malfeasance; unemployment and poverty; climate change and environmental degradation.

But there is a clear message that arises from this, and it’s easy to see. “We are the 99 percent,” the protesters repeat. And they’re protesting one thing: injustice.

This really is an “American Autumn,” inspired at least partly by the Arab Spring. Like the protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, they are gathering in the locus of U.S. power. It’s not Washington (although there may be plans for similar protests there and in other cities, as well). In the U.S., the shots are called by the money interests, and those are centred in Manhattan.

It’s telling that the media that is owned by corporations that are traded on the New York Stock Exchange have given short shrift to the Occupy Wall Streeters. But they will have to start paying attention, because this protest isn’t going to just go away. It’s into its third week, and it’s growing and spreading.

The 99 percent are protesting the actions of the one percent who control so much of the U.S., its economy and its politics and laws. The moneyed one percent have commandeered the laws of the U.S. to their own benefit, and to detriment of the 99, probably since the U.S. was formed; however, that bias has been obvious since the Reagan years, the slashing of social service budgets, the outsourcing of jobs and whole industries to anywhere that poverty and lax labour laws reduce costs, and tax breaks for the one percent. This regimen became egregiously blatant under W. Bush.

The 99 percent are the true representatives of the Tea Party of 1773, not the collection of dupes who now call themselves the Tea Party. In 1773, the Boston colonists who threw tea into Boston harbour were not protesting a tax so much as the injustice of the way it was applied. Their slogan was, remember, “no taxation without representation.”

Today’s Occupy Wall Streeters are protesting the economic and financial policies engineered by and for the financeer class. The tax policies do not represent their interests. Middle- and lower-class Americans are getting poorer, and have been for a long time.

The one percent had better pay attention.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

E-Book review: Discontents, by James Wallace Birch

Discontents, by James Wallace Birch, 2011

Discontents is the second independently published book I have read, and I am impressed.

There is a lot to like in this story. Birch demonstrates his own social awareness and a little of his politics. He’s sympathetic to the same ideals that I am, but also skeptical and a little cynical—like me. And he’s realistic.

This is a political thriller from a different perspective. The main character is not a super-spy, a cop, a politician or a reporter. He really is an outsider, an overeducated, underemployed, disaffected young man who sees the hypocrisy that Western capitalistic society depends on.

The story begins in the author’s own voice, where he describes how he receives a letter one day from an former friend in high school—a friend who ended the friendship by stealing the author’s girlfriend. Then the central character, Emory Walden, leaves to backpack in Europe. In the letter to the author, Emory tells the story of what happened to him after he returned to his home town, and how he found some shadowy organization is trying to kill him.

During his travels, Emory began a blog that criticized Western governments and their corporate buddies—typical young radical stuff. The blog became a hit among discontented youth, whence the title.

When Emory returns to Washington, DC, he realizes he has become the figurehead of a nebulous young revolutionary movement called FAY, for Fear the Art of Youth. Its main accomplishment seems to be large public marches and graffiti.

Emory finds a low-level job and crashes with another friend, Pat, and continues blogging. His star-blogger status attracts a certain kind of young woman, including Pat’s girlfriend; when she puts moves on Emory, Pat throws him out. Violently.

At this point, Emory is contacted by Fletcher Spivey—possibly the hokiest name in literature. Spivey is an old man who made a fortune in the kind of target marketing that makes corporations drool and civil libertarians quake in fear. Young Spivey had been a radical, the kind who wanted to wake people up, to make them aware of how they’re being fooled by the marketers. But he suppressed those convictions when he took over the family business. Now, in his old age, his career behind him, he wants to sponsor Emory and spark a revolution. He sets Emory up with an apartment, a fake identity as “Liam Logan,” cash and an untraceable Internet account. Emory just has to keep blogging, exhort young people to rebel, and to sneak out at night to make graffiti.

Of course, Emory does more than this; he also pursues a romance with Carolyn, who knows him as Emory Walden.

Eventually, Emory’s recklessness catches up with him: the police arrest him for his graffiti. His sentence is exile from DC. (That was a bit of a plot stretch, but maybe Birch was being metaphorical.) One young cop who knows that Liam Logan is really Emory Walden beats him up; Spivey’s assistant, the beautiful but maimed Ella Alice, takes him to a private doctor, who discovers that Emory has a brain tumor and probably won’t survive an operation that might extend his life beyond the three months he’d have without it.

At this point, Emory begins to suspect the FAY movement, of which he is the hidden head—none of the marchers in the streets even know what he looks like—has been infiltrated by the government. Lying in his hospital, he wonders if it’s the local police, the FBI, CIA or NSA. When Fletcher Spivey asks Emory if he would donate his organs if he does not survive the brain operation, Emory finally bolts.

The story is refreshing. The perspective of the real outsider—not someone who has found a comfortable place within this society, but a truly disaffected young man with no prospects—is a welcome change from the standard thriller on the bookshelves. I liked the way that Birch criticizes what’s wrong with our commercial, materialistic society, but at the same time the radical counterculture. The “discontents” are not heros. Birch describes how they’ll march, protest, blog and complain about what’s wrong with society, then drive fancy cars to overpriced nightclubs and spend their parents’ money.

Discontents disproves the arguments that snobbish commercial publishers use to scoff at independent literature. The style is professional: simple, lucid prose. There are a few typos, but I’ve yet to find a commercially published title without any.

The action and the dialogue are mostly believable, and there are no plot holes. The conclusion is satisfying on many levels: it’s plausible, logical, and leaves no loose ends. But it’s not too tidy, either, and not cloyingly sweet—like a Hollywood movie can be.

About the only real criticism I have is that Fletcher Spivey’s dialogue is not believable. He’s effusive past credibility. I know that Birch was trying to portray a wealthy, patrician type, but Spivey goes too far.

What I really liked was the realism the author portrays. He is ambivalent: he criticizes our own society and culture, as well as the counter-culture. Even Emory lives quite comfortably off the largess of one of the powerful that he criticizes. The most sympathetic character in the story is Renton, a homeless man who displays the grace of an acetic.

Overall, five stars to this smart, engrossing story for making me think while entertaining me with a satisfying story and believable characters.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Book Review: Makers, by Cory Doctorow

Makers, by Cory Doctorow

e-book available as free download

With Makers, Cory Doctorow has done something I wish had: he has clearly linked the capitalistic need for economic growth with the waste it generates, the overload on the environment, symbolized by overflowing landfills, and the obesity epidemic in the corrupt, capitalistic West. At the same time, he jabs, lightning-fast, at big capitalism, sleazy journalists, earnest and good journalists who are nevertheless short-sighted business people, the police and the International House of Pancakes.

Doctorow deserves the success he has had as a writer and novelist. His style is clear, simple and fast-paced, and his characters are so believable, I fell like I’ve met them all.

Makers is set an unclear, but small number of years in the future, just after a huge economic collapse that leaves behind empty strip malls and abandoned homes on crumbling highways across America. On the other hand, maybe it’s history.

The story starts with Suzanne, a reporter with a San Jose paper who is covering the announcement of a merger of Duracell and Kodak. Since no one buys batteries or film anymore, “Kodacell” ditches those products completely. The new CEO, the brash young money genius XX, announces a radical new business model: Kodacell is going to back small-scale entrepreneurs who invent innovative new products. This sparks a “new work” revolution. People around the world start making new inventions and innovations geared at everyday needs. It works until it falls apart in a typical boom-and-bust cycle.

The focus of the novel is on the first cell, started by two self-employed engineers named Perry and Lester. They harvest discarded technology from landfills and set up a laboratory-shop in an abandoned strip mall in Florida. They explain to reporter Suzanne that so-called obsolete technology, like last year’s iPod, still contains powerful technology that can be repurposed. The demonstrate with a bunch of “Boogie-Woogie Elmo” dolls: toys that are actually robots that can walk and dance and talk. Lester and Perry reprogram them to drive a car.

With Kodacell money behind them, Lester and Perry begin developing all sorts of new technologies, which eventually coalesce into “the Ride.” This is an amusement-park type ride which shows past technologies and toys in American homes through the decades. It’s heart-wrenchingly nostalgic, as well as energizing: Perry and Lester open-source the Ride and copies, or actually different versions, pop up all across America, and then the world. (Strangely, there is little mention of Canada in the whole book—and Doctorow is a Canadian writer!)

From both geek and social consciousness points of view, one of the most interesting parts of the story is how the sharing of the Ride’s content adapts the content itself, as well as the society it reflects. There could be a whole doctoral thesis on this idea, but this novel is far more interesting.
One of the most delicious aspects of the book is the villain: the Disney corporation, or more specifically, a rising executive in Disney. Doctorow is a skilful enough writer that he can evoke revulsion at the culture-constraining aspect of Disney, while admiring how well it does what it does.

The story is not perfect (but what is?) I can’t believe the utopia of the squatter society. Surely, any conglomeration of people that size would have some bad people, and without any kind of policing, there should have been a lot of crime. At the very least, criminal gangs would have moved into the squatter town, unopposed by anything.

Maybe Doctorow is trying to make a point here, that problems are caused by the power structure that represses people with little wealth, but I cannot believe that. And it’s a shame, because everything else is absolutely credible—even the Elmo dolls that can drive a car.