Saturday, December 26, 2015

No Unnecessary Words

Sometimes I read books that I feel could be written better, and I want to run to the nearest computer and fix it, or at least write the author a very long, detailed letter. I had been thinking about this, and even started writing up an article of writing tips I’d gleaned from people smarter than me. Then I got a review that mentioned one of my faults, and I realized I needed my own advice as much as anyone. So, for me, and for anyone who might be reading, here are some compiled tips and quotes from some of my favorite sources to explain how to make good books better.

As I was collecting, I soon noticed a theme. Most of the things I wish other authors knew could be framed around a single quote, published in that Bible of writing books, “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. It is this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary lines, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Here are some of the things I have learned…or at least heard… about making every word tell.

What’s the story about?

How many of you want to read this story?

Jenny was getting married. She loved her fiancé, and he loved her. She picked the flowers that she wanted. Grandma gave her the necklace she had worn as a bride. Mother chose the veil, and she herself found the most amazing dress. Everyone agreed that it was perfect.

If anyone keeps reading, it’s because they’re hoping the next line is:

She should have known something would go wrong.

The character defines the story. The plot defines the characters, and the stakes define the plot. What does the character stand to lose? If nothing is at stake, you have no story, and your character cannot grow. In Writing Magic, Gail Carsen Levine puts it this way: “Why do you keep reading a book? Usually to find out what happens. Why do you give up on a book and stop reading? Often, you don’t care what happens. What makes the difference between caring and not caring? The author’s cruelty. And the reader’s sympathy.”

On the other hand, having the stakes too high, for too long, is a problem I often find in the last book(s) of a series. From page one, the world is in jeopardy, the heroes are about to die, evil seems to be winning… If it starts out this way and never stops, the reader stops caring. Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, explains, “As [the hero or heroine] face ordeals, or come under threat, so we feel tense and apprehensive. As the threat is lifted, we can relax. Our own spirits are enlarged… We feel a sense either of constriction, or of liberation. And in a story which is well-constructed, these phases of constriction and release alternate, in a kind of rhythm which provides one of the greatest pleasures we get from stories.”

Do you remember the graph that almost every Language Arts teacher draws in middle school? The one that shows the action of a story starting slowly, then gradually increase in intensity, spiking with a climax, and come crashing down for the resolution? It’s funny how many writers forget.


“Dialogue should reveal character or further the plot,” says author Tim Wynne-Jones. Dialogue should not do the grunt work of a narrative, fill in backstory, or tell the reader something that the characters already know. It also should not include ordinary conversations for the sake of “reality”. He explains, “Write dialogue that allows for a character to say what they might say if they had an extra twenty seconds before replying.”

Anne Lamott adds, “You’re not reproducing actual speech—you’re translating the sound and rhythm of what a character says into words. You’re putting down on paper your sense of how the characters speak… [What you record] should be more interesting and concise and even more true than what was actually said.”

All through elementary school, I was taught to never use the word ‘said’. It took until college before I learned that this isn’t true. Said is a perfectly good word. All of the other tag words are like spices—they add flavor, but use them sparingly.

The quote is not the only important thing in dialogue. Gail Carsen Levine says, “There’s more to dialogue than just speech. Body language can communicate as eloquently as words, and sometimes more truthfully.”


“Hi,” he greeted.

“Oh, hello,” she answered.

“I saw you at the supermarket yesterday. I saw that you were buying a lot of food,” he noticed.

“Yes. I am having a dinner party tomorrow. We are having pork chops, mashed potatoes, and green beans,” she explained.

“I know that you have dinner parties every month. That sounds like a lot of work,” he commented.

“It is a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it,” she replied.


“I saw you at the supermarket yesterday,” he said. “What’s with all the food?”

She didn’t meet his eyes. “I decided to cook extra,” she answered. “It’s always good to have leftovers…”

He slammed down the cell phone he was holding. “Are you holding another dinner party without me?”

“I wouldn’t call it a party.” She tried a laugh, but it came out shaky. “I just invited a few close friends.”

“A few close friends,” he repeated. “And none of them are me.”


Fight scenes, which are basically violent dialogue, follow the same rules.


Mack punched the man in the face, and then ducked. Jack’s fist swung over his head, missing his nose by inches. Mack kicked Jack’s ankle and felt a satisfying thud. Then he grabbed Jack’s arm and twisted it behind his back. Jack yelped, struggling to break free. He got a hand loose and flailed. His hand bumped Mack’s arm with no effect at all.

Example (abridged from “The Storm Testament III” by Lee Nelson):

Again Storm instinctively reached for the whip end. Again the wiley snake was withdrawn before the young man could grab it. Beneath the bandana it was difficult for anyone to notice that the grin had finally vanished from Storm’s face….

As the dust settled, each man trying to tighten his grip on the other, Blackjack began to laugh again.

“What’s so funny?” hissed Storm through his clenched teeth.

“Just seems kind of crazy,” replied Blackjack after a brief pause to tighten his grip on Storm’s arm, “You and me killing each other just to put on a free show. Seems funny. Makes me laugh. Makes me feel stupid too.”

Beneath the bandana, Storm’s grin returned.


Who’s willing to admit that they skip over the big long descriptions of the setting? Or shuts a book that begins with the description of a sunrise? Or ignores the paragraph describing how a character looks and imagining them however they want?

In Word Painting, Rebecca McClanahan explains, “Description isn’t something we simply insert, block style, into passages of narration or exposition. Yes, sometimes we write passages of description. But the term passage suggests a channel, a movement from one place to another; it implies that we’re going somewhere. That somewhere is the story.”

Her book contains many excellent examples on the use of description. I’ll mention one: the power of description to set the mood and the emotion of the scene. This is a paragraph from my short story, The Stone Hand:
 Later, Reece said that both of them had done it. She didn’t believe him. In any case, her memory of the next few minutes was clouded with heat and noise, bright lights and acrid smoke. Then she and Reece were standing side by side in the yard while the house burned. Heat seared her face, and popping sparks screamed nine years of fury.

Tiny details make the difference, and the word choice can reflect the mood. A cloudy sky could be gloomy, pretty in swaths of purple, confining, swirling in frenzied anger, hovering near like a suspicious neighbor.


Sunny was short and willowy, with short blond hair and bright blue eyes. She was self-confident and usually happy but she had a mean streak, and a bad habit of spying on people.


A pair of bright blue eyes disappeared from the window. “All right, Sunny,” Keita called. “I see you.  You may as well stop sneaking around.”

The girl popped into sight without a trace of embarrassment. “Hullo, everyone,” she said, running a hand through her short blonde hair. A smirk was hiding in the edges of her smile.


Every Word Tells

I could go on. Backstory, flashbacks, themes, explaining the world and its rules… the same principle applies to all of them. If it moves the story forward, use it. If it does not advance the plot or reveal character, change it or take it out. This is something I’m still working on; I suspect I always will be.


These are some of my favorite writing books, which I highly recommend to anyone wanting to make their stories better:

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (some mature content)

Writing Magic by Gail Carsen Levine

Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan

The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White

Thursday, October 8, 2015

I Was Blind

This is a poem I wrote after attending a Sunday School lesson about Jesus healing the man who was blind.

So many types.
Light and dark, bright and dull.
I have no words for these things.
Which color is blue?
So this is a sky.

So many movements.
People hurdling, hurdling, hurdling by.
Voices question, threaten, accuse.
I hear the anger, the fear, in the voices.
Now the feelings have faces.

A face stops.

A face I could not have seen,
A face I know.
I know His voice, the man called Jesus.
The man they say feeds, heals, makes whole.
The man who mended me.
He calls himself the Christ.

I was blind.
Now I see.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

My Choice

The other day I was discussing abortion with some Facebook acquaintances. Their basic viewpoint was that abortion is "not ok" but that it's not the government's business to make that choice. (While discussing this with my husband, he said something like, "Deciding who is and is not allowed to kill people is very much a role of government. Regulating doctors is also a pretty basic role of government." However, my purpose in writing this article has nothing to do with further debate.) While the Facebook conversation definitely did not change my mind or my vote (I'm not sure Facebook posts ever do), it did make me think about this.

In America we believe that the government is a representation of the people. So, if we really want to end abortion, maybe we should be looking at other ways to make a difference. I'm not talking about other political policies. We already decided that government isn't the answer. Maybe politicians or famous people can say "everybody should do this" or "the government should do that", but for little me, saying that "the world should be this way" is an exercise in frustration. We might as well say that the world should be paradise and have done with it. So, laying aside our political beliefs, working together whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, what is something that you and I can do personally to help people make good choices? I would love to see other people's ideas and comments on this. Here are a few things that I've thought of:

My life is pretty sheltered (though I prefer the word 'blessed'). Most of the people I know belong to the same religious culture I do. They are honestly striving to follow important commandments such as the law of chastity that make life so much simpler... and, though I'm trying not to be judgmental, better. And, as "the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them" (Alma 31:5), it seems to me that missionary work ought to be on the list of ways to help mothers make good decisions. Spreading the word of God is a way to change people's hearts, and let the laws and politics follow. Again, I'm not saying that "everybody ought to be a member of our church" or  "people should listen more to missionaries". I'm saying that those of us with good, moral lives should talk to our neighbors, talk to our friends, and try to help spread the principles that lead to happiness.

Another idea that came to mind is to use the spheres of influence that we have. I communicate best through writing. Sometimes words haunt my mind and do not go away unless I write them down (thus, I have this blog). I also just published my first book. Novels shouldn't be written purely with a political agenda (that's not a story, that's a soapbox). But I find that my beliefs and experiences do help me to write. Once I euthanized a dying baby chick, and even though my reasons in my head were solid, the second I killed him I had an instant emotional reaction I didn't expect. The experience became a part of my book, where the main character enters a battle and ends up killing someone. My feelings of horror when I hear about abortion came into the story in the climax, when the main character sees the result of prejudice that ended up killing many children. The theme of motherhood comes up continually, and I have a feeling that these thoughts on changing hearts instead of laws is going to be very prevalent in the sequel. I also feel that young adults don't have enough experience with parenthood or children, as families shrink and/or break. I noticed that young adult novels, if they have children at all, use children as heart-wringing props to show how evil the villains are. The dear children must be saved... but they aren't characters, and they aren't human. In my book I tried to show the children as characters. Some were hurt, you might call some of them victims, but I hope I showed that they are individual people, valuable not only because of who they can become but also because of who they are.

My last idea is the hardest. My thoughts on these subjects were interrupted as I needed to leave the house and run some errands, which means I needed to take my three little boys with me. I realized that one thing I can do is to show people the joy of motherhood. This is not easy when taking little boys in public. I'm usually trying to show people that I am not insane as I try to keep them in some sense of order. But maybe that reaction is making things worse. Maybe I can try for a balance, so that I'm still teaching my boys not to run in the road or disrupt other people, but I'm doing it in a way that emphasizes the fun and joy of it. Lately I've been trying to answer people who say "you have your hands full" with "and my heart's even fuller" (this is difficult for me because I struggle to talk with strange people). If you have ideas and tips on how to do this, please share.

So, there are a few thoughts that I've come up with. Again, I would love more ideas on how I could help people to make good decisions, not as a voter but as an individual. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Behind the Spectra

I don’t know when my dream of publication began; the earliest mention of it in my journal comes from high school. In “Mckay Recycled” by my college friend Mckay Coppins, he points out, “The thing is, I don’t think you can be a writer—whether you’re a journalist or the guy who writes the hazard signs for every ride at Disney World—and not dream of seeing your name on the cover of a book.” Now, a decade after I graduated high school, writing and dreaming the whole time, my first book is finally coming to print.

One of the few non-Pokémon stories that I began in middle school was about a group of kids who each personified a different element, represented by a different color. I titled it “Rainbow Warriors” (my friends had to point out why this might not be an appropriate title). I never got further than a few chapters, after the yellow-electricity girl was forced to go swimming for PE and had to be rushed out of the water by her other magical friends before she exploded and zapped everyone. The idea lived on in my imagination, though, and the abilities of the different groups became clearer with each daydream.

All through college, I had been working on a story about teenagers who are on their own after the electricity in their desert town runs out. I edited and polished, but the basic plot was too much like a daydream and not enough like a publishable novel, and eventually I abandoned it. Soon after, I had a dream where the color-element kids were royalty, running away from bad guys through a castle and jumping through hidden doors in unlikely places (like the refrigerator). I played with the idea, wondering which clan different family members would be in, and it developed into a story. (Which are you? Find out here:

For around three years I worked on the new story, which I called The Specta: Seeds of Light. I was learning a lot about writing, checking out books from the library, even attending the Utah Writer’s Conference. I sent a few query letters to agents. For readers of the Spectra books, that first book followed Keita Sage as she learned about her arranged marriage, met the other royal heirs at the Summit, travelled to Brian’s home in Muselands, and finally survived the Stygian takeover. Here is one of the plot descriptions for Seeds:

 *      *      *
Keita Sage is a Sprite, one of six clans with different super-natural abilities. She can change form, heal wounds, and beat her brother in tree-climbing contests. But her ties to her homeland are about to be severed as her father, engulfed in politics, decides to marry her off to another clan. Leaving her kingdom for the first time, she finds more than new friends, new cultures, and new boundaries to cross. Investigating the other heirs leads her to discover the Stygians, an ancient society scheming against the clans. 

Keita is tired of being sheltered, and she’s determined to find out more about this threat. But can she leave her homeland, where her brother and sister are among the Stygians’ targets, to seek the help of another kingdom? 

 *       *       *

In between rejections, I started work on the sequel. I had gotten a few chapters in when I realized that the entire first novel was nothing but backstory, and the whole thing ought to start with the sequel I had just begun. So, I started over, and in about a year I had the working draft for the new version, ‘The Spectra Unearthed’. I also worked on all the extra fun stuff, from maps to family trees to computer graphics of the characters.


Again I started looking for agents. The lack of internet at home and addition of children to our family slowed me down, but a year and forty queries later, I started thinking about other pathways to publication. I decided that reaching a huge audience through a traditional publisher was not necessary, so I started researched self-publication. In the past, self-publication meant purchasing hundreds of copies of your book and trying to sell and ship them all yourself. Now there is another option, called POD publishing, which can print small numbers at a time and ships them for you. I researched many companies and decided on I liked that they not as expensive, had a wide-reaching audience (especially for ebooks), and required a quality check that meant that they had a good reputation for selling decent material. So I sent in my novel and was approved.

The first step, after signing the contract, was to reread my story. I’d edited it many times during the year that I was searching for agents, but I decided to do one last in-depth edit, especially looking at details and word choice. My husband and I did this polishing together. We also figured out what bonus material to use (the acknowledgments, appendix, title page, etc.) I also started working with a cover designer. I had drawn a few covers on my own, but I knew that they were not high quality enough.


I gave the designer the text for the back of the book as well as a list of images that were important in the story, and he assembled them together. I’m picky about human figures, probably from drawing them pixel by pixel, so we decided to leave them out of the final cover:

I also started working on the website. I chose to make one for the series instead of for me as an author. The series will have six books, plus possibly another couple that fit in the same world, so I figure I have plenty of time before I think about publishing something else. I wanted to post some of my extra material that I’d created in making the Spectra world. I researched website hosting companies but eventually chose, which I’d already tried out with a free site for my homesteading attempts (see insert). I paid for the premium service, and I went to a separate site to buy my domain name to make sure that it was private. I published the website at about a month before the book came out (in retrospect, I probably should have waited a few more weeks).

It took a few weeks to get everything together: the cover from the designer and our fully polished manuscript. Then we sent it all in, and Booklocker sent it to the printer. My first copy arrived in the mail about a week later. We read it and approved it (although there were a couple small things I would have liked to change if it didn’t cost so much), and then the publisher put the book up for sale!

Now I’m in charge of getting the word out and trying to promote it. Some of the things I’m working on include:

The website at

A YouTube advertisement video at

A YouTube video of me reading the first chapter at

Thursday, June 18, 2015

How Eggs Hatch

I have noticed an appalling lack of knowledge in our culture about the hatching of eggs. In movies and online, they typically show the hatching creature bursting from the egg, all at once, with shards flying everywhere. This is my attempt to correct this problem. This pattern should hold true for any hard-shelled animal, so if a dragon, for instance, has a hard shell, it would also hatch in this way. If it had a leathery shell like other reptiles, hatching would look different, but then you wouldn't really have people carrying them around and trading them and all those things you do with dragon eggs.

Incubating a chick egg takes exactly three weeks, which is kind of amazing. Twenty-one days to grow from a microscopic cell to a walking, cheeping ball of cuteness... how come people can't do that? I suppose I should be grateful that nobody is planning on eating my nine-month incubated baby...

So, a few days before hatching, the chick breaks through the inner membrane and receives her first breath of air (I say her, because chicks are all female until proven guilty). You can hear tapping and cheeping, and see the egg rock back and forth. 

A day or so later, the chick has managed to make a small hole in the fat end of the egg. We call this stage pipping: 

After this, the chick takes a well deserved break. She may remain still for several hours. Finally she begins to make the hole larger. She's moving in a circle, chipping away piece at a time. We call this zipping:

After an hour or so, the chick has made a line all the way around the top part of the egg. Now she needs to struggle and thrash, moving around until she can squeeze through the hole she has made and emerge into the light:

She isn't very cute yet. She's a scrawny little thing resembling a dinosaur with proportionally huge legs. She doesn't walk very smoothly either. She stumbles around and tumbles over and looks very awkward. But give her a few hours to dry off, and practice using those legs. Then she'll fluff up and turn into that adorable fluff-ball we all recognize:

So, now you know. No more of this instantaneous bursting nonsense. Right?