Do Writers Deserve to Be Paid for Their Work?

Two great discussions of interest to writers flew around the internet this week. So great in fact that I couldn’t choose between them to highlight for you.

Do writer’s deserve to be paid for their work?

This debate blew up after Seth Godin was quoted as saying, “Who said you have a right to cash money from writing? Poets don’t get paid (often), but there’s no poetry shortage.”

You can read the original argument-inspiring article Godin to Authors: You Have No Right to Make Money Any More, and also literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s respond on her blog with do Authors Have A Right to Be Paid?

Should writers avoid controversy on their blogs?

Kristen Lamb wrote an excellent post called Deadly Doses – Politics, Religion, and Our Author Platform suggesting that unless you’re a religious or political writer, you should avoid talking about religion and politics on your blog (or at least be very careful about how you do it).

This ended up sparking responses both in the comments and on other blogs about not just politics and religion in blogging but controversy in general. My favorite reply came from Amber West in her post The Controversy Over Controversy.


Marcy’s Posts This Week

What Do We Mean By “Strong Female Characters?” – Do female characters need to deny all traditionally feminine qualities to be considered strong? The first in a series Marcy is starting.

Yoda Was Wrong – At the risk of a nerd lynching, Marcy argues that Yoda was actually wrong when he said “there is no try.”

Lisa’s Posts This Week

Mare-Milkers and War Lords – The Scythians aren’t a well-known people group, but their innovations revolutionized ancient warfare. In their day, they were the boogey-men of the Greek world. These guys were downright scary.

Reminder: As of the end of this month, Lisa and I will no longer be blogging here at Girls With Pens. Instead we’ll still be writing the posts on writing and social media that you’ve come to expect on our own blogs, and we’ll be creating a monthly Girls With Pens newsletter to bring you amazing interviews with industry professionals.

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3 Reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help Became A Bestseller

bestselling novel The HelpTime to get honest. We all want our book to become a runaway bestseller and get turned into a movie.

And we all know exactly what it takes to get there–a great book and word of mouth. That hasn’t changed and won’t change no matter what technological advancements come along. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Social media maven Kristen Lamb pointed out that one of the best ways for novelists to create a great book is to examine successful books to figure out what worked for them. Once we recognize what helped make them great, we can incorporate those things into our own books.

So today I wanted to look at three reasons Kathryn Stockett’s The Help became a bestseller.

Unique Character Voices

The Help uses three first-person narrators to tell the story. (It’s not as easy as Stockett makes it look.)  Even if you weren’t told each time you hit a switch, you could identify which character was speaking because Stockett gave them each a unique voice.

How? Well, she kept in mind their background, education, and personalities.

Abileen’s voice is lyrical but filled with grammatical mistakes. She uses “they” when she should use “their,” and “a” when she should use “of.” You can hear the accent of black women in the South 60 years ago when she says, “First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic” (pg. 1).

This is Abileen’s voice, and only Abileen can say it just this way because of who she is. She dropped out of school young to work, but always had a knack for writing, and she’s been writing her prayers ever since so she doesn’t lose the ability. She’s older than the other POV characters, and it shows in her accent and attitudes, and in the slightly slower way she moves about things.

Minny’s is sarcastic, cynical, jaded. Her speech is sprinkled with profanity and criticisms of the foolishness she sees around her. Her metaphors tend to center around food.

What makes Minny so different from Abileen? She’s younger and has more education so she lacks the accent and grammatical mistakes, she’s extremely practical, but it’s more than that. Minny looks at the world the way she does in large part because her alcoholic husband beats her. And her food metaphors spring out of her love for cooking. She never burns the fried chicken.

Whether you have one POV character or ten, each of them needs to sounds like an individual.

A Theme People Connect With

You might think the theme of The Help is civil rights and equality for blacks and women. While those issues play a huge role in the book (after all, Skeeter is writing a book that tells the real story of black maids in the South), if that was the theme, it wouldn’t connect with people on an emotional level the way this book did. Civil rights is a political issue you vote on, not something that reaches in, grabs your heart, and squeezes it until it aches.

Stockett weaves a much more subtle and poignant theme throughout each POV character’s story–the struggle to feel worthy, worthwhile, loved, and valuable.

Skeeter feels like an embarrassment to her mother. She’s unmarried and dresses in ways that give her mother heart palpitations. Her hair is completely unmanageable. When she finally gets a boyfriend, she’s forced to choose between being herself and being who he wants her to be.

Minny works for Celia Foote. Celia comes from Sugar Ditch (basically the wrong side of the tracks). She desperately wants to make friends, but her heart of gold is overlooked because she’s tacky and trashy and married to the ex-boyfriend of Hilly, who has all the other white women under her thumb.

Abileen works for a woman who’s ashamed of her daughter. Elisabeth barely picks her toddler up because Mae Mobley is fat with a bald spot on the back of her head. Abileen spends the book trying to teach Mae Mobley that she is kind, she is smart, and she is important.

Each story connects to the theme in a different way, but it’s there under them all. And it’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Fresh Descriptions and Metaphors

George Orwell advised, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” His point was that if you’ve seen it in other books before, it’s no longer fresh. It might even be verging on cliched. Worse, it makes your book forgettable.

The best metaphors stick in people’s minds because they don’t remember ever hearing them before. They also stick because they give people something tangible to hang on to.

The dread in my stomach is flat and hard and hot, like a brick in the sun (pg. 178). When I read this, I understood dread in a new way. My gut reaction was “Yes, that’s exactly how it feels. She just put into words something I’ve known all along but haven’t been able to articulate.” That makes for a memorable metaphor.

It smells like meat, like hamburger defrosting on the counter (pg. 232). Even now, months later, this metaphor still turns my stomach. This is how she described the smell of a miscarried baby. I’ve never seen a miscarried baby, never smelled what that sort of death smells like, but with this description, I knew. Stockett associated something unfamiliar to most of us to something familiar to most of us, allowing us to play an intimate part in a foreign experience. That also makes for a memorable metaphor.

Have you read The Help? What did you love about it? What else do you think made it a bestseller?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Using the Military Correctly in Your Fiction

In honor of Remembrance Day/Veteran’s Day this week, we wanted to bring you a special guest post on how to believably use military characters in your fiction. So we enlisted Marcy’s husband to help us out.

Chris Saylor is a former Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps Reserve. For five years, he served as a Combat Engineer with the 4th Combat Engineer Battalion, with which he deployed to Iraq in 2005 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Take it away Chris . . .


military characters in fictionWith the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military characters or former military characters have become increasingly popular in fiction. But for writers who haven’t been in the military, getting the details right can be a challenge.

Getting them wrong can destroy your book’s chances. Some estimates suggest that 20% of the current US population either is in the military or has served in the military at some point—and that number doesn’t even include their friends and family. If you get it wrong, people will notice.

Understanding how to realistically write military characters is important for historical fiction writers, thriller writers, science fiction and fantasy writers (knowing our military system helps you invent new ones), mystery writers, and even romance writers. So what does it take to get it right?

Here are a few things to keep in mind when writing about fictional military stuff:

Get the names of the members of each branch correct

Marines are not Soldiers, Soldiers are not Airmen, Airmen are not Sailors, and Sailors are not Coast Guardsmen. Each member of the military is proud to have earned their respective title, so use their titles accordingly.

When speaking generally about members of a specific branch of service, remember that members of the Air Force are Airmen, members of the Army are Soldiers, members of the Coast Guard are Coast Guardsmen, members of the Navy are Sailors, and members of the Marine Corps are Marines.

Use correct rank designations

If you ever watch A Few Good Men (in which two Marines are on trial for murdering a fellow Marine who complained about his working conditions aboard the Guantanamo Bay naval base), the two Marines on trial are not called the same thing every time. Private First Class (PFC) Louden Downey is referred to as Private several times, and Lance Corporal Harold Dawson is several times referred to as Corporal. Neither of those uses is correct in terms of the Marine Corps. PFC Downey would always be called Private First Class, PFC, or simply Marine. LCpl Dawson would always be referred to as either Lance Corporal or simply Marine.

A good place to find US military ranks is for enlisted ranks and for officer ranks.

Correctly describe military equipment and activities

Also in A Few Good Men, you see military inferiors being blatantly disrespectful to their superiors, Marines saluting indoors when not under cover or under arms (wearing a head cover or armed with a weapon), and military members easily losing their composure and destroying their military bearing.

Being disrespectful to superiors causes dissention in the ranks, a breakdown of the military discipline that is necessary to complete a mission or achieve an objective, and can actually get the disrespectful person hauled in front of a court martial (military court) and, eventually, put in confinement/sent to prison.

Marines and Sailors don’t salute indoors unless they are under cover (for example, a Reserve unit conducts a formation inside on the drill deck because the weather outside is too poor for a formation, so they’re all wearing their covers) or under arms (armed with a rifle, pistol, or ceremonial sword).

Bearing is one of the most important things a servicemember can have, and is related to military discipline. A person who loses their bearing is a person who loses face in front of his or her peers and superiors. It’s an admirable quality for a person to be able to hold a good “poker face” no matter the situation.

Correct terminology matters

I also tend to see military weapons referred to as guns (they’re rifles or weapons, not guns); boats referred to as ships, and vice-versa (a boat in naval terminology refers to a submarine, whereas a ship refers to surface vessels, like aircraft carriers); or combat personnel using the wrong hand signals. A good–though not always 100% correct–resource for this is

Use military dates and times correctly

The correct way to write military dates is in a YEAR/MONTH/DAY format. For example, September 5, 2011, would be written as 20110905.

Make sure you’re getting military time correct, too. Anything from one minute after midnight to one minute before 10am would be written as (for example) 0930. 10am to 12pm would be written as (for example) 1030. For anything after 1259, you would write it the same way, but add 12 to whatever the time is, so 1pm would be 1300. The only time that this does not apply to is exactly at midnight, which is written as 0000, though is often said to be 2400.

Someone who was in the military wouldn’t say, “I’ll meet you there at 7:30 tonight.” They’d be more likely to say, “I’ll meet you there at 1930.”

What questions do you have about how to correctly use the military and military characters in your fiction? Have you seen some of these mistakes before in movies or books?

Military Fiction

This is Chris


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Scaring Your Readers

In honor of it being Halloween I thought it appropriate to look at what truly disturbs us – what keeps us up late with ALL the lights on? I love to read intelligent thrillers and horror novels. Give me something truly disturbing and I’m happy. Call me crazy.

man's face - scaredEven if you’re not a fan of horror, building compelling suspense and conflict into your plot is important to modern readers. But what scares you? What gives you the shivers? What elements of fiction make stories so frightening?

Going Goth

I enjoy the classic horror: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Prometheus Unbound (Frankenstein), Dracula, there are so many. Classical gothic writers understood that the people of their time were terrified by the unknown and capitalized on their fear of the unexplained. Instead of using explicit violence, they shrouded their antagonists in mystery–a shadowy figure far off in the distance. They gave their monsters a solid dose of humanity. Study their economical word use, using context and connotation to bring added meaning.

Establish what is normal

How do you know something is off if you don’t know what’s normal? You have to establish what normal is before you can scare your readers. This is a great clip from an old movie adaptation of Frankenstein. Watch how ‘normal’ is established by meeting Maria and her kitty as she says goodbye to her father – then the monster arrives. It’s the kind of scene that you continue to watch, but with one eye open because ‘this can’t end well.’

1931 Frankenstein – The Girl and the Pond

What is truly scary?

Now, I’m not a hack and slash horror fan. Movies where the main plot is about killing large numbers of people with as much blood and gore as possible aren’t my thing. Not that those situations can’t happen – but I don’t walk around everyday wondering if I’ll be a serial killer’s next victim. What gets me are stories that are more plausible and everyday. There’s nothing inherently frightening about an empty school, an abandoned playground, or a tricycle tipped over on the side of the road – but there is something out of place that has me leaning forward. I don’t like this…

Tell The Truth

I recently read an acceptance speech by Stephen King from 2004. In his speech, he talked about how all of fiction is a lie – as writers we’re asking the reader to take that willing suspension of disbelief with us and buy into the world we’ve created however similar or different from our own world it may be. But, you must tell the unvarnished truth within that lie.

“Remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it…How stringently the writer holds to the truth inside the lie is one of the ways that he can judge how seriously he takes his craft…I’ve tried to prove myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie.” – Stephen King

If you’re facing a knife-wielding attacker how would you react? If someone’s chasing you at night, be honest – are you more likely to run into the forest or a crowded street. When writers force characters to do things that no sane person would do in that situation, it undermines the terror. If you’re piloting a plane that’s about to crash into the ocean, what would your last spoken thought be – a heartfelt plea to your spouse or an expletive?

The Monsters of Today

While an attack of killer tomatoes, a green blob, or a giant ape might be entertaining on some level, they’re not truly frightening. Really, how likely is it to find a killer tomato? But a stranger offering a nine year old a chance to see a new puppy and leading her off the playground – that’s real – that’s straight out of the headlines. A hijacked plane, a man forcing his way into a young woman’s apartment, a gang murder, a skull found in a farmyard – we know these things happen. They’re real. That’s what makes them truly frightening.

“It’s reality’s ‘what is,’ not the imagination’s ‘what if’ that can transform horror premise into horror story. It takes reality, heaps of it, to create and populate a story realm that gives the reader the frights royale.” -Mort Castle

“Horror is not a genre. It is an emotion.” -Douglas Winter

I’ve watched a few hack and slash horror films. Yeah, they’re gory and gruesome and disturbing – but am I truly frightened? No. Because I don’t care about the people who are dying for the most part. Make me care about the character first – get me invested emotionally in the story. That’s how you scare readers to bits. So much of horror is perception and anticipation.

Would Misery have been as disturbing if you didn’t care about Paul Sheldon? Or related to Annie Wilkes – in some small way? That’s what horror does best – helps us see the monsters in ourselves.

There’s A Line…

I have to say that the most disturbing movie I’ve watched recently was The Killer Inside Me starring Jessica Biel and Casey Affleck. It’s a drama, I believe, not even horror – but it garnered a physical reaction in me. After watching him pummel the woman he claimed to love to pulverized bits (modern movie makeup can be frightfully realistic), and him rape a two year old, I honestly thought I was going to be sick – literally, and turned it off.

As a writer, I have to tell the honest and unvarnished truth about my characters within the world I’ve created – but there are places I’m not willing to go – things I won’t write about. If you’re squeamish writing about certain things, don’t start characters down a path you won’t travel with them. Choose a different story, a different character, a different genre.

What story recently kept you up late with all the lights on? Why? Do you have a favorite horror story or thriller?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Reactive and Proactive Characters: Buffy vs Bella

Your main protagonist should begin as reactive and eventually progress to proactive. Buffy (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was this bada$$ character who didn’t take junk from anybody including Spike. Everywhere she went, she influenced the action around her. Bella (from Twilight) seems to be in need of rescue all the time.

Buffy the vampire slayerI love movies and television – anything that will bring me into a great entertaining story. I especially LOVE vampire stories – everything from Bram Stoker to Buffy to Twilight to Van Helsing to Daybreakers to Underworld. Bring it on. (Hence today’s title.) I love a strong female character, one who doesn’t take junk from nobody. I have no patience for the Daphne’s of the story world – remember Daphne? The female fashionista from Scooby-Doo who gushed over Fred and was always being kidnapped – ALWAYS. That’s annoying. I mean, even Scooby and Shaggy decide to be monster bait after some Scooby snacks.

At some point in your story, your protagonist needs to go from reacting to situations outside of their control, to taking control and influencing the action – otherwise (as a general rule) your readers will quit the story. Gone are the days of the 50’s pirate romances where the damsel in distress is kidnapped by the pirate and by the end sees all his redeeming qualities beneath that hard damsel-stealing exterior and falls in love with him. Oy. That’s where I quit reading and beat myself with the book as punishment for wasting my time.

Reactive characters

Usually every novel begins with a reactive protagonist. Cue the ‘normal’ scene with Buffy at school or waking up, and then BAM – a vampire appears out of nowhere and knocks her flat. She’s forced to react to a situation outside of her control or influence. Bella is reactive for nearly the entire novel – but more on her later. Most stories begin by putting the protagonist in a situation outside of their control they can’t walk away from, often a life-threatening situation. The kind of novel you’re writing will dictate what kind of situation this is and what the stakes are.

You raise the stakes for your protagonist by continuing to heap problems on them they can’t walk away from. It’s like a cliche country song – first your truck dies, then your dog dies, then your girlfriend leaves you… But reactive characters depend on others for solutions to their problems.

Proactive Characters

Proactive characters are the ones who take action into their own hands. This is when Buffy goes all – ‘that vamp’s so dead,’ and marches out of the library wooden stake in hand. She makes a decision, good or bad, and acts on it – and her action moves the story forward. It wouldn’t have been nearly as fun if Spike had to always kidnap Buffy and Angel rescued her. Yawn. What kind of vampire slayer would that make?

The proactive character doesn’t wait for others to create a solution, he is involved in creating his own solutions. They make decisions about their situation, maybe come to a fork in the road, maybe make a bad decision – but they don’t wait around for others to fix things. These characters are more interesting to read about, and because the reader is along for the decision-making process they’re invested in the character.

The Problem With Bella

Bella in school parking lot

I really enjoyed reading Twilight, it’s light and entertaining. A welcome escape from reality for a bit. However, here’s my biggest beef with Twilight – Bella is reactive. Stuff happens to Bella and she waits for Edward to rescue her throughout almost the entire novel.

She’s almost smushed by a truck in an icy school parking lot – Edward rescues her.

She’s a social outcast who’s never had a boyfriend – Edward, the guy every girl wants, decides to date her.

She’s targeted by vamps who want to eat her – Edward whisks her away to safety.

It’s not until the third-last scene in the book that Bella takes one small proactive step and agrees to escape her protectors to meet the bad guy to save her mom – and then what happens? Edward rescues her. She gets bitten – Edward sucks out the poison. A model for teen girls Bella is not.

If you’re stuck in a vamp-infested cellar in an all-out smackdown – who do you want with you? Bella or Buffy? Point made.

Luke Skywalker vs Anakin Skywalker

My son is a huge Star Wars fan. But here’s my problem with Star Wars – if you watch all 6 movies it becomes clear that the whole series is really about ‘the chosen one’ Anakin Skywalker, not Luke Skywalker as those fans of the first trilogy thought.

Everyone loves Luke. Luke runs back to save his aunt and uncle, he decides to follow Obi-Wan into unknown danger, he trains to be a Jedi with Yoda, he rescues Chewie and Leia and Hans, he faces his fears and not only defeats Darth Vader but redeems him as well. He creates his own solutions.

But Anakin? He’s found. He’s trained. He follows Obi-Wan. He does what he’s told – he complains, he cops an attitude – but he still does what he’s told by everyone: the Emperor, Padme, the Jedi Council… He reacts. He does four proactive things in 6 movies: he kills his mother’s murderers, marries Padme, and he agrees to serve the Emperor and become a Sith – which lands him in yet further reactive situations until he throws the Emperor in a pit. I think that’s a big reason why there are more fans of Luke than Anakin.

But Twilight‘s a NYT Bestseller – and it breaks this rule

I hear what you’re saying – ‘but Bella sold A LOT of books.’ Really? Bella is the point of view character, but which characters are selling that series? I would argue it’s not Bella, who is the one telling the story – you’re never in Edward’s head and only briefly in one book do you get to see inside Jacob’s head. But it’s Edward and Jacob (both proactive characters) who sell the story to fans, not Bella. Are you on Team Bella? Point proven. The secondary protagonists steal the show. I think that story would be a lot more interesting if Bella was a bit more Buffy.

Camy Tang has a really great article on proactive characters if you want to read more on the topic.

What about you? Do you agree that proactive characters are more interesting than reactive characters? Who’s your favorite character – are they reactive or proactive? What about your main protagonist?


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

How To Make Deep POV Enrich Your Internal Dialogue

Marcy and I have recently written posts about deep POV, internal dialogue, and dialogue (Marcy’s great series about dialogue continues next week), but now it’s time to take the pieces, put them together, and make your writing sing.

woman thinkingUsing deep POV for internal dialogue is a valuable tool for writers, but in the various critiques we’ve given this is also one of the areas that POV violation happens most frequently. Here are the most common offenders.


Let’s try a small experiment. Think back to the first time you entered a friend’s apartment or home. I’m betting the first details you noted were the big picture things, maybe the color on the walls, the furniture, the painting above the sofa, or the floor-to-ceiling bookcase? What did your friend notice? Maybe she apologizes for the blotch of wall color on the ceiling where her roller slipped, or warns you that the bathroom door won’t completely shut. She notes the hole in the wall where she moved the curtain rods, the dust on the books maybe, or that she hasn’t vacuumed in more than a week. Familiarity lets us overlook details in setting others would focus on.

When writing in deep POV, keep in mind what your character would notice – and not notice. Do you make a mental note of the way the sofa matches the walls in your living room? Or would you zero in on the book upended on the floor because someone’s lost your place and it will take forever to find where you left off? There are things that your character will take for granted, not mention or notice, in any situation because it’s familiar to them.

The Work-Around

If there are details that the reader needs to know about a setting that your POV character wouldn’t notice, have another character make a comment about it. “Did you paint again?” “No, but the sofa’s new.” Think about what your character would notice. Sometimes all that’s needed is a minor tweak.


Each character will bring their own prejudices, history, and preferences to the story that they may not be willing to admit to themselves and therefore not mention or notice for the reader. 3 men walk into a bar. One’s looking for his daughter, the other is looking to get drunk because he’s just signed divorce papers, and the third is looking to get laid. Their motivations for being in that setting will influence how they interpret and view what’s going on around them. One sees every man in the room as the villain who’s corrupted his baby. Another sees every woman there as a possible conquest and focuses on their ‘assets’. The third man doesn’t see any of the women there, the only face he can think about is the cheating wretch who ripped his heart to shreds.

The Work-Around

Careful word choice will give readers insight into the character’s motivation without the character necessarily having to mention it. What words would the scoundrel looking to get laid use to describe the women he sees, the music? Let his word choice and the details he notices give the reader clues about his motivations for being there.


Your POV character knows why they’re seeking any particular goal. In the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, we know from what Jack says about himself, and what others say about him, that he’s a scallywag with no honor, but he never tells us why he’s chasing the Black Pearl or keeps a pistol with only one shot. Why would he mention it, he already knows! Gibbs tells Will a story about Jack that’s mostly true, answering one or two audience questions, but leaving us with another unanswered.

The Work-Around

The best way to use backstory is in small snippets. Backstory should answer a question for the reader, but always leave them with a new one. Take the men in the example above. How would the man drowning his sorrow talk to himself? Would he dwell on his pain, remind himself why he’s trying to get drunk, describe the betrayal in detail? Would he reminisce about meeting the woman in question, sharing breakfast that morning. Not likely. Jim downed the third shot of whiskey, his throat and chest burning. Not enough. He still remembered her name — could still see them together in his bed. He slammed the shot glass on the bar and nodded to the bartender.

Attention To Detail

When you first met your spouse/significant other, what was it about them that first struck you? Was it because they had beautiful eyes, or beautiful blue eyes? We often remember small things, but in great detail. It’s the specific details that jog our memory or create what Malcolm Gladwell calls stickiness in his book The Tipping Point. We’re all attracted to different characteristics, use those details to tell the reader about your character.

The Work-Around

Don’t have your character catalog every detail about a setting, event or another character. Rather, choose one or two details that are sticky. Choose details that are specific and memorable to that POV character.

Kait Nolan’s new ebook Red is a YA urban fantasy and has fantastic use of internal dialogue. Notice what Sawyer (male protag) first notices about Elodie (female protag). “She was crying. Not that she was being noisy about it. She wasn’t hysterical or red-faced or wailing. She was absolutely silent. I caught the faint glimmer of tears on her cheeks, saw her shoulders shudder with the effort to hold in her grief.” What does this observation tell us about Sawyer?


There’s a line from the first Pirates movie where they talk about the Pirate code “The code is more like guidelines than actual rules.” There are always exceptions to writing rules, but a couple of quick thoughts before I finish. If it’s part of your character’s personality to break one of these guidelines, then do it. If your character has OCD, then having them catalog their morning routine might be a characterization technique. If your character has just miscarried, perhaps they’re painfully aware of every pregnant woman they see. Just be sure you have a good reason to break the rule.

Do you agree with these ‘guidelines’ or have one of your own to add? Share it in the comments.


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

5 Tips For Writing Deep POV

“What is the key to spellbinding, page-turning writing? Emotional connection between your readers and your characters! Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, learning the secrets of deep POV will make your writing come alive in the hearts of your readers.” Simon Presland

What is deep POV?tandem skydive landing

Deep POV (deep penetration point of view) is intimate or limited third person point of view. This style of writing doesn’t just put the reader in the car with the main character, or even in the passenger seat, but puts them in the character’s lap in the driver’s seat. The reader wants to experience in real time the vibrations in the wheel, the wind in her hair, see what’s in the rearview mirror, and feel the slide of the stick shift into the next gear.

One of the best advantages to learning deep POV is that it almost entirely eliminates telling in your writing. Check out our post on 5 ways to know if you’re showing or telling. Here’s a crash course in deep POV:

Tip #1 – Eliminate Distance and be Immediate

For deep POV, readers want to be in the action as it happens.

Tony watched as a beautiful woman walked across the room. He felt his body react until he saw her greet a tall young executive with a kiss. What he wouldn’t give to switch places with that guy, he thought. Ho Hum

In deep POV: Tony leaned forward, mesmerized by the swish of her short skirt as she strutted across the room. Hands trembling, he swiped at the sweat budding on his forehead. She stopped in front of a seated executive in a power suit and greeted him with a possessive kiss on the lips. Figures. Tony’d give anything to switch places with that guy.

I put you in the action of the scene by removing he watched, he saw, he felt, he thought. I added emotion by showing how he was feeling through a physical reaction. Remove words or phrases that keep readers at a distance such as: watched, felt, knew, saw, appeared, looked, seemed. Every sense, thought, feeling must be immediate and transparent to readers so sparingly use words like as, when, until, etc.

Tip #2 – Emotions

Deep POV is more than just internal dialogue (a character’s thoughts). Deep POV is concerned with emotions primarily, those gut reactions that influence our thoughts and actions – something we all do often without realizing it. Show a character’s emotions through what they see, hear, feel, sense, remember, experience, etc. You need to invoke all the senses and dig deep for a full range of emotion within a character’s personality and motivations to pull this off. Make your readers care about your character, and they’ll keep reading.

Exercise: I picked up this exercise from Getting into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. Think of a recent event or experience that brought out a strong emotion in you – love, anger, fear, etc. Mentally relive that event and shut out everything else going on around you. To take this further, capture the rhythm of the moment by patting your thigh – the higher the tension or emotion the faster you pat. After a minute, stop. Take stock of how your body has reacted. Are you tense? Achy? Tired? Is your brow furrowed? Is your heart racing? Your body reacts physically without you being consciously aware of it – but this is how you SHOW your readers what’s going on with your character through deep POV instead of telling.

Tip #3 – Characterization

Crafting three dimensional characters is critical, but in deep POV if a character is flat your story falls apart at the seams. Characters must have a measurable goal – desire, be compellingly invested in achieving that goal – motivation, and have a specific plan on how to reach their goal – plot. A great resource for this is Brandilyn Collins’ book Getting Into Character. Marcy wrote a great post on creating 3 dimensional characters. One caution – limit deep POV to 1 or 2 characters – your main protagonists usually. It can become draining and hard to read if all the characters in a story are written in deep POV.

For example: In C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter’s goal through the story is to keep his family together. Peter’s invested in this objective because with his father fighting in the war, it falls to him as eldest to protect his family. He would rather die than go back to his mother and report that he’d failed in his duty. His plan? Keep his siblings safe by staying together and out of trouble. Story happens when obstacles to Peter’s objective force him to deviate from his plan – conflict.

Tip #4 – Voice

Deep POV automatically creates voice for your character. Take the rewritten example above for instance – the woman could have skipped, strolled, stumbled across the room. For the POV character he saw her actions as intentional and attention-seeking, she strutted. In his eyes, she knew that men were watching and encouraged it, enjoyed it, sought it – and it made him want her. That’s character insight and gives your character a voice.

Tip #5 – Memorize this: action, decision, thought, emotion

There are exceptions to every rule, but generally this is the predominant sequence of events when writing deep POV. Every scene should have action and reaction. (If a scene has no action or reaction, then seriously consider whether it needs to be there at all.) Deep POV is no different. Let’s walk through this.

(action) Knock, knock. “Landlord, open up!”

(decision) Danny ran for the window, heaved up on the sash, and climbed out on the fire escape. (thought)  I’m dead if he finds out I don’t have rent money again. (emotion) Heart racing,  he took the stairs three at a time down to the street, unable to keep the smile off his face.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. It should be action, thought, decision, emotion (the last two could be interchangeable) – and when this action/reaction event happens in our brains that’s how it works. But in fiction, the general rule is action, decision, thought, emotion.

Deep POV is a more advanced concept, check out Marcy’s post on the most common point of view problems if you’re just beginning your writing journey.

Each of these tips could be a blog post on its own. So let me ask you – are you using deep POV? Do you prefer to read stories written in deep POV?

Today starts our second Mary DeMuth giveaway. Here’s what you need to do for a chance to win Watching the Tree Limbs:

(1) In the comments, answer one of the questions above.

(2) Tweet this post (make sure you include @MarcyKennedy somewhere in the tweet so that we see it). If you don’t use Twitter, you can post a link to this post on Facebook instead (and tell us about it on the Girls With Pens Facebook page).


**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

5 Ways To Know If You’re Showing Or Telling

Show don’t tell is a basic writing concept that applies to both non-fiction and fiction writers. It makes our writing so much more interesting – but it’s a hard concept to grasp when you’re starting out. Here’s 5 easy ways to know if you’re showing or telling.

Naming Emotions
man screamingHe was angry. She hated him. He waited anxiously. She paced with pent-up anger. This is telling. Naming emotions is a quick way for writers to tell the reader what’s going on. But it’s not very interesting to read. SHOW how they feel, and dive deeper than clenched fists. Watch the people around you, think about your own body language. What does someone who’s angry look like? How do they carry themselves? Does their voice change tone or pitch?

Emotions can have many layers. Anger especially isn’t a primary emotion, but is a reaction to another emotion generally. When my son was 3, I turned for just one minute to pick out some apples, and he was gone. I frantically searched up and down the produce department. I called out his name. Other shoppers turned to stare. How could I lose my son? What’s he wearing one asked me. When I finally found him, he held up a loaf of bread with a huge smile on his face. “I found the bread for you, Mommy.”

First thing I did was hug him, grateful to have found him safe and whole. Then I grabbed the bread from his hands and jammed it onto a nearby shelf not caring if it was smushed or not. Was I really upset with the bread? No. The anger was a reaction to being scared and a little embarrassed.

Dialogue Tags
He growled. She screamed. He bellowed. She begged. This is telling. Write dialogue that’s clear and succinct, and use action beats to SHOW the reader how to interpret what the character is saying – or not saying. Check out our post on the Power of Said.

Telling: “Get out,” she screamed. “I never want to see you again.”
Showing: “Get out.” She pointed a stiff finger toward the door, her body rigid. “I never want to see you again.”

Showing will mean extra words, but you’ll get better at writing tight and being concise.

Abstract Descriptions
She was good looking. The lake is beautiful. These, and other terms like these, are too abstract and only tell the reader about a scene or a person. This is a great opportunity for character development. Show the reader why the character finds something beautiful, let the reader see the world through their eyes. What makes the lake scene beautiful to them? Is it the tall birch trees reflected in the water just like at the cottage when she was a kid? Is it the morning mist and the knowledge that the fish will be biting, or the view of her family in the canoe? What is it about her that he finds good looking? Is she dressed immodestly? Does she remind him of his mother? Is it because she sacrifices her Saturday mornings to weed her grandmother’s gardens? Use the opportunity to give readers a glimpse inside the character’s mind, motivations and desires.

Weak Verbs
Choosing strong descriptive verbs over weak verbs is an easy way to pump life into your writing. He walked to the principal’s office. What does this show us about the character? Nothing – it tells the reader where he is and what he is doing. Walked is a functional verb, and there are times when this is appropriate. Sometimes you just walk to the door, pick up the phone, start the car… Enough said. But reexamine how you use these verbs. Choosing stronger verbs that do double duty and show the reader more about how the character feels, what they’re thinking, etc. are more economical and keep movement in your story. Skipped, marched, strolled, trudged – these are all going to give the reader more insight into the character than walked.

He marched to the principal’s office. The girls skipped down the hall holding hands and giggling. With his hands in his pockets, he avoided looking at anyone as he rushed to the principal’s office.

Author Intrusion

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know.” If you’d been around when Andy was younger, you’d know he was hearing his father run him down again even though his old man had been dead for ten years.

Author intrusion is a POV problem, but it’s also telling. When you have to interrupt the action or conflict to tell the reader something, or to make sure the reader ‘gets it’ that’s author intrusion. In the days of Mark Twain and others, writing from an omniscient narrator POV was popular, but it’s not done anymore. When you find yourself doing this, stop. Use internal dialogue to show the reader what’s going on, or have the point of view character observe the change in Andy’s demeanor and body language. What if instead the scene went like this:

Andy shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Elaine held his hand and waited for him to look at her. “Hey, you’re not that little kid anymore. Your dad’s gone. You can do this.”
The corner of his mouth turned up. “Yeah, maybe.”

You see how the second example gives the reader all the same information without the huge flashing neon lights from the author that says – see this! Make sure you get this. This is important. Isn’t the second example more interesting to read? Give your readers some credit. This is what critiques are for. If the reader doesn’t get it, then you go back and edit – but don’t jump into the story. Let your reader experience the story alongside your characters.

Do you have any more clues about recognizing if you’re showing or telling?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

How To Create Three-Dimensional Characters

The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible – Mark Twain.

If your readers find your characters boring, flat, or stereotypical, a great plot won’t save you. Even plot-driven novels need three-dimensional characters.

Creating three-dimensional characters means making your characters as complex and unique as a real person. And to do that, you need to know them as well as you know yourself (maybe better).

Because I’m a planner, I use a character worksheet for at least my main character, love interest, and villain. If you’re a pantser and learn about your characters as you write, keep these points in mind and jot them down someplace as you go. Then if you finish your first draft and find a character isn’t three-dimensional, you can look at your chart and see what area you missed.

Formative Events In Their Past

Three-dimensional characters don’t leap fully formed from a test tube (unless you’re writing a sci-fi novel). They were born somewhere and grew up somewhere. Rather than detailing every aspect of their childhood, I focus on the pivotal events that formed their personality and directed their future. These come in four types.

  • Catastrophes: the death of a parent, sexual abuse by a babysitter
  • Small Incidents: going hungry because they lost their lunch money, overhearing their cousin say how boring they are
  • Life Patterns: being overlooked because they grew up in a family of talented siblings, never learning how to make friends because they moved around a lot
  • Family Values: don’t show emotion or affection in public, work must always come before play

The formative events in their past should act as proof of why your characters are the way they are, even if the reader never learns about them.

Major Weaknesses

Flawed characters are more relatable. As readers, we also feel like we can learn from a character with weaknesses. A perfect character just makes us defensive.

Remember that a strength for one person can also be a weakness for another depending on the situation and how they use that characteristic. It’s partly a matter of perspective. The flip side of determination is stubbornness.

Major Strengths

SuperheroLimit the number you give to your hero. In your head, he might very well be smart, handsome, brave, loyal, funny, determined, creative, sensitive–you get the idea–but for your novel, you need to pick the ones that best characterize him and focus on those. It’s the difference between a kaleidoscope of color where everything blends together and you don’t remember any single shade (regardless of how beautiful the result is), and a black wall with a single bright splash of red and a single bright splash of blue.

Give your villain at least one real strength as well. You’ll humanize him, and in the process, make him a more formidable opponent for your hero. (For more on creating believable villains, check out my post A Walk On The Dark Side.)

As you’re setting up your villain, try to make him strong where your hero is weak.

What Do They Want and Why?

Brandilyn Collins’ calls this desire in her book Getting into Character. Randy Ingermanson calls this ambitions and goals in his book Writing Fiction For Dummies. Both ideas are basically the same, but Randy’s terms help separate the two levels that you need to figure out.

An ambition is an abstract, high-level concept. For example, I want a well-behaved dog or I want a happy marriage.

A goal is specific, concrete, and measurable. If your ambition is to have a well-behaved dog, your goal might then be to have a dog who doesn’t beg during dinner and who obeys all your commands.

The steps your character takes to reach their goal and the obstacles they face in their quest are what drive your plot.

Along with setting out my character’s ambition and goal, I also include why they want to reach that goal. What’s the motivation behind it? You’ll often find this is connected to a formative event in their past.

Obviously the worksheet I use to create three-dimensional characters is longer than this. I also figure out things like their greatest fear, what makes them angry, bad habits, quirks, and so on.

Jody Hedlund’s character worksheet is almost exactly like the one I use. You can also find other examples at Charlotte Dillon’s website.

My suggestion is to start with these as templates to customize your own.

What’s the one thing you absolutely need to know about your character before you start writing? Do you use a worksheet like me, or learn about your characters on the fly?

**We’ve moved! Please join us at our new permanent homes. You can find Marcy at her website and Lisa at her website.

Why Writers Should People-Watch

I love to people-watch. I watch how they carry themselves, the expressions on their faces, their dress, and emotional expression. We had plenty of time to watch people on our California trip.

“Careful, I’ll put you in my book!”

Writers are always asking questions and watching the people around them, picking out this mannerism or that expression for the characters we create. The best way to make sure our characters are authentic is to see how people react in a variety of situations. Marcy made us a ridiculous 4 hours early for our red-eye flight from San Jose at 10:30pm local time scheduled to arrive in Atlanta at 6am local time (we had to cross a couple of time zones). We were very tired, but there were lots of people to watch in the airport .

people waiting in airport Two men sat across from us at the gate still dressed for the office. I turned to Marcy and nodded at the younger of the two men. “Tell me his story.” (It’s hard to discreetly stare at someone btw, especially when you’re too tired to care what they think of you.) The target looked to be in his late thirties, early forties. He wore a thick gold wedding band, and even though he wore a suit jacket and pants, his shirt collar was open to reveal a white undershirt – no tie.

Marcy came up with this crazy story of how he was the inventor/owner of an odour-eliminating shoe company. Boo. She cheated. She was supposed to create a story based on what we could glean from his clothes, attitude and manner. We had a good laugh (at which point I believe he realized we were studying him).

He slouched in the moulded plastic chair watching the hockey game on his phone. He didn’t cross his legs, or stretch them out in front of him. His clothes were unremarkable, neither expensive nor shabby. I pictured him with a wife and young kids, a business man by default not choice. Maybe he had an aptitude for his business, but didn’t care for it much. He was taking this late-night flight so he could put his kids in bed and have supper with his family before being away for a few days. He’d much rather be at home in his sweats watching the game on his big screen, his wife reading a novel next to him on the sofa.

As we lined up to wait for the boarding call, Marcy and I descended into obnoxious banter and juvenile giggling. You know – that stage where everything is funny and you’re incapable of lowering your voice? I was fascinated by the change in the man we’d been watching. He stood behind us listening in to our conversation at first, but slowly turned away. His toe tapped to a rhythm only he could hear. He edged his carry-on between us.

“I hope I don’t sit near them,” he said to his friend.

He found us irritating. (Shocking, I know.) His complete disdain showed in every facet of his stance. He’d gone from realizing we were staring and being slightly amused (and maybe a little flattered by the way he kept glancing at us), to completely turned-off in a manner of minutes. I instantly realized the difference between a mature man and a young man. His opinion had of us had gone from ‘interested’ or  ‘maybe’ to ‘I’m too old for that nonsense’. A whole range of emotions peeked through from curiosity, surprise, irritation, to frustration. We boarded the plane and never saw him again, and I’m sure he was thankful to be rid of us 😛

I can only imagine what people watching us were thinking, I’m sure we gave them a few story ideas too. But as writers, it’s important to watch people go through a range of emotions and see how they express those emotions. Do they talk with their hands? Watch their body language. I could tell the man behind us was irritated long before his comment to his friend. How did I know that? Use these small details to bring your story to life for readers.