Setting the Stage: A Writing Exercise

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May 032012

by Michelle Gagnon

For a change of pace today, I thought we could tackle a writing exercise. One of the things that’s struck me during our critiques lately is that I’m not alone in sometimes neglecting to include enough descriptive prose to set the stage for my stories. In fact it’s such a weakness of mine, I rarely add much detail in first drafts. I get the plot and dialogue in place, then go back during the editing process to flesh everything out. In all honesty, scenery description is my least favorite part of the craft of writing. 

For one, remembering to include all five senses is always a struggle; I have a terrible sense of smell, and have to remind myself that my characters might not. Also, describing anything from a basic room to a crowd scene is rife with pitfalls; there isn’t a writer alive who hasn’t caught themselves typing out a trite cliche about the shape of the moon, or something similar.

So when my book is set somewhere specific, I rely heavily on photographs. The corkboard behind my desk is always layered with photos representing nearly every scene in the manuscript. I find that looking at them triggers sense memories, especially if I’m writing about somewhere I’ve been. I remember how streets in Paris are always wet in the morning, having been freshly washed by maintenance crews just before dawn. Or how the light in Central Park shifts dramatically season by season, or how the air in South America just tastes different (maybe my sense of taste is stronger, to compensate for that lack of smell).

Below I’ve pasted three photos. Pick any one and describe it in a paragraph, or use it as the jumping off point for a scene. Take care to avoid overused metaphors: “The sea was dark as slate,” for example, or, “The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg.” 

Bonne chance!

Apr 042012

By Joe Moore

If you write mysteries or thrillers (or any genre, for that matter), there’s nothing more rewarding than to have someone say your book is a real “page-turner”—that they couldn’t put it down. And there’s nothing more fulfilling for a reader than to find a book so captivating that they can’t stop reading. Naturally, the writer has to develop a compelling story populated with three-dimensional characters and enough conflict and tension to keep a reader’s interest. Those things are givens, and it’s the writer’s job to craft those elements into the manuscript.

But did you know that there are some simple formatting tricks that anyone can do to improve the readability of a manuscript and keep the reader turning pages. And what’s really cool is that you don’t have to change your story at all to benefit from them. Not a word.

Trick #1. Write short chapters.

Whenever a reader gets to the end of a chapter, they must make a decision to read the next chapter or put the book down and go do something else. It’s a natural stopping point or a launching point to the next part of the story. If it’s late in the evening, many times that decision involves continuing to read or going to bed. What you don’t want them to do is put down the book. When a reader finishes a chapter and comes to that late night decision to stop or read on, they usually check to see if the next chapter is short or long. If it’s only a few pages, there’s a really good chance they will read one more chapter. If they get to the end of that next short chapter and repeat the checking process again, they won’t go to bed. They’ll keep reading. And you will have setup a format that they’ll come to expect and rely on.

This tip does not mean that every chapter must be short. What I’m suggesting is to examine each chapter and see if you can split it into two. Or even three. After all, the same information is going to be imparted. It’s just going to happen in multiple segments.

There’s always going to be a need for longer chapters. Just ask yourself if that 6k-word chapter you just finished writing could be broken into multiple chunks. Remember that you want to entice the reader to keep reading.

Now I know that some writers will react by saying, “Well, my chapters end when they end. Short, long or in between, I write until the chapter naturally ends itself.” Fine. Do whatever you’ve got to do to write a great story. This trick may not be something that fits your writing style. But from a physical standpoint, readers tend to keep reading if they feel the next chapter will take just a few minutes to finish.

From a personal perspective, my co-writer and I try to bring our chapters in at around 1000 words. I know, some of you will think that’s way too short. But one of the most frequent comments we get from our fans is that in addition to enjoying the story, the short chapters kept them up late. We’ve had more than a few readers blame us for them not getting enough sleep because they decided to read “just one more chapter”.

Trick #2. Write (or format) short paragraphs and sentences.

This trick is closely related to trick #1, but it involves the visual experience of your book for the reader. It also involves setting up a distinctive and comfortable rhythm and tempo to your writing.

As you read, your eyes not only move along the sentence but your peripheral vision picks up the “weight” of the next sentence and paragraph. You’re reading a single sentence, but you visually take in the whole page. As your mind plays out the story from one word to the next, it also calculates what is coming up next, and  causes you to be subtly energized or marginally fatigued. It’s like driving across the desert—if the road stretches in an endless ribbon to the horizon, you become tired just knowing you have a long way to go to get to the next break, or in the case of the book, the end of the sentence or paragraph. But if the road is only a city block or two long before you start down the next stretch of highway, you feel less overwhelmed by its mass (paragraph) or length (sentence). Shorter paragraphs and sentences keep the eye from getting fatigued. They allow the reader take a mental “breather” more frequently thus keeping their attention longer. And it’s also a tool for controlling reading speed.

Shorter sentences move the story along at a faster rhythm and tempo because the eyes moves quicker and your peripheral vision sees less bulk and weight on the printed page ahead.

Trick #3. Eliminate dialog tags whenever possible.

If there are only two characters in a scene, eliminate as many dialog tags as you can without confusing the reader. The dialog itself should help to identify the character as should their actions. Even with more than two characters present, staging can help to reduce dialog tags. Staging and actions also help to build characters. Dialog tags don’t. If the reader knows who is speaking because of their actions, the number of tags can often be reduced or even eliminated.

Trick #4. Title your chapters.

Your book has a title for a reason. It sets the mood or intrigue of the whole story. Consider titling your chapters for the same reason. Like the book title, a chapter title is a teaser. When a reader ends a chapter and turns the page, nothing is more boring than to be greeted with the totally original title: Chapter 23. Or worse, just 23. Why not give the reader a hint of what’s to come with a short title. Don’t give anything away, just use the chapter title as an enticement—a promise of things to be delivered or revealed. Use it to set the stage or create a mood just like the book title. I believe that each chapter should be considered a mini book. Chapters should have beginnings, middles and endings. And one way to tempt the reader to keep reading is with a compelling title.

Tricks like these are never to be considered a substitute for solid, clean, professional writing. They are only tricks. But they work if used in the mix with all the other elements of a great story. And the only way for you to know for sure is to give them a try.

Beyond these formatting tricks, does anyone recommend others that can enhance the reader’s experience?

Feb 082012

By Joe Moore

We’ve all gotten them. Some are personalized and contain constructive criticism. Others are form letters addressed to “author”. Some have been photocopied so many times that the cryptologists at the NSA couldn’t even decipher rejecttheir original message. Or they might arrive as a brief thanks-but-no-thanks email. They all say the same thing: your manuscript is not for us.


There are numerous ways to deal with literary rejection. We can all imagine the negative methods. But today, I want to discuss the positive ways to deal with the not-for-us letter.

After you’ve amassed an impressive stack of rejection letters, start by asking yourself if your query letter or synopsis might be the issue. You might have written the next Great American Novel, but if your sales pitch—your query letter—doesn’t do the job, the editor won’t want to move to the next step of requesting a sample. One method of improving your query and synopsis is to get help from an impartial third party such as a published author, writer’s forum or critique group. If you know someone who’s already published, ask if they can read your letter and give you advice on where you might be going wrong. Many online forums such as AbsoluteWrite, Writing Forums, and others have specific sections on query evaluation and feedback. Use them.

Next, you want to determine if you’re really targeting the appropriate publishers or agents. This is where you need to study the market. Go to the local bookstore and find novels that are similar to your manuscript. Make a note of the publishers. Many novelists include the name of their editor or agent on the acknowledgements page. Note those names. Then go online and visit the publisher’s websites. Read the descriptions of the plot on Amazon and B&N, and compare to yours. Google the agents names. Look at their list of clients. Are those writers some of your favorites? Do they write books similar to yours? Do your homework and focus on specific publishers and agents that deal with your kind of book.

Another question you need to ask yourself is if your book is as good as it can be. Of course, you’ll probably answer yes. Then take a moment to really consider the question. Are you being rejected repeatedly because the manuscript is just not ready for publication? Chances are, it probably isn’t.

So what should you do? Again, get outside help. One of the best ways to improve a manuscript is to join a local critique group. Most towns and communities have a library. Ask the local librarian if there are any groups that meet in the area. Check with the local bookstore. They usually know of critique groups or have bulletin boards that might list them. Critique groups that are made up of serious writers can be a huge benefit to helping you improve your work. Just remember that critiquing is a two-ways street. You want honest and sincere feedback, and you need to be prepared to give it back to your fellow members. There’s a very good chance that a group of fellow writers can help you get your story in shape so you can start submitting again.

Finally, don’t shoot the messenger. Agents and editors are in business to make money. If they don’t sell books, they go broke. If they don’t discover new books from new authors, they eventually go out of business. Their rejection of your work is nothing personal. Chances are, they don’t even know you. All they know is what they read in your query or sample. And the reasons for rejecting a manuscript can be as numerous as the number of submissions they received that day. Don’t blame them.

Forget about the lame excuses like: publishers only publish big established names and famous people. Or your book was rejected because it’s “different”, experimental, too unique for mainstream. Or you can’t believe they rejected your book when there’s so many bad books published. Go to The New York Times bestseller list. Look at all the writer’s names. Each and every author on that list was once an amateur struggling to get someone to read their manuscript and dreaming of making money as a published author. Every one of them fantasized about seeing their name on that list. What did they do? They realized that rejection really doesn’t mean “not for us”. It means “not ready for us yet”. Now go fix your book.

Any rejection stories to share? How many rejection letters did you get before that first book was published? If you’re published, do you still use a critique group or beta readers?