Writing Tips, Advice, Exercises & Prompts

by Laura Michelle Thomas, Author of Polly Wants to Be a Writer: The Junior Authors Guide to Writing and Getting Published

Send your question about writing, editing and publishing to laura@laurathomascommunications.com

 

“The best way to be a writer (artistically and marketistically) is to be your true self. Don’t play it cool. Just be.” – LMT

What is the best way to impress a publisher or agent? There are some concrete things you can do to sell yourself as a professional writer, including:
1) Build your publishing resumé and have that ready to present at any time.
2) Sell yourself to the right publisher or agent, not to one who does not sell the kind of work you do.
3) Have your elevator pitch ready at all times.
4) Be respectful and highly professional in all communication.

How do I describe characters within the word limits of a short story so that they appear believable to the reader? This is a two-part question, so I’ll give you a two-part answer.

First, how do you describe characters within the limits of a short story? In a short story, you only need to share the characteristic that is most connected to the story problem. If a line of description about your character does not directly relate to the story problem, you should cut it when editing. Another tip is to keep the cast of characters small and only have one protagonist. If you have just one protagonist and you only work on describing the one thin about him/her that is important for the story problem, you will have more space to develop the other elements of your story.

Second, how do you make a character believable? Know who your protagonist is. Know what he/she wants or needs in this particular story. Create a three-dimensional biography for this character and then reveal the most story-connected aspects of this character to the reader through the story. Do not rely on stereotypes when creating your main character. Short stories demand uniqueness and specificity to create a high-level of interest.

I’m editing my novel and I don’t know how to evaluate my characters. Help! Get rid of any characters who are not advancing or complicating the plot or who do not reveal something about your main character. To clarify what I mean––there are characters and there are characters. Of course a story world needs “extras” on the set to give it life, however they are more like setting than characters. But once those extras start talking and acting, what they do or say could serve the plot or deepen our understanding of your main or minor characters. For example, in Harry Potter’s world there are a ton of students at Hogwarts. But not every student has a name or is described, those who are either complicate Harry’s life or reveal something about him or one of his allies or enemies or help thicken the setting which in turn thickens the plot.

“A writing career is built in small steps, letter by letter like this: k-e-e-p b-u-i-l-d-i-n-g.” – LMT

Should I change the font or use italics for flashbacks? I wouldn’t use italics or change fonts for flashbacks unless it’s otherwise confusing for the reader. The best way to check is to have someone read a page or two with the font all the same and see if they get confused or not. Just ask someone to read it, but don’t tell them why. If they get confused they will tell you. If they don’t then you’re good. I’m not a fan because italics can be distracting and you don’t want anything to break your story’s spell.

Don’t be seduced into believing that your first draft is perfect. Tuck it away for a few days and then unleash your literary dragon. Don’t know what a literary dragon is? You need to read Polly Wants to be a Writer. – LMT

Polly sharing shelf space with The Hobbit at Chapters on Robson Street in Vancouver.

Polly sharing shelf space with The Hobbit at Chapters on Robson Street in Vancouver.

 

I received your email about jaBlog! now accepting creative non-fiction, and I am very excited. I love writing memoirs, but I’m also curious as to what kind of creative non-fiction jaBlog! is accepting. Do you have any tips for me about writing creative nonfiction? We are accepting memoirs, essays, literary journalism, and any type of non-fiction writing that has a highly creative flare, even poetry, which can certainly be considered creative non-fiction when it’s based on a true event. The main thing to keep in mind is that every fact in your piece must be true and verifiable. You can’t make stuff up and then call it creative “non-fiction.” Our focus, as always, will be on publishing non-fiction posts related to writing and the writing life, but that can be loosely interpreted. You are a writer; boldly show us your thoughts and voice on any subject that matters deeply to you.



 

I’ve just recently finished writing a short story and I’m ready to publish as an ebook, though I don’t know of any publishers. Would you have some suggestions? From what I understand, Amazon’s CreateSpace is a good place to start. There is also BookBaby. You could browse through the jaBlog! archives and look for book reviews (we pretty much only do reviews of self-published books by junior authors like yourself) and see what platforms the other young authors have used.

There are several varieties of heroes. Some go willingly on the adventure, others do not. Which type do you prefer writing about? – LMT

If I want to use a pen name, will I have to fill out a bunch of extra paperwork when I sell my novel? No you won’t have to complete any extra paperwork. Why? Because you will not be signing your publishing contract with your pen name. You can’t. You must use your legal name on any contract or you could run into huge problems once a publisher discovers that you have not been honest with them. Signing under a false name would render any contract void and you could also be on the hook for any money already spent by the publisher on the project. With the publisher’s blessing, the name that goes on the cover of your book, however, can be your pen name. What you don’t want to do is communicate with the publisher under your pen name. You must correspond in your real name and tell them that you wish to publish under your pen name. Also keep in mind that there is no truly good reason for a unpublished author to use a pen name. Pen names are optional and in the age of web-marketing, your publisher will expect you to have one name online for all of your social media accounts: either your real name or your pen name. Make sure you have an excellent reason for using a pen name. If you don’t, it could very well be a deal breaker with a publisher.

I have an idea for a book but I just can seem to write it! You need Polly Workbook #4: Write a Novel. Everything you need for your novel project is in there. In the meantime there are some good articles on jaBlog! that we published this fall on overcoming writer’s block and writing when you don’t want to write. Browse the archives.The bottom line is that you need to give yourself permission to write an awful first draft.

Writing Prompt: A fairy in a clinic for depressed salesmen.

I’m afraid my work will be plagiarized if I publish it. You cannot stop other writers from using your ideas. Ideas are not protected by copyright law. Copyright law covers your stories or poems as you have written them down and published them. But things like the story title or character names or settings are generally not protected. It really doesn’t matter though. I can almost guarantee that no one will try to steal your work, word for word. Letting that fear stop you is…well…you might as well quit writing, except in your journal…and that would be sad. To quote Ms. Whitford from Polly Wants to Be a Writer: “The world needs your stories.

Most of the people I know are nice and boring. I don’t read to meet more nice and boring people. Give me quirky, dramatic, feisty, difficult, outrageous, etc. – LMT

How do I know if my novel idea is a good one? Every story has already been told and every setting has already been imagined. Being a writer has nothing to do with “good” ideas. It has everything to do with how well you tell a story. Any idea can become a masterpiece. Perhaps you are putting too much effort into overthinking the idea. Once you get a seed of a scene in you imagination, you need to write so that it can develop. There are no short cuts. You have to log hours in your chair with your fingers happily tapping away on the keys. Also, keep in mind that your first draft is supposed to be a mess and far from perfect. That’s where you explore your ideas free from the nagging voice of your literary dragon.

Writing Prompt: Go to the kitchen. Chose a random object. Write a juicy sentence describing that object. Now use that object as a deadly weapon in a short story.

I’m participating in NaNoWriMo. Do you have a tip for me? Start today’s session by writing a short note to your literary dragon. Close your eyes and think about that voice inside you that tells you to stop, go back, and fix what you have already written. That is your literary dragon. Imagine what he or she looks like. Give him or her a name. Now write your dragon a short note. Explain that you truly appreciate your dragon’s critical eye, but that you don’t need that kind of help today. Today––and everyday that you are writing your first draft––needs to be dragon-free. Tell your dragon that he or she can have a turn when you start revisions, but not before then. First drafts suck and that’s normal. By muzzling your dragon you will find it easier to keep writing forwards (no matter how bad the draft is) until you get to the final scene.

Story Ideas: Here are three places to find story ideas online. 1) An intriguing image posted on Tumblr. 2) A provocative statement posted on Facebook. 3) One of the topics trending on Twitter right now.

Where do I find a good idea for a piece of fiction? I actually don’t believe that the original idea matters at all. Any idea can become an excellent piece of fiction. The work is all in the writing process that flows from the idea. That’s really the difference between being a wannabe writer and a professional writer: thousands of hours going through the writing process from start to finish. Once you have the process down, you can pretty much write anything at a publishable level.

Writing Prompt: Janet woke up early Sunday morning and dressed herself thoughtfully. She didn’t want to seem like she was trying to hard, but she wanted to exude at least some of her prior dignity at the ________________.

What is style and how is it different from subject or genre? Style is not the same as genre or subject matter (which we do not give marks for in our contests). Style is how you put the words on the page. Think of style this way: you can give four people the same monster costume, but each person will put it on differently. One might add make up, one might change the colour of the hair, another will start speaking in a monster’s voice, while the other will not change a single aspect of the original costume. That’s style. Authors have their own style. And when we are judging a short story, we give a mark for style, which also includes grammar and spelling. How easy or difficult is the writer’s style to follow? Does the style help the story or does it make the story unnecessarily difficult to understand? Is the writer careless or careful with the words? Those are the things we ask ourselves when judging the contest entries.

What is a simile? It is a figure of speech in which two things are compared using “like” or “as”. The challenge with similes is to come up with ones that are fresh and original, not cliché. Here are some overused or “cliché” similes: busy as a bee, gentle as a lamb, easy as pie, silent as the grave, sick as a dog, white as snow, tall like a tree, shining like stars, struck me like a bolt of lightening. Try to come up with unique, thoughtful comparisons.

How do I get my idea for a novel out of my head? By sitting down and writing a terrible first draft and not worrying about how perfect your story is or isn’t at this preliminary stage. Play, write, be creative, have fun, and don’t overthink or criticize your first draft. First drafts are awful. They’re a mess. Muzzle your inner dragon and go for it.

Saying everyone is a writer is like saying everyone is a lawyer…or an astronaut. – LMT

How do you come up with good, unusual character names? I don’t believe that there is such a thing as a good, unusual name for characters. I believe that the character makes the name. The name does not make the character. In other words, I don’t sweat names. A name in itself is meaningless. It’s the actions and the words and the thoughts that make a character good and unusual (or interesting). I do, however, keep a baby name book on my desk, and when I need a name, I’ll browse through it and choose one that speaks to me at that moment. I don’t put much thought into it, though. I go with my gut. Having the book handy just ensures that I don’t sit there without typing trying to think of a name. I try to keep my writing sessions moving, especially during first draft sessions. I can always change a name later.

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Have a question? Email it to Laura and she may answer it here.

 

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55 comments on “Writing Tips, Advice, Exercises & Prompts

  1. Sana

    Hi Laura,
    I’ve been working on a novel for close to four years now. I have put that novel aside on several occasions out of frustration. I’ve always struggled with ending my stories so I put it aside in hopes of learning more and improving by writing short stories. Before I put the project on hold, I was more than 100 pages in (single-spaced Times New Roman, no additional spaces for chapter breaks/new chapters). I thought I could go back to it, but now I honestly don’t know anymore if I should keep what I have or start from scratch. It’s hard to let go of something I’ve worked so hard on for so long, but then again, I don’t want to be stuck in the same rut for any longer. Should I throw it out and start from scratch or continue working with what I have? And how can I improve my process so the endings aren’t so difficult for me?

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Sana,

      I have a few tips for you:

      1) You need to finish this book in first draft format, even if it stinks! Remember that a first draft is not supposed to be good, it’s a place to start. Keep writing until you get to an ending. Any ending.

      2) Give yourself no more than one month to finish the first draft. Pretend you have a deadline. Put a date on your calendar. If you really are a writer and not just a wannabe, you will sit and do the work, no matter how hard it gets.

      3) Use a timer for your writing sessions. Do one hour at a time, then take a break.

      4) Don’t stop again. Write every day or two so that the story stays fresh in your imagination. Every time you stop, the story fades and you double or triple your workload.

      5) Don’t give into the temptation to work on any other writing projects right now. Just work on your book.

      6) Finish. Finish. Finish.

      7) Email me when you are done.

      Now go write!
      Laura

  2. Hi, Laura
    For ELA, we were partnered up and had to write a short story about self-discovery or responsibility. I could not focus on writing the majority-voted story, and when I reluctantly gave in to the whispers of my other half, 3.25 pages of words were forced out; I was wondering if you could read it and tell me what I could do to improve it.
    And also, how can I get into the habit of writing? While I was writing, it was hard to get into the writing mood. And sometimes, my fingers itch to write something, but I always end up staring at a blank page, ideas swirling around my head instead of comprehensive words. And, often times, the pages end up with doodles and sketches, but not a letter of any alphabet in sight.
    Writing is easier for me on my laptop or after I had read an amazing novel (#The Book Thief #fangirl) or when I am in the right mood with the help of a good song (#Bad romance: Women’s Suffrage). But I can never focus when writing on paper(I’d grown too dependent of this technology), and that needs to stop. How can I just go with the flow? Follow where the adventure travels to and not fear or force it.
    I’d write a few paragraphs, then I’d lose track of the other half of me that is needed in order for us to write a story that flows independently, naturally uphill. Forcing the words out always worked, but one of us would get impatient or irritated–or we would both become horrified of the childish writing ‘forcing’ turned into–and she or I or we’d give up. The writing itch would come in when one if us had given up, leaving the other still hoping.
    My writing style could be childish (essays), cringe-worthily formal(what I am writing at this very moment), normal(very chatty/critic) eloquent(I hope), and I like that I can write like a different person–not at will–but I want to find my own personal style other than fashion, something nameless that, when a person reads it, will say, “Why does this seem familiar?”
    Anyway, I seemed to have gone off track of both topic and traffic–which is grammar. Here is the link to the short story: http://www.sunnyworkshop.blogspot.ca/2014/06/double-dare.html
    I look forward to your reply,
    Sunny

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Sunny. If you could take all of this and boil it down to a single question about writing that I could help you with, what would that question be?

  3. Ami

    Hi Laura, we have purchased the feedback for junior competion. However when we upload the story for competition, it didn’t ask for the receipt number of the feedback. Will we still receive a feedback? Just unsure on how it will recognize the submission with and without feedback being purchased?

    Appreciate your reply,

    Thank you

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Amy. That’s okay. The store gives me a record of the purchase so that I can match the name and email address on the receipt with the entry.

  4. shirley

    I saw your video by Laura about common formatting mistakes and how to avoid them.
    I cannot locate that video anymore ( not sure where I saw it) . Can you please email me the link?

    Thanks,

    • shirley

      Hi Laura,
      Thanks.
      In the U tube you mentioned: Justify your manuscript to the left side.
      However under sample manuscripts, in http://laurathomascommunications.com/manuscript-format/ the sample manuscripts looks center justified. Please confirm.. should it be left justified or center justified for submission of story for competition?
      Thanks

      • Laura Thomas

        Hi Shirley. The sample manuscript is justified to the left with an indent at the start of each new paragraph. It’s only the title and author’s name that are centred. I may update that image to show an entire manuscript page. Thanks for bringing my attention to that.

  5. Dani

    Hi Laura,
    I’m currently writing a few stories with point of view changes, what would you do to show that the point of view was changed without writing “Callie’s Point of View”?

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Dani. I would use a hard hiatus. You would put * * * between scenes, centred in the middle of the line.

  6. Aninthitha

    Hi Laura!
    i read all your tips on writing but i am still stuck!
    I am planning to write a book and the plot, characters, scenes, everything is perfect in my mind but its just not coming on paper
    can you help?

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Aninthitha,

      Planning to write a book is not the same as sitting down and writing it.

      Understand that the first draft of your novel will be terrible. Don’t expect it to come out of your head with the plot, characters, settings, etc. perfectly in place. Keep your expectations low and let yourself have fun as you write the first draft. Be open to the ideas that come to you. Be creative. This is the time to muzzle your literary dragon and just write.

      When your first draft is finished, you can take the muzzle off your dragon and let him/her help you make your revisions.

      My prescription is to read Polly Wants to Be a Writer. The main character, Polly, struggles with this very problem right from the first chapter. She has great ideas for stories, but just cannot seem to get them out of her head and onto the page.

      Go for it! :-)
      Laura
      aka Ms. Whitford ;-)

      • Aninthitha

        thanks a bunch! i’ll tell you when i have finally finished it!

        • Laura Thomas

          Please do and have fun!

  7. Tista Ray

    Dear Laura,

    Does a short story necessarily have to contain a crisis? Even different experiences, events with moral aspects do make a good story. Don’t they?

    Thanks,
    Tista Ray

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Tista. You need some kind of tension. It can be subtle, a small climax, but something that keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen next.

  8. Tista Ray

    Dear Laura,

    Can a poem or short story submitted for jaBlog be also submitted for your contests?

    Thanks,
    Tista Ray

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Tista. It would be a better idea to submit something fresh rather than recycle the same piece.

  9. Tista Ray

    Dear Laura,

    Does a poem need to have paragraphs of same length or same number of lines?

    Thanks,
    Tista Ray

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Tista. Not free verse.

  10. Akshta

    Hey Laura.
    There is going to be a competition in our school where one has to write a story using computer terms. The story has to be narrated and the rough part says that the time limit (for the narration) is 1:00 minute. I’m not comfortable with the short time limit and not sure whether I will be able to even present the conflict and solve it. Chances like these are rare in our school and I don’t want to loose one like this. Also, will the ‘focusing worksheet’ be required or help me in such a short story?

    • Laura Thomas

      Hi Akshta. I’m not sure what you mean. What do you mean by “computer terms”? Which focusing worksheet do you mean? You’ll have to tell me more so that I can answer your question.

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