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So…You Want To Be A Writer?

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Here are some of the simple lessons that you should learn before you venture into becoming a WRITER.

I have read this article from the Manila Bulletin Online, under Youth & Campus:


First tip, for the frightened: When in doubt, use “who.” Using “who” incorrectly simply makes you sound casual.

Using “whom” incorrectly makes you sound like a stuffed shirt with a bad education. That said, here we go:

“Who” is a pronoun that is in the nominative case. In other words, it is the subject of the verb.

“Whom” is a pronoun that is in the objective case. In other words, it is the object of the verb (or preposition).


Who is that man over there? (“who” as subject of verb “is”)

To whom did you give the prize? (“whom” as object of preposition “to”)

Trouble descends when writers mistake “whom” as the object of a preposition when in fact it is the subject of the following verb:

Wrong: Give the prize to whomever earned it.

Right: Give the prize to whoever earned it. (“Whoever” is not the object of the preposition “to.” It is the subject of the verb “earned.”)

Is it any wonder this gets confusing? It helps to look at the entire sentence:

Wrong: I wondered whom you thought did the best job.

Right: I wondered who you thought did the best job.

The entire clause, “who did the best job,” is the object here. This one’s trickier because “you thought,” a subject/verb expression, separates the true subject (who) from the true verb (did).

Try switching the sentence around if you aren’t sure whether the pronoun should be a subject or object:

Right: We have to believe whomever your mother believes. (Your mother believes whomever.)

Right: Tell your aunt to bring whomever she wants. (She wants to bring whomever.)

Bonus examples:

Right: We have to believe whoever your mother believes is right. (whoever is right)

Right: Tell your aunt to bring whoever she thinks is witty. (whoever is witty)

* Emergency tip: You can always rewrite sentences to avoid the pronoun altogether! And again, if you really, really can’t fathom the differences, stick with “who.”


SCENE STEALER. Write a scene that contains a felled tree, a stray cat, and a broken toaster. Add a pair of sequined shoes for good measure.

INSPIRATIONS. Sometimes you can get inspiration for one art by drawing from another. I keep a big cache of art postcards — reproductions of museum paintings — and go through them every so often to find something that fits a character or mood that I wish to create in a story.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” might conjure just the melancholy a character is feeling, or an example from one of the cubists might reinforce the tipped-over sensibility in a novel with an unconventional structure. What I do is hang up the appropriate post card near where I’m writing. When I feel the mood slipping, or the prose coming to a dead stop, I look at the painting again — I mean really look at it — to try to recapture that mood.

Some writers tell me they do this with music. For example, to get into a character’s head, they listen to the music their character would listen to, whether it’s a Vivaldi concerto or Patsy Cline. The music keeps them anchored to the character. If music is too distracting (I prefer quiet work sessions), you could try listening to your character’s music just before you sit down to write. His/her music will be in your head, but the room will be tranquil enough for some concentrated work.

SCHEDULING. Make yourself a schedule for any contingency. This really works! I have several different schedules that I hang up near my work station, e.g., a “working day” schedule, a “writing day” schedule, a “business day” schedule, and so on. That way, no matter what kind of day I am faced with, I always have a structure to fall back on if I need it.

If you have to ferry kids around all afternoon, or work at a grocery store from 8-5, you are more likely to include something of a writing life if you schedule it in. Your schedule will reflect your own priorities and rhythms.

A “writing” day might look like this:

9am – 11am: Work on new novel/stories

12pm-2pm: Answer phone messages/email

2pm – 2:45: Read over morning’s work, make revision notes

3:00 – : Kids, etc.

A “working day” might look like this:

8am – 5pm: At work

8pm – 9:30pm: Work on new story

9:30 – 10pm: Make notes on next scene

A “business day” might look like this:

7am – 9am: Work on fresh material

9:30am – 12pm: Write query letters; work on book proposal

1pm – 2:30pm: Catch up on email/phone messages

3:00 – 6pm: Print stories that are ready to be sent out; write cover letters; go to post office; trip for office supplies

I was raised Catholic and therefore possess a highly tuned sense of reward and punishment. Here’s the drill: Plan the reward first. A bottle of Ridge Geyserville zinfandel, a round of miniature golf, a night of karaoke, whatever floats your boat.

To get this reward you must write 16 pages of one thing. (Sixteen first pages don’t count.) If you fail in your mission, forget the punishment — I’m not as Catholic as I used to be. But do start over until you succeed within a reasonable deadline. Then, enjoy your reward!

HAVING TROUBLE KEEPING ON TASK? Give yourself the following marching orders: You may not check your email, play Solitaire, surf the Web, or do anything else on your computer except write — until a certain time in the day. My time is 3 p.m., which is email time. (I deleted all the games that came with my computer, which is a little extreme, but after kicking a “Doom” addiction a few years ago, I remain a bit squirrelly.) Stick to this edict and you’ll be shocked at how much more you produce. This means you!

TAKE A VACATION. Lots of people take vacation time. Even writers. If you’re headed for the shore, or the mountains, or to your best friend’s apartment for a week of catching up, don’t bring your writing with you. Bring a journal if you must, but even journals can mar that important free time.

KEEP A JOURNAL. On a panel discussion that I participated in recently, a writer named Nancy Heiser mentioned keeping a “progress journal.” This is a little book in which you write a short account of the day’s work. “Worked on revision of Story X”; “started new story about lost alligator”; “threw out alligator story and went back to novel”; “read story by Alice Munro”; “rewrote last paragraph of Story Z”; etc.

This idea struck me as so affirming — a way to account for what so often feels like lost time — that I instantly went out and bought a beautiful journal (paid ten bucks for it!) in which to record my literary efforts. I already feel smarter, zippier, more productive! Today’s entry will be: “Updated ‘tips’ section on website.” Hey, at least I did something.

REJECTION? Sending out your work for publication can be a soul-crushing enterprise. Rejection — and for quite a long period, constant rejection — is simply part of the writing life.

A friend of mine who was a National Book Award finalist confessed that his book had gone to 23 publishers before finding a home. One of my favorite stories–and in my opinion one of my best–went to 15 magazines before getting accepted. I knew it was good, and just kept going. I am continually appalled at students of mine who give up after three or four tries. Are you a writer or a mouse?

To keep yourself from dying of rejection, put your rejection slips into categories. A slip with anything written on it means a human being read it and liked it enough to respond. Celebrate. A story that comes back looking as if squirrels ate part of it for lunch? Ditto. It was read, presumably not by squirrels.

Blank rejection slips attached to a pristine copy of your story (the paper clip is in exactly the same place) are hard to reconcile, and I have no advice except to remind you that this happens to all writers, even ones who publish a lot. The only way to make sure you never get rejected is to never send out a story.

A PLACE TO WRITE: There is nothing more motivating to any writer, at any level of experience, than to have a room of his or her own.

I have my own little studio in the back yard. It changed my writing life. But even if your space is just a TV tray in the corner of the bedroom, make it totally yours. Hang up an inspirational quote or two (“Be here, now” is my current favorite), add a vase for keeping pens, a ceramic bowl for paper clips…anything to press your presence upon your space. This is your space, and you deserve it.

THE LAST LINE: Problems finishing your stories? Start with a last line. Any last line. Have a friend (or even an enemy) give you a last line. This is what you write towards. The line will almost certainly change by the time you get there, but in the meantime you will have tricked yourself into finishing something for a change!

DON’T QUIT. When you’ve been writing awhile and feel yourself losing steam, make a cup of tea, go back to your work, and don’t allow yourself to officially quit until the tea is gone. You’ll end up with at least another sentence or two, and maybe even more.


SHORTEN SENTENCES. One effective way to reinforce a tense or suspenseful passage is to shorten the sentences. The language then tends to echo that heart-flutter feeling that comes with tension. For example, here is a passage that describes a woman not knowing what to expect when entering a room:

The door had been left partly ajar, whether by the super or by one of the kids in the downstairs apartment, she couldn’t be sure. She put one finger on the door and pushed, holding her breath as it swung open.

Now, the same passage, with chopped-up sentences:

The door had been left partly ajar. The super? One of those kids from downstairs? She touched the door. Sucked in her breath. Pushed.

AVOID VERB OVERUSE. To make your prose more buoyant, avoid overusing any form of the verb “to be”: am, are, is, was, were. Very often, you can blame a dull passage on this dull verb. Compare this:

It was a lovely day — the sun was blinding, and the air was cold.

with this:

Despite a blinding sun, the air cracked with cold.

Once you commit to purging the verb “to be,” you force yourself to find more interesting constructions in order to avoid it.

KNOW CHARACTER’S BIRTH DATE. This one will sound a little loopy, but it works for me. Know your character’s exact birth date. Then, check his daily horoscope — or, if you are so inclined, read his cards, do up her numerology chart, or study his I Ching. It’s silly, yes; but will give you ideas about a character’s possibilities that you might not have come to otherwise.

TITLES, TITLES. Some writers have a terrible time with titles, so here’s an extremely subjective primer on choosing titles.

The best titles, in my view, contain a noun — not an abstract noun like gratitude or restitution, but a muscular, concrete noun like lawn mower or blanket or streetwalker. Often, the noun has a modifier: “The 500-pound Lawn Mower”; “The Last Green Blanket”; “A Streetwalker’s Bible.” In short, pick something that puts a picture in the reader’s head, along with a mystery. Think The Virgin Suicides. Think The Bluest Eye. Think The Sweet Hereafter.

Verb forms make for uninteresting titles, I think, especially gerunds. “Disappearing” is my worst title ever, to an early short story. Gerunds strike me as too thematic, too calculated to announce the story’s intentions. Titles like “Telling Lies,” “Leaving Home,” “Knowing the Score” (not actual titles, to my knowledge) don’t draw me in. There is no picture to hang onto. Waiting for Godot is terrible, if I may be so bold; The Bald Soprano is great. Verbs can work well, though, if used as an imperative — for example, Come To Me by Amy Bloom; Read This and Tell Me What It Says by Manette Ansay.

I also love possessives in titles: My first published story was called “Alison’s Hair,” and I still like this awkward, young story, partly for sentimental reasons, but mostly because the title still pleases me.

One more thing about titles–often they will come late in the writing process, as a sign that you finally “get” what the story’s about. What a feeling!

AVOID MONOTONES. When writing in the present tense, vary your sentence structure to avoid stylistic monotony. Present tense has a way of announcing itself sentence by sentence, making the prose sound staccato and blunted. Example:

Ezra pulls up in front of Rosamund’s house. He gets out of the car. He checks her windows. The house is dark. Her mailbox appears empty. He paces the sidewalk. He wonders what to do.

This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. Some people claim to hate present-tense stories, but I suspect that’s only when they are aware of the present tense. Unless the blunt assault is exactly what you’re after, mix up the syntax. Collapse two sentences into one; begin with a phrase rather than a clause; play with more elegant constructions. Example:

After he pulls up in front of Rosamund’s house, Ezra gets out to check her windows. The house is dark. Pacing the sidewalk, wondering what to do, he glances at her empty mailbox, her empty flower beds.

This version is more musical and the present tense recedes into the prose in a way that most readers will prefer. If pressed to tell what tense the story was written in, most readers would not be able to instantly recall, and that’s a sign that style has not superceded substance.

PAST PERFECT. When working with flashback, beware what I call the “black hole of the past perfect.” The auxiliary verb “had,” which creates the past-perfect tense necessary to entering a flashback, becomes intrusive very quickly, giving the prose a said-and-done quality that blocks the story’s flow.

Example: “Figaro had driven to town that day and had spotted Alice through the pharmacy window. At first he had thought it was her sister, Grace, but a second look had revealed the unwelcome news in a day already long and full of bad omens.”

The repeated use of “had” gums up this otherwise decent passage. Switch to the simple past as soon as you can when writing a flashback. One or two uses of the past perfect is sufficient to imply the switch to an earlier time period.

Example: “Figaro had driven to town that day and spotted Alice through the pharmacy window. At first he thought it was her sister, Grace, but a second look revealed…”

See how much more quickly you draw the reader into this earlier time period? By using the simple past tense instead of the past perfect, you give the past incident a more immediate feeling, as if it were happening now.

GRAPHIC IMAGING: This is just a show-offy way of describing the process of marking up a manuscript with highlighters. Here’s how it goes:

If the story has a lot of flashback, I highlight all the flashback first, in yellow. Then I look at the throughline (the present-time part of the story), and determine whether the throughline also has something in it that I want to delineate–two points of view, for example.

I highlight those parts with additional colors. Then I spread the manuscript on the floor and gawk for a while. The marking gives me an instant graphical view of the story’s structure, and I can identify problems more easily.

If there is a preponderance of yellow, I know I’ve included an awful lot of background material, and perhaps the story has become too expository as a result. If the throughline is all green except for some snippets of purple, I can see that the second character I’ve put in probably doesn’t merit her own point of view.

DIALOGUE WRITING: For those of us who love writing dialogue, early drafts often become flabby and redundant. We let our characters yammer on, because we’re having too much fun to stop them. To add tension and put a little snap into your dialogue, try having a character jump to a conclusion.

For example, instead of an endless back-and-forth between tenant and landlord, in which the landlord, Floyd, makes a long list of complaints that the tenant, Leroy, refutes one by one, have Leroy skip a few steps by second-guessing Floyd:

“I’ve been meaning to speak to you, Leroy,” Floyd said, consulting his clipboard.

Leroy narrowed his eyes. “If it’s about my so-called bad habits, you can forget it. What about that parrot in 3C that sings ‘Yankee Doodle’ half the night?”

In this example, Leroy cuts to the chase before Floyd can list his many complaints. You get instant tension and the story takes an unexpected turn.

SHOW AND TELL. Don’t enslave yourself to “showing.” Show-don’t-tell is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective than showing. A brief statement — “Helen was a cheat” — may be far more effective than a two-page scene showing Helen at work as a cheat. Telling can be just as thrilling as showing, as long as the prose is interesting and engaging.

4. “LIE” and “LAY”

“Lie” means “to recline.” Don’t say “I’m laying in my bed with a broken knee.” No matter how often you hear this, it is still wrong. The correct form is “I’m lying in my bed with a broken knee.”

“Lay” means “to put or place.” E.g., “My husband is laying a pile of books on my bed because I can’t get them myself.”

The past tense of “lie” is “lay.” The past tense of “lay” is “laid.” Most people know the difference between “lie” and “lay” in the present tense. The problem comes in past tense, which is truly diabolical. I have seen terrible errors in the past tense even in beautiful literary novels.

Here is a little primer. Please trust me. These are right.

1. Here I am, lying in bed with a broken knee. Yesterday I lay in bed with a broken knee. I have lain in bed with this same damned broken knee for a week.

2. Dan laid a pile of books on my bed because I couldn’t get to them myself. Every book he lays down turns out not to be the one I thought I wanted. He has laid book after book down on this bed, but they’re all the wrong ones.



About Regina

Arts and Crafts Junkie. DIYer. Newbie Photographer. Event Coordinator. Freelance Writer/Blogger. Coffee Lover. Domestic Goddess.

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