Category Archives: Writing Craft

Ladder of Abstraction: Choose the Right Rung

Writers, where do you stand on the “ladder of abstraction?” Maybe you’ve never even heard of it. It’s a close cousin to “show, don’t tell.” Mainly it deals with the nouns you choose.

The concept was developed by S. I. Hayakawa and spelled out in his book Language in Thought and Action. Simply put, imagine the word “eggplant” on the bottom rung of the ladder and the word “food” on the top. Hayakawa’s ladder has four rungs, going from the concrete to the abstract.

Level one words are specific, identifiable nouns, e.g., “eggplant.”

Level two words fall into broad noun categories, e.g., “vegetable.”

Level three words fall into noun classes with less specificity, e.g., “food.”

And level four words are abstractions, e.g., “sustenance.”

Now, there are no hard and fast rules you can take and run with. Often it takes more than a single concrete word to replace an abstract noun. Take an abstraction like “grief.” It might require a sentence or more. “He turned off his phone, closed the blinds, and poured another tumbler of Scotch.”

Writing on the lowest rung of the ladder evokes the strongest response from readers. They can identify with concrete images that cause their hearts to melt or race or break.

Here are a couple of things to think about. One is that you can use the different levels, especially the extremes, to differentiate characters in dialogue. A pretentious, vacuous, or secretive individual might load his speech with abstractions, while the salt-of-the-earth type speaks in concrete terms.

The second is that in my writing circles, we like to avoid using the abstract word and concrete image together. So in describing the man’s grief, I wouldn’t precede or follow the image with, “He was immobilized by grief.” I wouldn’t use the word “grief” at all. The reader gets it.


One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.

–Jack Kerouac

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer of fiction hears, “Where do you get your ideas?” and many, like me, respond, “I don’t know.” But, nagged by the sense that the answer isn’t satisfactory, I finally gave the question some thought. There’s still something of an “I don’t know” component involved, but I’ve decided that writers aren’t really different from everyone else. Writers simply take ordinary thought processes, worry them to a greater degree, and apply them to the page. Ideas can come from making observations that stick, borrowing from real life, needing to solve problems, gnawing on imponderables, and listening to the subconscious.

Making Observations That Stick

Who doesn’t like to people-watch? Sitting one day in the airport, I watched a woman talking on her phone. Slender, hair colored and styled to perfection, dressed in a business suit and expensive-looking heels, she was far enough away that I couldn’t make out her words. But she was doing all the talking. Her face was contorted, and she kept stabbing the air using her right index finger like a stilleto. Someone was getting crucified–an employee? a kid? I’d hate for her to be my boss or mother. Here was Cruella De Vil, from 101 Dalmatians. But anyone sitting in an airport with nothing to do might engage in some imagining beyond the first impression. There could be a more sinister reason for her behavior–maybe she’s chewing out a hit man for a bungled job. Or, thinking charitably for a good reason she’s lashing out, she could be talking to a doctor who bungled an operation that crippled her husband. I’ve not used this character or image in a story, but she is stuck in my head, a resource I might draw on some day.

Sometimes whole stories or books come from an observation that sticks. When I first joined the board of The Nebraska Society To Prevent Blindness, I was intrigued by the first entry in the chronology of the National Society: “Founded in 1908 to promote legislation of eyedrops to prevent ‘babies’ sore eyes.'” (I’m paraphrasing.) It was my “Huh?” over that curious phrase that led me to do research and ultimately to write my debut novel, Compromise With Sin.

Borrowing From Real Life

I may or may not use this situation, which I once saw on the news. A Marine scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan just days after his wife is expected to give birth is offered a deferment when the baby is born needing life-saving heart surgery. He decides to leave for Afghanistan the day before his son’s operation.

By the way, I have a problem with writers who reveal intimate facts about friends or family members. (I say that even though I’ve always enjoyed the novels of the late Pat Conroy.) But this issue bothers me to the extent that I’ve made it the crux of my work-in-progress (WIP).

Needing To Solve Problems

Much of a writer’s work involves the need to solve problems. Every type of story has both big and little problems that set the imagination in motion. How did this happen? Who’s at fault? What will the character do next? What will be the consequences of the character’s decision? What’s the best/worst that can happen? Etc.

But this kind of thinking isn’t just the province of writers. It’s true for all of us. The car breaks down, making you late for an important meeting. Your job doesn’t pay enough for you to manage student loan debt. Your spouse wants you to move out.

In my debut historical novel, Irina Taylor wears scarves. It wasn’t until after publishing the book that I learned that scarves had not yet become a fashion accessory. Hmm. Irina is the protagonist in the novel I’m currently working on. I needed to give her a reason for making lengths of fabric she wraps around her neck, so I decided she’s hiding a scar she got as a child when her twin, Christina, threw a fork at her. And having to think so much about the scarf may be the reason a scarf becomes very prominent late in the story. (That’s the “I don’t know” component.)

Gnawing on Imponderables

I can’t say that I often address imponderables in my writing, but there are several in my head. One comes up in my WIP, and that’s my difficulty appreciating the biblical account of the Prodigal Son. I’ve always sided with the loyal son, not the one who squandered his fortune on women and booze, and returned home to a feast and the open arms of Daddy.

Listening to the Subconscious

When I’m thinking or writing I know I’m feeding my brain, and I trust my subconscious to go to work. It’s not as though I can program it and expect answers or ideas on my schedule. The subconscious does what it will and often reveals itself in what are naturally hypnotic states: when I’m falling asleep or waking up, driving a familiar route, or putting on make-up.

Not all the ideas that come from my subconscious are useful. But when they are, it’s so much fun.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.

–Kurt Vonnegut









Lessons From Novel First Lines

When I’m looking for a writing-avoidance activity, I sometimes google “novel first lines.” That’s where I can find inspiration–not just for the opening of a novel, but for chapter beginnings as well.

There are numerous web sites that list the best X number of first lines. (Will someone please tell me why “Call me Ishmael” so often makes these lists?)

Here are some first lines I like, i.e., words that make me want to read on to find out what’s next:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

“This is a tale of a meeting of two skinny, lonesome, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.” Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“They shoot the white girl first.” Paradise, by Toni Morrison

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide–it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills–the two paramedics  arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.” The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” 100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Housekeeping Detail for Indie Authors

I recently learned from Tosh McIntosh that Amazon will shut down CreateSpace, which means authors need to move their print titles to KDP. Go to your KDP account, and you’ll find simple directions for moving your book. It took me five minutes.

Your favorite first lines? Leave a comment.




A Lesson in a Word

I was immersed in a poem the other day, one that created a compelling and dramatic scene with enviable turns of phrase. For example, . . . “because the hallway is empty of everything but soothing lemon wallpaper and the eucalypt  sting of disinfectant . . . ”

The poem is “The Gurney,” by Sarah Holland-Batt. I was engaged until the last line where the spell was broken by a single word: “gimballing.”

Not knowing the word’s meaning, was I missing something critical? Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines “gimbal”: a device that permits a body to incline freely in any direction or suspends it so that it will remain level when its support is tipped.

Hmm. So now I know the definition. I’m picturing the wheels of a grocery cart which can, theoretically, turn in any direction. But other than the fact that the word works rhythmically, I don’t find that it enhances my appreciation of the poem.  If I were to make a stretch, I’d say that the gimballing wheels suggest that things can change at any moment.

My point with this post is that a single word can act as a road block on the page. Something I must remember. Simple words are best, except in the dialogue of a character who fancies himself smarter than everyone else.

Now, this brings me to The New Yorker, where said poem was published. When I  read the magazine’s poetry, fiction, and cartoons, more often than not I’m left  with “Huh?”

I’ve concluded it’s because I lack sophistication. What would help me a lot is if the magazine would print a little gauge with each selection, sort of like, “You must be (this) tall to ride this ride.” It would say, “You must be this sophisticated to read this (poem, story, cartoon).”

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

–Christopher Columbus

Links for Writers v2.0

Do you ever wonder how Charles Dickens or Edith  Wharton wrote novels without benefit of computers and the internet? We are fortunate to have an abundance of tools at our fingertips. I’ll connect you to a few in this post.

Disclaimer: Read this post at your own risk. You, alone, must accept full responsibility for the minutes and hours you take away from your own writing to peruse these links.

Write to Done

Write to Done has the tagline: “Unmissable Articles on Writing.”  You’ll see on its visually rich, commercially slick landing page a sampling of its offerings targeting novelists, short-story writers, nonfiction writers, and bloggers. Tips and articles cover productivity, motivation, writing craft, marketing, and more. Mary Jaksch, Chief Editor, believes that it’s practice, not genetics, that makes a writer, but more than that, the practice needs direction, hence her blog.

The Write Practice

Like Jaksch, Joe Bunting, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of  The Write Practice, believes in practice, so much so that readers will find a 15-minute assignment at the end of each article.  For example, in the article “How To Write a Mystery Novel,” author Joslyn Chase ends by asking readers to select a sub-genre–cozy, police/medical/legal procedural, private eye/noir, or suspense–and write the opening scene, respecting the conventions of the genre and reader expectations.

Writer’s Digest

As you might expect of Writer’s Digest, there’s a wealth of information covering all aspects of writing. If you sign up for the Writer’s Digest Newsletter, you can download free character development worksheets.

MOOC: “Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion”

My thanks to Lolly Walter for alerting me to this MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), “Moving the Margins: Fiction and Inclusion.”  The free, self-paced MOOC is offered by the International Writing Program of the University of Iowa. Slated to begin mid-July, the course should be open for registration any day now. It features authors writing and speaking about voice, character, setting, style, language, and “moving the margins” of the known and the expected.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


A ratio of failures is built into the process of writing. The wastebasket has evolved for a reason.

–Margaret Atwood

Thank you, Philip Roth

Remembering Philip Roth last week, NPR’s Fresh Air broadcast archived interviews Terry Gross had done with the literary giant. I was especially gratified to hear the author of more than two dozen books including Portnoy’s Complaint, Goodbye Columbus, and Everyman, talking about his writing process as an act of discovery.

“I don’t know anything in the beginning, which makes it great fun to write . . . You begin every book as an amateur. . . . Gradually, by writing sentence after sentence,  the book reveals itself to you. … Each and every sentence is a revelation.”

I couldn’t agree more. My experience is there’s nothing that compares to the joy of discovery. And I learn to write as I write. That meant it took 24 years to get Compromise With Sin into print, and I’m sure I tossed at least 100,000 words.

Roth’s comments reminded me of an aha moment that occurred to me as I was writing a scene. One objective was to show protagonist Louise Morrissey’s compassion, as she was not always an admirable character. The scene involved Louise’s caring response to the family of two brothers who accidentally drowned in Crescent Lake. In my first draft, the family was not known to the reader. Then I decided the tragedy struck Henryetta, Louise’s cook and housekeeper. For me, that hit home, as I already knew and loved Henryetta–and I hoped it would be meaningful for the reader. It’s moot, of course, because that scene didn’t survive a later revision. But it impressed upon me the importance of having readers invested in characters so that when something good or bad happens, the reader feels it emotionally.

Btw, this icky background color appeared and I can’t get rid of it.

Your comments? Leave a message.


A dogfight on a Denver street is more important than a war in Europe.

–Frederick Gilmer Bonfils, Publisher, Denver Post




Cooperative? Controlling? Dialogue Reflects Character

In revising my WIP, Candlelight Confessions, I discovered a glaring instance in which dialogue didn’t fit the character. (I’m positive I’ll find more such instances as I get deeper into revision.)

To put this example in context: Irina Taylor has just revealed to friends that her sister, Christina, has written a novel that will expose their darkest secrets. She describes how Christina fictionalized their characters, and after explaining how she, herself, is portrayed, gets this retort from Jocelyn: “I doubt that people in Riverbend will recognize the character in the book as you.”

That’s what she said in the first draft. But she’s a woman who speaks her mind and rarely equivocates. So in revision, Jocelyn says, “You’re wrong. You’re not like that character.”

By contrast, in the same scene their friend Mercy says, “I know Christina needs a success after the failure of her last novel, but I wish she hadn’t taken our secrets. I’m praying that book never gets published.”

Jocelyn and Mercy represent people whose dialogue almost consistently falls near one end or the other of a continuum from control to cooperation. But most people, while they have a tendency toward one extreme or the other, adapt their behavior to their environment or situation. The general who barks with authority at work might be a pussycat at home.

What I find especially interesting in depicting characters through dialogue is to have a person who always speaks on one end of the continuum until a situation arises that forces him or her out of their comfort zone. E.g, take a worker who is the quintessential team player. She accepts the hardest assignments, almost never calls in sick, and works overtime without complaining. But when her supervisor’s request challenges a core belief, out comes her inner pit bull. “It’s not my fault you can’t control your labor costs. I refuse to work off the clock. And if I hear you get someone else to do it, I’m going to management.”


We should only read those books that bite and sting us.

–Franz Kafka

Note to Self: Ixnay Contrived Plots, Stock Characters, and Boring Stories

When it comes to writing fiction, most gurus advise knowing your audience and delivering what they want. I take a different approach. I write stories I would want to read. (That’s not as simple as it sounds, and it’s certainly not a solo exercise. Achieving something I’d want to read requires many hours spent learning the craft and listening to feedback from others.) And I’m not tone deaf to readers’ preferences and complaints, which they sometimes address by leaving a review on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites.

I think a writer can learn more from the one- , two-. and three-star reviews than from the glowing four- and five-star reviews. So, for this post, I cruised Amazon reviews, and here’s a sampling of what readers didn’t like:

“The main characters were not believable and I felt nothing for them but disgust.”

“I cannot understand the overwhelming, unmitigated praise for what seems an almost (“almost” because I hate to say it) cliched novel with stock characters . . .  contained in an outlandish plot that defies all credibility. Long on meaningless detail (let no research go unpublished) but short on character development. I could hardly make it to the end. I felt like one of the characters lost at sea for days on end without a credible character in sight.”

“This book was nothing but contrived situations with PC caricatures.”

“I did not feel anything for the characters.”

“Really wanted to like this but had to put it away after a few chapters. Contrived is the best word to describe her writing and the story.”

“The writing was very simplistic and did not contain any depth in the character development. There were no surprises and the problems were solved in a simplistic manner.”
“You could cut 100 pages from the book and not miss anything. It dragged and I couldn’t finish it.”
What amuses me about this sampling, is that I’ve been guilty of every sin mentioned. But I hope, that by the time my book made it to print, I had atoned for those sins. And now I’m in the midst of writing another novel, making mistakes, revising, getting feedback, revising, getting feedback. Rinse, wash, repeat.
You might be interested in a somewhat related post, “Three Questions Readers Ask.”
Your thoughts? Leave a comment.
 Anytime you write something, you go through so many phases. You go through the ‘I’m a Fraud Phase.’ You go through the ‘I’ll Never Finish’ phase. And every once in a while you think, ‘What if I actually have created what I set out to create, and it’s received as such?’
–Lin-Manuel Miranda

Domesticating the Paragraph

I have a confession to make. In writing my novels, I tend to take an intuitive approach to paragraphing, except there are two rules I follow religiously: 1) a shift in speakers, time, or place  requires a new paragraph, and 2) the end of the paragraph is the power position and to add anything beyond dilutes the power.


What’s Wrong With This Paragraphb

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?” “I’m on it,” Dan said. Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and went to the guest bathroom. She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.” That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”  “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

I don’t think I can count the number of problems with that paragraph.  Now read this version:

Monica entered the man cave where Dan was playing an online game of Texas Hold’em. “Your parents will be here in thirty minutes. Have you cleaned the guest bathroom?”

“I’m on it,” Dan said.

Monica stormed into the kitchen where she began to make queso. She cut up chunks of Velveeta with such a vengeance she almost sliced a finger. Dan wouldn’t budge until he finished his game.  Finally she grabbed a rag and a bottle of Clorox Bathroom Cleaner and headed for the guest bathroom.

(location shift) She switched on the light and screamed. “There’s a body in the bathtub.”

(speaker shift) That got Dan’s attention. Peering through the bathroom door, he said, “Your timing sucks, Monica. Couldn’t this have waited five minutes? I was winning.”

(speaker shift) “Whatever. But that bathroom had  better be clean when your parents arrive.”

To add clout to the topic of paragraphs, I consulted my friend and fellow writer Gaylon Greer. I asked him specifically about handling stimulation and response, and he provided insight on how paragraphs control a novel’s pacing, and, hence, influence the reader’s experience. Here’s what he said:

Short, snappy paragraphs generally pick up the story pace; long, winding paragraphs slow things down. For that reason, action scenes rely heavily on short paragraphs, with stimulus and response boxed separately. Whether the action scene is dialogue or physical action, the short paragraphs give it snap and momentum. When you want to create a more relaxed mood, to give your readers a breather, perhaps, you will want to use longer paragraphs, perhaps combining stimulus and response in the same paragraph. Consider this example:

“Stop it,” Carla screamed.

 Beatrice, too terrified to hear her, clung to Carla’s back, her arms clasped tightly around her neck.

Carla fought to free herself, but Beatrice’s panicked grip was too strong to break. It was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.


If the writer wanted less tension or a slower pace, she might write:

Carla screamed for her to stop, but Beatrice was too terrified to hear. She pasted herself against Carla’s back, her arms clasping tightly around her neck. Carla fought to free herself, but it was as though unbreakable tentacles were pulling her deeper and deeper.

Both snippets communicate the same facts, but the first does so, it seems to me, in a manner that is more fraught with tension. The rationale is that the initial stimulus creates tension because the reader wanders what the other character will do in response. The paragraph breaks in the action version of the scene serves two purposes:

  1. It emphasizes what has gone before by isolating it. In the first example, Carla’s scream is stark—it stands out. In the second example, the scream is buried, made secondary to Beatrice’s action.
  2. The end of a paragraph is a signal for the reader to pause briefly. In this case the pause permits her to savor the escalating tension. Using separate paragraphs keeps the tension building.


For another example, consider a tennis game. One player hits the ball; that is a stimulus for the other player, who must react. The reaction becomes a stimulus for the first player, and so on. If the stimulus and reaction are in separate paragraphs, each described in enough detail for the reader to picture the action, it becomes more dramatic. If the back-and-forth action is presented in a single paragraph, the tension is dissipated.


The issue is the same as for dialogue. There is no grammatical reason for two characters’ dialogue strings to be in separate paragraphs; the purpose is to emphasize each character’s comments.


In an article for the Gotham Writer’s Workshop (Writing Fiction, New York, Bloomsbury, 2003) Hardy Griffin makes the point by contrasting a work by Joyce Carol Oates (“The Fine Mist of Winter”) with one by Arundhati Roy (“The God of Small Things”). Throughout her story, Oates employs long, winding paragraphs that combine stimulus and response in the same paragraph. But Roy achieves fast-paced drama by employing short paragraphs that separate stimulus and response.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.


You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

–Jodi Picoult




Stories Unfold in a Season, not a Vacuum

Photo credit: Shannon Richards, Unsplash

I’m not fond of novels in which the author compulsively overuses weather and seasons or begins every chapter with atmospheric descriptions of clouds, sunlight, etc. That said, characters don’t exist in a vacuum, and I like getting a sense of their natural environment, especially if it has an impact on them.

Here’s an example of how seasons matter. I live in Austin, Texas, where one of my favorite things about the Easter season is the profusion of wildflowers, which bring out legions of families plopping kids among the bluebonnets for iconic photos.  But the season also brings out a plethora of snakes on the move. This is the time of year you’re most likely to see them. They’ve just awakened from hibernation, they’re hungry, and they’re hunting for food.

I’ve just given you two facts. Do one or both matter if your novel is set in Austin in late March or early April? Maybe or maybe not. After all, most of your readers don’t live in Texas. But if you’re aware of these and other seasonal characteristics, you’re better equipped to craft a scene that will feel real to readers.

I could write more about seasons here, but the topic has been covered very well in this post, “Seasonally Adjusted Writing” on Alison Morton’s Writing Blog. Alison is the author of the Roma Nova althistory thriller series, the latest being Carina.

Here’s something else to consider. Brad Whittington, prolific author of novels such as Muffin Man and The Reluctant Saint, uses actual information about weather, and the hour the sun and moon rise and set to inform his writing. His sources are The Farmers Almanac and the U.S. Naval Observatory website. Check them out.

Your thoughts? Leave a comment.

A Request

I could use your help in promoting Compromise With Sin. I’ve posted a trailer on YouTube. I’d appreciate your taking a look and sharing it with friends. Thank you.


Whenever I have to choose between two evils, I always like to try the one I haven’t tried before.

–Mae West