Writing when you’re not

Here is a writing tip I found: Set a timer for 45 minutes. Write. Even if you stumble and go blank, write about anything until the timer goes off. Then get up and do something else for 15 minutes: unload the dishwasher, walk around the block, watch the colors change in a sunset. Do something mindless.

brain wander

It works. Research has shown taking a little break can help you figure things out, maybe even get an aha! moment.

I have found that I do some of my best writing when I’m not hovering over my keyboard and staring at the computer screen. I’m usually watching my daughter’s softball game, driving, hiking, vacuuming the carpet, mowing the lawn. A story idea, a line in a dialogue, a scene, a character, a plot fix can suddenly pop up.

Creative stuff happens when I allow my brain to wander aimlessly. That’s why when a famous author insists her mega-hit series came to her in a dream, I kind of believe it.

Cracking the whip and demanding my brain perform on the computer screen does work, too—up to a point. Setting the timer, and then getting up to wander, that seems to be the work/play balance my writer’s brain needs.

Writing sound words

Can you hear what’s happening, dear reader?


Sound words can draw your readers into a scene.

Quick tip: Italicize sound words in your stories. 

Whomp, whomp, whomp. The helicopter hovered over the crime scene like a giant vulture.

The pitcher fired the ball toward Casey. Crrraaack! The crowd watched the ball sail over the fence. 

Plop … Plop … Plop. If the apartment manager didn’t fix that dripping faucet soon, Marge knew she’d go mad. Plop … Plop … Plop. All day. All night. Plop … Plop … Plop.


Write like a bad boyfriend

How is it you can be totally infatuated one day, and then the next day, see the fatal flaws in the object of your affection?


If that’s you, embrace your superpower gift. Don’t fall in love with your own writing. Love it, and then leave it. How else can you look at it with a critical eye? How else can you rip out those seemingly perfect phrases or paragraphs, or even characters, scenes and whole chapters?


 dumped writing


Write like a bad boyfriend—the love ’em and leave ’em kind. Because what looks great one day, sometimes has to be highlighted and deleted the next.


“But you worked so hard on that scene,” whines one side of me. “See how catchy that phrase is? You found the perfect adjective there. That character is hilarious.”


Then my bad boyfriend side kicks in. “Forget it. It’s just not going to work. And by the way,” he adds with a sneer, “the problem is you, not me.”


Sometimes I don’t want to hear that bad boyfriend. That’s why it’s good to have good writer friends or a helpful instructor—someone who can let you down easy. All writers need that someone who can say, “Yes, it’s time to break up with your clever words, or showy sentences or pointless chapters.”


Breaking up is hard to do, but it has to be done. How else can you leave yourself open to something better?

Writing in an accent or dialect

Sigh … Try not to write in an accent or dialect, or at least not the entire story. The last thing you want to do is frustrate or exhaust readers who are trying to figure out what the heck your character is trying to say. Misspellings, made-up spellings—Yikes.


You can do a tad bit, though, to give readers a taste. Better yet, write in the grammar a character might use, or use slang and colloquialisms familiar to a region: He don’t know nothin’, She ain’t got no sense, He whooped him but good, I recken, I be goin’ now, I was gobsmacked.

Describe how the words sound:

  • Her words moseyed out of her mouth in a lazy, honey-thick drawl.
  • I had studied English in school, but I couldn’t understand this American vendor. He chewed up and snapped his words like a hard piece of gum.

There’s great information out there on this topic. Do your homework. Study authors who have pulled it off.


Apostrophes instead of letters

Here’s an example of what apostrophes should look like when using them in place of letters:

I’m talkin’ ’bout you, Larry. You are a stinkin’, rottin’, low-down skunk.

The apostrophe curls to the left whether it’s in front or back of a word with a missing letter. Also, since the apostrophe signifies a missing letter, the comma goes after the apostrophe.

Punctuation for pauses and interruptions

Is your character confused? Uneasy? Searching for the right word? Distracted? Drifting into thought?


You can show that emotion by using the ellipsis in your character’s speech:

  • “Well … I thought this was the right … I don’t … Maybe we should have turned at the light back there.”
  • “If it wasn’t him, then it must have been … Oh no.”


Maybe your character has an abrupt change in thought while speaking. The em dash can make your character’s voice come alive:

  • “I thought he—heck, all of them, really—would jump at the chance to help.”

Or interrupts herself with a strong point:

  • “No wonder Estelle—that witch—left in such a hurry.”

Or maybe your character’s dialogue is interrupted by her own action or emotion:

  • “I couldn’t”—Susan bit her bottom lip and looked down—“tell him the truth.”

Or interrupted by another character:


  • “I was at the office,” he said. “I didn’t think—”

“You never think, do you? Not about me.”

Note: The em dash goes outside quotation marks when related to an action. It stays within the quotation marks when the character is interrupted by someone.

Write for you

“Write primarily for yourself” is advice author Steven King gives in his book On Writing.

“I did it for the pure joy of the thing,” King says. “And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”


Cling to this piece of advice as a rock in the white-water rapids of the publishing world.

Writers are advised to look at the trends, follow the market, write what’s selling. The problem is, it can all change just as you dot your last i and cross your last t.

Write what you’re passionate about. Passion leads to the best writing, after all. Sure, your final story might get shot down at first: “Not marketable.” “Not trending.”

Maybe not now, but I think good stories will always trend—eventually.

What’s your writing plan?

You know your writing goals, but what’s your plan to get there?


A 55-year-old woman spoke at her GED/High School Equivalency Diploma graduation ceremony. She shared her struggle to get that diploma and the obstacles she faced. It took years, but she reached her goal because she never gave up.

“Remember, if the plan doesn’t work, change the plan but never the goal,” she said. Sage advice for all of us.

Failure as progress

As many of us look back on last year’s writing resolutions, it’s easier to focus on the failures and not the accomplishments. But even if your goals weren’t accomplished, the past year brought you closer to them. Every rejection means you’re one step closer to acceptance. Every failed plot means you’re closer to finding the one that works. At the very least, you know now what doesn’t work.


So, where do you go from here? Be specific in setting out a plan. Make appointments for specific tasks as in everyday writing, seminars, workshops. Set deadlines for specific projects as in submissions, research, queries.

“Write more” isn’t specific. When? Where? For how long? With whom? Answer those “write more” questions. Your calendar should reflect your focused plan of attack.

Everyone wants to win. But winners have a strategy. They have a plan.

Reunite with old writing


This is the perfect time of year to revisit and reacquaint yourself with half-baked ideas, undeveloped scenes and unstoried characters you filed away—and nearly forgot.

Do you have a file like that? I usually keep a hard copy of all my manuscripts tucked in file folders in plastic bins. Character descriptions and random scenes are handwritten in notebooks.

I could look at my pile of scripts and notes and see nothing more than failed attempts at plot, writer’s block folly or cringe-worthy rejects. Instead, I imagine it as a treasure trove of second chances—or third …

Time away from something can sometimes give a new perspective. A character might finally spring to life in a new story. A rejected article might be a few tweaks away from acceptance.

Time to dig. Time to make something old new again.


The em dash—my favorite

If you were to page through my manuscripts, you’d see it—the em dash. I love that thing. If it were a person, I imagine it as an adoring fan gazing at me with rapt attention—unlike my family members. It’s always at the ready to make sure everyone is listening to the very important thing I’m about to say next.


It looks like a harmless short line, but in a sentence, it pokes the reader in the ribs and says, “Hey, you, listen up.” The em dash can be used to amplify or explain as if it were a little megaphone in a sentence.

Examples of em dash for emphasis:

  •   She doted on him and loved him—nearly to death.
  •   You could say Gerald was passionate—or obsessed—about his new hobby.

Maybe the em dash appeals to my inner preacher … or nag. Maybe I like it because I’m never sure anyone is listening. Whatever the reason, I like the thought of poking someone with punctuation to say, “Pay attention” or “Check this out” or “Just so you understand” or “Here’s the punchline.”

Are you too in love with your protagonist?

We want to protect those we love. It’s human nature. But it shouldn’t be a writer’s nature—not with our characters. Don’t shield your protagonist in heavy armor. Life sucks sometimes, but it should especially suck for your characters. It’s called drama, action, adventure.


Do you want the reader to feel your character is in danger? How can that happen if no one is able to get across that mote you built around the fortress? Evil is threatening your protagonist, you write. But how invested can the reader be if that evil can never get close enough for her to feel his hot breath against her cheek, or hear his raspy whisper in her ear, or grapple with evil’s grip around her throat?

You can rescue her, of course, in the nick of time. But make it something worth rescuing.

Make your characters real. Stuff some meaty conflict inside them. Yes, good people get tempted—even tempted to surrender to the dark side. Let them go. To err is human. To mess up big time is great reading.

Even in children’s books, any excruciating experiences—humiliation, rejection, pain, loss—make the victory at the end much more satisfying.