Category Archives: Writing Craft

Voice (Tasha Storfer)

I worked in an art studio for almost a decade, a haven for creativity, wisdom, and expression. We exchanged profound words over coffee as we took a moment to distance ourselves from the canvas. And now, with some modification, I apply my teacher’s wisdom to writing.

  • “Learn what you love to paint write, because if you create it and others love it, you will be painting writing the same style for the rest of your life.”
  • Paint Write every day. There is no day off when you choose an artistic field.”
  • “Even if the brush isn’t on the canvas you aren’t writing, everything you view will become to be broken down into shapes and color story fodder.”
  • “A child, when taught piano, is given old masters to learn from before s/he is expected to understand techniques and compose on his/her own. A painter writer is given a brush and a canvas pencil and paper. Their teachers fear squashing their creativity, and end up hobbling them.”

I learned my painting had no voice. I could recreate others’ ideas, but composition lay beyond my grasp. Then I found writing. And my voice.

When you go to a gallery and see a Renoir, you can identify it, as easily as Sinatra on the radio. Likewise, you expect a certain language, genre, and tone when you pick up a book by Shakespeare or Agatha Christie. In the arts, most beginners are given basic rules and tools with little instruction on how to create outcomes in a misguided attempt to prevent crippling creativity that often becomes a shackle to growth.

We have a voice. Our goal as writers is to uncover our best voice and share it with others through our writing.

Other art fields are good examples of how to hone our own unique voice. Music education stands out from the others on how musicians and composers are trained to find their voice. They have a process to follow in order to compose, however there are exceptions. Teachers do not expect 5-year-olds to sit down and create masterworks (though many may dream of finding Mozart). They show their students how to evoke emotions with techniques and tools.


Voice, piano, or oboe, all musicians must be familiar with their tools and aware of when they need to be maintained or updated. The same holds true for artists, who should stay knowledgeable regarding their canvases, brushes, and mediums available.

Writing tools are in an era of transition. We no longer sit and write by candlelight with a sharpened quill pen and inkwell. Vocal software allows you to speak your words onto the page. Scrivener is one of many new writing software programs that help format your words for certain sales venues and can help organize your books by scenes. There is an ever-expanding need for knowledge of social media for a writer’s platform, and methods of honing your craft. There are blogs devoted to writers’ tools. A few posts to get you started:

20 of the Best Free Online Tools for Writers

The 80 Best Tools for Writers in 2016

Like a clarinet player with a cracked reed, don’t focus on the search for a new tool. Know where to look, fix the issue, and then move on. Educate yourself, but don’t let it take time away from creation or creativity.

Music Theory

The devil is in the details. Those little dots and lines of black tell the musician when to play what note, for how long, and how loudly. The notations tell us what the music is supposed to evoke and separate the choppy from languid.

Writers have their own theories. We call them grammar and the rules of writing. Two of the most famous references for these are The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. Of course, we can play with and push these boundaries – after we understand what we are breaking, why, and to what effect, just as music students can push the boundaries at competitions. They may play beautifully, but how they push those boundaries will determine if the audience and judges think they are masters making the music their own – or just sloppy. It’s a tricky dance, in rhythm or grammar. If your critique group thinks it’s a typo, your audience probably will as well.

Play the Masters

Teachers make musicians play Beethoven, Chopin, Bach. They slip them some Gershwin, John Williams, and Guns N’ Roses. They expose their students to composers, to learn and expand their repertoire. As writers, we do this through reading. Read quality literature often.

As an exploration, I challenge you to write practice sentences, paragraphs, or short stories in the style of your favorite greats. Then review.

  • Who was the easiest to mimic? Tolkien? Twain? Woolf? Dickens? Hemingway?
  • Who was the most comfortable? Why?
  • What made you uncomfortable?
  • Was a specific genre and voice painfully hard to write?
  • Is there a genre you are drawn to read?
  • What were the most powerful moments in your favorite books?
  • Did your writing bring those same feelings to the fore? Why or why not?
  • What image and style do you want to pass on to your audience?
  • What kind of word, grammar, plot, and character choices will make that happen?

Short exercises show how, why, and when the Masters used the words they did to evoke images and emotion and may lead to the style that will define you to your readers.

Write frequently, strive for improvement, and you will find your voice along the journey.

Keep Writing!



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Snowflakes in April?


April 2018  


The credit for the terms pantser and plotter traditionally goes to NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month (which, incidentally, can be pronounced either Na-No-Wree-Mo, or Na-No-Rye-Mo). Pantsers write by the seat of their pants, as if by magic, while Plotters plan every detail and can’t write a word without an outline. Serious writers usually know who they are—pantser or plotter. It’s like knowing which political party you belong to. Well, the Snowflake Method is for undecideds, who kinda/sorta do a little of both and usually end up with a mess.

Donald Maass in The Fire in Fiction says “a method that’s mysterious cannot be repeated.” He agrees that every novel can be inspired, but he draws the line at a brilliant flash of insight that last four hundred pages. If he’s right, then, being a dedicated pantser, I’m in big trouble.

All of which leads me to How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. I reached an impasse with Book Two of a trilogy, which does NOT lend itself to my usual freefall, come-what-may style of writing. Plotting an outline was out of the question—I equate it to writing with manacles on my wrists. Then I heard about an alternative method of writing proposed by Randy Ingermanson. Aside from being one hysterically funny read, his book offers a step-by-step guide to truly rev up writers who find themselves in between styles and generally stuck. It came highly recommended by a close friend who exhausted nearly every method out there, over a period of two years, and swears this one works.

The book begins in third person, with Goldilocks searching for a way to write her novel. She attends Papa Bear’s conference for pantsers and Mama Bear’s workshop for plotters, and finds true happiness at Baby Bear’s class for other-thans. Trust me, it’s the only how-to-write book that made me laugh out loud the whole way through. But, I digress.

Since Goldilocks already has an idea for her novel, Baby Bear begins with the basics, like what the story’s about, what genre it’s in, and who’s the target audience. From these three questions, Baby Bear helps Goldilocks develop a marketing plan with her target audience already in mind—before she starts to write.

Then, with the help of the rest of the class—can you say Three Little Pigs?—Goldilocks learns how to summarize her book, with concrete description and plot, into one 35-word sentence: “This is a romantic suspense novel about a woman in Nazi-occupied France who falls in love with an injured American saboteur who wants to blow up a key ammunition depot at Normandy just before D-Day.” By forcing Goldilocks to think it through aloud, Baby Bear leaves her with a focused plot for her novel.

By now, you probably want to know why it’s called The Snowflake Method, how the paradigm works, and what it looks like, right? The shape begins with two triangles superimposed on each other and ends up like…a snowflake. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you need, adding layer on top of layer, a paragraph at a time, until so much of your novel is laid out, it’s no longer a daunting task. Baby Bear leads Goldilocks through settings, disasters, characters, decisions, names, goals, and more, all interwoven into the pattern until the paragraphs equal a page, and you’re on your way. Each step is explained in detail, all while Goldilocks helps solve a classroom mystery concerning Big Bad Wolf. Have I mentioned it’s one hysterically funny read?

Time doesn’t permit more than I’ve already divulged, but if you think this method might be the one for you, check out for more in-depth information. Ingermanson calls his Snowflake Method “a battle-tested series of ten steps that jumpstart your creativity and help you quickly map out your story.” Like me, you may find that, as in all things Baby-Bear, it’s just right.

Caden St. Claire

Note: Caden St. Claire will present “The Snowflake Method of Writing” at our April 7th meeting! For details, please refer to the Meetings page.

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When Are Your Darlings Ready to Fly?


March 2018


When they’re old enough.

Spring is here, and birds will soon fill the skies, just as manuscripts will soon fill the internet. But are your little darlings ready to push off that metaphoric tree limb? Ready to lift their wings up, up, and back, exposing their hearts to the arrows? Yes. Arrows. Let’s do a pre-flight checklist.

  1. Are all systems GO? Many years ago, I wrote a sci-fi novella that was read and praised by friends and family, but not by a brutally honest critique group or a non-biased person who would have asked the right questions, the hard questions I needed to answer. It passed the scrutiny of a Beta Reader, but not one well-read in sci-fi/fantasy. Finally, it had not been exposed to a line-edit or a developmental edit. I discovered, after the fact, there were places where the feathers hadn’t quite grown out just yet – basic things like adequate research, POV, consistency in character development. For instance, I tended to head-hop and didn’t realize it! Since I prefer omniscient points of view, I wasn’t as careful as I should have been when it came to whose head I was in!
  2. Do you have a FLIGHT PLAN? Being in a hurry to see one of my fledglings airborne, I put it out on Amazon prematurely. Had I researched the company that charged me a great deal of money for the privilege of doing so, I would have chosen differently. This was several years before I discovered like-minded birds of a feather who flocked together every Thursday night—not only to critique one another’s work, but to exchange information on publishing options and articles/books/webinars to hone our craft. When I pushed my novella off the branch, I had no idea where it would go. I remember laughingly calling it “a learning experience.” It turned out to be not so funny when, years later, I swallowed my pride and called it back home again. Lesson? Know where you’re going and how to get there.
  3. Can your fledgling make it back to the nest? Now that we’ve survived the rise of the self-publishing robots versus traditional publishers and are accustomed to being buffeted about by the winds of change, we are told to have a platform. Imagine. Introverted artists being told to “put yourself out there,” like it’s the most natural thing there is. Duh. Like the majority of writers, I have great difficulty in that area, and tend to stay away from social media. However, I have left the safety of the nest—when forced to forage for food—and now have two websites and a presence on Facebook. I even blog. Been there, done that. Whew.
  4. It’s a cold, cold world. And in order to survive, we have to stick together. Sometimes I hum the first three lines of an old Leonard Cohen song, “Bird On The Wire” (like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried…in my way…to be free). This brings me to my saving graces, my critique group and other writers’ groups. Have you ever watched birds flying south for the winter, how they’ll lift off individually from tree after tree to join the others and form a perfect pattern? Writers need other like-minded writers so we don’t get stranded for the winter. If you haven’t already, find a group. If the first one doesn’t click, find another. Form your own. Go online for groups in your area. Sure, it looks good on a bio, but more importantly, you’ll hone your craft. And that’s what it’s all about.

How do you know when they’re old enough? When you’ve done all you can do to prepare them for what’s out there. One morning you just know, when you watch them pick their way to the end of the tree limb, teeter a little, then lift their wings and look to the skies.

caden st. claire

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Peek into the Quest for Love

Leif Behmer, MFA

“But the true secret of being a hero lies in knowing the order of things…Things must happen when it is time for them to happen. Quests may not simply be abandoned; prophecies may not be left to rot like unpicked fruit; unicorns may go unrescued for a long time, but not forever. The happy ending cannot come in the middle of the story.” – Prince Lir, The Last Unicorn

It’s interesting to me how this sentiment applies not only to, obviously, the structure of a fairy tale, but also to real life relationships. We often seek happiness within the comfort of a significant other, perhaps someone for whom we find an almost fatal attraction towards. Perhaps there is palpable intimacy, a genuine care and mutual affection. Even assuming the best of intentions, meaningful relationships always come at some significant risk, and how we choose to address that risk is what defines our character.

A fatal attraction does not have to mean anything like the tired and floppy trope of the femme fatale. Peter Beagle shares a unique twist in The Last Unicorn that illustrates genuine complexity in human interactions between lovers. Representing the classic chivalric hero, Prince Lir attempts to woo the Lady Amalthea by performing great deeds: slaying dragons, solving deadly riddles, and writing bad poetry. Nothing works because, as Molly Grue points out, Amalthea is not a maiden to be won over by great deeds. Lir learns later that her situation is quite complicated. Her feelings about herself are as nebulous as her feelings towards others. Eventually, Amalthea decides that she wants nothing more than to grow old and die with Lir, but he comes to understand that their relationship would defeat the happily ever after, because it would come at the cost of Amalthea’s mission to rescue all the unicorns in the world from the Red Bull. Only as a unicorn does she have a chance to defeat the Red Bull, and as a hero, Lir chooses to respect her integrity and not let his personal wishes get in the way of something more important than either of them. Lir understands that they will never truly be happy if Amalthea does not finish her own journey, though doing so would mean that they would never be together.

But sometimes couples can work out their differences, even when doing so creates some degree of peril. I’m reminded of two childhood sweethearts, Alex and Luna, from the JRPG Lunar: Silver Star Story. The young lovers go off on an adventure together to save the world from the Magic Emperor. But by the time Alex realizes his dream of becoming the legendary Dragonmaster, Luna has become a very different person and decides instead to join the dark forces of the Magic Emperor to rule the world.

Like any boyfriend who’d just been dumped, Alex becomes deeply forlorn and almost abandons his quest. But in typical fantasy fashion, his friends come together to help Alex realize that much more is at stake than just his personal desires, and through much trial and adversity, the team finally arrives at the Goddess Tower to fight the Magic Emperor.

The final boss battle of the game ensues, and with strategic planning and resourcefulness, the heroes defeat the resident dark lord…and yet, the game is not over. There is one final task left that makes this title’s love story stand out. Typical RPGs would make another boss fight to illustrate Luna’s conversion back to her normal self. However, Luna has become so powerful that even a Dragonmaster has no hope of winning such an encounter. If the player attempts to approach her, despite her warnings to stay away, she will in fact will kill Alex where he stands, with an immediate Game Over.

This uncommon twist provides a more than significant consequence to the player, who now has to redo the grueling fight with the Magic Emperor again and rethink how to engage Luna. This prompts the player to consider that fighting will not change her back. In order for the player to see the happily ever after, Alex must appeal to Luna with a gesture of endearment to help remind her of her feelings for Alex. He has to play their song. Only then will Luna allow Alex to ascend the steps of the Goddess Tower and help her change back to her normal self.

Each of these stories teaches lovers to be more considerate of their significant other beyond the shallow portrayal of romances in typical commercial storytelling. The best relationships in fiction acknowledge that relationships are often complex and do the hard work of exploring the most sensitive matters of the heart.

We must part now, my life goes on.

But my heart won’t give you up.

Ere I walk away, let me hear you say

I meant as much to you….

So gently, you touched my heart.

I will be forever yours.

Come what may, I won’t age a day,

I’ll wait for you, always…

– Aria di Mezzo Carattere, Final Fantasy VI


“Final Fantasy VI”

“Lunar Silver Stat Story: Complete”

Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn. New York, NY: Roc, 1968/2008.

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Mystery and Romance (Debra Black)

It’s early February and romance is in the air… or at least plastered all over store shelves. When it comes to mysteries the idea of a mystery-romance isn’t a new concept. Romance can add a certain spice to your writing, giving your reader another angle for targeting the “what if?” scenario while attempting to piece together the culprit and motive. However, there is a limit to how much some people can stand when the going gets sappy.

When you first write a mystery-romance, it may seem ideal to have your characters’ interpersonal relations be as detailed as possible. After all, you want to make sure the reader is fully aware and involved with the attraction between those characters. What doesn’t make sense is playing the romance up and forgetting about the mystery. Romances can contain elements of mystery, and mysteries can contain romance, but the tone of the book should make clear which of the two you are concentrating on.

If you want to write a romance, the relationships between the main characters should be your focus. The emotions, physical interactions, and interpersonal conflicts experienced should be more prevalent than any mystery that might cause a conflict or barrier to the relationship between those characters.

When writing a mystery, the plot should concentrate more on the details of the mystery. More of the romantic elements can be relegated to off-scene byplay. This leaves the reader more room for imaginative creativity. The puzzle, and its solution, should be the focus of the story.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying a steamy scene in your mystery should be deleted or never written. Romance can be used to create conflicts such as the main character having to protect a love-interest from, or reveal as, an element of the villainous machinations behind the evil deed that he/she is trying to uncover. The romantic interest can also be a source of comfort or inspiration for the main character. The main interactions between these characters can be used to generate reader sympathy and deepen our understanding of the emotional forces driving those characters, but should not be so in-depth that we spend an entire chapter just working through their “feelings” for each other without any reference to the mystery at hand.

My final advice is this: If you do find yourself writing a mystery that is more romance than mystery, don’t stop! There are places in this world for both kinds of writing. If you want to concentrate more on the mystery, then write what you will, edit the extraneous romance out, and keep it for another book that may concentrate more on romance than mystery. It’s not bad to be romantically detailed. Just keep it in mind while you create your passionate scenes during this “season of love” that your significant other may become annoyed if you only write the romance.

–Debra Black

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When Words Grow Up & Want To Leave Home


January 2018  


If you’re like me, not really a novice anymore but not quite ready for that leap of insanity, or faith, then you scour magazines, sign up for webinars, and click on anything that might help you hone your craft. There was an article in the January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest that I thought belonged in my time corridor.

I read my hot-off-the-press January 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest in December. A bit early, but I wanted to check out the deadlines for their 87th Annual Writing Competition. Once I noted the contest deadlines on my trusty calendar, I happened across an article by Lucy Snyder titled, “Applying Poetics to Prose” and subtitled “The Poetry of Flash Fiction.” Catchy title. I love writing poetry, and since flash fiction has always eluded me due to a tendency to overwrite, I wanted to know more. She suggested using a discarded poem or a poem that just wasn’t working, and transforming it into a short story, i.e., flash fiction! So obvious, why didn’t I think of it? After all, as she reminded us, poems are complete stories condensed, but they can easily be expanded into 300 or 500 words. What if your poem’s not working as a poem because it secretly dreams of being a short story? What would happen if you took that poem, stretched it a little, blended in some prose, and allowed it to blossom into fiction.

If poetry isn’t your thing, try tinkering with those little ideas that are pretty amazing—you know the ones I’m talking about—those germs of what-ifs that come at 2:00 in the morning, but don’t contain the wherewithal to morph into a novel. Yeah, those. Play with them, explore what prompted the idea to begin with, and lastly, “engage the senses” (as Lucy says in her article). But be careful. She warns us to be specific, bring the story to completion, and don’t forget plot or characterization.

Lightning struck, and I realized I’d already done that with a poem I wrote about a marriage falling apart on a train in Wales. It’s now a novella! Will it be a novel when it grows up? Entirely possible. Why didn’t I repeat the process with other poems? I considered it a fluke and didn’t purposefully try it with another poem that refused to stay a poem. When I expanded yet another poem, it worked again, and bloomed into a short story. I thought, hey, this is good stuff! Of course, my imagination flew into overdrive. Would it work just as well on nursery rhymes, or even songs! If the nursery rhyme of Old MacDonald Had a Farm had been fleshed out as fiction, would it have become something incredible like Charlotte’s Web? What about songs, which are simply poems put to music? I thought of the words to the famous Canadian poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. If that’s not a powerful story, I don’t know what is. Spoiler alert: it first appeared as a…you guessed it…poem. Allow me to tease you a little with the first three lines:

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night forever
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there …

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to flesh that baby out, expand the setting, play with some dialogue, get into their mindsets, and follow wherever it leads me. Give it an actual ending. Even do a little head-hopping. Wait—did I say that out loud? Don’t forget about quotes, sayings, maxims, and proverbs. What’s the difference between Confucius’ famous saying, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” and Shakespeare’s MacBeth? Around 17,110 words, give or take.

So how about taking some time to resurrect what’s not working in one form and breathe new life into it. Does it work in reverse? Sure thing. If a novella isn’t working, try taking the best sections out, rework beginnings, endings, characters, and plot, and you might just have a super short story when the dust settles! Let me hear your ideas! I’d love to know if this works for you as well! Thanks for walking through the corridor with me.

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Research Your Historical Novel

by Mark H. Phillips

So you want to write a historical novel. Then it would be useful for you to know some history. Not just the kind of history you learned in school concerning who was the king of England during the American Revolutionary War or who was the Union General at the Battle of Vicksburg but the everyday level history like describing the posser your Victorian Era maid used on laundry day or how often a London homeowner would have to hire a gongfermor.

Getting details wrong is simply embarrassing and will throw your knowledgeable reader out of the story. Have your Victorian gentleman using a zipper on his pants is anachronistic. Although invented in 1893, the first practical marketing of the zipper didn’t occur until 1906 and it wasn’t called a “zipper” until 1923. In the movie Django Unchained dynamite is used in 1859 though it wasn’t invented until 1867.

The easiest way for a British Victorian writer to show vulgarity and boorishness in a character was to have them mis-use a title or screw up a mode of address. A man would never address the eldest daughter of an acquaintance the same way as the next eldest. Nor would a son address his father in the same way as a daughter would. A medical doctor is addressed as “Doctor” but a surgeon only by “Mister.” Do you know the difference between a parish priest, a curate, a rector, and a vicar? A modern writer, especially one not native to Britain, would have to do considerable research in order not to look foolish navigating their characters through the maze of Victorian class-based etiquette.

The kind of historical research necessary to bring your story alive is just plain fun. The housewife in 1920 Springfield, Illinois gets up in the morning and puts in her front window a colorful square of cardboard labelled in each quadrant with a different number. This particular day she makes sure the number 25 is in the uppermost position. Why? So that later that morning when the iceman knocks at her back kitchen door he will have the twenty-five pounds of ice for her ice box. Or in some locales there was a hatch in the wall behind the inbuilt ice box so the iceman could load in the ice without disturbing the homeowner at all.

In the same home late one evening a thug sneaks up behind the lady of the house as she is reading a book in her easy chair. He reaches from behind and begins to choke her. Defending herself, she stabs backwards with the knife she was holding, wounding him and driving him away. Why was she holding the knife? To slice open the pages of her book, of course.

A public library in 1920 Springfield would have been a quiet place. The Library of Alexandria in the ancient world was a horribly loud place because hardly anyone in the ancient world knew how to read silently. To read was automatically to read aloud.

Many details of the modern world are only explicable by reference to historical conditions that no longer exist. Why do women’s blouses button opposite from men’s shirts? Because a century and a half ago a lady’s maid would’ve been buttoning up her mistress’ blouse and the buttons weren’t backwards for the maid. Right handed women who dress themselves have been fumbling with buttons ever since because rich women used to use lady’s maids. Why are the letters on your computer’s keyboard arranged in the particular order they are? So that common letter combinations were as far apart as possible to keep efficient typists from tangling the keybars and jamming the machines. Now, after generations of touch typists have been trained on those deliberately inefficient keyboards, it’s impractical to change.

Fortunately there have been some excellent books on the history of everyday living published in recent years. Here are a few that I have found useful:

  • Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
  • Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Tudor and How to Be a Victorian
  • Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England
  • Robert Garland’s Ancient Greece
  • John Strausbaugh’s The Village
  • Tony Perrottet’s The Naked Olympics, Pagan Holiday, and Napoleon’s Privates
  • Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading
  • Michael Olmert’s Milton’s Teeth and Ovid’s Umbrella
  • Particularly excellent examples of well researched historical fiction are George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-Germain series, Ian Mortimer’s The Outcasts of Time, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (along with Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion), Against the Day, and Mason and Dixon, and Ed Sanders’ Tales of Beatnik Glory.

The meticulous research that supports the writing of historical fiction is hard work and great fun. Bring your fiction alive with accurate detail that is evocative of place and time and that grounds the reader in the everyday lives of your characters.





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