Releasing the Creative Writer in You – Lesson 9


For other lessons, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar and scroll through to find the lessons you need.

releasing-the-creative-writer-in-you-coverLESSON 9: INTRODUCTIONS – FIRST LINES, FIRST PARAGRAPHS, FIRST PAGES


Without a doubt, the first and primary job of your introduction to your story is to GRAB the reader’s attention and interest – and HOLD them securely. People sometimes consider attention and interest to be the same things. They are not. You must get the reader’s attention first. He has to pay enough attention to what your words are saying to read through more than the first few sentences. From that point on, you must have him interested enough to keep turning pages.

Once you have written a story, always go back to the first chapter and ask yourself, “Is there anything in this first chapter that is holding up the presentation of the really important characters or their action?” If so, delete it and get right into the “story” part of the story. If there is necessary information in the material you deleted, work it into the story later – perhaps through dialogue or even a character’s meditation.

Try your best to avoid prologues. In general, readers do not like prologues because they feel the material in that section of the book is keeping them from actually getting into the story itself. Occasionally, a prologue may be necessary, but the all-important operative words here are “occasionally” and “necessary.” In almost every novel, any material presented in the prologue can be worked into the first chapter of the book through dialogue and/or character meditation as the chapter flows along.

There are almost unlimited possibilities for great introductions – as many possibilities as there are writers. But most of them will fall into 4 main categories.

Intros beginning with ACTION.

This type of intro is almost always sure to get attention, and assuming the reader has picked up the book because he already has some degree of interest in the subject it covers, this plan is successful most of the time. However, be aware that if you begin action that is part of the main plot of the story, you may have to work your reader back to a place of beginning somewhere along the way, and you don’t want too much use of flashbacks, since they don’t move the story forward. Plan carefully so that most of the time you can avoid the need for flashbacks or the need to stop and give backstory information.

Intros beginning with DIALOGUE.

This type of intro is almost always a winner, as long as you can make clear who is speaking – and as long as the conversation is an important element in the story as a whole.

Intros beginning with SETTING.

These introductions are the hardest to use successfully because many readers are anxious to get to characters and action. However, settings that provide really strong appeal to the senses or emotions can work very well. Settings that immediately start building suspense or romance are often successful as well.

Intros beginning with a CHARACTER SKETCH.

Beginning with a strong character and presenting him/her in terms that immediately capture the senses and/or emotions will usually work well – mainly in character-driven stories, of course.

MAN TYPING HUGE PAGE - w. textAnd remember: always double-check your first chapter after the story is complete. That’s the time when you’ll know for sure whether you have the very best beginning possible.
More than once, I’ve changed my first chapter — particularly the first three paragraphs — in order to get the reader right into the important issues of the story, rather than just stuffing him with information.

I remember well the day I realized that the third chapter of my novel Quenton’s Honor should actually be Chapter 1 instead. I was sitting, thinking about offering Chapter 1 for a free reading on a couple different Internet sites. I caught myself thinking that I wished I could offer Chapter 3 instead because that’s where the real action of the story starts. Suddenly, I had this “light bulb” moment and realized “DUH!  If that’s where the action starts, then that should be Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 3.”

And so — I made it Chapter 1. However, it was not nearly as easy to do it as it was to decide. I was working with a change in location throughout the story — from St. Louis, USA, to Karachi, Pakistan. As I went back and forth with the plot, I had to keep reminding myself and making allowances for the time change — particularly since a good deal of the conversation in some chapters took place on computers between two people who were located literally a half a world away from each other.

Beginning the book with Chapter 3 — and allowing for all the time differences — put me in the position of actually losing 12 days of activity in the story that were important to the plot —  but not attention-grabbing enough to start the story with. So I had to find a way to let the reader know about everything that happened in those 12 days. I finally decided to use a very short flashback. As I mentioned above, it’s important not to use flashbacks often or for any long sections of the story. They don’t move the story forward, and that’s what readers want to do — keep going forward to the climax and conclusion. But once in a while a short flashback can come in handy, and if it means a much more  compelling beginning chapter, then it’s worth the risk of using it later in the story.

This lesson will be the final lesson in this series. I will try to post a few more later in the year. Also, when I get the online creative writing course set up — so that students can read the lessons and do an assignment which they turn in via e-mail — I’ll be letting my readers know about the details. It’s been fun sharing with you the same kinds of things I share with my students in the college classes. I hope they’ve been beneficial. Whatever you do, keep writing and keep having fun doing it!

* Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner


‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 6

To access other lessons in this series, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar and scroll through to find the lessons you need.

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedLESSON # 6: BODY MOVEMENT AND DIALOGUE MAKE A STORY COME ALIVE

As you develop your plot, remember to use as much dialogue and body movement as possible to help the reader see and hear the words and actions. Simply narrating it is much less effective. Quote your characters directly, and let the reader hear a sigh or see the character lean against a door frame. Describe a smile or the sound of the laughter. Allow your character to lean forward or backward, prop his foot on a stool, rest his head against the back of a chair, or fold his arms across his chest. No real person carries on a conversation without body movement as well, and you need that kind of description to keep your reader’s attention and make your characters “real.”

Beginning writers often find themselves skipping this very important principle. They get involved in “telling” their story and just continue to narrate the events without any individual detailed action and without letting their characters carry on real conversations. That lack of material is generally why some beginning writers have problems filling out scenes and developing entire novels. But once you get into the habit of adding these two very important elements to your writing, you will find that you enjoy writing even more, and that you have less problem creating real-life, fully developed scenes for your story.

Now, of course, adding just any old movement or dialogue will not work either. The characters’ behavior and conversations have to fit the story and be totally relevant – even important – to the story itself. Keep checking to be sure that every conversation and every scene is actually moving your story forward and not just taking up space.

Remember also, that tag words (things like “he said / she asked”) need to be kept at a minimum and need to be simple, ordinary words as often as possible. Some new writers have the mistaken idea that they should reach for a variety of words or for unusual words to use with quotes. That’s exactly what you don’t want to do. Those unusual words stick out like the proverbial “sore thumb” in the middle of dialogue and interrupt it. Except in very rare instances, you’re much better off using the ordinary words like “said” or “asked.” Occasionally, in a scene where they would be perfectly applicable, you might venture out to tag words like “whispered” or “shouted.” But the number one rule is to keep those tags as inconspicuous as possible.

The next rule you want to remember is to begin a brand new paragraph each time the speaker changes in a conversation – even if the previous speaker said only one word. When you stay faithful to that rule, you end up needing far fewer tag words to begin with – particularly if you have only two speakers. Once you identify the original speaker and then identify the person who answers him, changing paragraphs for each one will keep your reader aware of who is saying what. If your conversation lasts for more than a page, you need to throw in a couple more tags here and there, just for extra clarity, but it’s amazing how easily readers will follow your conversations with no other help when you follow these two basic rules.

QUIVER FULL COVER - GOLDBelow, I’ve given you two versions of the same excerpt from my novel A Quiver Full of Arrows. The first excerpt uses very little body language and dialogue. The author narrates what is happening, but does not show the characters in action or let them speak on their own. In the second, you will see how much more color and interest is added by letting the characters speak their own words in normal conversation and by showing the reader even small unremarkable body movements.

In order to better grasp the way these writing tools are used, I’ve made the dialogue a sort of turquoise color and the body movement sections a shade of purple. I tried highlighting them, but could not get the highlights to copy and paste into this editing window. So I’ll work with what I’ve got.  And the color variation will help you see exactly what was added to get the better version.

Version # 1 – Mostly narration with only a small amount of body movement or dialogue. (Remember: dialogue is only the words within quotation marks. Any other mode of letting your reader know what a character said is narration.)

Peanut shells! Again! Handfuls of peanut shells scattered around the steps of the front porch!

How were they getting there?

Lawson Wainright walked around the small piles that were littering the sidewalk and the edge of the grass beside the steps. He stood for several more minutes, looking around the yard, turning his tall, lean body full circle . . . but there was no one in sight.

He looked up into the branches of the tree just a few yards away. He supposed it could be birds or squirrels. But he just didn’t think an animal would leave the shells looking like this. The nuts had obviously been broken open carefully. . . . .

He went to get a rake and some garbage bags to gather up the shells. While he was raking up the shells, Elmer Peabody, his 75-year-old neighbor from across the street came over. “Looks like you’re rakin’ up peanut shells again,” he said.

Lawson agreed and asked Mr. Peabody if he had seen anyone unusual in the neighborhood recently. Mr. Peabody replied that he hadn’t seen anything so far and asked if the shells were all still intact the way they had been the other times. Lawson told him that they were.

Eventually Mr. Peabody began to walk around the area himself, looking closely at the foundation of the house, where Lawson had added white latticework that ran along the front, below the porch, and met the steps on each side.

Elmer was leaning down close to the foundation right where Lawson had been raking up the shells, and all of a sudden he shouted. “By Jove! Did you know that your lattice is broken here, L.W.?”

“Broken?” Lawson asked. “Where?”

“Right here,” Mr. Peabody answered and handed Lawson a piece of the loose lattice.

Lawson couldn’t understand how it could have broken because he had put it in place last summer, and it was all secure. He finally stooped down and looked more closely.

The area under the porch was spacious and dry, and Lawson crawled in to have a better look.

“What in heaven’s name!” he shouted from under the porch.

“Did you find something?” Elmer asked.

Lawson crawled back out from under the porch and looked up at Elmer. “I found two sleeping bags and a can of peanuts under there,” he said. He was hoping Elmer might be able to help explain what was happening, but Elmer was equally stunned.

After a few seconds, Lawson laughed out loud. He told Elmer that he felt like the three bears who had come home and found someone had been sleeping in their beds. Elmer asked Lawson if he had any idea who it could be.

“I don’t have a clue,” Lawson said. But, suddenly, he remembered something.

Version # 2: A considerable amount of dialogue and body movement has been added to this version. Compare the effectiveness of Version # 2 with that of Version # 1. Which story will hold your reader’s attention better and help him relate to your characters?

Peanut shells! Again! Handfuls of peanut shells scattered around the steps of the front porch!

How were they getting there?

Lawson Wainright walked around the small piles that were littering the sidewalk and the edge of the grass beside the steps. In frustration, he ran his hands through his short brown hair, and as he did so, the sunshine caught sections of it and highlighted them with streaks of copper. He let his hand slip down to the back of his neck, massaging it a little as he shook his head back and forth slowly, still trying to reason out the solution to this strange development.

Then he stood for several more minutes, resting both hands on his hips and looking slowly around the yard, turning his tall, lean body full circle . . . but there was no one in sight. He looked up into the branches of the tree just a few yards away. He supposed it could be birds or squirrels. But after a moment, he shook his head again. No … he just didn’t think an animal would leave the shells looking like this. The nuts had obviously been broken open carefully. . . . .

He shrugged his shoulders now and let out a sigh, turning as he did so to walk around the house to the garage, where he extricated a lightweight rake from a jumbled collection of yard care equipment. He returned to the front yard, where he began to rake the small piles into one larger heap in order to scoop them into a garbage bag he had carried over along with the rake.

“Hey, L. W.” The voice of his seventy-five-year-old neighbor across the street got his attention. “Looks like you’re rakin’ up peanut shells again.”

Lawson couldn’t help chuckling and shaking his head in consternation again as he stilled his rake and looked at Mr. Elmer Peabody. “Looks like,” he called back, leaning slightly on the rake now as he gave his attention to his favorite neighbor.

“Still no idea how they’re gettin’ into your yard?” Elmer asked as he started across the street.

“Nope. You still haven’t seen anything or anyone unusual, have you?”

“Not so far.” Mr. Peabody took off his gardening hat as he crossed the yard and scratched his almost bald head. “’Course, that don’t mean nothin’,” he added. “I hardly ever look outside after dark, and early in the mornin’ I’m eatin’ my breakfast and lookin’ out my back window at the birds.” By the time he’d finished answering Lawson’s question, he was beside him, watching him finish his clean-up job. “Were the shells all neat and clean again like the other times?”

“Yeah … just exactly like the last three times.”

“Mm-mm!” Elmer Peabody grunted, shaking his head back and forth. He began to walk around the area in tight circles, finally bending over and looking along the foundation of the house, where Lawson had added white latticework that ran along the front, below the porch, and met the steps on each side. …

All of a sudden Elmer shouted, “By Jove! Did you know that your lattice is broken here, L.W.?”

“Broken?” Lawson asked, stepping over to stand beside his neighbor. “Where?”

“Right here,” Mr. Peabody said, reaching out to take hold of a loose 3-foot section of the white lattice and lift it away from the rest of the porch. He held it up for Lawson to inspect.

“Well, I’ll be!” Lawson said, taking the piece of latticework in his hands. “How on earth did that happen? I just put that up last summer, and it was all secure.” He studied the piece of wood he held in his hands. “Hmm … it looks like the nails have been worked loose and just pulled out, but nothing’s broken off.He stooped down to look more closely under the porch.

The area beneath the porch was quite spacious, and stayed fairly dry most of the year, unless they had heavy rain or snow. He could easily crawl under it himself and move around, but he hadn’t done so since he’d put up the lattice. Now he got down on his hands and knees and eased his way into the three-foot opening.

“What in Heaven’s name!” His voice came out sounding muffled from beneath the porch, and Elmer Peabody leaned a little closer to hear better as Lawson spoke again. “I don’t believe my eyes!”

“What’d you find?” Elmer asked, excitement filling his voice now. This was an adventure for him. He hadn’t had this much interesting activity in his neighborhood since Hilda Gates, next door to him, had set her kitchen on fire trying to make a big rum cake. ….

Lawson hadn’t said anything else for a minute or so, and Elmer leaned in even closer and stuck his head inside the opening.What did you find? What’s going on?”

“Sleeping bags!”

Sleeping bags?” Elmer couldn’t believe he’d heard right.

“Yeah … two of them, and a big metal can full of peanuts!” Lawson began to ease backwards out of the opening, and Elmer moved away to give him room.

“Did I hear you right? Sleeping bags?”

Lawson was still crouched down close to the ground, and he looked up at Elmer, his face a perfect picture of consternation. “Elmer, there are two rolled-up sleeping bags under my porch, and a large metal can full of peanuts in the shells.” His eyes still registered his shock, and then a quizzical look came into them, almost as if he hoped that his neighbor, somehow, would have the explanation.

When he realized that Elmer’s face was as full of surprise as his own must be, he added, grinning in spite of himself, “I feel a little like the three bears who came home and discovered that someone had been sleeping in their beds.” He laughed out loud then. In spite of the obvious seriousness of the discovery, he couldn’t help himself. “Mr. Peabody … somebody’s been sleeping under my porch!”

“And havin’ a midnight snack on top of that,” Elmer said, chuckling and scratching his head again. “By Jove! I wonder who in the world it could be.”

Lawson shook his head again and picked up the piece of lattice to replace it. “I can’t imagine – unless – ” His voice trailed off, and he sat back on his haunches, looking off into space. . . . He had just remembered a recent news story. …

With this second version, not only is the scene fully fleshed out, but the reader actually feels that he is getting to know the two people involved. As we discussed in the chapter on developing characters, we get to know real people in our lives by talking with them, seeing them in action, and learning how they treat and interact with others. That’s also the best way for readers to get to know the characters in a story. As a result, those characters seem real, and the reader connects with them enough to want to read to the end.

* Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner

NOTE:  My schedule has become a little over-loaded this month, so I’m going to have to hit the ‘pause’ button on my plan to offer a creative writing lesson every Saturday. I’ll try to post a lesson at least once a month for a while, but that may be the best I can do. I hope these have been a help and encouragement to some of you, and I’ll add more as often as I can.


‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 3

releasing-the-creative-writer-icover-editedTo access other lessons in this series, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar and scroll through to find the lessons you need.


Fiction covers a wide range of genres, including short stories, novels, novellas, novelettes, scripts, screenplays, and children’s literature. Having a knack for writing well in one of those genres does not guarantee that a writer has an equal knack for the others. However, most of the time writers find that, with experience and practice, they can write successfully in several different genres at the same time. While all good writing requires some of the same characteristics, each of the different genres of fiction has certain elements that are peculiar to it alone.


There are no hard and fast rules followed by all writers and publishers concerning what constitutes the length of different genres of literature. Each literary guide has its own specifications, but the information given in this text offers an average that takes into consideration the high and low ends of various guides. In general, short stories are considered any stories between 100 words (generally referred to as “flash fiction”) and 20,000 words. Often the stories that run between 100 and 3,000 words are referred to as “short-short” stories. Length does not matter, except for the purpose of meeting the requirements of a particular assignment. (Ex. Writing for a magazine that has a word limit, etc.)

What matters is whether you have all the elements required to satisfy the readers of the stories, and if you have developed the characters, setting, and plot thoroughly – without letting any areas of the work drag or become unnecessarily verbose. The writer must tell a complete story: an attention-grabbing beginning, the development of a problem or conflict, attempts to resolve that conflict, the climax, and a resolution/conclusion.)

In short stories, word choices are even more pressing than in longer fiction. Character development is trickier, due to less time. There are also fewer words for describing setting and characters, as well as for developing plot.


Novels require a larger tale – so a larger scope. You have more time to develop setting and characters, as well conflict and climax. Generally readers expect a little more than one simple conflict in a story of any significant length – simply because real life is that way.

Word choices are still extremely important because nothing drags as badly as a novel that is too wordy.

Novel length is generally considered anything between 50,000 and 300,000 words. But most publishers have a policy concerning length of each genre they publish, and authors will need to consult each individual publisher’s guidelines when considering submissions.

Novellas: When you have a story that really needs more than a short story format, but hasn’t enough plot for a full novel, novellas offer a good alternative. If you find yourself working on a short story, but realize you are up to 30,000 words, you need to consider expanding the story a little more and making it a novella. (Generally 40,000-50,000 words on average).

Novelettes: This category offers one more level in alternatives to short stories and novels. Novelettes also give the reader a story that is more involved than a short story, but that does not have enough plot to carry it the length of a full novel. Any work running between 10,000 and 30,000 words can be considered novelette length.


For scripts and screenplays, dialogue will generally rule, and action must be 100% do-able. Words are at their highest premium in a story that must be acted out. The author must also consider and write in all the stage directions as well.


In children’s literature, writers deal with all the elements common to adult short stories and novels, but children’s works require special attention to the level of language and frames of reference so that they fit exactly the age group for which the pieces are written. The ONLY way to do that successfully is to SPEND A LOT OF TIME WITH CHILDREN. Children’s literature is also generally much more successful with pictures and illustrations. Therefore, the author needs to be able to provide these elements or develop a good relationship with an artist/photographer who can.


So what are the elements of a good story?

1. Characters

Get to know your characters personally. Your reader may never need to know how your main character did in school, whether he played baseball or worked cross-word puzzles, whether or not he took vacations with his family, etc. But you need to know him well enough to know those things. That doesn’t mean you have to list every event in his life before he steps onto the stage of your book, but you do need to sit and think about him from every direction. What are his strengths, his weaknesses, his fears, his goals, etc. It’s a good idea to sit down and write out a few of those traits and qualities for each character before you build your story around those people.

Chances are most of your characters will come from a real person you have had experience with, or – more likely – a composite of a number of real people. That is why keeping a journal and making character sketches is so important. You may be surprised how often an unusual trait you jotted down in a journal as you watched a man on the bus will come in very handy in making a person in your book seem more real.  Also, think about the fact that your characters had lives before they came into your book, and you need to know what those lives were like so that each character will seem REAL and not just an automation you have invented to walk through the pages and say certain words.

Sometimes the characters will be there to carry out the plot (Plot-driven story)

Other times, the characters will be the main story, and their inner struggles, changes, and growth (or deterioration) are what constitutes the story. (Character-driven story).

2. Setting

You know yourself best, and you must decide if you are a person who enjoys detailed descriptions of settings or not. If you enjoy them, chances are you will write them well enough that your readers will also enjoy them. However, if you do not enjoy them, then you must work at giving your story a setting that needs a minimum of description and that has no real importance to the story itself.

The purpose of your story will also determine a lot about the degree of attention paid to the setting. If you write a story focused solely on a romance, making the characters and their personal, emotional interaction the meat of your story, you can get by with simply letting the reader know the characters live in a large American city, or a village in the English countryside, etc., with very little detail. But if you write a story set on another planet, you need to be prepared with loads of details so that your reader will not feel out of sync with the characters they want to identify with.

(You will find more details concerning setting in the upcoming chapter on that particular element.)

3. Plot (Action – either physical or mental)

The plot of a story includes the following  5 basics:

A. Introduction.

Occasionally, a story may open with ordinary action shortly before the important action begins, but this method is tricky because of the need to engage your reader from page one. It’s generally better to open in the middle of some important action or conversation that will be explained in subsequent pages. Or you may use a prologue if you have to lay some groundwork that is not part of the main story. However, you need to use prologues and epilogues very sparingly. Some readers skip them altogether. This course discusses good opening ideas in a subsequent lesson.

B. Development of a Problem or Conflict

This problem/conflict can be physical, mental, emotional, or all three. (More details are available in the chapter on conflict, which will be included in a later lesson.)

C. Attempts to fix the problem, which generally do not resolve the main issue.

D. Climax – Problem comes to a head and meets the solution head-on

E. Resolution/Conclusion/The End

For more details concerning plot, see the chapter entitled “Plotting Your Story,” coming in a future lesson.

4. Theme: The central, recurring, unifying idea of a piece of literature.

What is the Purpose of Specific Action or Dialogue in Your Story?

Your theme can generally be found in the answer to the questions of why something happened or what effect it is meant to have. As your story develops, you (and your reader) will generally find that virtually all of the action and dialogue is happening – ultimately — for the same purpose: to bring about specific outcomes – all of which work together to affect the reader the way you want him affected.

5. Body Language and Dialogue

As you develop your plot, remember to use as much dialogue and body language as possible to help the reader see and hear the words and actions. Simply narrating them is much less effective. Quote your characters directly, and let the reader hear a sigh or see the character lean against a door frame. Describe a smile or the sound of the laughter. Allow your character to lean forward or backward, rest his head against the back of a chair, or fold his arms across his chest. No real person carries on a conversation without body movement as well, and you need that kind of description to keep your reader’s attention and make your characters “real.”

(More discussion on this aspect of writing stories is covered in the material on Developing Characters and in the chapter on Dialogue and Body Language. These segments will be included in upcoming lessons.)

cartoon-writer-pink-spikey-hair-2Do you need an outline before beginning?

The short answer is ‘No.’ Sometimes stories just jump out at us when we are doing a simple writing exercise or sitting quietly and meditating. It’s fine to just sit down to the keyboard and start writing out what is flowing through our minds.

However, do not expect to write excellent stories on a regular basis without having a strong idea of what you want the story to do – how you want it to play out – and who the characters are. You will need some kind of guidelines to help you stay focused and to make sure you have a thoroughly developed plot.

If you find that a story begins coming to life in your mind, go ahead and start writing it. Write until you know you are finished with what was pressing to get onto paper. However, once that is done, you do need to try to determine where you are going – what is going to happen to your characters – what do you want the ending to be – are you wanting the story to stir up particular emotions or teach any particular lesson or moral?

Then lay out a “loose” outline. You will, no doubt, change this outline a number of times, but having something to look at now will at least help you stay with your story instead of writing two or three different stories because of running off on tangents as you write.

You can use the old tried-and-true classic outline format to do your planning, or you can simply write out a few notes or a paragraph for each scene you plan to include in your story. Many authors plan out their entire novels in such paragraphs. And some writers plan out each individual scene as well as the effects of each scene on the people who were involved in it.

One plan includes writing each scene on a note card, followed by a second card explaining the effects of that scene. The writer can then lay out the cards in front of him as he begins each new chapter and write out what he sees in his notes. Naturally, there may be a number of additions or subtractions – or some moving scenes around – putting them into a different chapter – but that’s what creative writing is all about.

(NOTE: If, while you are writing one story, you do get an idea for a totally different story, stop long enough to jot down the main idea that came to you – along with any notes about a character that you know will be a part of that story. Then put those notes away until you are finished with the story in progress. EXCEPTION: The exception to this rule is that if you find yourself pulled back to the new story again and again – or the ideas for it are coming much easier than the ideas for the first story, then, by all means, put #1 away in a drawer, and write # 2. This may be your masterpiece!)

Most of the time, characters and plot tend to take on a life of their own as you write. Do not be alarmed if you find a character wanting to do some things or say some things that you had not intended. If you are brave, let it happen. Then go back to the piece a day later and see how you feel about it. The same is true with plot. You will very likely have new ideas that come along as you write, and your story may turn in a direction you hadn’t even considered in the beginning. You may end up with an entirely different ending than you planned.

Now, there is a thin line between letting your imagination and creativity have this freedom and in being confused about what you are writing. That is one reason to have an initial loose outline. Each time you find a character changing his or her nature, you can stop and ask yourself, is this helping the story or hurting it? The same is true with plot. Often, you will have to wait a day or two and go back to the story to make that decision, but most of the time, you will not be on a strict deadline.

* Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner


‘Releasing the Creative Writer in You’ – Lesson 2

To access other lessons in this series, click on “Creative Writing Class” in the navigation bar and scroll through to find the lessons you need.



Introductory Thoughts, Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, And Fun Ideas to Get You Started


QUESTION: Where Do Good Writing Ideas Come From?

Successful Writing Rule # 1: If you are a writer, you’re full of ideas.

Ideas come from a myriad of directions, but two of the most common places – two that you can always depend on – are the following:

A. We have a storehouse of ideas inside us. Sometimes they just need a trigger in order to cause those ideas to “go off” enough to ignite a story. What are the subjects that you care about in the various aspects of your life? What do you feel passionate about? What do you like to discuss with friends or colleagues? What do you argue about most ardently? What makes you happy? What makes you sad?

The answers to all of these personal questions can be the key to a successful writing venture – whether fiction or non-fiction.

Do not accept the position of a “would-be” writer who feels he has to run around and ask other people for ideas because he has none of his own. The very idea that you have no ideas is a deception. So your first rule in fulfilling your writing goals is to recognize that you do, indeed, have ideas of your own, and if they are not rising to the surface, start digging as deeply as necessary until you find them.

B. We can see ideas and themes for writing all around us in life itself. How can we be sure we don’t miss them? Simply make a habit of deliberately allowing your curiosity and your imagination to exist unfettered. When your curiosity is free, and it latches onto something, then let your imagination go to work on that subject.

Author/Editor Micheal Seidman discusses this subject in his book Fiction: The Art and Craft of Writing and Getting Published (p. 20., Pomegranate Press, Ltd. ).  Let me pause here to say that I highly recommend this book, as well as other works by Mr. Seidman. He is an excellent instructor in the field of writing and marketing what we write.

In that book, he shares his belief that often we can find ideas most easily when we are not looking for them. He shares about an army lieutenant who trained Seidman’s unit in the expert use of rifles – particularly regarding sniper fire. Seidman quotes his lieutenant as saying, “Don’t stare directly in front of you; you won’t see anything … or you’ll see things that aren’t there. Either is deadly. What you do, gentlemen, is watch the horizon … use your peripheral vision. That’s how you’ll see the movement you have to be aware of.” Seidman often tells writing students of his own that the advice from his lieutenant can be applied to the writer’s craft as well.

And most writers would agree. Those of us who follow the advice proffered by the lieutenant often find that it is a great help in becoming an expert with our own weapon – the pen.

cartoon-writer-with-nin-quoteWhen you get up every morning, get up as a writer. Intentionally go through your day seeking to learn something you did not know previously – or learn more about a subject you thought you did know. Be open and expectant. Allow yourself to ask questions concerning the things you see people do or the things you hear them say. You will not always be in a position to ask the questions of others. In fact, only rarely will that plan work. But you can search your own conscious and subconscious mind for answers.

Apply the principle to events as well as people. When you find yourself involved in an event, ask yourself how and why things are happening as they are – or what would happen if one aspect of the event were opposite of what is taking place in reality. Once you learn to operate this way on a regular basis, you will be surprised at all the questions you will come up with, as well as some of the answers you receive. And remember, you are not necessarily stuck with the “real” answers. Often they are a great catalyst for a story or a non-fiction piece. But just as often the unexpected ideas that your own imagination comes up with in answer to those questions will be just as effective.

And always keep in mind that there are some basic questions that every generation has asked, since the beginning of time – and there are as many different answers as there have been generations. But it’s those questions – the ones that apply to every human being just because he’s a human being – that have a universality about them. And, as a result, those very questions often provide great subject matter for the stories we write.

Author Wally Lamb quoted one of his former writing teachers during an interview for Writer’s Digest recently. His teacher said, “You’re never going to tell an original story. … The world is a very old place and all the stories that matter to people have been told over and over.” (Writer’s Digest, March/April, 2014, p.43). The key to your success, dear writer, is to find a fresh way to tell those same stories. But you must begin by asking the same questions that caused them to be written in previous generations.

A word of caution: Bear in mind that writing a story with a universal theme does not mean that every person who reads your work will like it. He will not. And that is a good thing. If everyone liked everything that every great writer published, the human race would be nothing but a mass of confused, undecided, and uncommitted people. You want to live in a world – and write for a world – that is made up of people who are real individuals. They have ideologies, prejudices, and emotional attachments that differ astronomically. Some of them will find your writing exactly to their taste because it agrees with their ideologies, touches their emotional roots, and satisfies their longings. Those who do not find your work to their liking will like someone else’s work – and that simple fact, dear writers, is what makes the literary world – and the literary market – go  ’round.

Successful Writing Rule # 2: Never throw anything away.

If you write a sentence that records how you feel about one brief conversation, keep it. If you try to write a short story for an assignment, but it just won’t fit into the assignment requirements, don’t wad it up and toss it into the trash. That currently disqualified story may be the root of your finest novel some day. Create a file and keep everything you write that came from your own creativity. In fact, you can also keep quotes from many other writers as well, because they may spark ideas in the future. Remember, of course, that you are not allowed to “borrow” their ideas – just let them spark brand new ideas in you.

Successful Writing Rule # 3: Make frequent use of writing exercises.

Below are some examples of successful writing exercises that generations of writers have found helpful:

A. This first exercise is similar to the process followed in some party games, but it is also a never-fail story starter. Make yourself a collection of 1, 2 or 3-word phrases, single sentences, or longer specifically detailed single sentences. (If you have opportunity to have someone else create the lists, that will be even more challenging.) Write them in a tablet you do not use frequently, or, better yet, write each one on a separate piece of paper, fold it, and put it in a box or jar, or sandwich bag – whatever your style. When in need of an exercise for your creativity, draw one folded suggestion from the collection and sit down at your computer (or notebook) and begin writing. Write non-stop for a pre-specified time (5-15 minutes). Do not stop to edit or even think for any significant amount of time. This is a time when you are letting the creativity in your subconscious have its way without hindrance. (If, after the specified minutes, you find you’re onto a good thing, just keep writing.)

The really important thing about this kind of exercise is that you are totally disregarding all the “rules” of writing. You’re not interested in grammar, syntax, or even organization. And because you are free from all those restraints, your imagination is totally unfettered and able to release things from inside your conscious and subconscious mind that may never have seen the light of day otherwise.

I recall one evening when I was feeling sort of dull where my writing was concerned. I had been working on a couple pieces, but neither of them held any interest for me right then. So I decided to do what I instruct my students to do: pick up a two-word phrase and just start writing until I ran out of steam. No thinking. No editing. No rules. Just writing. By the time my imagination came to a halt, I had written the first two chapters of one of the best novels I’ve ever put out. Now I had no idea I was working on a whole novel. But what I discovered down deep inside of myself as I wrote birthed a beautiful idea that just begged to become a story. It needed some editing, of course, but that can always be done later. What matters first is getting the idea and the story onto paper.

B. Take an hour or so in a public place: restaurant, mall, grocery store, department store, book store, civic event – any place where you can observe people and listen to conversation. Watch how they act and interact; notice what they purchase, what they read, what they eat.  Listen to them converse. Jot down excerpts of their conversations that grab your attention. One particularly interesting writing exercise involves jotting down the last sentence you hear in an overheard conversation and, for the next five minutes (or tomorrow if necessary), sit quietly and let your imagination pick up at that point and continue the conversation, taking it whatever direction your own muse leads. It’s these times of faithful observation of “real” life that lead to the creation of believable characters who act and speak like “real” people.

One of the major earmarks of poor fiction is the creation of characters who often tend to move and speak as some programmed components of the book. They do what the author needs them to do, but they are not interacting and conversing in ways that real human beings would act and speak without the author’s contrivance.  However, many an observant author has watched and listened to an individual in a restaurant or public event and discovered the main character of his next successful novel in that person’s “real” behavior and speech. The character so conceived has the potential to grab the reader’s attention – and possibly his heart – and stay with him long after the last page of the book as been turned.

But back to the specific exercise: now take the notes you’ve made during observation and write a character sketch or a flash fiction story about what you’ve observed. (Flash fiction is simply a super short piece of fiction — generally between 25 and 500 words). Keep it and be on the alert to recognize a place where you can use that material in future work.

C. The third exercise is helpful for writers who are already involved in creating a story but are having trouble with one aspect or one scene. Take the scene you’ve been having trouble with and meditate on it during a long period of quiet and rest. Forget about what you originally intended to do with the scene and set your imagination free with it. It is important to be relaxed in this exercise. Even if you doze off, it is not a problem. Often in those moments between sleeping and waking, ideas rise to the surface of our minds easily because there is less conscious restraint on them at that time. More than once, I’ve wakened in the middle of a brilliant, technicolor action scene playing in my mind – a scene that I doubt I would have imagined with as much quality had I been awake to start with. Let your mind wonder and meander through as many pathways and mazes as it wants during this exercise, and see where your subconscious takes you. You may find that you have a whole new avenue for using the scene in that story – and you just might find that you have an entirely new story altogether.

dreaming-man-with-pencil-blueDeciding on Genre

A. Write what you are hooked on – what you read all the time or think about all the time. Many of you will read various genres, but there are one or two that really spark your interest or give you the greatest pleasure. Focus your own writing in those directions – at least to begin with.

B. Do Not try to write to fit what seems to be selling in the marketplace. Some writers/editors/publisher will tell you the opposite. But when all is said and done – particularly if you are interested in publishing with a mainstream publishing house – what you submit to a publisher today will not see a marketplace bookshelf in less than one full year and sometimes two. Self publishing will get your work out faster in the initial stages, but getting wide-spread distribution may take a lot longer.

As a result you cannot count on the best-selling genre this year to still be the best-selling two years from now, when your book is finally sitting in the bookstore or on the Internet retailer’s site. Some genres, of course (such as romance) are best sellers all the time. However, if you cannot write great stories in those particular genres, then your competition is going to be too stiff. Look for the niche that you and your creative talents fit, and you will have the best chance of capturing your share of the market.

C. Another point to consider: How important is personal satisfaction with your work in your estimate of whether or not you are a success? Do you see yourself as a strong individual – a leader? Or do you see yourself as a good follower – perhaps even a clone? There are possible sales for both kinds of writers, but the personal satisfaction with your work can be significantly lacking if you are a leader at the core of your being, but expend all your time and talent just following the crowd.

Examples of Non-Fiction Genres & Categories

Academic Assignments
Literary Anthologies

These may fall into various categories, including
descriptive, analytical, expository, persuasive, comic, etc.

Educational Journals
Literary Anthologies

These may fall into various categories, including
descriptive, analytical, expository, persuasive, comic, etc.

Travel Journals
How To/Self Help

Media Reviews

Miscellaneous Categories
Book Report
Business Reports

Examples of Fiction Genres & Categories

Commercial Fiction Category

This genre makes up a large part of the books found on
mainstream mass-market bookstore shelves and Internet sales sites.
They include both plot-driven and character-driven stories and
can sometimes cross over into the Literary Fiction Market.

Literary Fiction Category

Often more character-driven than plot-driven and generally
considered a little more “intellectual” than commercial fiction. However, more and
more writers are crossing the barriers between these two categories.

Some of the Most Common Genres From Both Categories
Women’s Fiction
Mystery/Cozy Mystery
Thriller/Psychological Thriller
Political Intrigue/Espionage
Science Fiction

*Releasing the Creative Writer in You, © 2013 by Sandra Pavloff Conner