It Takes a Village

One thing the Bible teaches us is God made us to live in community. The writing community is no different. We have author friends who have already walked the path we’re now on ourselves, and they are more than willing to lend a helping hand. That support is both crucial and encouraging.

Toni Shiloh is one such author. She speaks to writing groups to help bring along new and learning authors. She spoke to our DFW chapter this month about writing with diversity. Her topic is something we all need to learn and honor.

Toni also posts each Friday on her blog, Toni Shiloh – Soulfully Romantic, where she promotes new publications. She included both of my Christmas anthologies on this week’s post, along with others. You can read it here.

Feel free to browse! There are several to choose from. You may find something that piques your interest, and may also find some Christmas gifts. Enjoy. And, thanks, Toni!

I Need Your Help!

I am planning a launch party for my second Christmas anthology book (available October 12 on Amazon). I was invited to take part in the collection with Texas authors Jessica White and Sara Meg Seese. We titled the book Texas Heirloom Ornament, and it chronicles the stories of three generations of Texas women. Each story takes place around Christmas.

The first one, In Small Things Liberty, is set in 1923. Following is In Large Things Unity, which takes place in 1972. The collection wraps up with the third novella, In All Things Charity, in 2015. An heirloom Christmas ornament connects the three women in the stories as they pass it down from generation to generation. There is also just the slightest thread of feminism as each heroine deals with challenges from her particular era.

We are organizing a Painting With a Twist party, but they offer several options. Please tell me your top three choices of the following paintings. Also, let me know if you’d be interested in an invitation!

Thank you for your help, and I hope to see you there!

Option 1 – Bulbs of the Season
Option 2 – Christmas Love
Option 3 – Christmas Once More
Option 4 – Christmas Tree
Option 5 – Enchanted Christmas Tree
Option 6 – Holiday Shine
Option 7 – It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
Option 8 – Rustic Merry and Bright
Option 9 – Simple Christmas
Option 10 – Snow Bird
Option 11 – Trim the Tree
Option 12 – Whimsical Winter

This word you keep saying …

I’m a writer and I belong to a critique group. We meet once a week to share our works-in-progress. We listen to each other read and then offer suggestions about how to correct mistakes, or barring that, simply fine tune the craft. It’s the most helpful thing a new author can do for herself. Every writer should join a crit group.

Three months ago, one of my co-authors made a comment about my submission, and I cannot get it out of my mind.

The lady took umbrage at my use of a term she didn’t know. The word in question? Discomposed. She told me she’d never heard it, which is fine. There are lots of words I don’t know. But she went on to say she didn’t think my readers would understand it either. She suggested I change the phrase.

I declined her recommendation, but the idea behind her discontent has bothered me ever since.

I understand her reasoning. I totally get it. The biggest mistake a writer can make, apparently, is to pen something so distracting it “takes the reader out of the story.” The fear is, if this unpardonable sin occurs, the dear reader might decide never to return. There are a lot of easily available distractions in our world today.

But I disagree with part of that train of thought. I think reading can (and should be) a means of learning new things, of broadening our vocabularies. Any time you hear someone mispronounce a word, rest assured, they learned it from reading it. That’s a good thing! I can remember reading 101 Dalmatians as a 10-year-old and being puzzled by the differences in British English vs. American English, although I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time.

Words like “bachelor flat,” and “trousseau,” and “stacked plates on a lift.”

I was ten. I saw the words “bachelor flat” and my imagination produced something very thin. Trousseau? How do you even pronounce that? A lift? I learned what a dumbwaiter was by reading Harriet the Spy.

When I read The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver, I kept my phone by my side with my Google Translate app open, waiting to type in the Spanish words I didn’t know. I finished the book, by the way.

So, if you want to use a word that pushes your reader to learn something new, go for it. If your writing is entertaining enough, enticing enough, the reader will come back to the story after puzzling over the meaning of the unknown.

Seems like that’s my job as the author. Write a book they can’t put down, and none of this matters.

Follow me on TikTok to hear about the words I run into each day that were previously unknown to me. Share your words with me. We can laugh about how badly we pronounce them.

But at the end of the day, we’ll be smarter than we were at the beginning. And that’s a good thing, too.

Oh, by the way … check out my new book. I am one of five authors who contributed to a Christmas anthology titled Christmas Love Through the Ages. The book is full of sweet, wholesome, Christmas-y stories that will get you in the mood for the holidays. Enjoy!

Gracias a Dios

How to describe the feelings when something unexpected but wonderful happens?

Shock. Disbelief. Excitement. Gratitude.

On Father’s Day Sunday, June 20, 2021, I opened my spam email folder, checking one last time for a missing notification from a businessperson who wasn’t doing his job to suit me. I was preparing to make a phone call in which I had rehearsed my indignant argument. No, scratch that. I’ll be honest. I was preparing to bite someone’s head off. But before I did that, I wanted to be sure the “missing” email wasn’t in my spam folder.

It wasn’t. But something else was!

It was an invitation to join the Elk Lake Publishing, Inc. family. I had a contract hiding in my junk file.

My annoyance vanished without a second thought. I was home alone and had no one to share my news with. I pummeled my feet on the ground and shouted. Both dogs came running, ears perked, tails wagging uncertainly. Were we under attack?

I started writing Protected six years ago. I did everything wrong that was conceivable to do. My Christian fiction, historical romance topped off at 145,000 words. I later learned industry average is 75,000 – 85,000. Oops.

I had point of view issues. My characters’ thoughts head-hopped. I misused dialogue tags. Had no idea what an action beat was. Dangling participles, echos, passive writing, over-explaining. My novel was a train wreck.

But God directed me to ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) through a contact on Twitter (a mostly God-less place, so that was a minor miracle in itself). At an ACFW meeting, I met Lena Nelson Dooley and invited myself to her weekly critique group meeting, which she graciously allowed.

The patient ladies at Lena’s – Nancy Lavo, Sara Meg Seese, Rachael Acree, Lisa Crane, Kelly Daniels – slowly and gently guided me through my first foray into editing. Each week, they showed me a different mistake I had made. Each week, they helped me learn how to write better.

I attended several online workshops, events I wouldn’t have known about or been able to attend if not for Covid forcing us all to learn to use Zoom. I read book after book on the craft of writing. Other books in my genre piled up on my nightstand, so I could learn what the market wanted.

I turned again and again to my sounding boards, who helped me formulate better ideas for my stories. Ronda Elston, John Peckham, Kathy Severe. They got me over many a hump when the idea pipeline clogged up.

Nineteen months and several rejection letters later, I found myself in a Zoom meeting at the Mt. Zion Ridge conference, in a breakout room I hadn’t signed up for and wasn’t supposed to be in, but somehow was, talking with Deb Haggerty, owner and editor-in-chief of Elk Lake Publishing.

And that, as they say, was all it took.

That’s all. Six years of writing. Nineteen months of revising. Several attempts to make contact with someone in the publishing industry. And week after week of meeting with friends who wanted nothing but to help me as we all worked together to improve our skills.

And now, I have a contract with a publishing house to send my book out into the world. I feel validated. Seen. Valued.

Was I all those things before Father’s Day? Yes. God sees me. He values me. He validates me. And as I move forward down this new and exciting path, I pray thanks to God, gracias a Dios, and I ask for his guidance to help me produce work that glorifies him.

Thank you all for your support through the years. I hope you enjoy what comes from this effort as much as I have enjoyed producing it.

We See What We Choose to See

We receive messages throughout our lives, messages that tell us what to believe. About ourselves. Our lives.

Maybe those messages are genuine. Maybe not.

This weekend, I got two different messages from two different people, but they both pointed the same direction.

The first happened by accident (or was it?). I attended the Mt. Zion Writer’s conference via Zoom. It started Friday at 10:00 am and finished Saturday at 6:00 pm. We had the option to sign up for a 15-minute session with an agent or an editor and pitch our books. I signed up. My appointment is on Monday. Friday afternoon, I slipped away from the conference to take a friend to the airport. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to get back into the Zoom link if I closed it, so I left it open and blanked my camera. (Learned some tricks this year from students doing school online.) I figured I’d make it back in time to catch the last hour.

When I returned home, much later than I expected (because there were wrecks like every five minutes on the highway between my house and DFW airport), my screen had a message on it, inviting me to a breakout room. The conference was over for the evening, but the agent/editor appointments were happening.

The invitation confused me because I was positive my appointment was Monday, but I followed the link, thinking it must be something else. It took me to a breakout room with three other people. Two were talking, one had her camera blacked out. No one said anything to me when I popped in, but continued their conversation, so I lurked, listening. Turns out, the one talking was pitching her book to the other, who I assumed was an agent or an editor. Since no one yelled at me to leave when I appeared so unexpectedly, I sat there and listened, thinking I’d take notes on how to best pitch a book.

When they finished and the author left the room, the agent/editor person spoke to me. She asked me to tell about my book. I confessed I probably wasn’t supposed to be there, but that I had an invitation waiting for me on my computer when I stepped back to my computer, so I clicked it. She invited me to pitch my book, anyway. As we talked, I realized I knew who she was.

I heard her speak last year on a different online conference hosted by Kentucky Christian Writers. Her name is Deb Haggerty, and she presented a class titled Publishing 101: How the Publishing Process Works. She has a very interesting background. She is a published author, a blogger, and speaker, but at age 68, she bought a publishing company called Elk Lake Publishing, Inc. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of an independent, royalty-paying Christian publisher.

Deb Haggerty, Owner and Editor-in-Chief of Elk Lake Publishing

I was invited to pitch my book to a publisher. By a woman who re-invented her life at 68 to become something new, something that interested her, something she felt God led her to be.

I told her I remembered hearing her speak, and how impressed I was to learn her story. She encouraged me it is never too late to do what you want to do.

Even if you don’t know what you’re doing.

If you don’t know, learn. Dig in your heels, buy a comfortable office chair, park yourself in front of a computer, and learn.

A reinforced fact for my life—it’s good to get the perspective of experienced people who have lived through things you haven’t.

The second message came from the polar opposite end of the universe. Our eight-year-old granddaughter, Emma, spent the night. She came home with us after my husband’s birthday dinner at my mom’s. By the time we got home, it was almost 10:00.

We packed a lot of adventure into the few hours we had.

We read four books before bed. She wanted to help me choose books for an article I write each month, recommending books for various age groups. Emma looked at some of her favorites, then we read some she’d not seen.

She noticed things I might not have, like the colorful artwork in one book (When God Made You, by Matthew Paul Turner) which she thought was beautiful, and the expressions on the mouse’s face in Frederick, by Leo Lionni. Emma wondered why he looked sad.

Both available on

When we woke around 7:45 the next morning, she asked Papa to teach her how to make pancakes. Not the mixing part. That part is boring. The flipping part. She wanted to learn how to flip them. So we made a few disasters, then a couple of “taco” pancakes, and finally, we had success. She practiced until we used all the batter. Mission accomplished. She felt good about herself. Anyone want a pancake?


Next, I asked her to color the picture she drew for me the night before while we were at Granny’s. She had drawn an elephant, which reminded me of the hippo her father had drawn for me while he was in art class in high school.

Hippo, by Zach Fort, Elephant, by Emma Fort

She was conscientious about the colors she chose and took her time coloring so the shading came out even.

Her next project (it was maybe 9:00 by now) was a tug-of-war toy for her dogs, Jenny and Shug. She asked Papa if he had any material she could cut into strips, then braid. He brought her a pair of old blue jeans, and she cut three pieces of fabric about two feet long. I suggested we sew or staple them together at the top so it would be easier to braid them. She chose to sew. I got a needle, some thread, and a thimble to help her force the needle through the dense layers of material. I showed her how to wrap the thread around her finger, then roll it off into a twist that she could scrape into a knot. It took several tries for her to get it, but she wasn’t interested in hurrying. She wanted to learn. She had the strips braided in a snap. Then she sewed the ends to keep the braid in place.

Emma loves her dogs, Jenny & Shug. Jenny is a German Shepherd. Shug is a Basset Hound.

With that project completed, she asked if I knew how to knit. I do not, but used to know how to crochet. We sat and watched a YouTube video (a quite good one titled How to Crochet for Absolute Beginners: Part 1, by simplydaisy). We decided we needed to watch it again, so we sat through the entire thing a second time. Feeling confident we could do it, we chose a color of yarn and sat down to attempt it on our own. Immediately, it became clear we didn’t remember what to do, so we watched the video for a third time.

Emma showed no frustration, no impatience, didn’t throw the yard and the crochet hook down to look for something easier to do. We just tried again.

And we got it. She crocheted a bracelet for herself. Then she crocheted one for her mom. We even added a button to the second one, now that we knew how it worked.

Fierce concentration

A new fact for my life—it’s good to get the perspective of an eight-year-old.

When I get the same message more than once, especially in the same weekend, I sit up and take notice. The septuagenarian and the eight-year-old both taught me to have patience when trying something new, to follow through, to push past the mistakes and figure it out.

To see more for yourself than you might have originally imagined.


To believe in yourself.

And, by the way, Deb Haggerty asked me to send her my proposal and my book.

And if you don’t know, now you know.

I thought writing would be so easy. I’d sit on my back porch with a cup of coffee and my laptop. Or I’d rent a little cottage for a weekend and bang out a few chapters. And when I finally typed “The End,” I’d trot off to The Publishing Place and hand them my book. They, in turn, would gush gratefully and scurry off to print it. A few months later, I’d be rolling in the dough as those royalty checks came flowing in.

Ah, this is the life.

Boy, was I ever wrong. Or naïve. Or just plain dumb. Yes, those mornings with my cup of coffee and laptop happen quite often. Just . . . none of the rest of it. There is so much more than meets the eye to writing—and publishing—a book.

You read your work to your critique group who look for confusing sections, or mismatched time lines, or missing commas. You send it off to beta readers who check for flow, plot holes, or tell you if it’s boring. If you self-publish, you find someone to create a book cover for you.

ho-hum . . . is this all you got?

But before you do any of that, you self-edit.

By the way, there are exactly 7,531 writing rules you must check for.

Because you probably broke 7,527 of them.


Today, I found a list. A wonderful, all-encompassing, helpful list. It makes sure I won’t forget any of the 7,531 writing rules, and actually added two or three more. I’m talking about the awesome Chapter Checklist compiled by the awesome K. M. Allan. She graciously gave me permission to post her list here.

Hear the sound of angels in chorus as this list floats down from Heaven.

Without further ado, here is the list. (I’ll post links to K. M. Allan’s social media at the bottom. You’ll want to follow her.) (Oh, one more thing . . . click on every single link to see more exceptional posts by K. M.)

(This is now in K.M.’s voice:) If you follow me on social media, you’ll know I’ve spent the last few months editing my latest WIP.

It’s book 3 in my Urban Fantasy YA series, Blackbirch, and I’m aiming to have it published in the first half of this year. I spent most of 2020 rewriting the draft I penned back in 2017, and now I’m in an endless editing loop.

So far, I’ve completed a grammar and spell check with ProWritingAid, checked for weak words, found and eliminated repeats, and made sure the punctuation for my dialogue is correct. I’ve even worked through notes I made during my last read-through to ensure all the characters aren’t grinning too much.

But before I pass the MS to my first round of beta readers, I know it needs something more. Checks that aren’t just ensuring I haven’t overused “that” or written every character as constantly nodding.


The Chapter Checklist

For this checklist, we’re going to take each chapter page by page. You can print out the MS and staple/paper clip each individual chapter together to work on using highlighters, post-its for notes, and a red pen for corrections. Or you can work from your screen using digital highlighters and note-taking features in your preferred writing program.

The key is to concentrate on one chapter at a time, so it’s not overwhelming.

As this is a checklist, you’ll be doing just that: checking things. This isn’t the time to edit or rewrite, it’s the time to use a critical eye to look at what your chapter contains and note down what changes to make during your next round of edits. Here’s what we’ll be checking…

The Length

Some writers work to specific word counts for a chapter, others write it as long as it needs to be.

Whatever method you use, take the opportunity now to look at your chapter lengths and see if any need to be adjusted.

If a chapter is too long, cut it down or split it up. If it’s too short, brainstorm what you can add to make it longer, i.e., more detailed descriptions, an extra scene, etc. The task can then be completed in your next round of edits.

The Openings And Endings

Or as I also like to call it: the tops and tails of each chapter. Here we will check the opening sentence/paragraph and the closing sentence/paragraph.

These are important to check because it’s very easy to open a scene with a similar description when you’ve been penning a book over months or years. Checking the first sentence/paragraph of every chapter one after the other allows you to see if you’ve made this mistake.

As for the endings, to keep readers turning the page, closing each scene with a hook or a cliffhanger is ideal. Using this checklist to study each last sentence with more scrutiny will ensure you’re doing just that.

The Balance

Of scene/sequels and unanswered questions.

One of my favorite writing methods is using scenes and sequels within a chapter. If you’re not familiar with it, a scene is when you have an event, like an exciting incident, and the sequel is dealing with the consequences of that incident. For more info on each, check out the blog posts, Writing Tips For Great Scenes and Writing Tips For Worthy Scene Sequels.

For this checklist item, read each scene in your chapter, work out if it’s a scene or sequel (if you don’t know already), and ensure there’s a balance of both.

Another thing to balance is your unanswered questions. Every unanswered question needs an answer in your story (unless it’s a hook for the next book in the series). Use your chapter read to highlight any unanswered question so you, 1) know it’s there, and 2) can look for the answer in other chapters.

If at the end of a checklist, you find you don’t have a good balance of unanswered questions, or there are ones that need answers in this book but you haven’t done it yet (it happens), make your notes to add it to your next draft to-do list.

The Timeline

Looking at each chapter closely gives you the perfect chance to note down the timeline of your book and see if everything that happens is in the right order.

I don’t know about you, but I write my manuscripts on and off and usually over months (if not years), so it’s easy to miss that the characters have lived through two Tuesdays in a row, or you’ve forgotten to mention that it’s been five months between the opening chapter and the end of the book.

It’s also likely that edits might remove a reference to an event or the event altogether, but your characters may be dealing with the consequences in chapter 12.

Use this pass to check every event that happens in your book, big or small, and that those events are happening in the order they’re supposed to. Also look out for day, month, season, or year mentions. If your characters meet on a Monday, but the next scene is a Saturday, the reader might wonder what happened to the rest of the week. Get your timeline, events, days, months, seasons, years in order so your story is as plausible as possible.

The Plot Twists

While a plot twist doesn’t happen every chapter, the foreshadowing and the aftermath of each plot twist needs to be present in the lead-up chapters and the ones that follow the twist.

As you give your chapters a read for the millionth time, highlight any foreshadowing and plot twist consequence so you can confirm they’re enough, in the right place, and working.

The Mix

As you’re concentrating on each chapter, keep an eye on your descriptions, dialogue, action, and settings. Highlight each sentence that contains those things so you can see if the chapter contains enough of a mix.

This check may make you realize the chapter is super dialogue-heavy and could use a little more action to break it up. Or you may notice you’ve forgotten to add in the room setting so the reader can picture where your characters are as they make life-changing decisions during the climax of the book.

It’s the little details of descriptions and settings, and the combination of dialogue and action that moves your story along, so getting the mix right is important. Checking for that and the other elements mentioned here should strengthen your story. I’m hoping that’s what it’ll do for my current WIP, and if you give these checks a go, I hope it’ll do the same for you.

— K.M. Allan

And there you have it. The wonderful, one-last-pass-through checklist to help you polish that manuscript to as bright of a sheen as you can get it before you brave the world of querying.

Thank you, K. M., for letting me ride on your coattails and share your wisdom.

Follow K.M. here:

Now, open your manuscript and start checking!

Commas, the bane of my existence – nine rules to clean up your writing

This Is How to Correctly Use Commas in Your Writing | Grammarly

I am a member of a critique group. We meet once a week (thank you, Zoom, during this time of pandemic restrictions) where we take turns reading to the group and providing feedback for each other. We joke about our “comma jar,” where we contribute an imaginary dollar for every comma correction made during the feedback comments.

Why are commas so confusing? I tend to put them where I pause while reading. This is an intuitive decision, but unfortunately, it often leads me astray. Others in the group seem to avoid them altogether. Without the commas, their sentences flow onward with no rhythm or cadence. You’ve probably seen the joke: Let’s eat Grandma. Let’s eat, Grandma. Commas save lives! We really need to figure them out.

Let's Eat Grandma Poster by Danya Ata | Teachers Pay Teachers

In 1998, I took a Business Writing class in college, and we made a punctuation Bible. I’ve returned to that spiral notebook time and again (thank you, Dr. Culbert). Here is what he taught us about commas.

Commas precede coordinating conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor) that join independent clauses.

Ben, Eric, and Mandy will attend the meeting today, but Charlotte won’t be there.

You need to clean your room to receive your allowance, but Zach can help you if you persuade him.

Commas follow long, introductory, adverbial phrases and clauses.

In the middle of their transaction, Marcus and Jim blew up.

Mentally preparing herself for the battle of wills ahead, Sandy made a list of all her reasons for denying Michelle’s request for a tattoo.

However, if the introductory phrase is shorter than four words, you can leave the comma out. (Personally, I tend to include the comma anyway. My fingers type it automatically.)

During the night he heard many noises.

Commas precede, follow, or surround appositives. (Appositives are noun phrases placed side by side so that one element identifies the other in a different way.)

I chained Lady, my adventurous dog, to a tree to keep her from digging under the fence.

During our next school holiday, Thanksgiving break, I’ll take a vacation.

Commas precede, follow, or surround inverted elements. (For when you’re channeling Yoda.)

Too, he loved her.

I, also, have been to the edge.

Commas surround non-restrictive modifiers. A non-restrictive modifier is a word or group of words modifying the subject of a sentence but not restricting it to a particular individual or group. A restrictive modifier restricts the subject to a particular individual or group. Commas surrounding a non-restrictive modifier indicate that we can take it from the sentence without changing the sentence’s essential significance. Therefore, commas must not surround a restrictive modifier. (I confess, I have to Google this one every time. I need lots of examples to cement the definitions.)

restrictive: Men who hate women should not marry. (We don’t use commas to surround “who hate women” because we cannot take it from the sentence without changing the meaning. Men should not marry gives us a completely different meaning than the original sentence.)

non-restrictive: The women, who rode in all three barrel races, love to date cowboys. (The commas surround the modifier because we can remove these words without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.)

restrictive: People who have addictive personalities shouldn’t try smoking. (“Who have addictive personalities” is essential to the sentence – no commas.)

non-restrictive: My brother, who trimmed trees Sunday, came by for dinner. (We can ignore the modifier without changing the meaning of the sentence.)

Commas separate elements in a series. (In a series of three or more elements, if a coordinating conjunction precedes the last element in the series, the comma preceding the conjunction is optional. Enter the Oxford comma argument, which is a post for another day.)

We hired laborers, skilled carpenters, and supervisors for the project. (Since we have included “and” in the series, we can drop the comma after carpenters. I, however, am in the Oxford comma camp, so I choose to keep it.)

We need to buy apples, bags of candy, shaving cream, and decorations.

Commas precede quotation marks.

He asked, “Will you marry me?”

I answered, “You can go if your room is clean.”

Commas surround simple interrupters.

I’ll see you tonight about, let’s see, 7:00 pm.

It was over, um, two years ago.

Use commas to separate adjectives of equal rank. (If we could place the word and between two adjectives without changing the meaning of the sentence, then the adjectives are considered equal. Here is an example:

She spoke in a thoughtful, precise manner. (The phrase with the conjunction included — “thoughtful and precise” — gives the sentence the same meaning, therefore, replace and with the comma.

She wore a cheap fur coat. (Including the and between “cheap and fur” doesn’t give the same meaning. No comma.)

Common mistakes:

Using a comma when a sentence has two clauses, but both have the same (implied) subject. If two or more verbs go with the same subject, you don’t need a comma because you don’t have multiple independent clauses.

We are visiting Washington and also plan a side trip to Baltimore. (The subject of both phrases is “we” — no comma necessary.

Commas always, always, always go inside the quotation mark.

“That’s simple,” the student said.

When including city and state names, use commas after both.

His journey took him from Fargo, North Dakota, to Burleson, Texas.

Commas aren’t needed after conjunctions that begin sentences.

But I was afraid to open the door.

Commas, commas, commas. I’ve accepted the reality that I’m gonna put a dollar in the comma jar at least once each meeting with my critique partners. It’s my goal to make it through an entire chapter reading with no corrections. One day!

How “Tip Jars” Can Tip the Balance for Podcast Creators — The Canadian  Podcast Listener

What about you? What are your common mistakes? Share with us what you’ve learned through your writing journey.

Two Ways to Tighten Your Writing

How many of us have heard these words?

“Don’t worry about making it flawless. Get words on the paper. You can come back and fix it later.”

This is helpful if you’re stuck, if you can’t think of the perfect way to say what’s on your mind. But it often leaves us a page bloated with extra words. And those words slow our readers down.

So, yes, go ahead and do a brain dump. Get everything on the page. But be prepared for some serious chopping when you return the next day wearing your editor’s hat.

There are two places you can tighten your writing. One is the use of dialogue tags. The other is by eliminating unnecessary, filler words.

What is a dialogue tag?

dialogue tags | Author, editor, caffeine-addict, wannabe ninja

This is how we attribute our conversation in our story. It’s the “she said” and “he asked” bits that follow the dialogue. Sometimes dialogue tags are necessary. If you have several people talking at once, your reader needs a tag to know who said what. But most of the time, our conversations are taking place between two people. If your writing is clear, your reader will understand which character is saying the words. If you add “he said” after each utterance, it bogs your reader down.

Instead, replace the dialogue tags with action beats. The action beat describes what your character does while he is speaking. The action beat adds flavor and depth to the scene, without slowing the reader with unnecessary words. Compare these examples.

Example 1:
“Hey, Manny,” called Jonathan, riding a few paces behind. “You think we will be home in two weeks? I’m ready for a bed and a pillow made of feathers instead of a saddle.”

“Hard to say,” replied Manny. He smiled to himself, knowing Jonathan was fretting about a girl.

Jonathan calls. Manny replies. But won’t your reader get that, without being told? Compare to this, where I replaced my dialogue tags with action beats.

“Hey, Manny.” Jonathan rode his horse a few paces behind. “How much longer ’til we’re home? Two weeks? I’m ready for a bed. And a pillow made of feathers. Not a saddle.”

“Hard to say.” Manny glanced over his shoulder. “It’s a bed you’re pining for? I’d be willing to bet money it’s something else. Like, I don’t know… a girl?”

“A girl?” A derisive snort accompanied Jonathan’s reply. “No, I’m just tired of eating your cooking.”

Let’s try another one. See what you think.

Example 2:

Jonathan narrowed his eyes at his friend then grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy,” he said, waving his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.

“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell,” Manny replied.

OK. Jonathan said. Manny replied. Totally unnecessary words. My readers know that from the context of the scene. What if I tighten the writing by removing the dialogue tags?

Jonathan narrowed his eyes at the insult. He grinned, waggling his eyebrows. “Maybe she likes men who are earthy.” He waved his hand in front of himself as if he were showcasing a valuable treasure.

“Maybe she likes men who don’t smell.” Manny’s voice was dry.

With Jonathan’s conversation, removing the dialogue tag tightened the writing. With Manny’s, using the action beat added some flavor to the scene. We hear his sarcasm, start understanding the camaraderie between the two friends.

What about the filler words?

Fillers are words we probably say a lot while we talk but don’t really need when we write. These are words like: just, very, really, a lot, kind of, a little, sort of, maybe. Why force your reader to slog through these words like wading through little puddles of quicksand?


Listen to Grady talk to Abby. He has fillers in there.

“I guess I need to hunt,” Grady answered. “Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get some breakfast for the Littles? Maybe by the time everyone has eaten, I’ll be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”

If we eliminate the unnecessary words, we get this:

“I need to hunt. Why don’t I go while you and Sarah get breakfast for the Littles? By the time everyone eats, I should be back. Don’t wait for me if you’re ready to pull out.”

They make rules in writing so we can break them, right? And these are no exception. Your character’s “voice” may need those words. If the dialogue sounds more genuine using fillers, keep them. But don’t leave them in the rest of the novel. It’s just a little bit annoying to have to read through those little extras. Really.

What editing nightmare do you routinely create for yourself? Let’s compare. We can make a list of things to avoid.

Here is a link to a website with more discussion about filler words:    

“Do I KNOW you?!” Steve Martin

Watching the prostate exam clip from “Father of the Bride II” makes me laugh. Every. Single. Time. Watching pretty much anything with Steve Martin makes me laugh. But I digress.

What does Steve Martin have to do with a blog post about writing? It’s all about point of view (POV).

POV issues plague almost every new writer. We probably have never noticed POV because the books we read have been so skillfully done, we don’t pick up on it. What does POV even mean?

From Point of view (POV) is what the character or narrator telling the story can see (his or her perspective). The author chooses “who” is to tell the story by determining the point of view.  So how does it become an issue for new writers?

When we write with several POVs, our readers never get the chance to know our characters deeply. Putting the inner monologues of every character in our novel into the page creates what we call “head-hopping.” We get a quick glimpse into Character A, then the reader is yanked from her head and plopped down into Character B’s mind. Rinse and repeat. By the time our reader gets into Character G’s head, we have exposed them to the superficial knowledge of so many characters, they never get to know them. And that means our readers never learn to care about our characters.

And that’s not a good thing.

I learned a cool POV technique from Rachael, a member of my critique group. A speaker at a conference she attended taught them to imagine looking through a pair of binoculars. The speaker provided “binoculars” made of 3-inch long PVC pipes she glued together. She asked everyone to look through their binoculars. “If you can SEE it, you can WRITE it. If you can’t see it, neither can your character. “

That has helped me so many times. I’ve sat in front of my computer with my fists curled into tubes held up against my eyes, imagining what I can see.

If your main character (MC) is in front and the action is behind him, he can’t see it. You can’t write about it.

If your MC is blushing, she can’t see her own face. You can’t describe it as a color.

If your MC is with people in the scene, and the others have feelings, your MC won’t know them. You can’t write about them.

However, your MC can hear action. You can write about that.

Your MC can feel the heat of a blush creeping up her neck or turning her ears hot. You can write about that.

Your other characters can visibly show their feelings with gestures, sighs, or glances. You can write about that.

Sometimes I get so drawn into what I’m writing, I forget to be on the lookout for POV issues. Following is an example where my crit group busted me.

“Before his fist could connect with Orin’s face, pain exploded on the side of his head. The world went black. His body slumped bonelessly onto Orin’s chest.”

Manny, my MC, is in a fight with Orin. He gets conked on the head by Orin’s friend, which causes him to lose consciousness. I loved the visual of Manny collapsing onto Orin’s chest. One small problem—Manny is now unconscious. He can’t know what happens next. Simple fix—cut that sentence and add it to the next paragraph which is told from Orin’s POV.

“Before his fist could connect with Orin’s face, pain exploded on the side of his head. The world went black.


Orin grunted when Manny slumped bonelessly onto his chest. He shoved the limp body away with a curse.”

It isn’t always that easy to fix a POV issue. Sometimes we have to create an entirely new scene, or cut something we really liked. The extra effort is worth it, though. When we write in our MC’s deep POV, we allow our readers to get to know them. As the author, we invite our readers into their minds, their hearts, their worlds. We invite them care.

An editor recommended these two books to me. I found them both to be helpful.

Deep Point of View, by Marcy Kennedy, and Writing Deep Viewpoint, by Kathy Tyers

Good luck with your POV issues. If you have examples to share that could help other writers, post your before and after in the comments. Let’s continue to learn and grow together.

The “inciting event!”

All wonderful stories have the same basic elements, and one is the “inciting event.” This is the plot twist where things must change for the character. Once it happens, there is no going back. In a romance novel, one inciting event is The Fight. The budding lovers experience a conflict that drives them apart. They spend the rest of the story finding their way back to love. Cue the hearts and music as we all sigh with pleasure and enjoy the happily-ever-after ending.

Readers identify with this inciting event because all of us who have been in love have endured one in real life. Mine started with a summer romance before my senior year of high school. I worked as a lifeguard, and the teen I believed to be my future love-of-my-life appeared at the pool one afternoon with his friends. He caught my eye, and I caught his. The next few months were romantic bliss as we learned about each other through conversations, hanging over a big yellow float in the pool, toes bumping into each other in the water underneath. The inciting event? My summer love crashed down around my feet as the beginning of school neared, and he confessed he had a girlfriend who went to my school. Anguish! Tears! Heartache! The next month was misery as I put the pieces of my poor broken heart together.

The “other woman” didn’t care for the fact her boyfriend spent the summer courting someone else, so she released him from his contract. As a free agent, he picked up where he left off with me. He had badly bruised my feelings, but my traitorous heart had no shame. When he came through the drive-thru at the small burger joint where I worked, a hard, excited thump in my chest told me I would eventually forgive him and take him back. And so began the dance of forgiveness and reunion.

We’ve all been there. Every love adventure has bumps. Including Abby and Manny’s. Here is an excerpt from PROTECTED, my novel. We pick up with the two lovers a few weeks after their own inciting event. They are feeling their way through the hurt feelings, but missing each other’s company. Jump into a Texas summer in 1855. I hope you enjoy it.


One day after lunch, Yaideli sent her to the barn for the mop. Her heart bumped high in her throat when she walked around the corner for water and stumbled upon Manny working. A deerskin stretched out on the ground before him. A small wooden bucket filled with liquid sat by the skin.

“What’re you doing?” Her nonchalant voice disguised her racing pulse.

“I’m tanning this hide for leather.” His normal ponytail caught his hair back, and the same strand that would never stay put blew across his face.

Abby longed to reach over and tuck it behind his ear. She stuck her hands into her pockets instead.

“Want to help?” His eyes challenged her.

The look he gave her said more than his words. She was tempted to walk away. He clearly had a hidden agenda. However, this was something else she needed to learn. They used leather for so many things on the farm. Rope, bindings, hinges, boots, clothes. She came closer.

“Sure.” She rose to the unspoken dare. “What do you want me to do?”

Manny gestured at the small bucket. “Mix this together. I was about to do it, but you can instead while I get this skin pegged to the ground.”

Abby peered into the bucket. A lump of pinkish-gray material sat in the water. She cut her eyes sideways at Manny. “What is this?” Her voice was guarded.

“It’s just animal fat. I’ll rub it into the skin to prevent it from drying and cracking. Mix it together with your fingers while I hammer these pegs in.”

Abby knelt and gingerly stuck her hands into the warm water. The lump of matter was gelatinous. It looked like the fatty strips on bacon. Sort of. She squished the material through her fingers, stirring and mashing it into smaller and smaller bits. An unpleasant odor wafted up. It didn’t smell like bacon.

“What is this?” Her nostrils flared, mouth pulling down in a grimace. The water turned a milky color.

“Brains.” His expressionless face matched his bland tone.

Abby flicked her hands away from her, casting the clinging bits from her fingers. “Ewww!” Disgust flashed across her face. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Manny’s mouth pressed into a straight line. She felt him suppressing his laugh.

“Quit being such a baby, Abby-girl. What did you think it was?”

Abby’s hackles flared at the hated nickname, but she hid her annoyance. If he knew it bothered her, he would only say it more.

“I thought you were using bacon or something.”

“What difference does it make what it is? It’s still a body part from a dead animal, either way. Brains are greasy—lot of fat in them, as you’ve probably noticed.”

“Where did you get it?” Abby was reluctant to put her slippery hands back into the water.

“From the deer. Every animal has the right-sized brain to tan its skin. Keep mixing it. All the stringy parts need to break down. Are you afraid?” His voice mocked her hesitation.

Abby gritted her teeth and took a deep breath. Trying to keep her mouth from pulling down at the corners, she plunged her hands in the bucket and continued mashing and mixing the smelly concoction. Manny chuckled as he went back to pegging the hide.

Once Manny had the hide stretched out, he reached for the bucket. “That’s good enough. Now, help me splash it onto the skin and start rubbing it in.”

He cupped a large brown hand and scooped some of the watery mixture, splashing it into the center of the deer hide. Swallowing hard, Abby knelt at the opposite end and copied his motions. The grease collected in white globs between her fingers and underneath her nails. She breathed with her mouth closed. The smell was potent enough she could almost taste it. She didn’t want brain-infested air in her mouth.

Together, they knelt on the ground, splashing and rubbing the brain mixture. Abby replicated the movements Manny made as he rubbed. They worked silently, the sounds of the barnyard keeping them company. Chickens clucked just around the corner, punctuated now and then by a rooster crowing. The love songs of crickets pulsed rhythmically from the shadows. The wind rustled the leaves of a nearby cottonwood, sounding like a gentle rain falling.

I wish! Abby thought discontentedly. The heat. . .it never went away.

A buzzing sound caught her attention. She glanced up, then ducked her head away from a yellow jacket drawn by the smell of the brains.

“Shoo!” She leaned out of its way. It buzzed and bobbed over toward Manny, its long legs dangling ridiculously from its yellow-and-black-striped body.

Manny concentrated on spreading the brains to the edge of the skin and didn’t notice the insect until it flew near his face. With a muffled exclamation, he jerked backwards so suddenly he lost his balance and tipped over onto his bottom.

“Tarnation!” He scrambled up and took several steps back. Abby looked on, astonished.

“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a yellow jacket!”

Manny avoided making eye contact. “I’m not afraid. I just—” Whatever he planned to say next was cut off abruptly as he danced a few quick steps to the left, avoiding the flying critter’s arbitrary flight plan.

Abby laughed delightedly. “You were saying?” She sat back on her heels, watching him with amusement.

Manny scowled. “I just don’t like them, O.K.?” He reached for the mop she carried from the barn, brandishing it like a baseball bat to swat the insect.

“Don’t make it mad!” She jumped to her feet and snatched the mop away. “Just ignore it. Maybe yellow jackets like the smell of brains.”

The insect alighted on an edge of the skin, and Manny positioned himself as far away from it as he could. She laughed again, enjoying the fact she had something to hold over him, something she could tease him with as unmercifully as he teased her with the stupid Abby-girl nickname. He shot her a dark look.

“Don’t worry.” Abby spoke in a sing-song voice. “I’ll protect you.”

They finished rubbing the mixture into the deerskin, all the while in the company of the lurking yellow jacket, picking its way delicately around the edges.

Finally, Manny stood. “I’m gonna roll the hide up so the oils can soak in for a day.” He eyed the yellow jacket with annoyance. “Don’t you have anywhere else to be?”

Abby gently shooed the insect off of the deerskin with a wave from her foot. It buzzed away, then landed again on the edge of the bucket. Long, segmented legs tiptoed over the edge, and the insect disappeared inside.

She cocked a challenging eyebrow at Manny, then helped him fold the skin on itself. He finished by folding it in fourths.

“I’ll set this in the barn until tomorrow.” He walked away without a backward glance.

Abby laughed again, not caring if he heard her, and went to wash the disgusting smell from her hands. She left the bucket where it sat, guarded by the yellow jacket. Let Manny figure out how to rid it of the unwanted guest.