After Christmas

December 30, 2017 — Leave a comment


Although Christmas 2017 is over, I’d like to extend holiday wishes to everyone and share a holiday poem. For those who don’t celebrate Christmas, please accept my best wishes for a peaceful winter season.

After Christmas

The angel song still trembles
In Bethle’em’s holy air;
The little hills lie sleeping,
The bright stars still shine fair.

Gone is the rustle of the wings
Heard in the watch serene;
The Golden Hour of God is past,
His Glory has been seen.

But, oh, the hearts that since have waked
The souls that have found rest
Because small Bethlehem one Day
Took heaven to its breast!

— Consuelo Valencia, 1918—

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne


Chekov quoteMany new writers don’t understand the difference between “showing” and “telling” in fiction writing. “Telling” is done using narration, and “showing” is accomplished through action and dialogue. The best way to teach this concept is through the use of a few simple examples.


Mary was melodramatic.


After the fight with her boyfriend, Mary stood in front of her bedroom mirror and watched herself cry.


David was angry at Mary.


David tore Mary’s picture in half and threw it in the trashcan.


David had no idea Mary was so freethinking.


David looked up on stage at The Pussycat nightclub and saw Mary swinging from a pole. Topless.


David was a slob, but he cleaned up nicely.


David stepped out of the shower.

Mary sniffed his wet neck. “Behold the power of a bath!”

It’s clear from the examples above that “showing” provides a more intimate experience for the reader. Instead of the author making a judgmental statement through narration, the reader is invited to observe and draw his own conclusions.

There are times when it may be more appropriate to “tell” rather than “show.” Experienced writers use “telling” when a character needs to recount story events already known by the reader. There is never a reason to bore the reader by rehashing old information. Summarize instead.


David told his friends what happened at the nightclub.

“Telling” is more expedient. It’s not practical to “show” everything unless you want to write a book with a word count that rivals Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Skillful writers use a combination of “showing” and “telling” in their writing.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne


QUESTION: What is “on the nose” dialogue?

ANSWER: When a character says exactly what he thinks or feels, writers refer to this as “on the nose” dialogue. Inexperienced writers tend to use this kind of dialogue exclusively. Skillful writers aim to use dialogue with subtext. Dialogue with subtext reveals a character’s thoughts in more subtle ways.

Most writers are familiar with Vito Corleone’s famous line from The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Corleone says this line when Johnny Fontane (his godson) laments that a movie director, Mr. Woltz,  won’t give him the lead role in a Hollywood movie. Suppose that instead of the famous “make him an offer he can’t refuse” line, Vito Corleone had said:

Perhaps if Woltz wakes up with the bloody head of his expensive horse next to him, he’ll change his mind!

The example above demonstrates “on the nose” dialogue. The line doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Few people wouldn’t agree that the original line is better, because it doesn’t specify how the powerful Vito Corleone will deal with Woltz.  The viewer can surmise that Mr. Woltz is in big trouble.

Is it ever reasonable to use “on the nose” dialogue?  In truth, not every line needs to be filled with subtext. Recall this dialogue from the movie Taken that Bryan Mills says  to Marko while preparing him for torture:

You know, we used to outsource this kind of thing. But what we found was the countries we outsourced to had unreliable power grids. Very Third World. You’d turn on a switch – power wouldn’t come on, and then tempers would get short. People would resort to pulling fingernails. Acid drips on bare skin. The whole exercise would become counterproductive. But here, the power’s stable. Here, there’s a nice even flow. Here, you can flip a switch and the power stays on all day.

In the dialogue above, Bryan doesn’t leave anything to the imagination about his experience in using torture to get information, but in this case, the dialogue works beautifully. Imagine if Bryan had said this instead:

I have ways of getting people to tell me what I want to know.

Doesn’t the original dialogue seem more effective at awakening a sense of dread? Writers must develop judgement about when and how to engage viewers/readers by weaving subtext into the dialogue to subtly reveal a character’s emotions (i.e. anger, jealousy, desire). Good writers avoid “on the nose” dialogue to state the obvious.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

Grammar Police BadgeAlthough many novels today are written in the present tense, most novels are written in the past tense.  One common error that I find when critiquing manuscripts is the problem of verbs leaping from the past to the present. Tenses shouldn’t be mixed like alcohol in a punch bowl at a frat party. When writing a scene for a novel,  pick a verb tense and stick with it. Maintain verb tense consistency unless the timing of an action demands a change.

Past Tense and Present Tense

Consider the following sentences:

She threw the book across the room and screamed at the top of her lungs. (past tense)

She throws the book across the room and screams at the top of her lungs. (present tense)

A common mistake new writers make is to shift tenses in the middle of a sentence.


She threw the book across the room and screams at the top of her lungs.

The incorrectly written sentence above switches from past tense (threw) to present tense (screams). Readers get confused when writers jump from past tense to present tense within the same sentence. If the action took place in the past, both verbs must reflect this.


She threw the book across the room and screamed at the top of her lungs.

When Timing of an Action Demands a Tense Change

There are instances when the timing of an action demands a change in tense.


When he plays his violin tonight, everyone is amazed.

The word “when” in the first part of the sentence indicates that an action will take place in the future; therefore, the second part of the sentence needs to account for this.


When he plays his violin tonight, everyone will be amazed.

On the other hand, if the actions in both parts of a sentence happen together and the word “when” is used, the tense does not change.


When Sandy drinks milk products, she gets indigestion.

The sentence above means that Sandy sometimes drinks milk products. The action is habitual present. Since the second action happens when the first one does, the second verb (gets) remains in the present tense.

Consider the following sentence:

The boy threw egg at her car, after she had washed and waxed it earlier in the week.

The word “after” indicates that washing and waxing the car took place before the egg incident.  Since the egg incident happened in the past, the past perfect tense (had + verb) is used to indicate that an action took place further in the past.

Verb Tense Consistency Within Paragraphs

If a scene in a novel is written in one tense, that tense should be maintained from sentence to sentence within paragraphs unless there’s a time change.

Paragraph written in present tense:

Mary visits the zoo with her class. She gets lost and begins to cry. A clown carrying balloons walks by, but he pays no attention to her. Mary is scared. If she doesn’t find her class, the bus will leave without her. However, her teacher usually conducts a roll call on the bus.

All of the actions in the paragraph above take place in the present, except for this sentence:

If she doesn’t find her class, the bus will leave without her.

The sentence above shows what will happen in the future depending on whether Mary finds her class. The timing of the action demands a change in tense.

Paragraph rewritten in past tense:

Mary visited the zoo with her class. She got lost and began to cry. A clown carrying balloons walked by, but he paid no attention to her. Mary was scared. If she didn’t find her class, the bus would leave without her. However, her teacher usually conducted a roll call on the bus.

Notice that all the verbs switched to the past tense except in this sentence:

If she didn’t find her class, the bus would leave without her.

In the conditional sentence above, the timing of the action demands that the tense be changed in the independent clause of the sentence.

It’s important to maintain verb tense consistency to avoid confusing readers. Good editors will find and correct errors in verb tense consistency. Mistakes can slip into the manuscripts of the very best writers. That’s why it makes sense to find a good editor.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne

A Farewell to Adverbs?

February 26, 2017 — Leave a comment

how to use adverbsNew writers may wonder why they’re told not to use adverbs. Well, remember when Oprah had a show about the mad-cow scare and Texas cattle ranchers blamed her for beef prices dipping to a ten-year low? Celebrities like Oprah can sway public opinion. Likewise, in the writing world, people listen to Stephen King. In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he writes:

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions. If you have one on your lawn, it looks pretty and unique. If you fail to root it out, however, you find five the next day… fifty the day after that… and then, my brothers and sisters, your lawn is totally, completely, and profligately covered with dandelions. By then you see them for the weeds they really are, but by then it’s—GASP!!—too late.

Many writers assume that adverbs are now a banned part of speech. I understand King’s frustration with adverbs. Inexperienced writers misuse them, and good writers overuse them. Some people drink too much coffee, but banning it isn’t the solution. Rather than abolishing adverbs, why not provide writers with better instruction on how to use them?

Avoid Redundant Adverbs

Adverbs shouldn’t be used unless they add meaning to a sentence. Consider the following examples:

“I am so tired,” she said sleepily.
“I am so tired.” She yawned and lumbered up the stairs.

“I could eat a horse,” she said hungrily.
“I could eat a horse.” She ransacked the cabinets and found a package of cookies.

“I’d like to throttle him,” she said angrily.
“I’d like to throttle him.” She stomped out of the room.

The adverbs in the first sentence of each example above (sleepily, hungrily, angrily) are redundant. Another problem is that the adverbs tell rather than show.  By revising these sentences, both problems are eliminated.

Similarly, the sentences below (before revision) use redundant adverb-verb pairings:

She finished her meal completely.
She finished her meal.

She whispered the poem into his ear softly.
She whispered the poem into his ear.

He shouted obscenities loudly as he drove past her house.
He shouted obscenities as he drove past her house.

I personally feel that he’s a jerk.
He’s a jerk.

Use Strong Verbs

Careless writers use adverbs to modify weak verbs. Opt for strong verbs. Consider the sentence pairs below:

He closed the door forcefully.
He slammed the door.

He stated vehemently that he didn’t cheat.
He swore he didn’t cheat.

He found the book extremely interesting.
The book enthralled him.

Most writers would agree that the second sentence in each pair of sentences is better.

Minimize Degree Adverbs and Adverbial Intensifiers

A degree adverb or adverbial intensifier is an adverb that describes the intensity of the quantifying pronoun, adjective, adverb, or verb adjacent to it. Some examples of intensifiers are: absolutely, completely, clearly, terribly, extremely, very, really, highly, immensely, nearly, virtually, fairly, pretty, rather, slightly, hardly, scarcely, almost, relatively, so, too, strongly, strenuously, fiercely, utterly, somewhat, literally, only, totally, truly, madly, and deeply. Sometimes intensifiers can be eliminated without diminishing the meaning of a sentence.  For example:

He was really clever.
He was brilliant.

She was very afraid.
She was terrified.

The music was extremely loud.
The music was deafening.

How to Use Adverbs

There are times when using an adverb is expedient. For example:

Use adverbs judiciously.

The sentence above is clear and simple. Is it possible to write the same thought without using an adverb? Sure, but I know I couldn’t do it with three words.

Adverbs are also useful when they suggest something unusual. For example:

The crowd exited silently.

The nun licked her spoon seductively.

Most of the time crowds are noisy. Nuns typically don’t behave in an overtly sexual manner. Readers notice when adverbs describe something unexpected.

Before joining the movement to abolish all adverbs, remember the immortal words of Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind:

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Who would remove “frankly” from that quote? Not me.

Until next time,

Write something you love! — Joanne