Category Archives: Writing Tips

The Best Stories You Never Told

WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE and WHY: five essential questions writers ask to get the full scope of a story. Like most kids, I learned about the 5W’s in elementary school. I wish I had the wisdom back then to apply them, because I missed out on some really great stories.

I was an only child surrounded by old people—grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, neighbors, family friends. They loved to gossip, and I was good at eavesdropping on their adult conversations.

I found out WHO in the neighborhood had come home drunk and WHAT happened when his wife caught him with another woman, WHEN she caught him and WHERE. And I wondered along with the gossipers WHY she stayed with that drunken man after he cheated on her. Those were the stories that my little ears shouldn’t have heard. The best stories, though, might have been those the old people held tightly locked in their hearts.

This season, summer, is the season of patriotic holidays, and I might have some good stories to tell had I thought to apply the 5W’s.

On a Decoration Day (Memorial Day) I went with my grandma to the cemetery to plant geraniums on the graves. We planted red geraniums in front of the big Dumke family stone, and then we planted a white geranium on each of the six graves where the Dumke children were buried. “Grandma,” I asked, “why do we put white geraniums on these?” Her answer was brief, almost harsh. “Because, it’s what we do.” Today, I look at that same headstone and the six smaller stones marking the graves of grandma’s young siblings and I have questions. So many questions.

On Independence Day, Grandma always hung a huge American flag between the front window of her upper flat and the big, old oak tree at the curb. Her husband, my grandfather, had died when Grandma was just thirty-nine. But someone (Grandpa?) had fixed a rope and pulley to make it easy to hang the flag. It was a 48-star flag, the flag soldiers and sailors fought for in WWII. It was a 48-star flag that the Marines raised over Iwo Jima. I remember that flag in front of her house every Fourth of July and how reverent and respectful grandma was when she fixed it onto the rope and sent it flying. Today, I have questions.

I remember my Great-Uncle Walter, too. He was an always-in-charge, short, bald little man who walked with a distinct limp. I laugh when I think of a Veteran’s Day when he sat in an old, 1950’s upholstered swivel rocking chair in his living room telling a battle story about the Spanish American War. As if re-enacting the experience he raised his arms, covered his head with his hands and ducked. “Bullets were flying to the right of me! Bullets to the left . . .” And then, just as the story was getting really good, the bottom of the swivel rocker gave way sending Walter’s backside to the floor. That, in itself, is a story. But still, I wonder. WHO was shooting those bullets? WHAT happened next? WHEN did it happen and WHERE? And WHY did Walter walk with a limp.

Five little questions I wish I had asked.

My advice to young writers, all writers, is to listen. Listen to that little voice inside that’s telling you, “There’s a story hidden here.” Then apply the 5W’s. Ask and keep asking until you get the full scope of the story.

If you don’t ask, you might miss writing the best stories you could have told.

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Filed under Encouragement, Independence Day, motivation, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Just Take It Bird by Bird

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How do you view the world right now? For some, the world seems smaller as we weather this pandemic together. Others feel overwhelmed by a world filled with pain, suffering and conflicting information. Maybe everything that’s going on in the world right now is affecting your ability to write. If so, you are not alone.

When you quarantined at home, you celebrated having plenty of time to write. You set goals: I’m going to start writing my novel. I’m finally going to finish my novel. I’ll write a thousand words a day. Two thousand. Three. Four. Five! Chances are those lofty goals fell by the wayside leaving you in a slump.

American novelist, Ann Lamott, keeps a tiny, one-inch picture frame on her desk as a reminder to give herself short writing assignments. Viewing the world through a frame the size of a postage stamp helps her to zero in and focus on one thing at a time.

In her book Bird by Bird, Lamott shares this autobiographical story:

usps_1_0“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table, close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

Maybe today you are sitting at your kitchen table staring at your computer screen or an empty sheet of paper. Maybe you feel immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead.

Stop. Breathe.

Peer through that one-inch frame. It can only hold the image of one bird. So sit down and write “bird by bird”. Just take it bird by bird by bird . . .

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Writing Is Better with Bacon

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If you are like me, you’ve ventured outside your comfort zone and sampled at least one strange bacon infused concoction. Donuts, pickles, jam, ice cream, brownies . . . Everything is better with bacon—even the craft of writing!

“Reading makes a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

1001_image1_slicker_francis_baconWho said it? 

The Renaissance-era scientist and philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon. He, perhaps unknowingly, packed a powerful writing lesson into that one simple sentence.

Let’s break it down.

READING fills a writer with knowledge, ideas and a better understanding of technique. When a writer reads, he or she learns more about the craft of writing by experiencing various writing styles, voices, forms and genres.

CONFERENCE inspires writers to write. Have you come away from a writers’ conference filled with ideas and readiness? Of course you have! Conversing with other writers and creative people sparks motivation. It prepares a writer to write.

EXACTNESS is the final part of Bacon’s lesson. A ready writer works diligently to find the exact words to convey an exact meaning. That’s the most difficult part of writing, taking knowledge and readiness and weaving them into something great.

Reading makes a full writer; conference a ready writer; and writing an exact writer.

The next time you feel stuck, remember Sir Francis’ words:

Read. 
Converse. 
Be exact.

and remember:
Writing is better with Bacon!

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Sir Francis’ mother was a cook who married a bacon.
Anne (nee Cooke) Bacon.

Some scholars believe Sir Francis faked his own death.
He wanted to live—without bringing home the bacon!

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Filed under Uncategorized, writing, Writing craft, Writing Process, Writing Tips