Archive of Tips for
(Please do not reprint this copyrighted material without my written
permission. Thank you.)
I received a surprising number of
comments about July's grammar tip on "lie and lay," with
requests for more. (No, I
am not making this up.) This
time we'll tiptoe through a pleasant little minefield called "Who
First tip, for the frightened: When in doubt, use
"who" incorrectly simply makes you sound casual.
Using "whom" incorrectly makes you sound like a stuffed
shirt with a bad education. That
said, here we go:
"Who" is a pronoun that is in
the nominative case. In
other words, it is the subject of the verb.
"Whom" is a pronoun that is in
the objective case. In
other words, it is the object of the verb (or preposition).
First the easy examples:
Who is that man over there?
("who" as subject of verb "is")
To whom did you give the prize?
("whom" as object of preposition "to")
Trouble descends when writers mistake
"whom" as the object of a preposition when in fact it is the
subject of the following verb:
WRONG: Give the prize to whomever earned
Give the prize to whoever earned it.
("Whoever" is not the object of the preposition
"to." It is the subject of the verb "earned.")
Is it any wonder this gets confusing?
It helps to look at the entire sentence:
WRONG: I wondered whom you thought did
the best job.
I wondered who you thought did the
The entire clause, "who did the best job,"
is the object here. This
one's trickier because "you thought," a subject/verb
expression, separates the true subject (who) from the true verb (did).
Try switching the sentence around if you aren't
sure whether the pronoun should be a subject or object:
We have to believe whomever your mother believes.
(Your mother believes whomever.)
Tell your aunt to bring whomever she wants.
(She wants to bring whomever.)
RIGHT: We have to believe whoever
your mother believes is right. (whoever is right)
RIGHT: Tell your aunt to bring whoever
she thinks is witty. (whoever is witty)
Emergency tip: You can always rewrite sentences
to avoid the pronoun altogether!
And again, if you really, really can't fathom the differences,
stick with "who."
Write a scene that contains
a felled tree, a stray cat, and a broken toaster. Add a pair of
sequined shoes for good measure.
One effective way to reinforce a
tense or suspenseful passage is to shorten the sentences. The language
then tends to echo that heart-flutter feeling that comes with
tension. For example, here is a passage that describes a woman not
knowing what to expect when entering a room:
The door had
been left partly ajar, whether by the super or by one of the kids in the
downstairs apartment, she couldn't be sure. She put one finger on
the door and pushed, holding her breath as it swung open.
Now, the same
passage, with chopped-up sentences:
The door had
been left partly ajar. The super? One of those kids from
downstairs? She touched the door. Sucked in her
Sometimes you can get
inspiration for one art by drawing from another. I keep a big
cache of art postcards -- reproductions of museum paintings -- and go
through them every so often to find something that fits a character or
mood that I wish to create in a story. Van Gogh's "Starry
Night" might conjure just the melancholy a character is feeling,
or an example from one of the cubists might reinforce the tipped-over
sensibility in a novel with an unconventional structure. What I do
is hang up the appropriate post card near where I'm writing. When
I feel the mood slipping, or the prose coming to a dead stop, I look at
the painting again -- I mean really look at it -- to try to
recapture that mood.
Some writers tell
me they do this with music. For example, to get into a character's
head, they listen to the music their character would listen to, whether
it's a Vivaldi concerto or Patsy Cline. The music keeps them
anchored to the character. If music is too distracting (I prefer
quiet work sessions), you could try listening to your character's music
just before you sit down to write. His/her music will be in your
head, but the room will be tranquil enough for some concentrated work.
To make your prose more buoyant, avoid overusing any form of the the verb
"to be": am, are, is, was, were. Very often, you can
blame a dull passage on this dull verb. Compare this:
It was a lovely
day--the sun was blinding, and the air was cold.
Despite a blinding sun,
the air cracked with cold.
Once you commit to purging
the verb "to be," you force yourself to find more interesting
constructions in order to avoid it.
yourself a schedule for any contingency. This really works! I have
several different schedules that I hang up near my work station, e.g., a
"working day" schedule, a "writing day" schedule, a
"business day" schedule, and so on. That way, no matter what
kind of day I am faced with, I always have a structure to fall back on if I
need it. If you have to ferry kids around all afternoon, or work at a
grocery store from 8-5, you are more likely to include something of a writing
life if you schedule it in. Your schedule will reflect your own
priorities and rhythms.
"writing" day might look like this:
9am - 11am: Work on new
12pm-2pm: Answer phone
2pm - 2:45:
Read over morning's work, make revision notes
: Kids, etc.
A "working day"
might look like this:
8am - 5pm: At work
8pm - 9:30pm: Work on
10pm: Make notes on next scene
A "business day"
might look like this:
7am - 9am: Work on
9:30am - 12pm: Write
query letters; work on book proposal
1pm - 2:30pm: Catch up
on email/phone messages
3:00 - 6pm:
Print stories that are ready to be sent out; write cover letters; go to post
office; trip to Staples for office supplies
Tips for September
Ahh, it's fall. At least,
it's fall up here in Maine, after a fraud of a summer with record lows.
How about writing a fall scene without using even one of the, ahem,
chestnuts. No fiery trees. No snappish air. No crunching
leaves. No apples. No smell of woodsmoke. Begin, "It was a fall
unlike any other," and then tell why.
I was raised Catholic and
therefore possess a highly tuned sense of reward and punishment.
Here's the drill: Plan the reward first. A bottle of Ridge
Geyserville zinfandel, a round of miniature golf, a night of karaoke,
whatever floats your boat. To get this reward you must write 16
pages of one thing. (Sixteen first pages don't count.) If
you fail in your mission, forget the punishment--I'm not as Catholic as
I used to be. But do start over until you succeed within a
reasonable deadline. Then, enjoy your reward!
Tips for August
This one will sound a little loopy, but it works for me. Know your
character's exact birth date. Then, check his daily horoscope --
or, if you are so inclined, read his cards, do up her numerology chart,
or study his I Ching. It's silly, yes; but will give you ideas
about a character's possibilities that you might not have come to
Having trouble keeping on task? Give
yourself the following marching orders: You may not check your email, play
Solitaire, surf the Web, or do anything else on your computer except write--until
a certain time in the day. My time is 3 p.m., which is email time.
(I deleted all the games that came with my computer, which is a little extreme,
but after kicking a "Doom" addiction a few years ago, I remain a bit
squirrelly.) Stick to this edict and you'll be shocked at how much more you
produce. This means you!
Tips for July 2000:
Lots of people take
vacation time in July. Even
writers. If you're headed
for the shore, or the mountains, or to your best friend's apartment for
a week of catching up, don't bring your writing with you. Bring a journal if you must, but even journals can mar that
important free time. Every
writer needs time away from his or her work.
The problem is that most people see writers as lazy slugs in the
first place, so a writer on VACATION is a sorry sight indeed.
Ignore it all. Have
a ball. You deserve it.
Perhaps because I have just
broken my knee (yes, on vacation) and am feeling a bit cranky about
being laid up, I'll take this space to carp about "lie" and
means "to recline."
Don't say "I'm laying in my bed with a broken knee." No
matter how often you hear this, it is still wrong.
The correct form is "I'm lying in my bed with a broken
means "to put or place."
E.g., "My husband is laying a pile of books on my bed
because I can't get them myself."
tense of "lie" is "lay."
The past tense of "lay" is "laid." Most
people know the difference between "lie" and "lay"
in the present tense. The
problem comes in past tense, which is truly diabolical.
I have seen terrible errors in the past tense even in
beautiful literary novels. Here
is a little primer. Please
trust me. These are right.
1. Here I am,
lying in bed with a broken knee. Yesterday
I lay in bed with a broken knee. I
have lain in bed with this same damned broken knee for a week.
Dan laid a pile of books on my bed because I couldn't get to them
myself. Every book he lays
down turns out not to be the one I thought I wanted.
He has laid book after book down on this bed, but they're all the
writers have a terrible time with titles, so here's an extremely subjective
primer on choosing titles.
The best titles, in my view, contain a noun--not an abstract noun like gratitude
or restitution, but a muscular, concrete noun like lawn mower or blanket
or streetwalker. Often, the noun has a modifier: "The 500-pound
Lawn Mower"; "The Last Green Blanket"; "A Streetwalker's
Bible." In short, pick something that puts a picture in the reader's head,
along with a mystery. Think The Virgin Suicides. Think The Bluest Eye.
Think The Sweet Hereafter.
Verb forms make for uninteresting titles, I think, especially gerunds.
"Disappearing" is my worst title ever, to an early short story.
Gerunds strike me as too thematic, too calculated to announce the story's
intentions. Titles like "Telling Lies," "Leaving Home,"
"Knowing the Score" (not actual titles, to my knowledge) don't draw
me in. There is no picture to hang onto. Waiting for Godot is terrible,
if I may be so bold; The Bald Soprano is great. Verbs can work well,
though, if used as an imperative--for example, Come To Me by Amy Bloom; Read
This and Tell Me What It Says by Manette Ansay.
I also love possessives in titles: My first published story was called
"Alison's Hair," and I still like this awkward, young story, partly
for sentimental reasons, but mostly because the title still pleases me. One
more thing about titles--often they will come late in the writing process, as a
sign that you finally "get" what the story's about. What a feeling!
On a panel discussion that I participated in recently, a writer named Nancy
Heiser mentioned keeping a "progress journal." This is a little book
in which you write a short account of the day's work. "Worked on
revision of Story X"; "started new story about lost alligator";
"threw out alligator story and went back to novel"; "read story
by Alice Munro"; "rewrote last paragraph of Story Z"; etc. This
idea struck me as so affirming--a way to account for what so often feels like
lost time--that I instantly went out and bought a beautiful journal (paid ten
bucks for it!) in which to record my literary efforts. I already feel smarter,
zippier, more productive! Today's entry will be: "Updated 'tips' section
on website." Hey, at least I did something.
writing in the present tense, vary your sentence structure to avoid
stylistic monotony. Present tense has a way of announcing itself
sentence by sentence, making the prose sound staccato and blunted.
Ezra pulls up in front of Rosamund's house. He gets out of the car. He
checks her windows. The house is dark. Her mailbox appears empty. He paces the
sidewalk. He wonders what to do.
This is an extreme example, but you get the idea. Some people claim to hate
present-tense stories, but I suspect that's only when they are aware of
the present tense. Unless the blunt assault is exactly what you're after,
mix up the syntax. Collapse two sentences into one; begin with a phrase rather
than a clause; play with more elegant constructions. Example:
After he pulls up in front of Rosamund's house, Ezra gets out to
check her windows. The house is dark. Pacing the sidewalk,
wondering what to do, he glances at her empty mailbox, her empty flower beds.
This version is more musical, I think, and the present tense recedes into
the prose in a way that most readers will prefer. If pressed to tell what tense
the story was written in, most readers would not be able to instantly recall,
and that's a sign that style has not superceded substance.
Shall we talk for a moment about envy? This tender subject has come up
among some of my writer friends lately, and we all agree: Envy is mostly
useless. It robs us of joy and generosity and works hard to diminish our
love for our own hard-won words. My advice? Allow the envy to overtake
you in whatever way it wishes -- for 24 hours only. (You will probably
find that 24 hours is envy's natural life span, but only if you don't
pretend you're not feeling it.) Wallow if you must. Rail against the
muses. Eat much ice cream. Do not plot murder. Another's success does
not diminish your own chances. Envy seduces us into looking at the world
as a zero-sum: his gain is my loss. This is not true. If it is a
friend you envy, don't feel ashamed; he has felt exactly this way at one
time or another. Remember what you will want your friend to feel
for you when your fortune turns (and it will). Remind yourself why you
like this friend, and why this friend likes you. After that, suck it up
get back to work, because writing is the one and only cure.
CRAFT: When working with flashback, beware what I call
the "black hole of the past perfect." The auxiliary verb
"had," which creates the past-perfect tense necessary to
entering a flashback, becomes intrusive very quickly, giving the prose a
said-and-done quality that blocks the story's flow.
"Figaro had driven to town that day and had
spotted Alice through the pharmacy window. At first he had thought
it was her sister, Grace, but a second look had revealed the unwelcome
news in a day already long and full of bad omens."
The repeated use of "had" gums up this otherwise
decent passage. Switch to the simple past as soon as you can
when writing a flashback. One or two uses of the past perfect is
sufficient to imply the switch to an earlier time period.
Example: "Figaro had driven to town that day and spotted
Alice through the pharmacy window. At first he thought it was her
sister, Grace, but a second look revealed..."
See how much more quickly you draw the reader into this earlier time
period? By using the simple past tense instead of the past perfect, you
give the past incident a more immediate feeling, as if it were happening
MOTIVATION: Sending out your work for publication can be a
soul-crushing enterprise. Rejection--and for quite a long period, constant
rejection--is simply part of the writing life. A friend of mine
who was a National Book Award finalist confessed that his book
had gone to twenty-three publishers before finding a home.
One of my favorite stories--and in my opinion one of my best--went to
fifteen magazines before getting accepted. I knew it was good, and
just kept going. I am continually appalled at students of mine who
give up after three or four tries. Are you a writer or a mouse?
To keep yourself from dying of rejection, put your rejection slips
into categories. A slip with anything written on it means a
human being read it and liked it enough to respond.
Celebrate. Not champagne and dinner out, maybe, but at least a
coffee and cranberry scone at your favorite bakery. A story that
comes back looking as if squirrels ate part of it for
lunch--ditto. It was read, presumably not by
squirrels. Blank rejection slips attached to a pristine copy of
your story (the paper clip is in exactly the same place) are hard
to reconcile, and I have no advice except to remind you that this
happens to all writers, even ones who publish a lot. The only way
to make sure you never get rejected is to never send out a story.
Tips for March 2000:
CRAFT: One revision technique I use a lot is something
I call Graphic Imaging. This is just a show-offy way of describing
the process of marking up a manuscript with highlighters. Here's how it
If the story has a lot of flashback, I highlight all the flashback first, in
yellow. Then I look at the throughline (the present-time part of
the story), and determine whether the throughline also has something in
it that I want to delineate--two points of view, for example. I
highlight those parts with additional colors. Then I spread the
manuscript on the floor and gawk for a while. The marking gives me
an instant graphical view of the story's structure, and I can
identify problems more easily. If there is a preponderance of
yellow, I know I've included an awful lot of background material, and
perhaps the story has become too expository as a result. If the
throughline is all green except for some snippets of purple, I can see
that the second character I've put in probably doesn't merit her own
point of view.
The marking technique will help you separate
yourself from your work. It may also make you feel deliciously
feckless after spending so much time on your work without actually
A lot of writers, especially
beginning writers, do not have a reliable place to write. There is
nothing more motivating to any writer, at any level of experience, than
to have a room of his or her own. In my case, because I have a
master builder in the family, I have my own little studio in the back
yard. It changed my writing life. But even if your space is just a
tv tray in the corner of the bedroom, make it totally yours. Hang up an
inspirational quote or two ("Be here, now" is my
current favorite), add a vase for keeping pens, a ceramic bowl for paper
clips...anything to press your presence upon your space. And tell
the kids to keep their mitts off your stuff. This is your space,
and you deserve it.
Tips for February 2000:
For those of us who love writing dialogue, early drafts often become
flabby and redundant. We let our characters yammer on, because we're having
too much fun to stop them. To add tension and put a little snap into your
dialogue, try having a character jump to a conclusion.
For example, instead of an endless back-and-forth
between tenant and landlord, in which the landlord, Floyd, makes a long list of
complaints that the tenant, Leroy, refutes one by one, have Leroy skip a few
steps by second-guessing Floyd:
"I've been meaning to speak to you, Leroy," Floyd
said, consulting his clipboard.
Leroy narrowed his eyes. "If it's about my so-called
bad habits, you can
forget it. What about that parrot in 3C that sings 'Yankee Doodle' half the
In this example, Leroy cuts to the chase before
Floyd can list his many complaints. You get instant tension and the story takes
an unexpected turn.
Problems finishing your stories? Start with a last line. Any
last line. Have a friend (or even an enemy) give you a last line. This is what
you write towards. The line will almost certainly change by the time you get
there, but in the meantime you will have tricked yourself into finishing
something for a change!
Tips for January 2000:
Don't enslave yourself to "showing." Show-don't-tell
is a guideline, not a rule. Sometimes telling is more effective than
showing. A brief statement -- "Helen was a cheat" -- may be far more effective than a two-page scene showing Helen
at work as a cheat. Telling can be just as thrilling as showing, as long
as the prose is interesting and engaging.
A winter way to beat the quit-early syndrome: When you've been
writing awhile and feel yourself losing steam, make a cup of tea, go back to
your work, and don't allow yourself to officially quit until the tea is
gone. You'll end up with at least another sentence or two, and maybe even
more. Another idea, a fresh image -- some small thing to make the next
session easier to begin.
Archive of Tips for 2002
Archive of Tips for 2001
Return to Tips page