Creative Nonfiction

By Phyllis Hanlon

At the mention of “nonfiction” you may cringe and think of wordy, boring essays by long-winded speech writers, technical manuals bursting with legalese that no one except the creators can understand, or dry newspaper stories. Well, let’s place the word “creative” before nonfiction and see what a difference it makes. A new picture comes to mind, one that is colorful and engaging, sure to grab and hold your attention.

The proliferation of nonfiction writing is evident by the numbers of nonfiction articles being published in some major magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Years ago fiction filled the pages of these publications. Many of the magazines and journals on the newsstand today, due to changing times and technology, provide their readership with more nonfiction articles than fiction.

In the early 1920s American readers generally sought fiction in their magazines, but after World War II the climate of the world changed. Instead of looking for escape, readers were now interested in real-life issues told in an interesting manner. The New Yorker is a case in point. Glance through the index and you will find just a few fiction pieces; nonfiction articles predominate. Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly follow the same format, printing principally nonfiction pieces.

The nonfiction that is found in these major publications is so well-written that even a subject that you might never have considered reading about will hold your interest. Obviously the writer must show a keen fascination for the topic, do extensive research, and finally choose his or her words carefully to craft an exciting tale. Otherwise, the reader may never get past the first sentence.

“CoverAccording to William Zinsser in the fifth edition of his popular book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 1994), many writers began their careers as journalists. H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, Ring Lardner, Ellen Goodman and many other major writers were working journalists before publishing literary works. These writers concentrated on subjects that they were familiar with and wrote ”for themselves,” never worrying about slanting a story to meet requirements for a certain audience. In this way they were able to produce works that were successful. Most readers enjoy a story that is well written and displays obvious interest and enthusiasm on the part of the writer.

Journalism per se tends to be very factual and straightforward. The adage “The facts, just the facts,” rules most journalistic writing. However, there are many columnists nowadays who write interesting articles about common occurrences in daily life. Jacqueline Mitchard, Kathleen Parker, Maureen Dowd, Bob Greene, and Sid McKean are just a few names that spring to mind. These writers have a knack for taking the ordinary and injecting just the right touch of humor, outrage, empathy, or sarcasm to keep their readers interested. Of course, reporting straight news stories does require “just the facts” without emotion or commentary. However, the types of articles that these writers produce are personal opinion, responses to events both national and local, and criticisms or explications of an issue.

The above-mentioned authors have tackled a variety of subjects — children in their various stages of growth and development, spouses, teenage pregnancy, politics, touch tone telephones, feminism, sports, gun control, current news stories, personal anecdotes and a litany of other issues ranging from the serious to the silly. Some of these topics may seem inconsequential at first glance, but by writing from the heart they breathe life into the content, whatever the theme.

To cite Zinsser once again: “Beginning with nonfiction is the first step on the path to all writing.” After all, what writing teacher hasn’t told the class to “write what you know”? A nonfiction article is the perfect vehicle for doing just that. Take a subject you know and run with it. Your personal knowledge of the topic as well as your enthusiasm and interest will help to mold a well-written, well-rounded story.

Writing creative nonfiction gives the author license to express emotions and reactions to a situation as well. In addition to stating the facts, the heartache, joy, or anger that resulted can be recorded. In a prize-winning story that I wrote, my subject was the demise of my iron.  Sounds silly, right? The judges must have found my humor and honesty endearing, for the story won third place.  I took an incident that had just occurred and profoundly affected me in a negative way and then expounded on my distress at the loss of this “friend.” I am sure that there are occasions in your life when a trivial problem or event, either good or bad, can trigger feelings worthy of note. What has recently made you upset or nervous or angry or scared? You get the idea.

Each year Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Essays, a collection of nonfiction pieces written by well-known authors. A different guest editor, who also happens to be a published author, edits the book every year. Tracy Kidder, editor of the 1994 edition, explains that the traditional definition of the essay is personal reflection, sometimes referred to as literary journalism. Kidder looks for articles that “catch the reflection of human character on the page — [The authors] deal with the big themes, and sculpt the reader’s ruminations.” These tomes cover a broad scope of subjects, just at the journalists listed above do, ranging from airplane flight, orangutans, the plight of Salman Rushdie, and the history of punctuation, to a variety of others.

Following the guidelines that Kidder sets down, concentrate on a topic that offers you the chance to ponder the “big picture” of an issue. Once your subject matter is decided, contemplate these words of William Zinsser:

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it by willpower. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

The emotion and passion that you feel toward your subject will help carry the story from your head to the paper. Nothing is stopping you from retelling an event in a creative and exciting manner. Follow the example of the contributors to the literary magazines and the commentary pages of national newspapers. Your life is every bit as exciting and eventful as theirs; use those prosaic episodes to spawn your best creative nonfiction masterpiece.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible. 

Five Do-able Tips for Remembering and Writing Great Lifestories

By Denis Ledoux
Is your family one of the many whose history is lost to future generations because no one has written it down?

Writing your stories—even just a few—is a great way to memorialize your family and to prevent the experience of your life and theirs being forgotten. The details you take for granted or consider obvious may be lost to the next generation unless you make the effort to record them in writing.

Writing down a memory and sharing it with others is a way to celebrate your life and your family. It is not as hard as some people think. Anyone who is willing to follow the few simple steps I will outline below can succeed at writing their autobiography or family history. More and more people—in fact, many who at first think they can’t—are successfully exploring and honoring their pasts in this way.

Follow these five tips for remembering and writing a pleasing and meaningful lifestory that will honor both your family and yourself and create a legacy for your children.

These five suggestions are among the most powerful– and easiest– to implement in your personal and family history writing.

And remember: practice makes perfect. If you want to preserve your personal and family history, you must write, write, write. Set yourself a time to write and honor your commitment. Your great grandchildren will be so glad you did.

Good luck!

  1. Make a memory list. This is a list of everything you can remember about the people, places, and actions of a particular memory, era, or “character” in your life. Anything you recall is important enough to include. Jot down 3-5 words for each item on your list (“royal blue suit” “scent of eucalyptus”). Your list will eventually be hundreds of items long. Creating this list will stimulate you to remember more than you can now think possible. It will provide you with the details to make your story full and memorable. Once you have a memory list, you just pick an item and begin to write!
  2. Show your story; don’t tell it. Good stories engage us actively. Do this by recording action like a movie camera: show your “characters” (your family and friends) moving, talking and interacting rather than simply describing them. Write “She paced back and forth to the window, looking up and down the street for Jason,” rather than “she was impatient for Jason to get back.” Now really, which do you find more interesting to read!
  3. Use all five senses. Instead of writing that the room was “lovely,” give the reader details: color, style of furniture and curtains, lighting and decorations. Now, they can “see” the details for themselves. Use the other senses, too: smell, sound, taste and touch.
  4. Use dialogue. When you express thoughts and feelings in the “character’s” own voices, you make them jump right off the page. It’s okay to approximate or recreate a conversation especially if you take the time to remember unique phrases or pronunciations. Keep it short (it will be more believable and easier to write). Do not, however, make us read long dialogue. It will sound like you’ve put words in other’s mouths.
  5. Many adjectives are imprecise and simply do not convey the same meaning to one reader as they do to another. Use dialog, action, and setting to show what you mean.You’ll gain vividness and immediacy as a result. Change “she was protective” to dialogue: “she said ‘Don’t you ever, ever say that to my son again’.” Turn “she was angry” into an action: “she grabbed the plate and flung it against the wall.” Replace “we were poor” with details of setting: “The torn green and black linoleum barely covered the center of the room.”

The idea of remembering, reviewing and recording definitive versions of our family histories and our own lifestories, like many tasks we undertake in life, can be overwhelming. Reflect on parenting as an example.

Parenting is a creative project that would have daunted a lot of us if it had to be done all at once. Think of all those dirty diapers and sleepless nights, teacher conferences, recitals, ball games, dental appointments, and insurance payments— if they came all together, who could approach parenting at all let alone with eager delight? Thankfully, as parents, we only had to meet each day’s challenges as they come.

Approach lifewriting in the same way: write each memory or family story, each character or event one step at a time.

You’ll find the rewards are there waiting for you and your family—understanding and appreciation of who you are and where you’ve come from, affirmation and celebration of what you’ve achieved and where you’re headed—rewards that take you far beyond the names and dates.

Web Site for Memoir Writers & Teachers

Denis Ledoux is the Founder and Editor of, which offers information, inspiration, exercises to jazz up your lifewriting project plus support for lifewriters and teachers through workshops, teleclasses, books, materials.

10 Steps to Being Published

By Joyce Lavene

1. Read what you want to write.

I can’t stress this enough. If you don’t know what the market is doing, you can’t expect to get published. Have a feeling for what you’re doing, write from the heart, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you love your baby, everyone else will. Get an idea of what’s going on before you start sending your work out. It will save you time, money and heartache.

2. Revise your work at least three times.

Once is not enough in this case. It would be even better if you have someone you can depend on to be honest who could look it over for you. If not, learn to be objective. Put it aside for a few days then take it out again. Slash extra words that repeat. Don’t be so in love with an idea that you can’t chop it out even if it ruins the rest of the story and you have to rewrite. If it doesn’t work, you won’t be the only one to see it.

3. Make sure you know the editor’s name and how to spell it.

There’s nothing that will get your work shuffled from one envelope to the next like not knowing the editor’s name or sending something “Dear Editor.” If your work is important to you, act like it. Know who you’re sending it to. And know how to spell his or her name. Not doing so is a frequent way to get rejected. It may not be fair but editors are only human.

4. Be sure that what you’re sending is right for the publisher.

Know your market intimately. Don’t send genre fiction to a nonfiction publisher, then be surprised because they send it back. If you write fiction, be sure you know the different genres and sub-genres. Check out the publisher beforehand and make sure they publish what you’re sending to them. If they ask for 300 words, don’t think you can send 500. The rules are there for a reason. That’s what the publisher wants to see. Don’t think your work is so good they won’t be able to resist.

5. Don’t compare your work to others.

This can be difficult because you want to have some idea of how you’re doing. But there are no two writers just alike. Have some confidence in your work. That doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things or you have to be resistant to change. Join a critique group only if you’re comfortable with the people who will be reading your work. Don’t change everything or put your work aside because one reader says he or she doesn’t like what you’re doing. Remember that you’re developing your voice.

6. Be willing to edit.

I’m making a subtle distinction here between editing and revision. I’m classifying editing as what an editor wants you to change in your work. Out of all the books I’ve had accepted for publication, only a handful haven’t had edits. Sometimes big and sometimes small.

Bear in mind that when editors contact you about changes, even without a contract, they’re trying to find out if they can work with you. Show them that they can by being professional. Always listen to their suggestions carefully, write them down and think about them before you say you will or won’t do them. Be ready to have good explanations for why you don’t think their ideas make the story better. Editors want to feel they have a hand in the books they work on. Smile if they ask you to make some changes and sign the contract.

7. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes or get rejected.

Fear of rejection or of looking silly stops more manuscripts from being published than bad writing. You’re going to make mistakes and get your work rejected. It’s the only way to get where you want to be. Plan for it. Know what you’re going to do with your rejections. Then move on. If you do make a mistake, get over it. No one knows everything. Try not to make it again. Keep sending your work out.

8. Use a font and print size that can be easily read.

Every editor I’ve met has complained about getting too many manuscripts that are in tiny or strange fonts. Find out what the standard is and use it. Don’t think you can impress someone because you know what Gothic font 5 is. They don’t care. They just want to save their eyesight.

9. Always send a cover letter.

A cover letter is important because it says who you are. It says if you’re impatient or easy to get along with. It says that you think of an editor as a person and not just a name in a book. Your writing should be excellent and speak for itself. But your cover letter is your only intimate point of contact with a stranger who you’d like to publish your work. Act like you’re trying to begin a relationship, in a professional manner.

10. Have fun.

If you’re not having fun, find something else to do. This business is hard and competitive. If you don’t have chills when you finish a manuscript and cry with your characters, there’s something out there that’s easier and less stressful.

Joyce Lavene and her husband and writing partner Jim have written and sold more than forty romance and mystery novels together since 1999 (including the award winning Sharyn Howard mystery series). They also write non-fiction articles and short stories. They are active in local and national writer’s groups and live in North Carolina with their family. They welcome readers to their websites at and

Write Tight — or It’s Gonna Cost You!

By Diane Sonntag

Our good friends at Strunk and White are always advising us to do away with those nasty adjectives and adverbs that clutter up our writing. This has always been a tough one for me. As someone who really likes to talk — and unfortunately, as someone who writes like I talk — removing those adjectives and adverbs has been a real challenge for me.

Personally, I have always rather enjoyed those cute little adjectives and those good old adverbs. They make my dry, boring sentences more pleasant, interesting, and fun for the intelligent, yet discerning reader. Cutting them out seems like cruel and unusual punishment. For a good long time, I just plain refused to leave out my favorite descriptive words.

See what I mean? Adjectives and adverbs are bad? What blasphemy!

Several years ago, I had to consult an attorney regarding a legal matter. In one of our first conversations, I explained the situation in great detail. I explained that I had been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this rotten person. I described how I had been naïve and trusting and this terrible, awful individual had seen that, and had milked it for every last blessed cent I was worth. I told him how this other party was just the most vindictive, cold, and heartless person to have ever walked the face of this great earth. (OK, I admit it — I might be ever so slightly dramatic!) The attorney just nodded and smiled throughout my monologue. He seemed perfectly content to sit and listen to me talk all day long. But he did glance at his watch every so often and smirk.

Three weeks later, I received an invoice for his services. And then I knew what the smirk was about. That one conversation had cost me nearly $500! At his rates, I was paying like $28 per adjective! I was both shocked and appalled at this bill, and I knew that something had to change. I simply couldn’t afford to carry on like I had during our next conversation. I had to be brief, or it would cost me dearly.

In an effort to cut down on my legal fees, I began to plan out what I was going to say to the attorney. I would write down what I needed to tell him, and then look for ways to pare it down. I reminded myself that unnecessary words were like money down the drain, and I took them out. I couldn’t afford to use two or three words when one would suffice.

No longer had I been utterly and completely taken advantage of by this no good so-and-so. Now I was simply “treated unfairly.” See how many words that saved? And in legal terms, that small cut also saved me like ten bucks!

Overnight, this other party changed from being “a vindictive, cold, and heartless beast who would sell his own poor mother for two nickels” to simply “an opportunist.” Did this person actually change their character? Certainly not! But when I changed how I described that person, it cut down on the words I used, which, in turn, saved me another $32.50. (But let’s be honest here — it did cut down on the drama of the story as well!)

Every time I prepared something to say to my attorney, I pared it down until it was as short as it could possibly be and still get my meaning across. And then one day, I was typing a query letter and I realized that unconsciously, I was doing the same thing. I was taking out all unnecessary words. The bank robber didn’t run quickly. He sprinted. The baby didn’t cry loudly. She howled.

I was condensing my writing down to the bare essentials. I was making it as tight as it could be. And yes, I was sacrificing my beloved adverbs and adjectives. It hurt the Drama Queen in me, but it did make my writing better.

And all of this because I wanted to save a few bucks. But when you think about it, being too wordy had probably been costing me money all along, and I was too dense to realize it. Editors were rejecting my work because it was too cluttered with adjectives, adverbs, and clichés. My writing wasn’t as good as it could have been, and I was paying for it without even knowing it.

My legal situation resolved itself a long time ago, but it certainly wasn’t a cheap fix. I paid a significant amount in legal fees. But when I think about what I learned about writing tightly and I realize how much more I’ve been published, I think I just about broke even.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the “cold, heartless, vindictive beast” got what he had coming to him.


Diane Sonntag is an elementary school teacher and freelance writer. Her work has been published in Woman’s World, MOMsense, and Chicken Soup for the Girl’s Soul. She hopes to remain on the right side of the law from now on.

C.L.E.A.R. the Comfort Clutter

By Michelle Gardner

Maybe it’s because the writing life is a lonely one that we surround ourselves with comfort clutter. Or maybe it’s because we always have a story or stories in various forms of completion that causes the research notes to spill into each other. Or maybe it’s because we want to have everything at hand should an editor need an article ASAP on the very topics consuming the carpet and credenza. Whatever the case, a writer needs to be organized enough to be efficient in the day-to-day. Daunting as it can be to attack the stacks of books, magazines, folders, papers, office supplies, coffee cups, and anything else that has made its way into your writing domain– you can overcome the clutter.

As an acronym aficionado, I have devised the C.L.E.A.R. method to help me with overcoming office space clutter. It’s an easy way to take things in small doses to avoid organizational overload. Remember, it took more than a day for your workspace to achieve its current look. It will take more than a day to bring it back to a model of efficiency.

  • Clear everything off your desk, bookcases, credenza, filing cabinets, and floor.
  • List everything you need to do your job.
  • Evaluate your workspace needs and wants using your list.
  • Assemble essential tools and supplies in your cleared workspace.
  • Remove and Return daily (if possible) any items, such as files and books, brought out for use on current projects.

The first step is easiest if you just throw everything into a box, but it will be harder and more time consuming when you get to the Assemble step. I have found that a three-box approach is best. One box for gotta have items, one for gotta file items, and one for gotta toss items. Once you’ve divvied up your collection, it’s time to use that vast expanse of clear desk space to write out on a sheet of paper what you need to do your job.

Listing is useful in two ways: It gives you an opportunity to think about those tools essential to your work, and it is the document you can refer to when things clutter up — and they will — in the future.

With list in hand, you now can evaluate how all of the puzzle pieces will fit together. You’ve already determined your needs, now you can open up to the wants aspect of designing your personal workspace. When I did this, I needed to have my computer, a work light, space for pad of paper and pencil, and a copy easel on my desk. My wants list included a framed poem from a friend, an anniversary clock from my previous employer, a paperweight that reads, “A deadline is the ultimate inspiration,” and my kitschy hula dancer statue that shimmies when I print documents. I know I can make this scene more efficient by hanging the poem on the wall, putting the clock on a shelf, and losing the paperweight as no great winds blow through my office, but the hula girl stays!

Assembling everything should be straightforward by this point. You have already cleared the way for the gotta have items on your list and have evaluated what needs to be where for efficiency’s sake. So, working from the gotta have box first, you can remove only those items that made the workspace cut. Anything else will be reassessed for placement elsewhere. The gotta file box, in my case, is always a work in progress. I take it in small bites by filing only a few items at a time. Some days I go crazy and file the whole thing when I’m procrastinating on an assignment.

All assembled; now the real work begins. Keeping your workspace clutter-free is like adopting any habit — it usually takes about a month to get into the routine. The last step is the one that will be the most difficult, but is the key to success with this process. Remove and Return any items to their respective homes at the end of the workday. My office is in the basement so my R and R mostly involves the collection of teacups and water glasses that need to be taken to the dishwasher. I’m also a recovering stacker of mail and magazines and have purchased a bill sorter and several magazine file stands from the office supply store to help me stay on track.

Admittedly, my journey to clutter-free writing is only beginning but now that my path is C.L.E.A.R., I don’t trip over unnecessary and unimportant items along the way.

Michelle Gardner is a former aviation publication editor who currently writes for trade publications specific to the construction, transportation, and wine industries. She was a regular columnist for The Brentwood Recorder, of Brentwood, England, as well as an editor of a monthly newsletter for expatriates living in the United Kingdom, and has been featured on BBC radio for her articles. You can find Michelle Gardner on LinkedIn.

20 Ways to Keep Your Writing Inspiration and Creativity High

By Catherine Franz

When we are stressed or blocked, it is wise to make a change so that we don’t stay in that place. Yet many times we forget some of the simple things that we can do for ourselves, quickly and easily, to bring our inspiration back and increase our creativity.

  1. If you usually type your first drafts, hand write them. Nothing compares to the feeling of the ink melting into the paper and the surge of that creative flow.
  2. If you spend too much time at the computer, take a break every hour. Go for a walk or just sit outside in the sun. Even five minutes in a winter sun does wonders for a mood and creativity.
  3. Flip through magazines or books. Their colors and ideas will give you sparks and switch your attitude. Blue and green can reduce your stress levels by 30% or more.
  4. Add strong smells to the room. Light scented candles around you, visit the fruit aisle at the grocery store, or go to a store that is heavily scented. Find an orange or strawberries and smell it. Both will change a mood or create inspiration. Smells awaken your creativity. Smells trigger memories and are a great method to rekindle stories from the past.
  5. Go see or rent an inspirational movie. Relaxation time is important. You can even take your notebook and record inspirational phases. Afterwards, free write what those phrases bring up from your subconscious.
  6. Read a book that stirs you or sparks your creativity. If you prefer, read poetry.
  7. Look at bold and bright colors for a few minutes. These change your mood.
  8. Talk with a friend about your topic to flesh out ideas and creativity. Record the conversation, with his or her permission of course, and play it back to hear the little nuances that you might have missed.
  9. Write an e-mail to a friend to tell him or her what you want to accomplish. If you are stuck, say so and ask for help.
  10. Check in with your vibrational energy and do something to switch it into high gear. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Turn on some music and dance naked for a few minutes.
  11. Hire a virtual assistant to do some typing so that you can stay focused on writing. You can fax your writing or dictate it into the computer and send her a voice file for transcription.
  12. Go to church for the noon service or whisper a prayer or two. This reconnects your energy with the universe and replenishes what might be missing.
  13. Complete an appreciation exercise. Pick something around you, like the telephone, lamp, or pen. Talk to it and tell it how much you appreciate having the electricity to turn it on, the opportunity to write with a tool that has the ink inside (not like a quill), or the softness of the paper you write on. Be grateful for that you have and not what you are missing. Or make a list of “count your blessing” items.
  14. Write a personal note to friends or family and tell them how much you love them, appreciate their thoughtfulness, or kindness.
  15. Authentic, flat-out, raw laughter frees the psyche and opens the creativity process.
  16. Find a setting with lots of trees and flowers and feel nature. If the weather permits, take off your shoes and socks and feel the grass between your toes. Nature has a way of freeing our spirit and renewing our soul.
  17. If guilt or a past incident has captured your mind, write a “Dear Me” letter and ask yourself for forgiveness to to loosen its grip and expand your freedom.
  18. Are you used to writing in a quiet place? Find a noisy place to write, like McDonald’s or the mall. When your space is noisy, you will have to focus harder in order to write with clarity.
  19. Go for a quiet leisurely drive, listen to a favorite CD. You can sing out of tune and no one will notice (laughter allowed).
  20. Do something nice for someone else that you wouldn’t normally do and be a gracious receiver of a hug.

That was exciting, wasn’t it? Post this list in a conspicuous place so that it is readily available when you need it. Do one or two of these daily and keep on writing. Your readers are waiting to read your words.

Catherine Franz is a marketing industry veteran, a Certified Business Coach, Certified Teleclass Leader and Trainer, speaker, author, and Master Attraction Practitioner. Business clients include professional firms, restaurants, retail stores, coaches, writers, the marketing challenged, and independent professionals across the globe from Japan to New Zealand.

My Father’s Models

By James D. Macdonald

My father, W. Douglas Macdonald, was a chemical engineer and an electrical engineer. Most of his life he worked for building materials companies, including Glidden Paint, US Plywood, and Eucatex. He died entirely too young—at 72, of congestive heart failure secondary to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; that is to say, smoking killed him. (Note to everyone: If you smoke, quit right now.) I miss him very much.

That was his professional life. His hobby was model making, specifically ships and model railroads. He won contests in the 1920s for his model railroad cars. Back when I was young, he let me help him with his model making (talk about your fatherly love: the help of six-year-olds can be a challenge). That was where I learned model work, which I still enjoy.

All the arts are related, model work and novel-writing not excepted. Both of them center on making a world in miniature, a false seeming that convinces the viewer/reader of its reality.

Herewith are some lessons I took away from my father’s model making, and use in my own works:

  • No matter how good your model is, it won’t be perfect. No matter how much praise you get, no matter what awards you win, you’ll never be able to look at that model and see anything but its imperfections.
  • No one counts the rivets on a moving car.
  • If you suggest detail, the viewer will add his own details.
  • Painted plastic, painted wood, and painted metal all look the same.
  • A frame makes the model seem more real than it otherwise would appear.
  • Don’t put things square on bases; use diagonal lines. They suggest motion.
  • Let the paint dry before you touch it.
  • Sometimes the best model for a thing is the thing itself: Nothing looks so more like a load of coal in a hopper car than crushed coal in a hopper car.
  • It isn’t a model until you add people. Before that, it’s a clever machine, perhaps, or a toy. Characters bring their own reality with them, and pull the person looking at the model into the story. Your models tell stories; if you have a car that’s got mud on it, or rust, or scrapes and dents, it has a history. The viewer won’t know what the dent came from, but he’ll know that the car has been places and done things, and subconsciously won’t think of it as just an object from a model maker’s workbench.
  • If you can’t see the world you can’t model it.

*  *  * 

I haven’t built model railroads, though I love doing model ships and model houses. 

Herewith are some exercises for all of you; they’re not too expensive, and again (I promise!) they will help you with your novel writing. (Or, anyway, they’ve helped mine.) 

First off, get yourself a nice HO scale paper model house. Two I’ve done are Cut and Assemble Victorian Cottage and Cut and Assemble Victorian Shingle-Style House, both by Edmund V. Gillon, Jr., both published by Dover. Of the two, the latter has the greater story possibilities. 

Build one of the houses. In the building of it, add one interior room. (If you want, you can open doors and windows with your X-acto knife to give other people a chance to see it, or not.) Note: While the instructions don’t say to do so, paint the insides of the chimneys black! If you leave them white, the illusion is broken. If you blacken them, the illusion is strengthened. Remember: Anything that doesn’t add to the illusion, detracts from it.

Now place the model on a base. Landscape it. (Landscaping can cover a multitude of sins.) Spring, summer, autumn, winter scenes all have different feels.

Add people. These tell your story. If you put in a group of folks having a garden party, the model tells a different story than the model that has a police car and an ambulance pulled up out front of the house, with detectives, dogs, uniformed police, and a stretcher with a sheeted form being wheeled out through the front door.

Don’t skimp on the people. In my model of the shingle-sided house, one figure (of several) cost more than the rest of the materials combined. I found it in a hobby shop, and knew that this was the figure I needed. The more realistic the little plastic people, the more real the entire model will appear.

Another thing: In my father’s models there were always hidden details, stuff that only the model maker knew about. These things made the model real to him, and if it was real to him, it would be real to the viewers. For example, once we made a model of the submarine USS George Washington. This was a plastic model with a hinged side that could be opened to show the interior. One of the interior spaces had a door that led to the food storage reefer. My dad built and painted scale model hams, hung them in the walk-in refrigerator area, then continued with the model, sealing that area off where it would never be seen.

Also: Even if a viewer can only see three sides of the model house, he will assume—because he knows what houses generally look like, and because you made the angles correctly—that there is a fourth side. This may not be true—you may not have a fourth side on that model house, but the viewer will supply it.

The viewer will also supply an interior to that house, even though the interior may quite literally not exist . . . that’s why I suggest that you build at least one interior room in your model house. You will know that it’s there, and your knowledge will be transmitted to the people who see your model, through your increased confidence.

Similarly, if you know who your heroine’s best friend was in fifth grade, and where she went on vacation in the summer between fifth and sixth grade—even if you never show these things to your readers—your character will be consistent in her later actions in the story that you’re telling.

That’s it. Learn to see the world. Discover that tree trunks aren’t brown; they’re grey. See how the same basic, off the rack things, when arranged in various ways, with you choosing the arrangement, make different, unique, artistic stories. Discover that when you mix paint for your Pullman cars using paint chips taken from real Pullman cars, that they look too dark—you have to lighten the paint to make it look right. Looking right is more important than being right.

The models don’t look like much until you have them all put together, landscaped, populated, and framed. Then . . . they’re magic.

James D. Macdonald and his frequent collaborator Dr. Debra Doyle have written many books together. Their books include the Mageworlds series (Tor) and the Circle of Magic series (Troll Books), as well as Lincoln’s Sword, Mist and Snow and The Apocalypse Door. Macdonald has been known to cross out dictionary definitions and write in his own, and he displays a mutant talent of making opinions sound like facts. He teaches at the Viable Paradise Writers’ Workshop for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle’s Website here.


Why I Write Commercial Fiction

By Steve Fey

I’ve always liked to write stuff. In elementary school I made up some awful bit of drivel about a baseball team, which is now lost to posterity. Posterity should send me a thank-you note. By junior high school, now known in most places as middle school, I was skipping doing my homework in study hall in favor of reading everything I could find by Poe, Twain, and the prodigious science fiction author for youth, Andre Norton. Besides lousy grades, this habit helped give me a broader perspective on life than that of most of my small town friends. That perspective was helped along in high school by an English teacher who forced me to learn to spell, and also forced me to read all sorts of “good books.”

You know “good books,” don’t you? Things like Withering HeightsThe Scarlet Letter, a few plays such as Macbeth. I was becoming “an intellectual.” Fer sure. And I got to read poetry, too. Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Robert Burns (lot of poets named Bob, apparently), Sandburg, Nash. There was some good stuff in there. College reinforced my earlier training. Even though I wasn’t an English major, I took a lot of literature classes. That’s where I found out what Huckleberry Finn is really about (and no, it isn’t a racist book at all), and first read John Fowles, Leo Tolstoy, Camus, and other living and dead authors. A lot of them I really liked reading, too.

I even read The Lord of the Rings when Tolkein was still alive to write dust jacket notes for the books. The books, so far as I’m concerned, are better than the movies, because you don’t need to have read the books previously to enjoy reading them.

I watched lots of movies, too. That’s relevant to what I’m saying because I now write scripts for movies. I love movies as much as I love good books. ThereÆs nothing I like better than a book or film that’s so good that I lose myself in it for a time. A great movie to me is one that I don’t deconstruct on my first time seeing it. If the movie is only good, I check my watch for the timing, analyze scenes, and otherwise distract myself from the fact that the film isn’t totally engrossing.

I learned about deconstruction in college, too. I remember the play We Bombed in New Haven, where the actors step out of character right in the middle and introduce themselves. I just loved that device. Very intellectual, isn’t it? The trouble is, most people in America have never heard of We Bombed in New Haven. That includes most of the people who have heard of, for instance, Lethal Weapon or The Matrix. Neither of those movies has ever been accused of being overly intellectual, but both have outsold the intellectually superior Bombed by maybe a couple of powers. What, you might ask, is wrong with people?

Well, that’s an entire thesis, or library, of an answer. Whatever it is, an author should remember that he or she is a person, too. So, whatever’s wrong with people is, gasp, wrong with the author as well. Consider an arena where intellectuality is more honored than in the United States of America: Europe. I’ve seen some movies from Europe that I really thought were terrific. German cinema is famous for innovative techniques in storytelling. France has produced some of the finest comedies ever written. It’s good to be an artist and intellectual in Europe. They’ll honor you there, much like some American musicians find appreciation on the continent that they never receive back home. It’s a paradise for “good” art.

“So, the problem is?” I hear you asking. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of top-selling movies in Europe are American. Not indies that were discovered at Sundance, but the big ol’ studio-produced, crass and commercial films like . . . well, how about Lethal Weapon and The Matrix? It’s true. In the home of honor for artists, where you can hear people criticizing the crass commercialism of American film, the stuff that gets watched is just that crass commercial product. How on earth can that be?

It may not satisfy a hard-core English professor to hear this, but “great literature” that remains popular for centuries follows the same rules as do commercial movies. There’s a mythological construct that underlies all good stories, in fact. If you want to see it in its least disguised form, read The Odyssey. If you don’t think that book would be a commercial success if it were written today, then you have missed some things in (or never seen) such films as Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Frankly, folks, the same things happen at the same point in each of those stories.

Don’t believe me? Well, at 26-2/3 percent into a story, the hero (protagonist according to Aristotle) is thrust irrevocably into strange territory. Up until that point, there was at least a theoretical way out of having the adventure. At that point, there is no longer a choice. Guess what happens at just that point in Huckleberry Finn? If you guessed that Huck, Jim, and the raft drift right past Cairo in the fog, you’re right. Huck’s stuck now, and has no choice but to go on down the river. Mark Twin not high literature enough for you? Then consider one young Dane named Hamlet. I think most people consider Shakespeare to be “good” literature, after all. At that point in the play, the young hero, in a passage including the line “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,” declares that he is going to set things right. No more wavering soliloquies now: he’s going in.

See? The Bard of Avon used the same timing scheme as Mark Twain, and as the writers of popular movies. Is that so bad, after all? I really like Shakespeare, as a career writer I mean. You know what he was really after? Do you think he sat down one day and said, “Hey, I think I’ll write a play about the dangers of revenge, with a great moral message for future generations to heed.”? No, he did not. He wanted juicy roles for himself and his friends, he wanted to please his Queen, and most of all he wanted to pack the house so he knew where his next pint of ale was coming from. He knew the rules for creating a popular story, too. So, while he certainly did create some great literature, he’d have considered that a happy accident. As evidence of that being the case, consider that he threw his stuff away, and it was his friends who saved it and got it published. Three cheers for his friends, but my point is that Will was writing commercial fiction.

And that’s just what I hope to accomplish as well.

Steve Fey has been writing throughout a lifetime of doing other things for a living. A few years ago he turned his attention to screenplays, of which he has now written five and has one in the works. Since the conventional wisdom holds that anything after the fifth one should be salable, he’s feeling optimistic.You can visit Steve Fey’s website

Limiting Computer Time

By Katherine Huether

Most of my day is spent on the computer. I check e-mail, write queries, and use my word processing programs to complete the bulk of my assignments. Recently, I spent a day without my computer. I spent some time feeling lost and unhappy without my laptop and Internet access. Then, I dusted off my journal and started writing longhand for a change.

The end result of my time away from the computer was that I experienced more creativity and motivation than I have in a while. I’ve made it a goal to limit my computer use and spend at least one day a week away from the computer. I find that I need this weekly rest away from my writing and my “work.” Here are all the benefits I’ve experienced from this weekly ritual.

More Balance

When I first began my writing career, I felt that I needed to spend every free minute I had working. My kitchen was a mess, my house became disorganized, and my exercise and grooming routines both fell apart. My life was out of balance.

Even though I currently spend less time writing and developing my business, I am more productive. That day off recharges my mind and helps me use my time more efficiently. I exercise more, I eat well, and I spend time with my family.

Make a list of all the aspects of your life that feel disorganized and out of balance and make sure you give yourself ample time during your week to work on them.

Living Life

As a writer, I get most of my ideas from my life. When I spend all my time working, it is easy to run out of ideas. Since I take time away from technology and my business, I am experiencing life and giving myself a chance to develop new ideas.

Even if you don’t have the luxury of taking a whole day off, you can still schedule time each day to turn off your computer and ignore all telephone calls. Do something for yourself. Go for a walk. Take a bath. Plant some flowers. Go out for dinner. Make sure you bring your journal along so you can write down any ideas that may come to you.


A journal is a powerful tool. There’s something about writing longhand that can spark creativity. Use unlined paper; this opens you up even more because you aren’t constrained by the lines provided. Do writing exercises. Observe the world around you. Jot down any ideas or thoughts. Write a poem. Keeping a journal on the computer doesn’t have the same effect. Turn off your computer at least once a day and find an inspiring place to write. Let yourself write whatever comes to mind. Then, go back through it later to extract all those little bits that can be turned into an article or story.


Although helpful, technology can also be stressful. Yes, computers, laptops, e-mail, cell phones, and our personal electronic organizers do make our jobs easier. But what happens when the phone rings all day and you check your e-mail on an almost minute-by-minute basis? This can promote stress. It isn’t necessary to respond to every call and e-mail you get as soon as you get it. In fact, it can cause stress.

Checking e-mail only a few times a day and letting voice mail pick up your calls can help you relax. Stress hurts creativity. When you are relaxed you can be more productive with your writing time and it is easier to come up with new ideas.

Greater Productivity

Yes, spending time away from your computer and from e-mail every now and then does enhance productivity. I know it seems hard to believe. I mean, it seems like you need to actually be at your computer in order to get things done.

I don’t know about you, but when I sit at my computer all day, I start to zone. I play a game or two of solitaire. Then I check my e-mail. I finally start writing but I can only write one sentence before I feel stuck.

At that point, I know I should switch off the computer and do something else. It’s time to take a break and at the very least do some housework. But when I take a REAL break away from the computer and take out my journal or get some exercise, that is when my mind starts to organize my thoughts and ideas and I am better able to return to my work refreshed and more productive.

Small Steps

Intrigued? You may want to start with small steps. Try taking a few ten minute breaks throughout your work day. Build up to taking an entire day off. You will be more creative and productive and have a lot more things to write about because you will be experiencing life

Katherine Huether is a freelance writer who takes care of the majority of her business with her computer. Her work has appeared in Herbs for Health and Herb Quarterly. Katherine Huether has a website.

The Power of Journaling for Writers

By Erica Miner

Anne Frank . . . Virginia Woolf . . . Anais Nin . . . Sylvia Plath . . . Henry David Thoreau . . . James M. Barrie . . . Franz Kafka . . . Samuel Pepys . . .

Some of these authors are best known for their journals; others have used journaling as both a source of inspiration and a stepping-stone to self-enlightenment. But they, among many others, have one important element in common: they have all engaged in that wonderful, creative activity we call journaling.

We all follow journeys of self-discovery at some points in our lives, but as writers we take these journeys on a daily basis. Journaling is a powerful way for us to chronicle these fantastic voyages. And as I like to point out in my journaling workshops and lectures, it’s no coincidence that the words “journey” and “journaling” come from the same root.

Not only do we gain personal insights and discover new layers of our psyches through journaling; it can also help us get our creative juices flowing and often help us through bouts of writer’s block. I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts and wisdom about journaling that have served me well, both as a writer and as a voyager through life.

Just to give you a little background about myself, I was born in Detroit and started journaling at the tender age of thirteen, when I was just starting high school. Already I had found my journal to be my best friend, allowing me to confide my deepest secrets, fears, and emotions during that hormone-infused time of life. My recall of that era is so vivid that I am able to recapture my experiences in the novel series I have been working on about a young girl growing up in the volatile 60’s and 70’s — even though those journals have long been lost.

Years later, when I was going through a devastating divorce, journaling saved my life—literally. Suddenly I found myself with two children to raise and support on my own, and on my worst days I was ready to jump out of my ninth floor apartment window — until I started journaling and poured my heart and soul into my writing instead. And I’m not the only one who has had that kind of profound experience from journaling: Oprah herself credits journaling for saving her life. How powerful is that?

Yes, a journal can see you through difficult times. It can also be a veritable treasure chest of creative ideas and personal history that you can use again and again in your writing. I fervently believe we all have a book inside of us, if not more than one. How many of us have family histories just crying to be told, for example? Your journal could become a novel, or a movie — witness Angela’s Ashes or In America. The possibilities are endless. A number of writers I have recently met are penning novels that stem from stories they have lived: one woman is writing a novel about living through the blitz in London as a young girl; another, a man who survived the battlefields of World War II, is turning his story into a screenplay. Even our own personal family histories handed down by elderly family members can make for compelling writing.

What about travel journals? My own novel, Travels With My Lovers, started as a journal that I had written over a number of years. A number of my other travel experiences have ended up as articles in magazines. People love to read evocative descriptions of far-off places written from the point of view of an expressive observer. In fact, the entire June issue of Vision Magazine, to which I have contributed an article, is devoted to the “traveler’s path.”

There are so many other ways we can use journaling to enhance our lives. Journals have been kept to help women heal from traumatic illnesses: for instance, actress Lynn Redgrave recently published a book about her healing journey from cancer. I met a woman who keeps what she calls a “dinner table” journal, chronicling her favorite culinary and entertaining experiences and the conversations that went along with them. Parents who take the time to journal the miraculous changes that their babies go through from day to day are rewarded with a joyful record of their children’s early journeys through life.

And the beauty of all this is that you can journal in any way you like, in any form and under any circumstances. The only limitations are those of the human imagination.

So to get you started—or re-started, as the case may be—here are some of my suggestions for making your journaling journey pleasurable and rewarding.

Believe it or not, the type of equipment you use can be a major factor. It’s of utmost importance to choose the type of journal that will inspire you to crack it open and sully the pages with your thoughts and feelings. It can be a bound book of blank pages with a beautiful cover, an artist’s sketch book to which you can add your own inventive touches, a pocket-sized notebook for travel, or a journal with quotes from writers on artists on each page to help inspire you. There’s no limit to the types of journals you can find in stores and on the web.

It’s also important to use the type of writing implement that’s comfortable for you. If you have a favorite pen that feels nice in your hand or even makes your writing look more legible (trust me, even for hopelessly illegible penmanship like mine, there are pens that can do this!) then use it. Of course, if you prefer using your computer to journal, that will work well, too. I am often asked during my talks whether I prefer journaling in longhand or on my computer. I confess that I like to think of journaling as a cozy, intimate activity, and for that, only longhand will do.

Find your perfect time of day or night, when you can quiet your mind and let your thoughts flow. Sit by the fire or light a candle—both are conducive to deep concentration—and let your muse take over.

After you’re set up with that, here are just a few of the many “hints” and techniques I’ve got up my sleeve to get those creative juices flowing:

  • Create your own imaginary world and describe it in vivid detail
  • Write about someone you met only once but still remember strongly
  • Describe your favorite “secret hideaway”

And my own personal favorite:

  • Recount your very first childhood memory

These are but a few of the wealth of possibilities for journaling that I like to impart to my readers. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to send me an e-mail through my website.

The key is just to take pen in hand, or create a private journaling file on your computer, and see where your personal journey will take you. Once you settle into your own “ritual,” you will discover what you have been missing!

© 2005, Erica Miner

Former Metropolitan Opera violinist Erica Miner turned to writing as her creative outlet when injuries suffered in a car accident forced her to give up her musical career. She has since won awards for her screenplays, novels, and poetry, including the Fiction Prize in the Direct From The Author Book Awards for her novel, Travels With My Lovers. Erica has made a name for herself through radio and online interviews, book signings, and lectures. After a series of successful lecture tours, she has been named a top-rated lecturer for Celebrity Cruise Lines. Erica Miner has a website. Erica Miner is also on twitter and Amazon.