Stick To It

Stick To It

Sticker collection

Spend even a brief amount of time scrolling around the internet, and you’ll find dozens of theories on how to set up your workspace. People advocate for feng shui, encouraging you to incorporate all four elements into the room to achieve balance. (Yes, I’m aware there are other rules, as well, but I’m not well-versed in the art) Others encourage you to abandon a formal office and work wherever the mood strikes you. That’s a theory, but I think a freelancer needs SOMEWHERE official to keep their business. And, if you live in Prairie Dog Land, you probably have a list of restrictions on what you can and cannot display in your microcosm of felted walls. With an imagination, you figure out how to push the limits of those rules.

Then you have those of us who grew up in the 80s.

What made our day as kids? STICKERS! We hoarded stickers the way kids in the 90s stashed Pokémon cards. A simple image on an adhesive back turned into playground currency. Did you have a puffy sticker? One with googly eyes? Were you packing glitter images? Or the rare holographic find? (I won’t even attempt to break down size) We huddled in corners at recess, clustered under the monkey bars, and met after dismissal, displaying our stashes with all the sly mystery of a modern drug deal. And teachers broke up sticker rings every bit as ruthlessly. (Never mind they supplied half of the supply – passing out choice options as rewards for well-written papers or perfect scores on math tests) Your best stickers went into Trapper Keeper binders, only trotted out for proud display. But the “common” offerings – images everyone managed to scrape together? Those you peeled the backing from and slapped on – well, everything.

Don’t believe me? Ask someone from that era of neon, leg warmers, and high ponytails. (Just don’t call us “old”) We’ll happily wax nostalgic about the paper bag book covers we plastered with drawings and stickers. Or the furniture we decoupaged (before DIY crafters decided such a thing was “in”). And let’s not forget about the time and effort we spent applying the tiniest stickers to our fingernails (again, before any fashion-forward salon owner picked up on the trend and decided to post tutorials on Instagram). Before scrap books and handmade cards adopted them, Generation X worshiped and adored stickers.

And me? Yeah, I never outgrew that part of my life. So you find them all over my workspace. Looking at a bunch of black boxes while I search for words doesn’t help the creative process. Instead, it drives me crazy (along the same lines as sitting in silence). I need a computer and laptop to work as a freelancer; there’s no getting around that. But I DON’T need to sit at a “professional” desk and pretend I’m a normal human being. (Because we’ll all agreed “normal” isn’t in my vocabulary) I’m imaginative and creative and – well, I’m ME. So it only makes sense to set up a spot that reflects that. (By the way, it’s a key perk or working as a freelancer)

Where you work shouldn’t be BORING!

Whenever I encounter a new sticker, it invariably ends up SOMEWHERE on my desk. Maybe it’s the tower, or around the edge of the monitor. Other times, they migrate out to my laptop. The images and words make me smile, invigorate me, and encourage me when I’m down. I patronize plenty of artists, and they often slide stickers into the package when I order a new print. Or my husband will leave a sticker on my desk – either one he picked out for me or one he happened to get with something he ordered. Like the stuffed animals and Pops that adorn my desk, they remind me who I am. I’m not a mindless drone, churning out work day in and day out (been there, done that). I’m a freelance writer – in control of my life and the work I do!

Maybe stickers AREN’T your thing. But I guarantee SOMETHING out there is. What is it? What do you have (or need to add) to your workspace to make it feel complete?

Come to the Dark Side

Come to the Dark Side

Dark mode switch
Image by Pabitra Kaity from Pixabay

Writers (in general) spend an average of 8-10 hours with their eyeballs glued to a computer screen. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, you might switch to pen and paper, and some people prefer old-school methods for transferring their ideas to print. But if you take a survey, the majority have resigned themselves to technology. And those same people will admit to the steady decline of vision over time. The fact we thrive in cave-like offices doesn’t help (nor does our penchant for banging our skulls against sturdy objects in frustration). But most of that blame? It falls squarely on that glowing screen we glue our eyes to every single day.

Glaring white screens are melting our retinas!

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. But not by much. The time people spend staring at screens (computer OR phone) leads to eye strain and the resulting fuzzy vision they complain about. And if you didn’t have sparkling 20/20 eye report cards to begin with, the damage accelerates. The result? Dry, red, burning eyes that scream for fluid get blurry on you, and refuse to cooperate when you’re trying to crank out an epic masterpiece. The problem’s grown worse and worse the more “high-def” screens become. Oh, sure, you can now see your words in intense colors, but your poor ocular system doesn’t want to handle that kind of processing all day.

Now, if (like me) you’re old enough to remember the first computer systems, you’ll notice a difference. When you worked on your first word processor or even game, the screen WASN’T anything to write home about. At best, you got a handful of colors clustered into blocks on a black screen. It kept us entertained as kids and allowed us to grind out HOURS of Oregon Trail without a single headache (you know, assuming you didn’t die along the way). You could also write for days at a time – usually ignoring the passage of the sunset and sunrise outside the window. It wasn’t a great time for wrists, but eyes? They rejoiced.

Because the screen was DARK!

Yes, we love seeing our favorite shows and movies displayed in rich colors and definition. It’s driven the optic companies to develop better and better screens. And demand’s pushed those monitors to our work stations and phones. Not a problem if you’re viewing a gallery, but a monstrous issue if you’re trying to edit an encyclopedia. The enhanced brilliance causes your eyes (and brain) to work harder than usual. This results in that dry eye (you don’t blink as often when you’re focused on working), those headaches, and the blurred vision writers and other computer freelancers often complain about. It doesn’t matter how much water you drink, you’ll still find yourself coping with eye issues at the end of the day. The human eye isn’t designed for staring at stark white for extended periods of time. (Our species didn’t evolve in arctic regions where we’d have the supremely-long eyelashes to shield us from the glare) So they start breaking down.

And we troop to our ophthalmologists, begging for solutions. But all of the corrective lenses in the world won’t halt the problem (trust me on this – I’m as blind as you can get without the official designation). Meanwhile, the answer’s at our fingertips: that original black screen computers started with. You got it: DARK MODE! Almost every program or app now allows you to switch your setting to dark mode. And without that horrible white screen boring into your retinas every day, your vision will calm down.

Seriously, try it!

I made the switch months ago after having this discussion with my tattoo artist. (News flash: today’s artists cope with the same problem) Every dark mode I could find? I turned it on. Within a week, my headaches went away. The ache in my orbital rims ceased. I stopped feeling the constant need to rub my eyes throughout the day. And I no longer needed to reach for my artificial tear drops dozens of times a day. Best of all? I stopped squinting at the screen. (Okay, so I wasn’t squinting – I ended up increasing the magnification to read the words) From ONE LITTLE SWITCH!

Now, I notice the difference when I encounter a program that DOESN’T have a dark mode. Within a few moments, my eyes go back to aching. It feels like a knife piercing the back of my head. And I can’t wait to get out of the app and back to my cozy little “cave.” My ophthalmologist? He approves the switch. It’s a recommendation to preserve what little eyesight I have left sans corrective lenses. (Actually, his official suggestion was to stop using a computer, but since that means NOT working, we compromised)

You love writing (or drawing or coding or whatever it is that leaves you glued to a monitor every day). But your eyes HATE it. The least you can do is baby them with a little darkness. That dark mode will make an enormous difference in your life. And even if you DON’T work at a computer all the time, make the switch. (You know you stare at the phone all the time) Your eyeballs will thank you.

Review of Harley Quinn Black + White + Red

Review of Harley Quinn Black + White + Red

Harley Quinn Black + White + Red by Stjepan Šejić

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

How do you complain about such a dynamic team of writers and artists? Every chapter gets better and better, providing different levels, angles, and dimensions to Harley’s character – without missing the chance to include that tongue-in-cheek humor that works so incredibly well. It’s sheer brilliance! You get every iteration of the Clown Princess of Gotham (the perfect introduction for anyone who hasn’t ventured into her world, incidentally), and Mr. Šejić kicks things off brilliantly with reminders of her origin.
Oh, sure, I have my favorites from the collection (Chapters 2, 4, 9, 11, 12, and 13). But you can’t argue with the sheer creativity of any of the work. Everyone deserves a HUGE round of applause. (With a special shout-out to Ms. Conner and Mr. Palmiotti for sneaking in that dig at the people with nothing better to do than complain)

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Review of Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood & Starlight

Review of Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood & Starlight

Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More often than not, the second book of a trilogy falls flat. It provides enough material to get you from the punch of the first volume to encourage you to stick around for the rousing conclusion. But Ms. Taylor? She delivers a sequel that (exempting the fact you need the information from that initial volume to understand what’s happening) stands boldly on its own. She takes the reader into a deep dive into the characters they’ve already fallen in love with (hate with?) and fleshes them out into new and incredible pathways. At the same time, she provides new points of view that paint the worlds of Earth and Eretz with – well, blood and starlight. And you’re left sitting on the edge of your seat, the pages clutched between your fingers in a desperate need to learn more, to find that new revelation.
Is everything a surprise? Not really. You see the ending coming before the words reach your eyes. And while it’s irritating to guess where things bend, I can’t find myself angry. Ms. Taylor’s deft hand with her tale is too practiced. Like puzzle pieces fitting into a monstrous (no pun intended) jigsaw, you feel satisfied at the revealing image. And one wants nothing more than to dive into that final promised volume (that much of the usual middle book magic remains).

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Sharing the Spotlight

Sharing the Spotlight

Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Clever, Curious, Caring Cat
Coming September 14, 2021!

After dancing around with this information for a couple months, I have the go-ahead from the PR department to make official announcements. My personal essay, “The Demon Assistant” made it through all the levels of screening and will appear in the newest release from Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Clever, Curious, Caring Cat! The book hits shelves (not to mention Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s online system, and Indie Bound) on September 14th.

As you might guess from the title, it features everyone’s favorite tiny demon, Tonks. And I can’t think of anything more serendipitous than to have my first publication in a book to coincide with a tale of her working alongside me. The symmetry? It’s too perfect. (Admit it – you want to read it)

And, yes, I’ve been dancing around and busting at the seams to share the news for MONTHS.

Redefining Vacations

Redefining Vacations

Vacationing at Fairy Stone Lake

Vacations rank at the top of almost anyone’s list of priorities. They represent a block of time where you don’t have to answer phone calls, respond to emails, turn in assignments, or pay attention during meetings. And, yes, it took some effort, tears, and promises to convince me that I could step away from work for a few days, but I’m better for it (workaholics are special people). However, we didn’t follow the “usual” pattern people take with their vacations – and not simply because of the Delta Variant wreaking havoc around the country. As a result, my writer brain spent six days exploding with ideas and thoughts. (Oh, all right – four days. Travel days aren’t the most inspiring things in the world)

And you can do the same thing.

Of course, that means you have to give up some tried-and-true vacation staples. Are you willing to take your time off and DO something? Or is turning into a slug somewhere more interesting to you? I mean, I get it: you’re beat down and exhausted. All you want to do is unplug your brain and stuff it into a jar. That’s what I NEEDED to do after the past…okay, so I can’t remember when my last official vacation was. And when we started talking about where to go and what to do, it was tempting to choose ANYWHERE and then turn into a zombie for the entire trip. After all, that’s what a vacation usually represents. But you’re not going to gain any inspiration from that kind of behavior. And if you want to find something new for your writing? You’re going to have to abandon those kind of plans.

Ready to think outside the vacation box and get your creative juices flowing? Okay, take a deep breath, and make sure you’re sitting down (because I’m going to shock you).

1. Venture “Off the Beaten Path”

Roaring Run Falls

Yes, I know, it’s exciting to go to the beach, amusement parks, or even into the city. You’ll end up wedged in with thousands of other people and get to wait in various lines. (Standing in line to place an order for food still counts) I’m not trying to knock that kind of vacation – especially since I’m a HUGE roller coaster fan and a devotee of Broadway. But with the pandemic suffocating the planet, none of those vacations are exactly practical. And, honestly, I’ve never come up with a new writing idea standing in line for an amusement park ride. (No matter HOW long the line stretched)

If you want to jump start your brain, you need to consider getting away from the popular vacation zones. Look for places that don’t get all of the tourists. You’ll find hidden gems that are every bit as stunning and amazing, without giant lines and long waits. (Not to mention saving you in the bank account department) Yes, I’m talking about using the natural wonders of the world to help you out here.

That waterfall? It’s called Roaring Run Falls. The complete hike came in around 2 miles and wasn’t horrible. And parking was FREE. (Plus, staying along the stream, we got a nice cooling breeze – unexpected bonus)

2. Wake Up Early

Mist on the creek at Fairy Stone State Park

I know – it violates every rule of vacations. But if you get out of bed and venture out into the world, you’ll see things other people miss out on. When we hit the lake, NO ONE was out there; we had it to ourselves. That meant we got to see this mist veiling the creek. Talk about fodder for any number of stories! (I mean, we were already in a location called Fairy Stone) The temperature PLUNGED in the area, and everything was still and quiet. No matter what genre you aspire to, you could work with that scenery.

And the mist didn’t hang around. By the time we needed to turn back? The sun had burned it off. Even 30 minutes later, we would have MISSED it.


3. Bring Your Phone

Roaring Run Creek

Yes, I told you to venture into No Man’s Land, and now I’m suggesting you bring a phone. (Stick with me here) No, you’re not going to get a signal – more than likely. We lost internet here and there throughout our trip. But that isn’t why you want your phone, anyway. (Seriously, you probably need a vacation from staring at it)

The camera on your phone will work whether you have internet capabilities or not. And that means you have a chance to capture inspirational photos, videos, or even audio. Scribble notes directly on the image for what triggered your story idea. You DON’T need to be a fantastic photographer, and the weight? It’s manageable on any hike.

4. Ditch the Itinerary

I’m the first to admit to having a vacation itinerary. I planned out where we were going, what times to break, and how everything was supposed to go each and every day. It helps everyone stay “together” when families or friends want to spend the day in one location but engage in different activities. But itineraries? They don’t work when you’re looking for inspiration.

So don’t worry about having one. The most we did on our vacation was decide where we were going each day. And even then? We stayed flexible. When we hit Fairy Stone State Park, we flipped our plans around, hunting for fairy stones in the morning and hiking afterward. (A brilliant idea, as it turned out, as the grueling 5-mile hike wiped us out) And we didn’t have a set time for how long we spent on our “hunt” – something I normally WOULD have done. Instead, we called it quits when we felt satisfied with our haul.

You can’t leave your mind open if you’re rushing from Point A to Point B. Instead, you’re going to spend your vacation looking at your watch. And you’ll end up missing the imagery around you. You have 24 hours in the day. Leave them open. Let the world around you fill them in.

When we got back to our cabin in the afternoons, I pulled up Evernote and jotted down all of the ideas that sprang up throughout the day. Everything from the mist across the creek, the glassy expanse of the lake, tangled tree branches, to our conversations in the car traveling from location to location went into notecards. (That’s right, I even came up with freelance writing ideas!) And I didn’t sacrifice ANY relaxation in the process – even waking up at 7:00 AM every morning.

Was it the grand vacation we originally started thinking about? Of course not. But did I bring home more ideas and a sense of rejuvenation I normally DON’T? You bet! And it’s given me a new perspective on vacations. So if you’re contemplating a trip, you might want to do the same. Your writing brain will thank you.

Review of Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities: Flashback

Review of Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities: Flashback

Flashback by Shannon Messenger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have to applaud Ms. Messenger for one thing: she accomplished plenty of plot advancement, character development, and the introduction of new mysteries and questions – without having the protagonist leave a “hospital bed.” That’s no small feat! You don’t even notice how far you’ve delved into the book, either, before Sophie manages to escape the Health Center.
However, that playing with time (and the fact you start to question things like muscle atrophy, bedsores, and the lack of school work) raises the question of the story’s official timeline. We’ve been with Sophie and her friends for YEARS? That doesn’t add up when I look back over things. I get it, the books weigh a ton and SHOULD capture that much time, but the official count of months, weeks, and days doesn’t add up. I understand the need to advance Sophie’s age for the “romantic” side of things (and don’t get me started on that – I needed to have twelve cavities filled after reading through it), but some long-range planning when you start to write a series can clear up this kind of thing. Even if you’re not sure whether a publisher will pick up your idea and run with it (and, yes, I know, you only publish tomes like this once a year), you need to run headlong into things with high expectations. Some readers (who shall remain nameless) pick up series late in the game and notice these idiosyncrasies.
Still, all told, the overall questioning of emotional tolls and family expectations? Ms. Messenger handles it with the grace of a virtuoso. And that leads to the disappointment of the final confrontation. You want a twist, a revelation, a surprise to occur – not everything everyone’s told you from the first page. It made things disappointing. (And, no, the “cliffhanger” didn’t make up for it) It comes out as a balanced read – enough to keep me balancing those hefty books over my head night after night.

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(And since that hit my initial challenge of 60 books for the year, I’ve reset it to 75 books. Of course, I ended up buying five books on vacation…and I already had another five in my To Read pile. So there’s a pretty solid chance that number will need to go up again. We’ll see how it goes)




Most people get a say in who they hire as a Personal Assistant. They conduct interviews, review resumes, and ask for references in order to find the most qualified candidate possible. And – the majority of the time – they get someone who will make their life easier and keep their work on track. Personal Assistants are invaluable. This is why people take so much care and time finding the right people to fill that slot in their lives.

And then there’s me.

My Personal Assistant? She appointed herself. Within a day of starting my freelance career, Tonks decided she was in charge of keeping me on track, managing the state of my desk, and “proofreading” all of my work. It sounds like the job description of any other Personal Assistant – if you don’t peer too closely into the details.

Keeping me on track? That means coming to get me if I spend too long on the couch in the mornings. (I’ve had ZERO success teaching her that fibromyalgia equates to slow movement and the need for a couple hours of NOTHING in order to function each day) It also translates to her following me if I get up from the desk to make lunch or chat with my husband. She’ll sit at my feet and scratch at my leg to order me back to work. (Demanding little demon)

Tonks of the shelves over my desk

“Managing my desk” is a generous phrase for things. If you’ve ever worked in an office setting – or in a clinic – you understand the value of quality pens. (You also know that one Pen Thief) Tonks took things further by stealing EVEYTHING. She’d roll pens off the desk, pat at and chew on them while I attempted to write, and steal the caps (Note: never get ink pens that require tops). She also swatted the shark teeth off the desk before moving onto her assault of Mini Tonks. And then she took to scaling the shelves over my desk. Her personal jungle gym, she decided everything up there belonged on the floor. (No need to worry about height when the bugger scales the book shelves in the den and even tightrope-walked over the curtain rods) Oh, and, of course, she extended these management duties to my desk chair. Any time I got up for a moment, she quickly co-opted the chair for her own. Even after we bought her a chair and set it up beside the desk (which she DOES use), she didn’t stop deciding to steal my chair whenever possible. You know – typical behaviors for a Personal Assistant. (I think she felt it made it easier to read my screen and “proofread” my work for me)

But as my client base started to grow, Tonks came up with a new (self-appointed) task for herself. One I’m not sure ANY Personal Assistant performs. Courtesy of family members living around the country (and one stationed overseas), she already understood the concept of Skype. And she knows the precise location of the camera on my laptop and Nook so she can push her face onto the screen and dominate the video. Well, COVID-19 introduced everyone to Zoom to replace in-person meetings.

And Tonks is nothing if not a ham.

Tonks on my laptop case

The first time Tonks invited herself into an interview call, it was an accident. She always hangs out on the desk at some point in the day to get attention. And setting her aside? It only encouraged her to come back. Luckily, the client thought she was adorable and didn’t mind. But she’s a smart cat. She recognized words of admiration, AND she figured out where my line of sight kept going. When I noticed her sniffing the camera on my monitor, I knew I was in trouble.

And, true to form, she sat herself directly in front of the camera the next time the green light came on. (In case you weren’t aware? While they don’t see the same shades you or I do, cat’s AREN’T colorblind)

Since then, Tonks invites herself to participate in every Zoom call or interview I make. And even though I can’t figure out HOW, she also knows when I take a phone call that’s work-related. She’ll rub and bump the phone while I talk, determined to make her presence known. (I swear, I can hear her little voice shouting, “This is my Mommy’s Personal Assistant, and you WILL speak to me first!”) I can’t even attempt to “stealth mode” my way into these calls! Like a can opener, she can hear the light click on from anywhere in the house. And I’m left apologizing for the intrusion – and then sighing in relief as everyone gushes over how cute she is. (Secretly, I think she’s trying to make her big break. I don’t think she realizes I’m not speaking with Hollywood)

And if anyone ever doubted how smart Tonks is? She can tell the difference between a recorded video presentation and a live Zoom call. The adage “fool me once?” Well, that’s how it works with her. A friend of mine appeared in a virtual play set up as a series of Zoom calls. Tonks heard the sounds and came running, and when no one reacted to her standing in front of the camera (besides my husband and I laughing hysterically), she got annoyed and stomped off. So when I started working with Freelance Writers Den, taking courses with their bootcamps, I expected her to sit front-and-center when the recorded sessions popped up. But she’d learned her lesson. If I’m not speaking? She’s not interested. She only wants to hang around if there’s a possibility of the Tonks show.

Realistically? She’s the worst Personal Assistant a person could ask for. Of course, since I never officially HIRED her, I’m not sure how firing would work. And while there’s always an initial moment of embarrassment when she charges in on those interviews and calls? I also feel like she’s an important part of everything I do. Attempting to work without her around? I can’t imagine it. (And the day she was gone while she got her teeth cleaned? It felt surreal, and I ended up distracted the entire day)

As aggravating as it gets, retrieving shark teeth, ordering her to get out of the electrical cords, and tossing foam stickers on the floor to distract her away from pens (or interviews), it’s part of my daily routine. She keeps me from getting bored or stressed or even overwhelmed with my freelance career. And while she’s a hell of a taskmistress, she also knows when to get me to take a break for cuddles and nose-boops.

So while she might be a terrible Personal Assistant on one hand, she’s also a pretty fantastic genius on the other hand. As long as we don’t take into account the number of time she steals my socks in the morning.

The Long and Short of It

The Long and Short of It

Patchwork elphant
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Have you ever come across a paragraph (or, worse, a chapter) so droll and monotonous, you feel yourself going cross-eyed? I’m not talking about textbooks, either – though they usually suffer from this problem. You go back over the same sentences over and over, trying to focus. And it’s frustrating because these passages crop up in plots that were – up to that point – fascinating. But now you’re falling asleep at the wheel for some reason. If you “step back,” you’ll usually pinpoint the problem: a complete and utter lack of sentence variety.

You’ve entered the monotony zone.

Every writer slips up and falls into this pattern now and then. Usually, it grabs onto the brain when you hit a patch of writer’s block or need to go over a part of your story that doesn’t capture your interest. (Or, let’s admit it – it’s a chunk of your worldbuilding you didn’t devote much time to) You’re bored. So you put on your best Science Slide Show voice and put your readers into a coma. All because every single one of your sentences have the same number of words, written in the same pattern.

Sentence variety drives a narrative forward. It’s also a reflection of the way we speak and think. Don’t believe me? Sit in an area and listen to the cadence of the conversations around you. Keep a notebook and make tick marks for the number of words in each sentence. You’ll see a wide variation based on the type of engagement. Anger and excitement? They’ll come out on the shorter end of things. But find someone who’s eager to describe something they’re passionate about? Well, you might need an extra piece of paper. Emotions dictate the flow of words we use.

And writing isn’t any different.

You have the chance to create emotion within your reader, simply by manipulating your sentence variety. Want to have them breathless and on the edge of their seat? Chop up your sentences. Even read silently, shorter bites of information speed up the heart rate and cause you to breathe faster. It builds suspense and tension – something mystery and horror writers exploit ALL the time. And you may not even realize it, you’re so captivated by the action. But stop and look at the sentence structure next time. Watch everything grow shorter and shorter and SHORTER the closer you get to something powerful.

On the flip side, when you want to draw out and latch onto the heart of your reader, you stretch your sentences as long as possible. (Note: this does NOT mean you have permission to write run-on sentences) Your stream-of-conscience monologues provide the chance for a reader to delve into the characters and their thought processes. You give them all of the twists and turns of the agony they’re experiencing. It’s your chance to break out your carefully selected adverbs. And it advances character development.

A well-written piece of writing? Moves back and forth. Because, of course, you’re progressing along a story arc. And – unless you’re writing about the most boring characters in the history of existence – you have a cast of people with emotions. Your sentence variety allows them to demonstrate those feelings in a natural manner. If you fail to inject an ebb and flow, you get a flat textbook. While I don’t want to knock the textbook writers out there, I’m guessing the vast majority of wordsmiths out there don’t wake up in the morning with aspirations of publishing the next organic chemistry volume.

You WANT to use variety!

Now, every now and then in writing groups, you’ll see a favorite exercise come up in which you need to craft a story using a specified number of words for every sentence. This flies in the face of everything I just said. But it’s a USEFUL exercise. Whether they throw out ten words or four, your brain goes into overdrive cobbling together a coherent plot with a “limited” vocabulary. It teaches you how to use the emotions tied to those sentence lengths, though – especially if you’re struggling to get the concept of sentence variety down.

For instance, I tackled a flash fiction piece with a limit of four words one time. Four words? Could you consider four words a sentence? (At the time, I didn’t) Over and over, I failed to construct my usual stories. It took me most of a week to finally get a SINGLE sentence written: Five minutes until midnight. Staring at the words on the screen, I brainstormed different emotions I could assign to that sentence. And once I settled on the emotion I wanted, the story built itself. It took trial and error (not to mention cursing as I reworked sentences that exceeded the count), but the story I finished I was happy with. And I learned to use those short sentences to my advantage down the road.

The same with another flash fiction – this time with a ten-word limit. Yeah, I thought four words was a pain? TEN exceeded annoyance. More ISN’T better. (Plus, I spent half my time tapping a pen on the screen to check my count) I needed to find a way to write coherent, REASONABLE sentences that didn’t hit that run-on boundary. At the same time, I couldn’t figure out something dramatic or introspective for a flash piece. But long sentences? They can work for flights of fancy, too – if you handle them properly. And that’s where “The Storyteller” ended up taking me.

These exercises HELP.

Once you learn the FEEL of varying sentence lengths, mixing them together is a cinch. And before you know it, you break the cycle of stilted, monotonous writing. Your readers don’t get bored. Even better, they don’t lower the book and check the cover to make sure they haven’t accidentally picked up a reference text. So go sit and listen to people and the way they speak. Think through the emotions they’re experiencing (or NOT experiencing). Then start to apply it to your writing. You’ll find your stories coming alive.

You can always write textbooks on the side – you know, if you have that aspiration.