1 Surefire Way to Come Up with Interesting Characters, Scenes, Dialogue…and It’s Right Under Your Nose

ae81225b9da0a0b3a99a6110.Lby Jean Foster Akin

I’m desperate to find that perfect phrase to be uttered by an important character at a pivotal moment in what is now just a manuscript yearning to be a published novel. But my skin tingles, I clench my jaw, uncharitable words begin to rise from my throat as neighborhood kids go from intermittent whining to all-out, full-throated screeching. I grit my teeth against the mental and creative intrusion, consider slapping the cover of my laptop right through the top of my desk.

Instead, I close my eyes, I begin breathing deeply, listening to what they’re fighting about, the frequency and intensity of their voices. At some point I forget my annoyance. I am now a biologist attempting to locate the nucleus of a cell. The high-pitched grousing of little people excoriating each other within their pack turns to plaintive wails directed at a Higher Power.

I hear a screen door creak and then slam as that Higher Power emerges from where she was washing dishes at her kitchen sink. She is bone-weary with arbitrating, and she clutches her sodden dish cloth in a resentful claw that has formerly been (and will be again) a soothing motherly hand.

Yes, I can see her in my mind’s eye, and I drop the cacophonous drama into my novel at the pivotal moment, and pour gasoline on my character’s fire in order to rev up the tension.

Or, I hold on to the cacophonous drama as an ingredient of tension for another story in the future.

The drunk Irish uncle troubling other adults as he sings tavern songs at a child’s birthday Scan 141770004 party is a perfect character. He’s a ready-made character that you can use to drift in and out of a story, to show up once in a bar scene, or to crash a funeral. He can be used as comic relief, or he can change the entire course of the protagonist’s life by getting behind the wheel of a car, or by accidentally starting a fire with a cigarette dropped from shaky fingers while falling asleep in the protagonist’s spare bed.  No tweaking needed to make him everything he needs to be.

He is right there under your nose.

The unapproachable woman with the bulldog who passes you each and every day on the street; the fussy accountant who hops on the bus with you in the morning; the twitchy mailman who skitters away from the house every afternoon, casting terrified looks over his shoulder, even though your dog is a miniature poodle and is always barking from behind your fence; the brassy waitress at your favorite diner who crackles her gum and calls you “doll”. These people can play big parts or small Scan 141770006parts in your stories. You can develop them into main characters and build your story around them, or you can drop them into a story in order to people an office or an apartment complex. It’s up to you how you use them.

Yes, change the names, if you know them, and don’t paint a picture of a family member or co-worker so exactly that everyone in your neighborhood figures out easily who the character really is in your life. Avoid relationship problems or court costs by not allowing your characters to be recognizable to their true-life counterparts—especially if you’ve decided to cast those people as your stories’ thieves, unfaithful husbands, or murderers.

But use them. They’re right there, under your nose, so be careful about obvious identifiers, but don’t be shy.

A writer can recycle Life, and she should.




[drawings copyright free]

[Photo, scene from On the Waterfront, 1955]

No Perfect First Chapters

leonard-bishopIn the vast and various realm of ‘how-to-write guides’ there is no law, canon, edict, ukase, tenet or rule that declares that the writer must begin at the beginning of the novel he wants to write. The only fully functional rule that exists is one that states, any handicap or barrier that prevents you from beginning your novel must be overcome.

Yes, the writer needs a strong, interesting, believable, dramatic and reader-hooking opening chapter. It is essential. But what if he hasn’t found it yet? Is the remainder of the novel to stand poised in some musty, suffocating corridor, waiting to be launched into existence? You must not be stopped. Procrastination is the thief of time.

… The traditional guides in the “how-to-write” realm are valueless if they stop you from writing. Begin anywhere in the novel and, in time, as you write, you will acquire the perfect first chapter.

Bishop, Leonard. Dare to Be a Great Writer, 329 keys to powerful fiction. 1988. Writer’s Digest Books. Cincinnati, Ohio.

[photo, ©The Estate of Leonard Bishop]

Thoughts on Querying Literary Agents

IMG_0918*Jean Foster Akin*

A concerned woman approached me recently and told me that since her husband had uploaded his self-published fiction to Amazon, he was dismayed that no literary agents or publishers had yet contacted him. As adorably innocent as this sounded coming out of her mouth, it showed a total lack of knowledge on her husband’s part—the guy who supposedly sees himself as a “professional author”.  And there’s no excuse for it.

I am not a literary agent, but I’ve been traditionally published so you know I’ve contacted more literary agents over the years than I can count. Always after extensive research, and (even then), always with fear and trembling.

I’ve worked with other writers since the year 2000, editing their manuscripts for traditional publication. It still shocks me the number of modern writers who are not traditionally published but who want to be, and who don’t know anything about the publishing process.

It’s hard enough getting the attention of an agent when presenting good work according to an agency’s particular guidelines. When a writer doesn’t even know there are guidelines, well…So, when you feel ready to query literary agents regarding your completed work:

  • make sure you are actually ready to query literary agents. You’re not ready to query if you haven’t read and re-read your work several times, self-editing as you go. Hiring a professional editor is a good idea if you can afford it; but don’t even do that until you have done your own editing, several times. IT IS ALL ON YOU. If you have any question that your work isn’t the very best it can be before sending it to an agent, don’t bother sending it until you are.
  • When your manuscript is truly ready, sit down with a bound guide to literary agents, research literary agents’ websites online, or go to Writer’s Digest and sign up at their Writer’s Market to begin accessing their agent/publisher listings online. There are resources aplenty for budding writers!
  • Read guidelines carefully. Read guidelines carefully. Read guidelines carefully.
  • Do not send any genre to an agency which is not specified in their listing. Just because they want police procedurals doesn’t mean they want gumshoe.
  • Find the name of the person in the agency who handles your genre. If more than one agent handles your genre, read the particular agents’ information. One agent might be looking for stories involving strong female leads, another might be looking for the male under-dog. Go from there.
  • Do not send your work “To Whom It May Concern,” or you’ll probably find it doesn’t concern anyone.
  • Send exactly what the agent asks for and nothing else. If the agent wants a query letter about your murder mystery, the first chapter of the manuscript, and a brief one-page synopsis of the story, do not send the first three chapters, a ten page synopsis, and a picture of the elderly next-door neighbor on whom you based your book character’s first victim.
  • If you don’t understand what a query entails or what a synopsis is, go study up! They are different animals altogether and one resembles technical writing more than the other.
  • Do not get creative in the packaging of your manuscript if you are sending itIMG_0920 by post. A few years ago, I read special notes added to an agent’s listing wherein he warned those hoping for his representation to send their manuscripts in boxes designed for that purpose. Apparently, he’d received a manuscript hidden in the center of a large television box filled with foam peanuts. It took his staff an hour to get all the peanuts up off his office carpeting. Do you think the writer who sent this Trojan Horse got the attention of the agent? I do too. Do you think the writer made the agent happy by sending a manuscript in this memorable way? I’m guessing no. Do you want the agent you query to feel good about sitting down to read your sample, or do you want him royally pissed off first? If you want to piss him off, please, act like a totally unprofessional ignoramus and send your manuscript in a refrigerator box! All the writers waiting in the very long line behind you will thank you for getting out of their way.

Scan 142240003



Guiding Your Characters Through Their Therapy Sessions

IMG_0631by Jean Foster Akin

I was reading an article the other day entitled “Write Yourself Well.” It was written by John F. Evans, Ed.D and the reason I clicked the link for it was because I was intrigued to know how psychologist see writing as a means to therapy and wellness.

In the article, I learned of Dr. James Pennebaker, Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, who is the discoverer of the connection between wellness and expressive writing.

Writing, for me, has been an entertaining pursuit, true, but it’s also been therapy more than once in my life. Perhaps I need to be more honest: it’s been therapy so often in my life, I can hardly think of a time when it wasn’t. Even if what I’m writing about has absolutely nothing to do with the problem at hand, there is a mesmerizing, calming, positive effect to writing for me. And apparently there’s more to it than the emotion of getting thoughts or stories on paper—there’s physiology involved too. You see, yesterday I was talking to a very intelligent lady who told me that there are nerves that run along the fingers we use to hold our pencils and pens when we’re writing, and that these nerves travel right up our arms to the back of our noggins, and apparently (I’m paraphrasing here), the act of writing stimulates these nerves which stimulate the brain, and the brain gets all jazzed about the writing, and before you know it, you’ve got a lot of jazz going on…including very long sentences with lots of commas in them. Please forgive the clinical nature of that description, folks.

Unlike novel writing,  letter writing, or sky writing, in  expressive writing you focus more on feelings than on “the events, memories, objects, or people in the contents of a narrative”, says Dr. Evans. “Like narrative writing, expressive writing may have the arc of a story’s beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes expressive writing behaves like a story that swells to a crest and resolves itself on firm ground. But often [it’s] turbulent and unpredictable, and that is OK. Expressive writing is not so much about what happened as it is about how you feel about what happened…”

What Dr. Evans says sounds okay to me. But it also sounds scary. I’m not talking about the scariness of other people seeing what I would write during an expressive writing session, or the scariness of worrying if the person reading would judge what came out of my soul. I’m talking about the terror of knowing what I’m thinking myself. The terror of writing down things I would never say…even to myself. The terror of finding out how dark things probably are down there. The terror of remembering those things that I have carefully covered in layers and layers of camouflaging branches and vines and moss over the years. Those painful things I have buried so meticulously, and yet with an air of disinterest…”Nothing to see here.”

Oh, but there is something to see. So I asked myself, would expressive writing help me unearth what’s hidden? Would I want to unearth it? Do I have the courage? And while I was thinking as a human being with a past of hurts (like so many others), the writer in me asked: would expressive writing, applied to one of my novel characters, help me write that character better?

I know! What a twist on things. Why would I even think such a thing? Could using a healing exercise on a totally fictitious person, weird as that sounds, help me create complex characters that would grab the interest of readers and make them care enough to turn to the next page?

We write histories for our characters–at least I know I do, and so do a lot of writers out there. We don’t need to tell readers everything about a character’s history, we may only wish to hint at a character’s past in a novel (depending on genre, we’ll play off those histories or we’ll play them down), but if we know about those histories ourselves, we can build characters with unique habits and fears,  talents, interests, and quirks that feel real to readers.

So, what if we have a character in our minds percolating away, one with at least some of a history, but one we have yet to bring to life on paper? And what if we have that character “sit down” and do an expressive writing exercise?

If you were to use expressive writing yourself, you would sit down in a quiet place and write continuously about a devastating trauma for twenty minutes, four days in a row. You would not allow your pencil to come off the page for those four twenty-minute sessions. You would not allow anyone to see what you’re writing, and, in fact would have already planned to destroy the results of each session so as to free yourself from attempting to edit your feelings or change your wording in order to make your feelings less “ugly.”   So, why not sit your main character down and allow her to dictate her feelings to you—the completely understanding, non-judgmental Entity that you are?

As the creator of the character, you have developed her history, but have you “allowed” her to tell you what she feels about what has happened to her in her life, to tell you why she has acted as she has in the NOW of your story? You might find, if you do, that her actions  will seem contrived to your readers, based on your character’s past and emotional upheavals–in which case you’ll know your character needs work. But then, you might find you’ve developed your character well, based on her past and emotional upheavals, and that you’ve found your story’s sweet spot. Then you can move forward with your tale.

Writing From the You

DSC04065by Jean Foster Akin

Do you find when you sit down to write that the part of you that wants to please stops you from writing things that would shock Aunt Mary, or make your snarky cousin Jim sneer? Are the people in your life also in your head when you’re wringing out a tale?

It’s hard not to think of the people who will eventually read your work and either sigh with satisfaction over the beautiful way you turn a phrase, or be annoyed to find your name on the front cover of a novel that retails for $24.99.

Then again, sometimes the things that stay our writing hands are remembrances of our high school English teachers making us recite the rules over and over, and slashing away at our inexperienced and heart-felt creativity with red pens. Or maybe the monsters lurking in our minds come from some article we read by some grammarian who admonished us that there is never, ever, any reason whatsoever to use the word “and” at the beginning of a sentence. The opinions of others, the prejudices of others,the sensibilities of others, clamp down on the lids of our creative toy boxes, and leave us staring at the blank page with enormous headaches in our eyes.

We have to put the nay-sayers out of our heads when we write. We need to become immersed in the world we’re creating as well as the thoughts and feelings of the “people” who live there because we birthed them from our own souls. Our characters will not always be people our Aunt Tiz would approve of—but that’s life, isn’t it? If we want to bring the world something fine, it needs to flow from our own unique spirits, and not be a carbon copy of something we read that flowed from someone else’s spirit…or their blackboard…or their narrow, uninterested, desert of a mind. We should write, write, write, always knowing we can go back later and make changes, delete things, add things. But we should delete and add because we see this will bring the work closer to perfect…not because we are trying to please someone else.

But lest someone misunderstand and think I’m saying that writers should write anything at any time with no regard to anyone else, let me say this: we MUST weigh the cost of Truth. Frank McCourt did not write Angela’s Ashes until his mother was dead, because some of the history he was to recount would have humiliated her in ways you would understand if you read that amazing, gritty, beautiful work. Mr. McCourt, therefore, saw his first novel published as he was turning seventy…because he cared about his mother’s feelings—and that was a good thing. “This is a small hymn to the exaltation of women,” Mr. McCourt wrote in the acknowledgements of that book.

Write about your truth: how remembering the Christmas you were six still makes your throat tight with sorrow. How you feel you’ve wasted your life on things you were positively sure were things that would make your life worth living. How a tragedy caused you to feel “unmade” and how you’re pretty sure you’ve lost your faith.

And don’t be afraid to write about the truth of beauty. Truth is not all in the devastations, the soul-tearing abandonments. Remember there is truth in love, in friendship, in doing good to others, in opening your arms and giving without counting the cost, in discovering that the human heart is softened toward others in tragedy. Those truths are worth writing about too, and are just as needed in this world.

Whatever you write about, write it the way you write it—not in the way you think you should write it after reading another article entitled How to Write; not in the way you think your brother would want you to write it, or in a way that you hope will alleviate criticism from others. Write it from the deepest part of yourself, from the place that is YOU. And when you do that, you are working your own therapy, you are writing REAL, and you are opening the eyes of others to a perspective they might never have considered.


photo taken by Dean Akin of Buttermilk Falls in Schaghticoke, NY (do not use except by permission)

But then, she isn’t a writer….

DSC04577I left a still relatively green Virginia last week to spend a few days where I was born, in cold, white, Upstate New York. I visited with some friends and family, but could not completely put my writing on hold. I never can, really. If the blogs aren’t calling my name, the newest novel is, and so I spent quite a bit of time writing during “down time,” and thinking about writing when I was occupied elsewhere. One day, when nothing much was going on and I could fit in a few hours of writing, my hostess told me that she was shocked by how long I could spend typing away at the keyboard. “I’d go out of my mind,” she said. But then, she isn’t a writer.

Back home in Virginia once again, I posted a quote on my sister blog, Writing New Worlds, from one of my favorite authors, Natalie Goldberg, and it read: “I met a doctor the other night who told me he had always wanted to be a writer. I nodded. People always tell me that…Then I thought to myself, ‘You know, I’ve never met a writer who wanted to be anything else. They might bitch about something they’re writing or about their poverty, but they never say they want to quit…and if they do abandon it they become crazy, drunk or suicidal.’ Writing is elemental.” **

Truth. A born writer wants to write. A born writer can’t not write, or at least, she can’t not write for long. She does other things, surely, or she can’t be much of a person either, let alone any kind of writer. She walks the back roads with the dog. She lays in bed at night with her husband, whispering in the dark. She holds her children and feeds them and worries over them and would die for them if it would help things. She is, thank God, changed by them. She lives, yes, but a big part of her living is her writing. A born writer can’t get away from writing any more than she can separate herself from loving her kids, loving her man. It’s deep in her DNA. It’s as elemental as breathing. Take it away, and she can’t feel whole. No, she really can’t.

On the surface, writing seems to allow us to flex our creative muscles. But it is not that easy: through it we stumble into our murkiest thoughts, we’re forced to work out how we really feel about the chaos and the calamity and the changes and the surprises. Writing becomes the womb we run to when we feel weak or overwhelmed or terrified or lost. It entertains us while others around us complain that there’s nothing on TV. Writing helps us make sense of the darkness. Or, if it does not help us make sense of it, it helps us slow things down enough so we can at least catch our breath, get our bearings.

That’s what writing does. And only a writer sees all the possibilities in the simple act of curling fingers around pencil and laying that tip upon rough paper; in the act of arching fingers over keyboard and bringing them down upon keys.

Writing is blood and bone and breath to those of us who were born to do it. Writing doesn’t make me go out of my mind, it has kept me, often, from going out of my mind—though sometimes, I admit, I’ve gotten dangerously close to that abyss. Writing has been the rope I’ve clung to at the edge.


Jean Foster Akin

photo by JFA; please do not use except by permission

Words Commonly Confused and Misused

DSC06830Naturally, we don’t want to use words that make no sense in our writing, not unless we’re deliberately writing nonsense, that is, or unless a character frequently confuses words for some reason. In THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, by Anne Tyler, we see writer Macon Leary talking with Dog Trainer/Personal/ Shopper/Survivor of All Life Throws at Her, Muriel Pritchett. She’s telling him about her one-time job working at a business which offered copy services to its customers.

“I’ve never been so disinterested.”

Macon stirred and said, “Don’t you mean uninterested?”

“Exactly. Wouldn’t you be? Copies of letters, copies of exams, copies of articles on how to shop for a mortgage…”

Muriel doesn’t get it, and that’s okay—she isn’t a writer, she is a flawed character (like all of us), and a life giver (which all of us should strive to be). We should also strive, as writers, not to feel the need to correct every mispronounced word or wrongly used word that is uttered by non-writers. It’s not nice to make other people feel stupid just because they used the wrong word in a sentence. Eventually people will stop talking to us altogether..I mean all together…I mean…Well, you know what I mean. We wouldn’t want non-writers to make us feel stupid because we don’t understand pi, or because we can’t change a tire, or because we have no idea where to start when it comes to making a really good loaf of bread. Parents, teachers, and editors are exempt from this dictum as long as they can correct nicely. All that said, and for our own reference as writers, let’s look at…

Some words commonly confused with each other* and misused:

assent ([noun]. agreement or approval)


ascent ([verb]. the act of rising, climbing up)


censure pronounced: sen-shur ([v]. to criticize strongly)


censor pronounced: sen-sor /sen-sur ([v]. to ban, as in banning books or films, etc, or, [n]. a person who bans)


disinterested ([adj]. impartial)


uninterested ([adj]. not interested)


tortuous ([adj]. full of twists and turns; complex)


torturous ([adj]. full of pain and suffering)


story ([n]. a tale or an account)


storey ([n]. level of building or floor of building, ex. Phyllis lived on the fourth storey of the Broadbent Apartments.) NOTE: many spell-checkers will correct your spelling if you write the word “storey” to mean “floor of building.” Don’t pay attention. They’re wrong. Or, at least, you are not wrong. Language does change. At one point, recipe books gave you the method on how to make this or that flavor of “cooky.” Now we write “cookie.” Everyone knows what you mean regardless of the way you spell it, but your spell-checker will attempt a scholastic slap-down on you if you use “cooky” these days. The word “storey” causes the same still acceptable. So, if you want to write “she lived on the fourth storey” instead of “she lived on the fourth floor,” write it with confidence.


stationary ([adj]. not moving)


stationery ([n]. writing paper, greeting cards, on which people used pens or pencils to write letters to their friends, family, and business associates before email came on the scene).


all together (all in one place, as in “We’re going to the movies all together.”)


altogether (on the whole, as in “No, Sylvia, that’s not a little bit wrong, that’s wrong altogether.”)


And a big one now in these days of the Cyber World:


sight (the ability to see)


site ([n]. a location, as in “Bradley can’t come to the phone. He’s at the building site, looking over the architect’s plans.” This word is also the one you use to designate “pages” on the Internet, as in, “Please go to my web site and you will be able to look up my store inventory and place your order online.”)

For more words that we commonly mistake for each other, go to OxfordDictionaries.com or perform your own web search.


posted by Jean Foster Akin

I Wanna Be Like Neta Snook

Neta at Kinner Field, 1921
Neta at Kinner Field, 1921

by Jean Foster Akin

Amelia Earhart is said to have remarked: “The most effective way to do it is to do it.”

For those of you young’ns who don’t know the name Amelia Earhart, she was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in May of 1932. She was born in 1897 and started flying at the age of twenty-three. American women were granted the right to vote in 1920, and so Amelia Earhart was quite a little firebrand for her time—although not as much a firebrand as Neta Snook (1896-1991), the woman who actually taught Miz Earhart to fly and who was the first woman aviator in Iowa. Miz Snook graduated high school in 1915 and went on to college where she dutifully took home economics with the other girls (a subject which proved to be quite useful later), but made sure all her electives dealt with things like mechanical drawing, the study of combustion engines, and the repair, maintenance, and overhaul of farm tractors. She was always mechanically inclined and she knew if she was to fly “aeroplanes,” she would need to know how to maintain and repair her own craft. She applied to and was accepted by The Davenport Aviation School in Iowa and was their first female student. When a fatal accident took the lives of instructors at Davenport, the school shut down, and Neta Snook went on to become the first female student at The Curtiss Flying School in Virginia, the school which had turned down her student application not long before because she was female. She was the first woman aviator to run her own aviation business, and the first woman to run a commercial airfield. Neta Snook went on to marry and mother, to lecture, to write. She died in 1991 at the age of 95, and the next year Neta Snook Southern was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame.

If not for Neta Snook, Amelia Earhart would have had a much harder time getting into a cockpit and being taken seriously. As would Eileen Collins and Sally Ride. And I’ll bet you didn’t even know her name until you read it here.

Neta Snook lived a long, productive life, and she apparently worried not one iota if you thought she was a great aviator or not.

Maybe you won’t be great at writing. Maybe your words won’t make sense and you’ll give it up. Maybe you’ll be wise to do so: “being a writer” is very much in vogue these days, but not everyone with an idea is a writer. You must deal with that.

But if you have an idea, write it down, and then begin the process of improving it, of making it shine. It’s what all mediocre writers must do in order to be good writers, and it’s what all good writers must do in order to be great writers.

Ahhh, does that scare you? The fact that you might not be a great writer? The fact that there might be writers out there better than you? Get used to it. There are writers out there who are better than you. There are great writers out there whose pencils you are not worthy to sharpen. But so what?

There are writers out there who are better than you. There are great writers out there whose pencils you are not worthy to sharpen. But so what?

There are writers out there whose names the common man knows—just like most people still know the name Amelia Earhart. There was a time when writers weren’t celebrities, but they wrote anyway—just like Neta Snook flew anyway. Before American women were even considered smart enough to vote, Neta Snook flew and she taught other women to fly…other women who became quite a lot more popular than she. And, like Neta, most writers today who are making a living at writing are not household names. Should they put down their pens? Should they pack it up?

Should you?

Neta studied mechanical drawing, the study of combustion engines, and the repair, maintenance, and overhaul of farm tractors in rooms filled with men, many of whom did not believe she belonged there. And then Neta launched her craft into sky and flew through the clouds. Another place she didn’t belong.

Do your study too: read, read, read. Learn what it is in your writing that touches people and build on that. Take criticism graciously. Work hard at it. Then launch your craft into the heavens.

The most effective way to do it is to do it.


And keep on writing.


Johnny Belching Loudly

scan-141770004 (2)You, the writer, the creator of worlds, the person who paints with words, probably aren’t interested in taking a little crash course on the subject of adverbs. I get it: the word adverb doesn’t sound like it was created by some lovely Muse in a diaphanous gown, stepping elegantly through the soft grasses of Mount Parnassus. The word adverb probably drags up images, sounds, and aromas far less exalted: school bells hectoring young sleepers to class at 7 A.M., the sharp crack of Sister Mary Loretta’s ruler on your knuckles as you stammer over the difference between adverbs and adjectives, and the unmistakable effluvium of Billy Smith’s  brown-bagged bologna and mayonnaise sandwich, fermenting somewhere in the depths of his school desk.

But if you want to know how you can use adverbs to infuse life into your writing and understanding into your readers as they become acquainted with your characters, you’ll stick around—I promise I will NOT smack your knuckles with my wooden ruler  if you need to take a minute to remember some of the rules.

First of all, what is an adverb? Here’s a very basic answer: an adverb frequently ends in “ly,” modifies a verb, and answers one of these questions: When? How? Where? To what extent? And just to make things clear with repetition: adverbs often, BUT DO NOT ALWAYS, end in “ly.” Let’s look at an example below:

An example of an adverb modifying a verb…

The man danced gracefully.

The man (noun) /danced (verb)/ gracefully (adverb). The adverb gracefully describes for us the quality of the dancing, and answers the question HOW? How did the man dance? Why, he danced gracefully, of course (as you can plainly see above)!

An adverb can also modify an adjective…

An adjective is a word which modifies a noun.The words bumpy and red are both adjectives. If we want an adverb to modify an adjective we could write:

The road was fairly bumpy.

The word bumpy is the adjective in this sentence and fairly is the adverb; in this case the adverb tells us TO WHAT EXTENT the road was bumpy.

An adverb can also modify a clause…

A clause is a word grouping consisting of a subject and a predicate—or noun and verb—such as:

Johnny belched.

Johnny is the subject and belched is the predicate, and if we want to modify belched with an adverb we can write loudly after belched as in, Johnny belched loudly (which is really the only way I have ever heard people of Johnny’s gender belch).Scan 141770010

An adverb can ALSO modify another adverb!

Did you know that an adverb can also modify another adverb? Find the adverb in the following sentence:

Gertrude slipped her coat on fast.

Scan 141770009All right, I know that was a little tricky! The adverb is fast (I just wanted to demonstrate to you what I said before, that all adverbs do not end in “ly”). HOW does Gertrude get into her coat? She slips into it fast. Now, how could we use an adverb to modify the adverb fast? This way: Gertrude slipped her coat on quite fast. Or, Gertrude slipped her coat on so fast. Or, using an “ly” adverb, Gertrude slipped her coat on extremely fast. The adverb here answers the question TO WHAT EXTENT?

Adverbs/adverb phrases are used to answer

  • WHEN: tonight, yesterday, on a sunny day…
  • HOW: with a can opener, with a key, carefully…
  • WHERE: there, here, outside…
  • TO WHAT EXTENT: quite, almost, very, a good deal, sort of…

Avoiding a Ruler to the Knuckles

Improper Use of Adverbs When Modifying Verbs

Let’s talk about modifying verbs. We use adverbs to enrich the meaning of verbs, so we need to make sure that the adverbs we select do just that. If the adverb you choose doesn’t enhance your verb, don’t bother using that particular adverb. Let’s look at an example:

1). Harris screamed loudly.

Harris is screaming. Screaming, by its very nature, is loud. Have you ever heard someone scream softly? No, the whole idea of the scream is to be heard “loud and clear,” as they say. So adding the word loudly to this sentence does nothing to enhance it. How about “Harris screamed angrily,” or “Harris screamed suddenly” or “Harris screamed hysterically“? Don’t these adverbs say a lot more about Harris and his feelings (or his emotional stability perhaps) than “loudly”?

2). The postman sprinted quickly away from the growling dog. Scan 141770006

How else can someone sprint but quickly? It doesn’t matter whether a child of eight is sprinting or an elderly gentleman of eighty is sprinting; the child will naturally sprint faster than the elderly gentleman, but, in both cases, each individual is moving at a higher rate of speed than is normal to them. That’s what sprinting is all about. If you really want to enhance the sentence, how about “The postman sprinted gracefully away from the growling dog,” or “The postman sprinted awkwardly away from the growling dog”?

Scan 1417700073). Barry clenched his jaw tightly.

Clenching is a tightening of something: maybe your jaw, maybe your fist. There is no reason to add the word tightly to the above sentence. But you may want to clue us in to WHY Barry clenched his jaw, right? Or what he was feeling when he did it? So, in order to help your readers understand his feelings at the time, you might write: Barry clenched his jaw nervously, or Barry clenched his jaw indignantly. The words nervously and indignantly actually tell us something about Barry’s state of mind or how he feels about the situation in which he finds himself. The word tightly tells us nothing we don’t already know.

If you would like help making your manuscript as polished as possible before submitting it to agents or before self publishing, please feel free to contact me. I’ve been working with writers and editing their manuscripts since the year 2000, and I have never once struck a writer on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Click here or at the top of this page for my submission guidelines, rates, and to read articles pertinent to your writing life.

Jean Foster Akin


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Use This Trick To Avoid Looking Addlepated

Scan 141700003If there is one thing you don’t want to appear in life, it’s addlepated. And that’s why this week’s installment is about the proper way to use a thesaurus in order to choose the right words for your story. Is it better to use the word addlepated or is it better to use the word foolish? Or, as Professor Larry Donner asks in Throw Mama From the Train, was the night moist, hot and wet, humid, or sultry? It depends. What is the context? If you’re writing dialogue, the words you choose depend on the character speaking. What kind of character is he? Is he educated, in the military, a doctor, a dog-walker, a thief? And what are you writing? Do you write for children or a general adult audience? Is your writing considered literature? The right word depends on a lot of things.

Sometimes writers think that the Right Word is the most literate sounding word, or the one word they have never heard before, or the word with the most letters (younger writers tend to do this), or the one that sounds the most “intellectual.” They want to change “The brown bear ate Astrid” to read “The brown bear consumed Astrid,” just ’cause. This works okay, but there are pros and cons: there’s really nothing wrong with the word ate in this sentence, and, frankly, the word consumed tends to sound a bit clinical (just a bit though—the word masticated would sound worse). But either ate or consumed work, depending on the genre of the work or on the personality of your character (if you have her talking about Astrid).

But are all the synonyms offered under headwords in a thesaurus substitutable for the words they’re meant to replace? No. Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not make it an appropriate substitution. Let’s look at an example.

In The American Century Thesaurus, synonyms for the word LOUD (adj.) are as follows: (1). deafening, ear-splitting, booming, blaring, stentorian, thundering, thunderous, sonorous, noisy, clamorous, piercing, fortissimo (2). tawdry, garish, flashy, gaudy, tasteless, extravagant, showy, ostentatious, Colloq splashy, snazzy, jazzy.

Which of those words would you use in the following sentence?

Astrid spoke in a(n) ___ voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.

Some of you would play it safe and choose noisy. Others, wanting to add something a bit more interesting, might choose stentorian. And some of you, wanting to be totally different, wanting to fulfill that future agent’s request that you send her work with “a fresh voice,” might choose the word FORTISSIMO! That works, right? The word fortissimo is listed under the “first sense” grouping (indicated by the number “1” in parenthesis in the entry above), so it must be similar to the words noisy and stentorian, and therefore must be substitutable, yes? Let’s try it:

Astrid spoke in a fortissimo voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.

Merriam-Webster defines fortissimo as “very loud” and states it is a word used “in the direction of music.” Does it sound right in the sentence above? I think it works if you’re writing comedy. If you’re being serious, though, the word fortissimo sounds silly at best. It is not the proper word given the context of the sentence.

Of course, you could do worse, you could choose a word from the “second sense” grouping (indicated by the number 2 in parenthesis in the entry above), and make a terrible mess altogether:

Astrid spoke in an gaudy voice and startled the sleeping brown bear.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gaudy as “ostentatiously or tastelessly ornamented.”

So, gaudy doesn’t work at all in the sentence, and it’s no wonder the brown bear consumed Astrid.

Let’s try another:

Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent ____ to tickle the sleeping brown bear.

You could use the words: desire, longing, craving, appetite, taste, stomach, sympathy, predilection, penchant, fancy, eagerness, enthusiasm, zeal, furor, or ardor according to The American Century Thesaurus. Under the headword INCLINATION, these words are all listed in the same “sense” grouping. Because of this, many writers will at first believe they can all be substituted for inclination without an issue. But allow me to insert just two of those words and insert them into the sentence below, and you will see the problem.

Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent (stomach)/(sympathy) to tickle the sleeping brown bear.

Even though both words entered in the sentence above are considered in the same sense grouping as longing and desire, they don’t work, do they? Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not mean the word must, in some way, be substitutable. So what word would you select? Personally, I’d choose the word “fancy” in this sentence; it hints at the child-like shenanigans for which the late Astrid obviously had a predilection, but you could use desire or longing without looking silly at all.

The thesaurus is a wonderful tool, and playing with words, using different, fun words, is all a part of enjoying the writing life. But you must be careful. Every word in a thesaurus that’s been listed as a synonym for the word you’re trying to replace is not necessarily a good replacement, and can make you look addlepated foolish if you’re not punctilious careful.



[THE AMERICAN CENTURY THESAURUS, Warner Books Paperback Edition by Lawrence Urdang, Inc. 1992, 1995 and THE MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTINARY, New Edition, 2004]