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



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

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.


Writing and Revision: Two Happy Peas in a Pod

Scan 141430000There is good criticism and there is bad criticism. Sometimes criticism feels bad because of how it is delivered, sometimes it feels bad because it has been delivered at all. Sometimes it needs to be heard, regardless.

People—people who love to write like I love to write—pay me to edit what they’ve written. They pay me to look for mistakes in grammar, they pay me to edit for context, they pay me to warn them when their dialogue sounds contrived, they pay me to note when their characters come out of character—many of them pay me to “do whatever needs to be done,” and, in that case, I catch all those things I just mentioned above without ever being asked to do so. This is fine with me because I can’t leave those things alone anyway.

Some of my clients asks me not only to notice mistakes and inconsistencies and to fix them, but also to open a comment field and write a short lesson on why what they wrote doesn’t work. Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do: help them make their poor writing good, and their good writing better.

Writers pay me for this. I want to make that clear—they pay me, they voluntarily seek me out and secure my services. Yet, sometimes these very same writers also become emotionally unhinged when I do the very thing they’ve paid me to do…

A friend of mine, a professional illustrator by the name of Violet Lemay, wrote an article recently about how much she’s enjoying teaching illustration to students online, and how thoughtful these talented student-artists so often are. She had to admit, though, that some of their reactions to the subject of revisions makes her want to snicker. Knowing her, I believe that if she does feel the need to snicker, she snickers in only the nicest of ways; but if you work with student-artists or writing clients, sometimes you can’t help but give at least a good-natured shake of the head when they gasp at the idea of revision. For some of my writing clients, the idea of being asked to make revisions is one of the most insulting requests they feel they can ever receive. It says to them that what they have created isn’t wonderful, fantastic, and utterly perfect. You can see how this might make someone else giggle a bit, right? If you can’t see this, make a…

NOTE TO SELF: “I’m human; perfection isn’t my strong suit. That’s okay.”

It isn’t hard for those of us with some mileage on us to accept the fact that we are not perfect, but for others, it can be a very distressing concept. It isn’t always a bad thing to want to get as close to perfection as we can, but if we are writers, getting close to perfection is accomplished through revision. And not only through subjective writer-birthed revision (or subjective artist-birthed revision if you’re an illustrator like my friend Violet, or a future-illustrator like one of her students), but also through objective revision suggestions made by qualified individuals outside your Self.  When a writer has spent years on a novel, or days on a blog post, she often re-reads passages seeing what she intended to write and not what is really there. It’s a trick of the mind that seasoned writers know well. Extra eyes are the writer’s FRIEND, and we can get closer to perfection when we can accept good, solid critique from someone who wants to see us succeed. AND (stay calm because I have to tell you) sometimes you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it. Allow me to repeat that with a slight variation on the theme:

As a writer, as an artist, as a human being, you’ll hear some pretty nasty criticism that will actually be helpful to you once you get a chance to take a breath, lick your wounds, and get on with it.

The VERY thing that makes those words you’ve penned the “perfect” words, is revision. If you take a look at the concept illustrations Violet Lemay did in preparation for cover art in a section of The Baltimore Sun, you’ll see how the limits placed upon her by others involved in the project forced her to think harder, to stretch herself, to work in stages towards the “perfect” cover. Here’s a woman who knows her stuff, she’s proven herself over and over again to all the right people (just take a gander at all the publications where her art has appeared over the years). Violet never lacks for work—I think she knows what she’s talking about when she says revision isn’t bad, revision is the key to exceptional work. This goes not only for artists, but for writers as well.

So, for all my writing brothers and sisters, listen to constructive criticism. Don’t be offended by it. If it doesn’t seem like it’s “right,” that’s fine, put it aside. But don’t just dismiss it out of hand. When an editor shows you ways to improve your writing, understand that she isn’t saying you can’t write, she is saying you can write better. We all can.


by Jean Foster Akin

You Don’t Have to Obey the Machines

Head-artificial-intelPerhaps you’ve seen the film I, Robot, with Will Smith.  In the highly technophilic future (the year 2035 in this case), almost everyone has a robot companion. The robots make meals for humans, do the laundry, run out to the market for groceries, and protect human homes and human families–and if you forget your asthma medication at home in your purse, don’t worry! Your robot will run and get it for you. The quicker U.S. Robotics can develop the next generation of sleeker, shinier, anthropomorphic robots, the better.

The film appeals to us because we love convenience, we love technology, and even though our technology in the year 2013 isn’t what people hope it will be in 2035, we are still doing pretty well. We are rabid collectors of high-tech toys designed to make life easier, to make our talents more noticeable, to make our work more effective, and to make our leisure time more fun. And each month it seems like there’s some new technological wonder for us to covet or collect.

Many of my editing clients are newbies when it comes to writing and some have admitted to buying some pretty expensive writing software for their computers, software that they believe will help them become great writers. They have wondered why these programs have failed to help them achieve the status of Exceptional Writer though (with the accompanying mile-long line of literary agents banging at their doors, hoping to snatch up an exceptional manuscript). But robots and computer programs can’t write exceptional novels, only people can. Only people with the gift to write—who also have a handle on the mechanics of writing—can write exceptional novels. Even if your grasp is more instinctive than academic, you can write some very fine prose. But, remember, your computer cannot.

I wrote: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry them on her shirt.” The electronic grammar checker I used corrected the sentence to read: “Jill washed her hands and started to dry those on her shirt.” Though most writers would know this is incorrect, many of the less experienced among them would think that there had to have been something wrong with their original sentence to make the grammar checker suggest a change at all. This is the point where insecure writers will make changes where none are needed.

Will Smith’s character in I, Robot is a detective named Spooner. Spooner holds a violent hatred for technology, especially robots, because when Spooner’s car and a car carrying a young girl are involved in an accident which pushes them both into a river, a robot saves Spooner’s life while allowing the girl to die. The robot can check blood oxygen levels, detect heart rate and blood pressure. The robot can detect human life functions and use that information to calculate chances of survival. The robot makes a pragmatic choice: Spooner has a greater chance of surviving than the girl, therefore Spooner must be saved.  But what the robot cannot do is grasp the humanity which would make most of us reach for the drowning child first. It does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love which made Spooner demand it save the drowning child. And a grammar checker does not have the compassion, morals, sorrows, life experiences, hurts, and love that you have which can make your prose sing.

The writer must understand grammar, and she must be confident about what she means to say. She should say what she means, regardless of the demands made by the artificial intelligence which surrounds her.

Jean Foster Akin

Photo by JFA

Don’t Be a Verb Weenie!

Passive, active; intransitive, transitive—whatever you label them within context, verbs are amazing creatures! They fill our stories with zest, with tang, with spice, with punch…if chosen well, of course!

It’s unfortunate that so many students of writing find verbs a mystery to use properly. Believe me, I have been editing manuscripts a long time, and many of my clients view verbs the same way an old man might view an ancient, towering maple tree. He wants to climb it as he once did in his youth; he wants to master the tree and feel the roughness of the bark against his thighs, and listen to the rustling of fresh, cool, green leaves as they tickle the back of his neck. But in the end, he walks away, feeling mildly defeated, too fearful to make the attempt to climb.

Now, of course, this is the point where my illustration falls apart; only a wise old man knows he shouldn’t attempt to climb a large old tree, but as writers we know we should make every attempt to understand our language better and use it masterfully in our writing–in other words, no matter what our age, we must climb that tree! The old man, on the other hand, might look jaunty and brave to the neighbors as he gives a little hop and grasps the first branch he can reach, but if he can hoist his old self onto that branch, he’ll probably fall and break his neck soon thereafter. Not so with the writer who bravely studies the subject of transitive and intransitive verbs! If you take some time to study verbs, squeamish as you might feel at first, you will find yourself a better writer–and that’s always worth the trouble. Besides, think of how intelligent you will look to friends, family, and foes when you can carry on a conversation about transitive and intransitive verbs!  You will definitely adopt a jaunty air, and your circle of acquaintances will all be so jealous (especially your foes, believe me)!

If you will be brave (and I know you want to be) you will take care to pick up the right book on verbs so that you won’t become discouraged in your studies. You must be fearless if you want to write well. You cannot be a verb weenie! I’ve seen first-hand the colorlessness that a rigid adherence to the rules of grammar can bring a story, and I’ve read the very texts that bring on the fear of experimentation which causes this colorlessness in so many pieces of writing. I’ve been victimized by writer-friends, shamelessly hopped up on Strunk and White, who ripped every bit of “passive voice” from my writing so that in the end my work resembled an instruction manual for installing a shower head, only less exciting. But then, I’ve also seen the devil-may-care mess that comes when writers get sloppy and throw grammar into the wind because everything they’ve ever read about “active and passive” has been so technical they can’t be bothered to learn.

Constance Hale, author of the new Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing, recently spoke with an interviewer,** and had a few very helpful things to say about passive verbs (what she calls “static verbs”): “I visited a journalism class in which the instructor advised students to steer clear of is going, was going, and had been going as a way of cutting static verbs out of sentences. That’s a valuable tense he’s throwing out. We need progressive forms! Why not tell students to throw out every neon highlighter and stick only to black ballpoint?”

Ms. Hale goes on to give a fantastic example of passive/static verbs in the following passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude, as translated into English by Gregory Rabassa:

‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant noon when his father took him to discover ice.’

“Here,” Ms. Hale states, “in one of the greatest opening lines of literature, the passive construction captures the infinite passivity of Buendia’s situation: He is facing the firing squad, helpless against his fate, unable to act, to change; he can only remember the remotest past.”

Writing (communicating through the written word) and writing well (communicating beautifully through the written word), should not be shackled by a rigid adherence to rules, and laws, and ordinances. But, you can follow the necessary rules and still PLAY WITH WORDS, and you should! Make sure your readers understand what you are attempting to communicate, of course, but don’t worry so much about rules that you lose sight of the beauty and fun and satire and emotion that naturally blooms as you let yourself go and enjoy the writing process. Don’t allow your particular and remarkable way of expressing thoughts to be overshadowed by stiff, grammatically perfect formula—but do know your stuff. A fun way to start might be by purchasing Constance Hale’s book for writers and teachers, Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing. I do not know Ms. Hale and I don’t get a cut from the sale of her book (wouldn’t that be nice?), but what she said about the purpose of the book made me believe it was just the remedy for the insecurity so many writers feel in the face of the dreaded intransitive verb. She wrote that the goal of the book is not to champion “hypercorrect grammar, but hyperpowerful prose…”

Anyone who knows me knows one of my biggest pet peeves is the lack of preparation I find in modern writers, modern would-be authors. Many of them don’t read enough, they don’t write enough, they don’t allow for enough constructive and honest feedback of their work. They vomit out onto the page whatever it is they feel and think, and believe that this is good enough. It is not. It’s lazy. It’s cynical. It’s not what a true writer does except in a first draft. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch was written by a woman who has fanatically studied grammar for many many years, but who has written a lively, loving look at the beauty and possibilities of language. For writers who really want their work to shine, I’m suggesting this book.

by Jean Foster Akin

**See the January 2013 edition of The Writer (Vol. 126, Issue 1) for a wonderful interview with Constance Hale.


Writers are sometimes strange, often introspective, frequently emotional, always (hopefully) highly imaginative, commonly impetuous, and every now and again unpredictable. Writers: those people who burn with desire to dance with words.

I’ve been dancing for a long time. For many many years. Writing has been for me a long and passionate love affair. At nine years old, I would creep to that dark corner of the dining room on the second floor of the three-storey walk-up where my family lived. There I would nestle in the attached seat of a 1950s wood and cast-iron school desk my Nana had given us years before, a small desk that my father had crammed into the out-of-the-way corner of the room, between the end of my mother’s immense dark oak buffet and the old cast iron radiator near the wall. In that corner was a narrow window which looked out on the murky shadows that fell between our house and the one standing six feet away, blocking the light. Through that window, I could just see a patch of azure sky above, and hear the muffled squeak of chains grinding on metal as the children down the block swung on the old lumbering swing set in the park. And there I would sit, writing away, loving it more than the swings–more, even, at that moment (and at most moments) than whatever had caused the giggling at the park.

At fourteen, I was still finding secluded little nooks where I could sit with pencil and notepad, listening to the rain, smelling the tangy wet air, and writing writing writing.

When I was fifteen, my mom and dad went out and found me a hunkin’ old manual Royal typewriter. That grey metal behemoth was the most treasured gift I had ever received at that point in my life (the Easy Bake Oven when I was six was pretty good too), and never once did they complain when, long after they had gone to bed at night, the floor shook with the vibration caused by the tips of my fingers crashing down hard on those old springy keys as the typewriter rested precariously on an old card table in my bedroom.

I still find in the act of writing a contentment and release that few other activities have ever offered. Yes, of course, there is the love I feel for the man who makes me whole, who brings me joy by his very presence in my life: the man whose voice lifts me, the man who can look into my eyes and make the world around me vanish, the man I know as deeply and as intimately as I know myself. For him I have an indescribable love, in him I feel an indescribable contentment. There are children too, children whom I have held in the night, and sung to; children who used to lay in their beds, falling into dreams as they listened to me read The Wind in the Willows from the shadowy hall. These are the children I rocked, the children I bandaged and kissed. These are the children who are no longer helpless, but for whom I still hold a fierce love that steps way over the border of impartial judgement and calm consideration. But writing? Writing is something that was always there, inside me from the beginning. That thing which drove me before the others came along. That thing which defined me before the words “loving wife” and “devoted mother” ever became words to describe me.

Certainly, I have loved spending hours reading books on the “do’s and don’t’s” of remedial correctness. After all, spelling and grammar must be learned (now more than ever in this text-happy world); vocabulary, composition theory, syntax—all these aspects of speaking and writing words need learning, discussion, practice, constructive critiquing. But if words are to be spoken and written in ways which make us feel, then we must dance with words, and allow our children to dance with them too. It is error to say that there are no rules to language except those the writer makes for himself, but it is also error to always harp on every misplaced comma.

There are times to draw grammar trees and define imperative and interrogative sentences, but there are also times when we must simply enjoy the flow of words, revel in the sounds of words, feel the meter without having to name it or dissect it. There are times when we must dance.

Jean Foster Akin