Category Archives: writing tips

Are you a speaker or a narrator?

Tomorrow I’m the not-quite-guest speaker at our local writers’ group (hard to be a guest when you’re always there). I’ll be talking about narrative voice – past/present, 1st/2nd/3rd person narration and all that good stuff – and our upcoming contest prompt is “dialog.” So, if you write in first person, is the narrative voice the same as the use in dialog?

Given that readers will spend 6-12 hours listening to that narrative voice in their heads, with no gaps to get a word in edgewise, perhaps I should hope I don’t write in my speaking voice, else I’d drive my readers crazy and they’d never come back.

Which kind of begs the question, if I’m the guest “speaker,” speaking for around an hour (yes, with gaps for questions), will I speak in my narrative voice, my dialog voice, or something else entirely?

Anyway, here’s a rough draft of what I’m planning to say:

Why does Voice matter?

  1. Because the reader makes a huge commitment  to spend time – 12-24 hours aloud, 6-12 hours silently –  in company of this voice
  2. Becauser the author commits… lots more hours than that to writing in this voice, so you’d better enjoy it
  3. Because there’s a reader/author contract – you will make it worth the reader’s time (they’re paying you in time and money)
  4. Because of reader expectations –
    1. If it’s a legal contract, should be written in legaleze, but equally…
    2. A sweet old lady’s voice in sweet small-town America probably shouldn’t devolve into pages of swearing
    3. A soldier’s voice as he runs rampage in city shouldn’t devolve into romantic pillow-talk
    4. And what about memoir? Or when people say, “I’m so sorry this happened to you…” when perhaps it wasn’t memoir
      1. How do we avoid being identified with first person narrator, vs.
      2. how do we prove we have the right to tell the tale?

What are our Voice options?

Point of view Tense Assumptions or examples Advantages Disadvantages getarounds
First person hero Present YA dystopia? Immediate

Action experienced alongside character

SYMPATHY for hero

Can’t see at a distance.

Whiny, introspective, boring? Temptation to tell it how it happened – too much detail…


Make sure it’s a real narrative voice.

2nd pov character?

past Memoir?


Jane Eyre

Huckleberry Finn

Less immediate

Double consciousness – future looking over past character’s shoulder

Assume the protagonist survived

People ask is it real? Disclaimer?

Make protagonist obviously different from self

First Person multiple heroes Get to see multiple points of view, maybe of same events

Get to be in multiple places at once

Need separate narrative voice for each (NOT SAME as dialog voice) 3rd person only requires one narrative voice
First person observer Great Gatsby Comment on events

Hear about events from other people so don’t have to be present

Can’t see inside protagonist’s head
Third person hero Can spend more time describing internal (even subconscious) thoughts, but maybe can’t “say” them.

EMPATHY for hero

Not as immediate Can’t see at a distance


Put 1st person thoughts in italics?

More than one viewpoint?

Third person multiple heroes J.R.R. Martin


Brian Doyle

Don’t need separate voices for separate viewpoints.

Can give all sides of epic events

POV character can’t keep secrets from the reader.

Be careful how you switch – one per chapter, one per scene, one per paragraph…

Don’t break the reader’s neck, don’t make readers dizzy or confuse them


Use hiatus to separate views

Third person observer Mystery


Sees all, knows all the characters’ actions (but not their thoughts). Gets to keep secrets and make comments Have to keep it interesting. Can’t get inside heads. Good plot!
Third person omniscient Dorothy Sayers Sees all, knows all, does get inside their heads, so no secrets

“Little did he know…”

So… if there are no secrets… Need a really good plot


Tense change

Princess Stella was walking in the forest. Her thoughts drifted back to the corridors and chambers of the castle. Her feet trod lightly on the loamy ground. Her breath drifted in front of her face in gentle puffs of air. Then a wolf leapt out at her.

She falls back in horror. As the wolf’s red eyes stare into hers, as drool drips from the ends of its fangs, her body trembles and she knows she’s going to die.

Why did the writer change to present tense – identifying with the character while writing an exciting scene. Fix it just by changing the tense. Maybe use italics…

                She fell back in horror. I’m going to die. The wolf’s red eyes…

Person change

Princess Stella was walking in the forest. Her thoughts drifted back to the corridors and chambers of the castle. Her feet trod lightly on the loamy ground. Her breath drifted in front of her face in gentle puffs of air. Then a wolf leapt out at her.

I fall back, terrified. The wolf’s red eyes stare into mine, and drool drips on my face from the ends of its fangs. I’m going to die.

Again, identifying with the character. If we change it all to “I,” we might lose sympathy for the character whose head’s stuck in a castle while she walks in a forest, so have to decide what we’re aiming for.

Tense change 1st person

I was walking through the forest, not a trouble in my mind. Okay it wasn’t the castle of my youth, but it was beautiful. Then a wolf leapt out at me.

I fall back, till I land with a thump on the ground. The wolf’s red eyes stare into mine, and drool drips on my face from the ends of its fangs. I’m going to die.

Present tense is more immediate, and, just like switching to italics for internal thoughts, we’re allowed to switch tense sometimes. Just need to make sure it fits the voice.

                I was walking through the forest, not a care on my mind, when suddenly this bloomin’ great wolf leaps out at    me!

Point of view change

Princess Stella walked hand in hand with Prince Jim, dreaming of the future they might share. Then a wolf leapt out at them.

As Jim released her hand, Stella fell, and the wolf seemed set to pounce. She turned around, sure Jim would rescue her, already imagining how she would fall into his arms afterward. But when she caught sight of him, he was already halfway across the clearing, fleeing in terror and wondering where on earth the wolf had come from.

Maybe “fleeing as if in terror, or as if he were trying to guess where the wolf had come from.”

I tidied my library

20170810_183141The best thing about getting flooded last year is the fact that one of our sons’ bedrooms has now turned into a library. I’ve always wanted a library of my own and, being somewhat of a book hoarder, I’ve always dreamed of having enough space to organize my books. Of course, the fact that my library’s shelves are (in many cases) stacked two deep and two high (and bending) does make it a little hard to find anything. I lost Brooklyn. Then I found it and lost A Man Called Ove, which surely should have been next to A Long Way Down. Then I forgot where the Ursula Le Guin paperbacks had been filed, though hardbacked Malafrena and the Dispossessed were safe on the top shelf. While looking for them, I realized I now had Asian novels on two different shelves, mixed up with The Thirteenth Tale and Olive Kitterege. So… I tidied my library, again. Each book like a much-loved friend, long-forgotten, long overdue an email or a letter… each character reminding and begging me to read me again… each shelf ever heavier while I cleared all the volumes from the floor.

Oddly, the empty spaces on my shelves seem to grow and shrink with no perceivable logic. But at least space exists, so new friends can join the old. I love my library!

20180212_164333Then there’s that secret shelf upstairs, where I hide my dream that someone might file my books in a library one day. Novels of small-town characters together with Biblical fiction for kids and novellas mysterious and strange… short stories in anthologies… even poetry and picture books! Would they ever go on the same shelf as each other?

New characters beg me to write me again and I turn to the computer… Write a blogpost, write a novella, enter a contest at our local writers’ group… Open up a page and…

… well, this is what we did for our Writing Exercise at the Writers’ Mill …

  1. Write the number 1. This is the Beginning of your story. Ask who, what, where, and when is your character? What does your character’s heart want? (This is an exercise in character development.)
  2. Next write the number 5 (NOT 2) This is the End of you story – how will your character and/or world change? (How will your character develop?)
  3. Write the number 3. This is the Middle – how is your character struggling to effect that change?
  4. And now you get to write down number 2. How did your character get into this mess and why (internal and external reasons)? (And our writing exercise morphes into the realm of plot development)
  5. Almost done: write the number 4. How did your character successfully resolve his/her/its problem.
  6. And finally, put things back in the right order and WRITE, from beginning to end.


New Year, New Edits, New Words?

I don’t make New Year resolutions on the grounds that I’ll always break them. But I do make plans, and this year I plan to work harder on writing and editing, read more productively, spend less time looking at or wishing I could create advertisements, and write fewer book reviews. 200+ reviews is just too many for one year, and too much time spent not writing.

Peter’s Promise on Amazon

With all this in mind, and with my mum – my greatest fan and my best editor – still staying with us, I decided to start each day by editing a section from my upcoming children’s book, Paul’s Purpose. (It’s the sequel to Peter’s Promise, above.)

Of course, I know Paul had many purposes, and so do I: in writing children’s Bible stories I want to:

  • Show the stories of the Bible are set around real people in a real world,
  • Show that the world of history and saints wasn’t so different from the world of siblings and friends,
  • Encourage and entertain middle-grade readers – I want them to think, laugh, and turn pages; I want pre-school listeners to enjoy being read to as well;
  • Encourage and entertain middle-grade educators – I want them to be ready to give and find answers – to model looking for answers on Google, in the dictionary or in the Bible (or anywhere else);
  • Encourage and improve reading and language skills – I like to include some words my readers may not have used before, because the real world is filled with words we all might misunderstand, and
  • Encourage and improve critical thinking skills – I like my readers to ask questions, because without questions, the answers can’t make sense.

So …

After talking with Mum, I’d love to know your opinions.

  • Can I use such words as “erudite” “persistent” and “single-minded” in a children’s book?
  • Can I refer to “virility-fertility rites” (with no further explanation) when my characters complain about what goes on in pagan temples?
  • Is “God’s mark hurts” a sufficient explanation of why a boy might not want to be circumcised, or should I just avoid the whole question, though it seems like it was a pretty big question at the time?

Meanwhile, since I always turn these blogs into writing exercises, here a

Writing Prompt

  • Think of something in the natural world – a bird, a stone, a river…
  • Imagine how it came into being – evolution, hatching from an egg, rain-clouds with dried fish-eggs waiting to hatch…
  • Then tell its story, from its own point of view:
    • One paragraph (or sentence) for the beginning
    • one for the middle, or the present day
    • and one for the end, or end of the world, or “Help! It’s raining fish!”

It’s raining ice here. Keep warm.


Can You Write A Selfie?

I’m getting better at taking selfies–really I am–though I doubt they’d help me sell any books if I stuck my image on the back. Aging, graying, not quite sure which direction to look in–would you buy a book photographed by me? More importantly–from my point of view anyway–would you buy a book written by me? And can you write a selfie?

Photographic selfies come–or at least they came–in many forms. Here’s my first one, taken through a mirror.


Hmmm, a little blurred isn’t it, like one of those out-of-focus stories that never quite gets to the point, or has so many points the reader can’t find them? Next came the camera-on-the-computer selfie, with me so proud, holding the first (of many) proofs.

Picture 002

Are you looking at the books or the writer here? If you read my stories, will you see my characters or me? Then I ponder: Even if my opinions don’t totally obscure the scene, they can still distract (and detract from the best-told tale). But At last I got a phone with a backward-facing lens–my chance to take a real, modern-day selfie. What do you think?

20150804_182149 (2)

Look up, look down, look straight, left, right, or somewhere: Choose an angle, I guess, but surely don’t choose this one, in writing or photography, from which I conclude, points of view are really quite important.

I tried again. Does this one work…


…or should I have chosen a background that made sense? Set a scene that’s understandable for the reader or the viewer–that’s one to remember.

And then there was this. What do you think?


(No glasses – the wonders of cataract surgery earlier this year!)

Someone suggested that everyone we write about lives in our heads (unless we’re writing biographies I suppose). So all those characters entering and leaving rooms, victims and perpetrators of crimes, male, female, adult, child… are they all me? Is every character study in my novel a selfie from some hidden part of my mind?

I don’t know the answer, but the question did inspire a writing exercise:

Now Write

  1. Imagine yourself entering a room–to win a writing prize perhaps, or to stop your child from crying, or…
  2. Describe your entry from your own point of view–are you confident, scared, excited… how do you walk? Is your breathing slow or fast? Where are your eyes focused? What are you doing with your hands? And what are you wearing; how does the fabric move with you, or the wind blow your hair?
  3. Describe your entry from the point of view of someone who’s glad to see you–parent, child, spouse, best friend, eager recipient of your benevolence… Who or what do they see, hear, or smell, and what thoughts fill their minds?
  4. Now describe your entry from the point of view of someone who’s not pleased to see you–the person who hoped to win the prize, the cat who hoped to stay with the child, the monster returned to its closet…
  5. And finally, turn one of those descriptions into a story.

If I Write A Blogpost, Will You Read It?

Our writers’ group met last weekend, and I need to copy up the minutes and send them out. We talked about internet-connections and the need to have a blog, write blogposts, and find people to read them. Among the questions we addressed were:

  • What is a blog? It’s kind of like a diary, but don’t make it your diary. Nobody wants to read your day-to-day life.
  • What’s the difference between a blog and a website? Mostly they’re attached to each other. The website is the bit that doesn’t change. The blog is the bit that’s supposed to keep offering something new.
  • And between a blog, a website, and your Facebook page? We had a picture for this one: I wonder if I can reproduce it in a blog…webs blogs and facebook So…
  • Websites are really well thought-out, like a query letter sent to a publisher.
  • Blogs are moderately well thought-out, like a report to your writers’ group about the writing of query letters.
  • Facebook status is where you tell the world “I just send that query in.”

We finished our meeting with a writing exercise because, of course, we’re a writers’ group. So here it is

Just Write

This is your chance to blog, and mine to see if I can read what I wrote:

  1. Think of a title and turn it into a questionWhy would anyone read this?
  2. Think of who might read your blogpost and tell them why you think it should interest them: Has anyone ever asked you to write a blogpost?
  3. Make sure your first sentence and title repeat the same words. If they don’t, rewrite one or the other: If I write a blogpost, will you read it? could be a better title.
  4. Write something that flows from that first sentence: Has anyone ever asked you to write a blogpost? That’s what happened to us at the end of our Writers’ Mill meeting this month. But many of our members don’t have blogs. So the real question, perhaps, should be “If I had a blog, would you read it?” closely followed by, “If I had a blog, what would I blog about?”
  5. Now you know where you’re going, make sure you get there quickly. The blogging world suffers from the internet’s inescapably short attention span, so simply say what you want to say, then stop: I’m going to blog about writing here, specifically about writing answers to prompts. I’ll post things like, say:
    1. How to write a mystery in 7 steps
    2. How to create a believable character
    3. How to use point of view effectively
    4. How to use all five senses, plus whatever extras you can think of, or even
    5. How to blog
  6. Add a final sentence, include a picture if you can, then click on “Publish.” You’re done: So… will you read it?





Writing the Author Bio

No book reviews, no blog posts, and I’ve almost disappeared from Facebook and Twitter: What could be going on? Meanwhile the deadline for the Writers’ Mill Journal, an (almost) annual publication from our local group of writers, came and went and…well…that’s what’s been stealing my attention and my time.

The Writers' Mill Journal Volume 3
The Writers’ Mill Journal Volume 3

For my sins I’m compiler and editor in chief, and we had lots of pieces to be compiled, carefully stored online by our intrepid computer guru, Rom. Now we have a large document with nine sections, nearly 60 pieces of writing, and around 35 pictures. But we, at last, means more than just me; and I’m looking forward to a little more spare time, since I’ve finally sent that doc to our intrepid team of editors. Six editors. 200 pages. Around 35 pages each.

Of course, the journal is only almost complete, as you might see from the heading to this post. It’s one thing to ask our brave authors to write, and write we do, most wonderfully (see last year’s journal above – enjoy!). But asking us to write about ourselves; that’s an entirely different matter. So the author bio page languishes, while sentences and paragraphs drift in email replies to be added to those author names.

First person bio or third is the first question to be asked of course. Does

  • Joe Soap says, “I’ve been writing since I learned to wash my face…” work better than
  • Joe Soap has been writing since…

I’m going for third person–at least, that’s what I said–though several writers insist on first. What do you think? Which sounds more professional to you?

Then there’s the question of one sentence, or two, or a paragraph or two, or a page. For myself, I’ve got bios of varying lengths on almost every website, Facebook and Twitter included, all different, and mostly out of date. I’ve got a mini-bio in the signature line on my emails, also out of date (depending on whether I’m writing from my computer or my phone). I’ve got bios on my books, bios in the back pages of as yet unpublished books, bios on publishing websites, bios re-edited, bios…

But we’ve got 200+ pages, and every page costs, and we run this on a money-less shoe-string. So I asked our authors for just one or two sentences, or maybe three or four.

I sent a sample:

  • Joe Soap has been writing since he learned to wash his hands. He’s the author of several unpublished books, has taught laundry techniques in high school for many years, and can be found online at

And the answers are still slowly trickling in.

Meanwhile, here I am, finally finding time to write a blogpost. Since most of my readers write, which makes you authors of a kind, I’ll set an author bio challenge this time:

Write (or find your latest) author bio, in all its multi-paragraph glory: Who are you? Then…

  • Pick out the section that describes how long you’ve been writing. Which words are most important? Rephrase them in one short sentence.
  • Pick out the section that describes what you’ve done with your life. Which detail is most important. Rewrite it in one short sentence.
  • Pick out the section that describes why you write. Which words are most important? Rephrase them in one short sentence.
  • Pick out the section that describes what you’ve written. Rephrase this in one short sentence.
  • Pick out the section that describes where you can be found online. Which place is most important, or easiest to find, or best linked to everywhere else. Mention this in one short sentence.
  • Now combine your first and second sentences, second and third, third and fourth, and fourth and fifth.
  • Combine the resulting sentences, shortening, deleting, and EDITING until you have just two (one short and one long is good).
  • Now you’ve got a nice brief author bio that might even fit on Twitter!

So here’s mine:

  • Sheila Deeth has been telling stories since before she learned to write. She’s the author of contemporary novels from Second Wind Publishing, childrens animal stories from Linkville Press, and The Five Minute Bible Story Series from Cape Arago Press, and she blogs at…well…here ’cause you’ve found me!

I guess I should go update all those other random bios wherever they lurk now. But first, I’ve still got 35 pages to edit…

How many words is a picture really worth?


They say a picture’s worth a thousand words,

but silently it waits for you

and never moves nor says to you

one answer, never graces you

with scent or touch or taste for you;

so the much the picture aches to do;

a thousand words will maybe prove

 of higher worth appraised by you

when they describe a thousand pictures too.

Writing Exercise:

  1. Look around. Where are you? What can you see?
  2. Pick one thing that you can see and either listen to it or imagine it making a sound. What do you hear?
  3. Can you smell the object? Would the object smell anything? It it’s not in its natural habitat, what would you smell if it were?
  4. What might the object feel like? Is its surface rough or smooth? Or, what might the object feel – a cooling breeze, hot breath, soft cushion…?
  5. Does something smelled or felt have a flavor too? Does it leave a taste in the back of the throat?
  6. Does your object have feelings or evoke feelings in you?
  7. Does it have or evoke dreams or memories?

Now write:

Describe your object, its past or its future, in a short paragraph that includes all seven senses above. Or describe that troll under the bridge in the picture above. (It smelled green, and the air was rich with flickering shadows and pollen.)

More flash or less?

It’s kind of ironic: A week after the talk about flash fiction at our writers’ group, I received a most unexpected (and delightful) email from the owner of an indie author and stories blog, the Cult of Me. My short story had won the May contest over there! But are short stories flash fiction, you ask, and so did I.

By The creator of the Art piece- Lars Widenfalk- Poderedellaluna

I had so nearly forgotten entering the contest that I rushed over to read and reread what I’d written. What was I thinking? Then inspiration struck. My entry, though written before the talk, just might be a piece of flash fiction in its own right. Maybe that’s why I can’t remember what it meant. Maybe that’s why it means something different each time I read it.

But what do you think?

Whatever I call it, My Brother’s Keeper is now a winning entry. I’m thoroughly over the moon and enormously grateful. And I can no longer claim not to earn enough from writing to keep me in coffee.

Could this be a good sign for the rest of the year? Tails of Mystery is due for release next month (short stories for children – definitely not flash fiction), and Infinite Sum is slated to come out soon (novel, not flash). If everything always comes in threes, I wonder, could they too succeed?

Well, a girl can dream.

And drink coffee!

And enter contests. Save the link. The Cult of Me offers some great images to inspire your writing dreams (and nightmares).

Would you rather use 6 words or 140 characters?

The speaker at our writers’ group this month talked about Flash Fiction. I learned, to my chagrin, that Flash doesn’t just mean fast. It’s not enough to tell your story, with beginning, middle and end, in less that 1,000, or 100, or 50 or 25 words, or even 140 characters. To write Flash Fiction, you also have to leave open a door to interpretation. Help!

The speaker introduced the intriguing concept of “My Life In Six Words,” otherwise known as MLI6W fiction. The famous “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn” is the classic example, but adding “My” to the heading resulted in a few “I like” or “I do” type pieces which sadly don’t qualify. As soon as you mention “I” you’ve tied your story down and closed the door, so we were told.

I wonder though, does “Mongrel Christian Mathematician, dreaming wishing” count? I suppose it’s only five words. And “Writing dreams to right wrongly-dreamed nightmares” is probably seven. Maybe the answer is I can’t count. Some members of the group came up with some seriously impressive six word offerings though. My favorite (from a good friend called Jayne) was “Let’s go; the kids are alright.”

But I like to tweet – now there’s a huge admission just on its own. So I have to ask, could “My Life in 140 characters” be flash fiction? I suspect the answer’s a definite maybe. Anyway, the whole process had me thinking about a writing exercise to go with our writers’ group’s next contest. We’re meant to take something from a children’s book and convert it into an adult story or poem. But what if we tried to open its doors and turn it into a flash of something the reader gets to interpret?



Think of a children’s story, or even a nursery rhyme, with a beginning, middle and end. What about:

  • Three blind mice – the end is tailless
  • Cinderella – she marries her prince
  • Red Riding Hood – does she survive or die, and what about Grandma?
  • or choose your own

Looking deeper:

They say all fairy tales disguise some darker aspect of human life, so what is the darker tale behind the one you chose?

  • Those eye-less mice lose their tails as well – from those who have not, even more will be taken?
  • Cinderella’s prince is wonderful, but what secret price will she pay for the troubles of the mice who drove her carriage?
  • Red Riding Hood – I still wonder what happened to Grandma, stuck at home, waiting for the wandering child so long she ended up answering the door to a wolf instead.

Rapid Write:

Write the “adult” tale in no more than three sentences. Or let your imagination roam with just the idea of the original story.

  • In the country of the blind, the one who can see might be king, or might cut out the ears and tongues of his blind followers. Of course, then he’ll have no followers and he’ll be king of none.

Then look for keywords: blind, king, cut (or sever, destroy, lose…), alone… Play with them… and see what six words result. If it’s more than six, start counting characters (including spaces) up to 140 and tweet the result.

Lost eyewear? Worn-out music sings.

Lost without sight, stand still, for tailless strangers strut, their stage unfilled & scenes undone. Bombsite remains to tell of peace unwon

(Yeah, I know, I missed the period off, but Word counts it as 140 including spaces, and Twitter agrees.)

Overwhelming those Devils in the Details

I finished reading a novel recently. It was a really detailed novel; the sort of tale that tells exactly what a woman was wearing and why they chose each garment for what intended effect before she left the house this morning, which she did with a longing gaze around each of the rooms she passed through, remembering the appearance and provenance of each item of beloved furniture. Then someone shot her and she died.

The novel qualified as a pretty slow read; probably a frustrating one too. After all, as a reader I invested enough thought to follow those various pages, only to find the character didn’t matter. The scenes were vividly real. Her thoughts rang convincingly true. But I felt side-tracked from a story that continued by following someone else. Perhaps it’s just me.

Still, it reminded me of a writing exercise we did a while ago in our group, so I’ll offer our question of details here, for your reading and writing enjoyment:

table and chair


Imagine you’re standing in the doorway to an office. Inside the room is a desk. Behind the desk is a chair. Behind the chair is a window. There might be some shelves or filing cabinets against the wall. What can you see? Make a (clear and detailed) list.

Looking deeper:

Now imagine a character standing there instead of you. Who is he, she or it?

  • frightened girl
  • angry man
  • clever spy
  • controlling daughter
  • add to the list and take your pick.

There’s no one else in this office right now, but give your character a reason to be there:

  • She got a message demanding her presence
  • He’s determined to get his revenge
  • Something’s hidden; she’s going to find it
  • She needs a way to make her dad agree
  • what else?

Rapid Write:

Now write a paragraph in which your character enters the room. Which things do they notice and what do they ignore? Which details matter from your original list? If your character’s too scared or too busy to look out the window, do you really need to describe how tiny the people seem down below, or the color of the curtains?

Have fun.