What about you? Ever want to write fiction, or nonfiction articles and essays?

Our Trade Secrets section includes tips and examples aspiring writers and beginners could use to improve their work. Such as, “How to write a better beginning” and “What is the difference between showing and telling?”

So what do you think? Ready to start that writing career?

Mary Oliver said, in Upstream:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither the power nor time.

It’s never too late—start now!


Trade Secret #1

Make Your Own Rules!

By Pamela Bennett


Ever want to make your own rules?

W. Somerset Maugham, the author of the novel Of Human Bondage, has been oft-quoted for the way he supposedly addressed a creative writing class.

“There are three rules for writing a novel,” he said. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

So why not make your own rules?

Whether you want to write a novel or a short story, you can begin learning to write fiction in a number of different ways.

I like to begin with inspiration. But not the kind where you wait for a great idea to explode, like a light bulb above a cartoon character’s head.

Find authors who already do what you want to do—READ short stories, novels and poetry.

It always begins with reading, and honestly, the reading should never really end. If you read the type of books you want to write, whether they are literary, mystery, romance, suspense, science fiction, or a combination of genres, you begin to absorb how words and sentences convey setting, suspense and emotion.

Stephen King said, “Books are uniquely portable magic.”

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that,” he said.

I know that writing time is hard enough to find in our busy lives, but reading time is equally important. You will be inspired by good writers and how they put words together, and even by bad writers. If you hate a book, or it bored you, figure out why. What did the good book have that the bad book didn’t?

You don’t have to spend hours analyzing a book after you read it (been there—done that.) But writing down a few key passages might help you remember what made it impressive, and if you read enough books, your brain somehow remembers how to put words together in impressive ways.

If you wonder how to begin your short story or novel, for example, consider these beginnings:


Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.

(John Green, The Fault in our Stars)


A screaming comes across the sky.

(Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow)


It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

(Paul Auster, City of Glass)


He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

(Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea)



A good beginning pulls the reader into the story in some intriguing way, then makes him wonder, “What happens next?”

Don’t think you have to know everything about your story or novel before you begin, however. Writing is a journey and it sometimes takes awhile to get to your destination, so enjoy the trip!

Just begin. Start writing about a place, or a character, or even something that happened to you that could later be a part of a character’s experience and thoughts.

I wrote these next paragraphs after walking along a beach in Florida, appalled that so many tiny starfish were stranded on the sand, dying in the hot sun. I tried scooping them up and throwing them back into the Gulf, but I simply couldn’t save them all. I wrote about it first in a travel journal, then gave my thoughts to a character in the novel I’m working on.


Relentless, the foamy surf washed in, pulling hundreds of black and cream-colored spurs in its wake—wriggling sea stars left scattered at her feet. Panicked, she knelt to scoop up one, then another, gently; hoping to keep fragile arms intact, throwing them back into the ocean. More and more washed in, so she moved faster, scooping up three at a time, flinging them as far as she could into deeper waters. Her heart sank as they piled up along the sandbank as far as she could see.

She walked away finally, defeated, from half a thousand misshapen torsos.

She would paint them one day, the star-bodies in shades of grey and cream, at sunset on the beach. The longing to hold a paintbrush again swept over her so strongly that she lifted her right hand and painted the air. She wanted to dip her fingertips directly into the oily colors, smear the canvas with blood-red streaks and blue-black lines, leaving only DNA and desire.

(Pamela Bennett & Janet Jones – Twinless)


Write down whatever moves you, angers you, and excites you. Write it all down first, then start tinkering with it. Go ahead and describe something, but do it within the thoughts of a character, remembering to “Show, don’t tell.”

Telling is:

He was angry and couldn’t believe she’d said that to him.

Showing is:

Heat surged up his neck, speared through his face. Gripping the edge of the table, he looked up at her. How could she talk to him that way?

Most writers long to learn “the secret of great writing,” but the truth is, there is no secret. You just begin.

You start writing and keep writing until you’ve put down the beginning of what you want to say. Then you play with the words and sentences until they seem to flow naturally, describe the scene and convey the emotions you want to convey.

Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.


What are you waiting for? Start writing. You don’t need to start at the beginning if you don’t want to. Just start somewhere…put your character on a beach, or in a forest, or on a train, or at a restaurant table arguing with his boss.

Go anywhere your imagination leads you and then keep playing with the words. Start your own magical journey.










Trade Secret #2

Blending Description and Point of View

By Pamela Bennett


We talked about beginnings in the first Trade Secret, but since many short stories and novels begin with description, how do you make sure your descriptions are interesting and your reader keeps reading beyond that first paragraph?


It was a dark and stormy night…


No, don’t start that way! Those seven words are oft-quoted as the most cliched way to begin a story, although in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, they were part of the opening paragraph, and not then a cliché.

The full sentence was:


It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.


The images in Bulwer-Lytton’s entire sentence are not ineffective, but for today’s reader, it’s more than a bit melodramatic, and an example of the “purple prose” found in a large number of 18th and 19th century novels. It also uses an omniscient point of view, where the author addresses the reader directly and “tells” the story, instead of showing it to us.

We’ll get back to the omniscient point of view later, since some modern authors are definitely bringing it back, and authors like Alice Hoffman have been using it effectively for years in large portions of her novels.

Let’s try again, with an opening that helps to “ground” your character in his or her fictional world.

I like to begin by blending description, characterization and action:


Cottonwood seeds poured into the sky, spun in the summer breeze, drifted into the backyard like snowflakes, then back up and sideways at the whim of the wind.


If I add another sentence that lets the reader know the description is through the character’s eyes, then the description becomes an integral part of the story action:


Two seeds landed on her outstretched hand, tickling her palm as she sat in the porch swing.

The squirrel with no tail, sporting a tuft instead of a long bushy end, walked along the worn porch boards, then fell forward on his belly like a gymnast on a balance beam, rolling carefully to scratch his back on the rough wood.

The cat sleeping on the wicker chair below him opened her eyes, stared at the squirrel, now sitting frozen as a statue. She slowly settled down and closed her eyes again.

The squirrel walked nimbly on, then stopped to lean over and dig into a flowerpot on the glass table, for no other reason than to get his paws dirty, like a child making mud pies.


Avoiding words like watched, looked, and saw, even most character tags, such as he said, or she said, keeps the description within your character’s eyes in a “deep point of view,” so the reader knows your character is seeing and reacting to what is happening. It also helps the writer stay away from “telling” instead of “showing.”

More filter words like thought, wondered, or felt, are also removed in deep point of view.

Don’t just write: She couldn’t believe he’d said that to her; it was so mean that he made her cry and almost fall off the ladder.

Instead, try:


His harsh words trembled in the air as heat flushed her face.  Her eyes stung as she fought to keep her balance on the second rung.


There are a number of different types of points of view. In the first example, the paragraph is in third person, past tense and “deep point of view.”

Third person point of view uses, he, she, or it, while second person uses you and first person uses the pronoun I.

Past tense uses ed endings such as walkedopened, etc.

Present tense brings the reader directly into the present, such as I open the gate and walk into the garden.

Here is a deep point of view, first person, present tense, from a master of the craft, Charlotte McConaghy, from her novel Migrations:


A shiver of delight finds me as we set out into the dark water. We hug the coast, traveling north by the ceaseless circling light of the lighthouse. The salty smell of the sea and the sound of its crash, the sway of the waves and the black abyss of its depths, the reaching dark of it, up to where it meets the inky velvet sky pricked through with glitter. With the stars reflected in the water we could be sailing through the sky itself; there is no end to it, no end to the sea or the sky but a gentle joining together.


In our novel, Twinless, one of our main characters is blind, so the descriptions cannot be visual, but only what our character can feel, hear, or experience emotionally:


Branches tangled until they swayed and creaked and clacked, and the wind became a rushing roar through the woods, whipping her hair across her face, stealing her breath.


Early in the novel, before we know Kennedy’s name, she experiences the pond area in the woods, a setting used often in the book, for the first time.


A far-away cry, like the short, sharp howl of a wounded animal, rushed to the woman’s ears. She stood up straighter, lifting her face toward the pond. Small and close sounds distracted her, a rustling of leaves, twigs snapping, as if chipmunks or other small animals chased each other.


Another master of the craft, Tana French, from her novel The Secret Place, writes a scene in third person, present tense, deep point of view:


Past the curly iron gate and into the trees, and all of a sudden, the grounds are a swirl of little paths that Holly never knew about, paths that don’t belong just a corner away from the main road: sunspots, flutters, crisscrossing branches overhead and splashes of purple flowers catching in the corners of your eyes. Up and off the path, Becca’s dark plait and Selena’s stream of gold swinging in unison as they turn, up a tiny hillside past bushes that look like they’ve been clipped into neat balls by elf gardeners, and then: out of the light-and-dark dapple, into clean sun. For a second Holly has to put her hands around her eyes.


Okay, now back to that omniscient point of view:

In Nell Zink’s novel, Mislaid:


He was tempted to take the gun, but was unsure when it might not be loaded. He recalled that Mrs. Fleming was crazy. Two hours later, he was dead. He had greatly misjudged the speed of an oncoming dump truck as he made a left turn from a stop sign. The other driver also died. Even the drugs and baggies burned, leaving no trace.


In that point of view, a narrator appears to be telling the story. Alice Hoffmann has used an omniscient point of view effectively in Practical Magic, and many of her other “Magic” books, although she also uses first and third person in sections of each story.


For more than two hundred years, the Owens sisters have been blamed for what’s gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic, or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped on its cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street.

(opening paragraph of Practical Magic)


The best way to learn more about point of view is by reading, reading, reading and reading, as many novels as you can, to see how successful authors create fictional worlds for their characters.


So, what about you? Ready to go deeper into your story?

Whatever point of view you decide to use, try not to settle for the first sentences you put on paper. Take that first draft and find ways to bring your reader deeper into what your character sees, thinks and experiences in each scene.