Improve your novel writing with useful tips and techniques.

Follow the day-to-day work of a busy, homeschooling mother of four as she as she battles the highs and lows of planning and writing a novel from scratch.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ellipse vs. Dash Usage in Fiction


The question I get asked most often by writers is whether she should use a dash or an ellipse. This is also something that I often see misused in fiction—sometimes even in published fiction. Once it is explained, you’ll find it a relatively simple concept.

The Dash

The dash is a very useful tool when writing fiction. It can replace commas, parenthesis or a colon and is more informal in its usage. The dash can be written as two hyphens in a row--like this or as an em dash—like this. Your word processor might convert the two hyphens to the em dash automatically as you type. There are no spaces before or after the dash.

A dash can show a shift in thought or to set off an important element in a sentence.


She laughed—a knowing sound—and leaned back in her chair.

For the most part I’m happy with it—or at least I was.

You can also use a dash in place of a colon to make the text less formal.


He liked to play instruments—guitar, violin, piano, and trumpet.

A dash can be used in place of parentheses.

The whole class—about thirty students—received brand new instruments.

The dash is a very useful tool in your writing, but should be used sparingly. It draws the eye and thus emphasizes a phrase in a statement. But if there’s a dash in every sentence, then it loses its effect.


I often see ellipses misused in fiction—sometimes even in published fiction. The ellipse does not show a break in thought. It is used to show a thought that trails off and is left unfinished.


I remember that day back in May… Well, it isn’t really important.

There are no spaces before the ellipse. You leave a space after the ellipse when it begins a new sentence.

The other use for the ellipse is in quoting from something and you only want to use part of the source. If you leave out something in the middle, you use the ellipse to show that something has been left out.


“To be, or not to be: that is the question … Be all my sins remember’d.”

Ellipses are rarely used in fiction. If your character’s words trail off as he notices the tornado heading straight for him, then you’ll need to use an ellipse. It is a useful tool when used sparingly.

Okay, grammar lesson is over. Back to work…

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Writing in the Dark

When you write a book on your own, it’s perfectly acceptable to just start with a situation and see what happens as you uncover the story. Many writer’s prefer this method. In my experience, it makes for a lot of rewriting later on, but sometimes it’s just the way it has to be. Everyone writes differently.

Plotting and Planning

I’m a planner. I like to have a very clear picture of where the story starts and a good general sense of the middle. It’s nice to know the ending ahead of time, but I usually leave it open enough in my mind that the story can take off in a different direction if need be.

But when you write a story with someone else, I think you have to have a much clearer idea of the story’s structure before you start—at least I do.

So when we started actually writing the story, we had a good sense of the beginning and a general sense of the middle, but no real idea of where the ending would take us. Not ideal circumstances. We only knew that the ending had to be realistic and the characters had to suffer some consequences for their foolish choice early on.

The most important thing in terms of plotting was to make sure there were enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing as much as possible. You might think you know how it ends, but there’s a good chance you’ll be wrong. This is where I always want to end up in a story. And if you let the characters take over a bit, it tends to happen more often.


Our characters had become real enough to us at this point to let us create the setup stages of our story. Setting up two intertwining storylines with four characters and their motivations is a big job.

We didn’t worry too much about getting the opening exactly right and creating that perfect first line. We might decide at the end that the opening should be in a different place. So we just started where it felt right.

The initial scenes went back and forth. Pat was writing Rachel’s viewpoint and I was writing Dani’s. She wrote her scenes and sent them to me and I went through and changed anything I felt needed it and sent it back to her. I did the same with mine.

It was interesting to see the story start to unfold. We had two distinct voices, but by trading and changing bits in each other’s work, they started to blend enough that it was believable that the story was written by a single person. Our styles are very different, but we’ve worked together on separate stories so much that they just seemed to mesh really well.

Problems didn’t really occur until we started writing scenes out of order. This again, is a perfectly acceptable way to write a story. Some writers like to pick and choose scenes they are in the mood to write and then go back and fill in between as they go. But when you are writing a story with someone else it gets confusing fast. It’s difficult to remember that, while you’ve written something, it hasn’t happened yet. You end up referencing that phone call in one scene only to discover that it doesn’t happen until later.

Staying Organized

Date and location lines have helped us an incredible amount. We put a heading at the top of each scene like this. London—April 22—Morning. This allows us to keep everything in chronological order. The headings may or may not make it into the final novel, but it helps to keep it straight as we write.

Another very helpful document for me has been a calendar. We’ve set the story in 2012 because we know the publishing game is a slow one. Even if we finished the book this year and it was accepted by a publisher, it would take a good year before it is released. So I printed off some 2012 calendars for April through June which is when our story takes place and marked in the main events.

This allows us to make sure that we have things happening on the right day of the week. You don’t want to be writing a story for kids for example and have your character going to school on a Saturday. It’s much easier to see this visually on a calendar.

This is something that will carry over into all my writing projects.

Scene lists are another handy trick that I like to keep on my to do list. I just imagine out the chapter or section before me and make a list of potential scenes to include. This keeps my writing focused on telling the story in scenes and helps me to avoid lapsing into summary.

Where are we now?

So does all of this stuff work? We’re still writing so it remains to be seen. So far, we’re enjoying the process and that’s the important part. When we write the story in scenes, and paste them together, it hangs together fairly well. We’ll probably need to go back and make it transition better when we’re done.

For the moment we’ve broken 40,000 words and we still have a lot of story to go. We’ll be working hard to keep it under 120,000 I think.


Don’t be shy. Feel fry to chime in with questions of comments. I will answer if I’m able.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ideas, Discussions and Leaps of Faith

With the basics of our collaboration set, we moved on with our ideas. Several emails back and forth helped to establish the basic storyline, though we still didn’t know how it would end. It still seemed a little predictable in some respects, but we decided to work on developing the characters and go from there. We were just in the beginning stages. Anything could happen from there.

I had already developed some solid character worksheets for my writing course, which I’ve made available on my website. http://www.the-writers-craft.com/creative-writing-worksheets.html

However, I’d also recently started using Liquid Story Binder and loved the visual aspect of planning and laying out my story with it. But my writing partner didn’t use this program. I wanted to come up with a way to incorporate the same type of visual aspect into an MS Word document.

I found it amazing how much easier it was to visualize the story if I spent the time needed to track down pictures of actors and places that could represent my characters and settings. It may seem like a huge waste of time while you are searching for images to fit the idea you have for a character, but think of it as casting your story in a movie format.

I went to Google Images and searched for different actors and actresses and downloaded them to a characters folder. Then I just placed a few pictures onto my character charts. It turned out to be an amazing help.

Sometimes, the characters even developed partially from the pictures I found. I’ll paste one sketch here as an example to illustrate what I mean. This is the sketch for the 17 year old son of one of the twins.


This format allowed me to get into each character’s back story and motivation. So, I filled out the charts with as much information as I could for our main characters and several of the secondary characters. Then I sent them off to Pat and she filled in the places I hadn’t and brought up any issues she had with the character.

It was amazing to see just how much of the story materialized from the character sketches. The story began to grow from the different characters’ back stories, right before our eyes.

I’ve always advised my students to do character charts and I’ve always done them for my main characters, but I’ve never done as many as I did for this story and never in so much detail. But, being a collaboration, I felt that we needed to have a stronger sense of the characters and plot so that we didn’t lose our way in the writing.

It’s so easy to veer off course and find yourself rambling down some tangent. Of course you have the writing partner to rein you in again, but it saves a lot of time and energy to plot your course ahead of time.
So having the characters set, we proceeded to decide on our story’s point of view (POV).

Point of View (POV)

I’ve read a good deal of women’s fiction and one thing that I really don’t like is when the author uses the omniscient or limited omniscient POV. In particular, I hate to be taken out one of the main character’s viewpoint during a scene—especially an emotional scene—and put into the head of some bit character.

I remember one story where the main character was in major crisis, her whole world unraveling around her, and the author took us out of the main characters tortured state and put us into the maid’s head to show us the character through the maid’s eyes. And we’re talking about a really popular author here (whose name I won’t mention, so don’t ask). At that point I was ready to toss the book into the nearest recycle bin and I probably did.

Taking us out of the main character’s viewpoint to put us into some bit character’s head destroys the intimacy that you’ve built between the character and reader. (Stepping off soap box now).

Okay, so it was important to me to tell the story through as few characters as possible. We each chose a twin’s viewpoint to write. That’s two viewpoints—one for Danielle and one for Rachel. I also love to see the viewpoint of the romantic interest in a story, so we included these as well, as secondary viewpoints—one for Leonides and one for Edward.

So we have four viewpoints through which to tell the story and the only criteria that’s important to me is that we stick with one character at a time and make it clear whose head we are in. We can change it during a scene even, but the reader needs to be completely certain who is speaking at all times.

There are scenes necessary to the story in which none of these characters plays a part. They are very few so far and we keep them short. We decided that these scenes should be told in a more distant narrator’s viewpoint. We wouldn’t be in the head of either character. We would tell these scenes as though we were a fly on the wall, observing the scene, but not experiencing the emotions that went with it.

We now had our characters set up as well as our general settings and had decided on our viewpoints. It was time to start writing.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

From Concept to Collaboration

It was February when the idea came to me for a novel about twin sisters. I scribbled it down and put it in my idea folder where I intended to leave it along with several others until I had time to get back to it.

My ideas usually go through the notebook test. I put them in my idea notebook and carry on with the current project. If the idea jumps out at me when I’m ready to move onto something new, then I consider it more seriously.

But, that was not the case this time. My good friend and writing buddy for the past seven years and I had been talking about working on something together—a collaboration. I mentioned my idea, sending it to her along with a few others and we decided to work on this story together. She’d write one twin’s viewpoint and I’d write the other. What could be simpler? Right?

But I knew better than to think that. I’d done a collaboration before which had pretty much fizzled out. There were a number of problems in the earlier collaboration I did, the biggest one being that he brought the idea to the table and I was never able to really put my stamp on the story, despite the fact that I was doing the writing. I always felt like I was trying to read his mind and transcribe what he was thinking to the page. It got to be too much pressure and I wasn’t able to write it anymore. We’ve come to a better agreement now, one that will work for both of us and benefit the story. It was a great learning experience.

I certainly learned some of the pitfalls to avoid when setting up a collaborative venture with someone else.

Choosing the Right Person

My first criteria would be choosing the right partner. I’ve known Pat for 7 or 8 years. We met in a critique group and stayed in touch from then on. She’s critiqued most of my writing as I’ve done for her. We know each others' style and other quirks about how we work. We are friends first. We can be open and completely blunt with each other when needed. If something doesn’t work, we say so; we find a solution and move on. In short, I knew if I were going to ever collaborate again, it should be with Pat. That was never an issue.

So when I realized that we could probably make this work if anyone were going to, I took a look at the things that didn’t work in my last collaborative effort. 

Giving up Ownership

The first thing on my list was the idea. When you bring the idea to the table, you feel possessive of it. You believe the idea is yours. And it’s true in a sense. You did come up with it. It is yours.

BUT the thing that’s important about doing a collaboration is this: once you bring that idea to the table and offer it up to work on, it’s no longer yours.

Yes you still came up with the idea. But as soon as you bring it out for offer to the collaborative effort, it becomes common property. You have to let it go and let the creative process take over. Then every decision over character or direction or plot has to be mutually agreed upon. So you can no longer think in terms of ownership.

Story is king. And that’s what you have to keep your eye on. Everything that you do, from here on out, only serves the story—not the individual writers.

Credits and Money and Other Nasty Topics

No one wants to talk about this stuff. It’s almost a waste of time. Writers don’t make any money anyway—unless they are extremely talented or extremely lucky or both. If you are in this for the money, I suggest you find another occupation—one that is less obsessive and requires fewer hours. But this discussion will eventually come up if the venture is successful and it’s best to decide these things early on.

So what do we do? Who gets top billing? I suggested the use of a pseudonym. It gives the appearance of a single author and keeps the writing separate from our other stories which are mainly stories for kids and teens. Also, the use of a pseudonym would allow us to publish titles separately under the name of the pseudonym, making this author appear even more prolific. Yes, this sounds a little crazy, but it’s good to consider all options, even the ones that seem far-fetched.

As far as splitting money goes, if we are ever lucky enough to get that far, it’s my feeling that everything should be 50/50. Otherwise it’s really one person’s project more than another. Perhaps if it’s an extremely high concept book, you might consider giving the person who had the original idea a percentage or lump sum before splitting the rest. But as I mentioned before it’s best to just give up ownership of those ideas to begin with. Then it feels more like a joint project.

The other thing to decide is what happens if one person is unable to continue with the project or loses interest and the other wants to continue on. We made some suggestions about this and continued on.

It’s important to consider every possibility before you begin. It’s much easier to discuss these things before they happen.

Other Issues of Importance

Having gotten all that nastiness out of the way, we can concentrate on the story again. We decided who would play which twin and discusses some of the pitfalls of this type of book. It’s a very clich├ęd idea. Two twins switch places for some reason or other (because one needs to be somewhere else or because they need escape from their lives). It’s a common theme and something that leaps to mind as soon as you say twin book. So we had a lot of work to do. We had to find a new twist, something to make our story different…

And with our collaboration established we moved into the next stage—which I’ll discuss next time—Ideas, Discussions and Leaps of Faith.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A Writer's Life

Hi, I'm Sherry Wilson. Welcome to my novel writing blog. If you've ever thought about writing a novel but aren't sure what is involved or whether you could make time to do it, I hope you will find this blog inspirational and informative. If you just want to live vicariously and experience the joys of writing a novel without having to pull out your hair in frustration, well, welcome to you too, and there's no hair pulling required.

So, who am I and what qualifies me to write a novel? I've been writing most of my life and editing for the past 8 years. I homeschool my four little monsters who range in age from 5 to 11. I edit novels, essays, short stories, websites, etc. on a regular basis. I maintain a website, adding content regularly. I teach a writing course at St. Lawrence College in Brockville, Ontario. In short, I'm a busy lady. If I can find time to write, anyone can.

As for what qualifies me to write a novel, I just threw that in for a laugh. I have had some experience writing books, but the only qualifications you need are: something to write with, an idea, and enough determination to see it through.

Having taught a novel writing method, edited many novels and written a few of my own, I've streamlined some of the process. And having experienced some of the pitfalls, I hope to make wiser choices in the beginning and save myself a lot of rewriting later.

So here's the story of a novel. I hope you enjoy the ride.