Category Archives: Tips for Writers

Foreshadowing or Telegraphing

banner_helpfulhints_lgWriters need to know whether they are foreshadowing or telegraphing in their stories but not everyone understands the difference.

By now, most of us know that we should go back and touch up our stories so that there is a hint of foreshadowing – so that our readers can look back and think ‘aha, that rascally author hinted at X, X and X and by god, I didn’t know it at that time.’

If you have done that, hurray and kudos to you. You’ve done it right.

If, on the other hand, you’ve dropped so many HINTS (and I use caps for a reason) that the reader has an easy time figuring out what will happen – you are guilty of telegraphing your plot instead of foreshadowing it.

Under no circumstances should your reader guess what your story is all about. After all, why bother reading it then. Right?

Sometimes, though, authors get so muddled up that what they think is foreshadowing is actually telegraphing. Make sure you are not guilty of this common mistake.


In foreshadowing, the author drops enough hints so that the reader can whap the side of his/her head and think ‘oh god, I should have figured that out.’ It’s kind of like a mystery in many ways. Random characters that are woven in and out of the plot so that the reader questions who, what and why they are there is good. They should be able to be tied together by the end of the book and when the reveal is done, it should be a ‘eureka’ moment. That is good foreshadowing.

Good old J.K. Rowling and Georges R.R. Martin are past masters at this. Read, read and read these type of books to figure out their sneaky ways.

One great way of foreshadowing is to plop in clues after you have finished your first draft. Drive your readers insane. They will thank you in the end when they read your very satisfying ending that doesn’t gel with any of the theories they have formed in their own minds.


telegraph-sounderHow often have you seen a movie where you have figured out the plot before the end? Isn’t it a massive disappointment? What’s the point of watching (or reading) something where you can predict the end?

Most of the fun is trying to do so, but not actually being successful.

If someone can guess correctly what’s going to happen to the main character, you’re telegraphing. This often happens when you are telling too much in your novel. Go back into your draft and obfuscate, confuse and muddle up your story line.

Bottom line – foreshadow, but do not telegraph.

Check out these articles from Writer’s Digest:

1. Does a High School Protagonist Mean Your Book is Young Adult?
2. Six Tips for Writing Young Adult Horror.
3. How to Write for Teens Without Sounding Like an Adult Writing for Teens.

Backstory Basics



Backstory is all those fun, murky or intriguing little details of what happened before your hero’s crappy day that you portray on page one.

It gives reasons and excuses for events that happen in the now of your story. But it is crucial to remember that backstory isn’t now. And if you dump too much of the past in one shot, it will take the reader out of the action of the story. And leach out all the emotional power out of your story action.

What’s its Purpose

  • It’s what makes your opening page possible, inevitable, engaging.classic-backstory
  • It’s the history of both your story world and your characters. It’s the events and people who have shaped characters and story setting.
  • It is NOT your unfolding story but it is everything that makes that story possible and necessary and inescapable.

Backstory accounts for the why of the story events and actions that occur at the top of your story. It’s the explanation for your hero and villain’s attitudes and motivations and drives

How to Reveal Backstory

You can slip it in so it seems incidental, as if you were revealing something else, or you could explain it plainly so there’s no doubt you’re writing a paragraph of backstory.

Use both methods but know that they create different effects.

When backstory is dribbled in, revealed piecemeal, the reader learns a character, gradually developing an understanding of his motives. When laid out though exposition, the reader is clearly told what’s happened and perhaps how it affected character or elements of the setting such as how her father beat or abused her, or perhaps because she was forced to go to church. Who knows?

Direct explanation CAN pull the reader out of the fiction. Use it sparingly, because you don’t want the reader to feel he’s being lectured. Rather, you want them to get to know a character the same way we get to know people in the real world.

Show backstory through:

  • sections of exposition, perhaps at the top of chapters and scenes
  • dialogue
  • character thought and reflection
  • flashbacks
  • a prologue

Show backstory to:

  • reveal character motivation
  • slow the pace
  • set up subsequent scenes
  • provide meaning for events and character action and reaction
  • add veracity to a character’s stands and personality
  • provide distractions and murky motives and red herrings (yes, you can manipulate backstory for purposes other than straightforward revelation)

Remember the Paul Masson wine ads? We will serve no wine before its time? That should be your pledge regarding backstory: Never too early and always just enough.

You might also like these posts from Writer’s Digest

Voice in Writing

what-voice-should-use-useVoice is the distinct style that you bring to your writing … and you need it big time. Think about listening to a person who has a boring, flat, monotone voice. Do you phase out and almost fall asleep listening to that person? It’s the exact same thing in a novel. If the voice you choose to write in has no color, no personality and no rhythm, your reader will glaze over and toss the book.

You can develop this voice only by allowing your inner self to run free. If you constantly worry about how someone will judge you by the words you use, you’ll end up getting stuck and your dry and boring prose will show it. Forget about what others think, let you imagination soar and allow your characters to shine through.

Steps to find the right voice for your story:5-steps-to-finding-your-writing-voice

  • Know the genre of your book. After all, someone writing a kid’s book will write in a different tone to someone writing a romance.
  • Visualize the characters. One of my writers (you know who you are) is fantastic at bringing to life old Hollywood characters. When I read her versions of characters like Ava Gardner and Truman Capote, I feel they come straight to life for me. The rhythm, cadence and choice of words are bang on. You can do this by watching, listening and imitating until you get it down pat.
  • Point of View is also important as the entire story unfolds through someone’s eyes and thoughts. Even omniscient voice must have a distinct personality – that of the narrator’s.
  • Choice of words can affect the voice of a story. Teenage girls talk in a particular rhythm and use specific slang. Some of my writers are really good at transcribing this particular voice (you know who you are) and when they sometimes falter and allow their own voice to show through – it is noticeable and jarring.

tonegraphicIs Tone and Voice the Same Thing?

No. Voice provides the personality of the story while tone sets the mood. And this mood is set by the author. It depends completely on whether the author wants the story to unfold in an amusing, grave, edgy, tragic or romantic effect – you get the drift.

Movies do tone perfectly. When you see a movie, you can immediately figure out they way the director wants your mind to work by the way the music builds. Jaws is a perfect example – when that ‘dadadaddadadada’ music starts up, you just know that shark is going to come and do something horrible. We even use that sound effect in our daily life when we want that same effect. That’s the tone of the movie.

Think about these aspects when writing your novel and make sure it is consistent throughout the novel.

You might also like these links from Writer’s Digest:

Convincing Dialogue

talkThe best way to write convincing dialogue is to remember that dialogue in fiction is NOT conversation.

It is a way of furthering the plot. It is never used just for the heck of breaking up the narrative.

If you listen to people talking in daily life, they use a lot of ‘hems’ and ‘haws’ – they leave sentences hanging and sometimes lose the thread of what they want to say. Donald Trump is a perfect example. Listen to him, and you’ll know exactly what I mean. He makes no sense at all.

In fiction, people talk it perfect sentences and they don’t waste valuable time making small talk. In fact, even greetings are short and to the point, if used at all.

What Can Dialogue Do?

Dialogue in fiction is used to propel the plot and to flesh out personality traits or characteristics conversationof the people populating your story.

  • Give a character a speech impediment or accent (just don’t overdo it or it will cause problems) or even have them mis-use words. Ex: Mrs. Malaprop from Dickens
  • Use them to bring in backstory in a natural and convincing manner
  • Fill in gaps in the storyline through a dialogue between two characters
  • Gossip or talk about another character thereby allowing the reader to discover more about the absent person
  • Allow one person to eavesdrop on another’s conversation

Potential Mistakes

  • Having dialogue for the sake of it. Dialogue must always have a purpose.
  • Unnatural speech. Let the dialogue flow naturally. Make sure the speech is right for the character talking. Example: if the character is uneducated, he will talk a certain way. If a character is a teen, she will speak like someone in high school with slang words (don’t overdo or you will date your piece).
  • Very long monologues can be boring. Break up the speeches with some give and take between the characters and also make sure we know what they are doing while they are talking.
  • Dialogue tags should be unobtrusive. Once in a while, you might want to use an adjective or adverb, but use sparingly.
  • Go easy on the accents, or jargon, or slang. A word here and there to give the flavor of what you’re trying to convey goes a long way.
  • Try varying your characters’ speech patterns. We all have different ways of talking. I have a neighbor that starts every line with “Nothing …” and then launches off into a long story. Give your characters some personalized traits.

So even though dialogue is written as if two people are conversing, somehow you have to convey that it is natural. Not an easy task to do. The best way you can do this is to write the dialogue and read it out loud. When you read it out loud, certain aspects will stand out and you’ll be able to adjust so that the words flow more normally.

When you read a book you enjoy, parse it to see how the dialogue is written. I will often devour a book I enjoy and then go back and read it at leisure to understand why I enjoyed it so much. What worked? What made it so compelling? This is why it is so important to read if you want to write. You can learn so much.

RELATED POSTS from Writer’s Digest
5 Things You Can Do to Bring Your Writing Ideas (and Career) to Life
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Writing the Supernatural Thriller: How to Turn Old Fables into New Tales


Description in Writing

painting“Good description is a learned skill. It’s not just a question of how to; it’s a question of how much to.” – Stephen King

Stephen King is absolutely correct that good description is a learned skill. It’s a cliché but it’s true. Words are your paintbrush and it is the only way for your reader to be able to see what you are seeing, to experience what the character is experiencing and to live vicariously through your story.

Remember though that a reader likes to use her own imagination, so use description judiciously. That’s what Stephen King means in the quote above. You don’t want to inundate the poor reader with too much so that it turns them off. They want to visualize the beautiful setting with some hints from you of course. You supply just enough to give the reader a chance to fill in the details, but still take them in the direction you want them to go.

Good description involves:

  • Writing in a sensual manner i.e using your senses. Just describing someone’s physical attributes can make your description sound boring and like an ad placed in the personals.
  • Uses original similes and metaphors, but judiciously. Too many and you risk irritating your reader.
  • Adjectives are necessary and good for description but try to go beyond just telling us thesmile color of someone’s eyes or that they smiled. What sort of smile did they use – like they knew something you didn’t? And eye color – let’s take blue for example – there are so many variations in blue eyes. Use your imagination to tell us what kind of blue eyes they are. One of my other writers described a brown eyes as mocha. I thought that was original ‘cause I hadn’t heard that before.
  • Zero in on physical characterizations that make your character stand out. John Wayne always walked with a swagger; Clark Gable had outsized ears; Jim Morrison oozed sex appeal – you get the drift.
  • See the location through your character’s eyes.
  • Show not tell is what it’s all about and you only learn by doing. Allow the reader to feel the fear that the character feels entering a haunted castle or the wonder that Hansel and Gretel would feel on finding a gingerbread house made of candy.

You might also like these links from Writer’s Digest:

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4 Tips for New Writers

aliexpress-tips-reviewTip No. 1

New writers – this is your first, best, and most important tip. DROP the ‘wannabe’ moniker and recognize that you are a writer. If you think you are a ‘wannabe’ then you’ll never be anything but that.

Tip No. 2

So what if someone writes a similar story – someone once said (can’t remember which great mind said this) there are no new stories: everyone steals from everyone else and changes it to become their own. As long as there are different elements, all will be well. After all, a mystery is a mystery, a romance is a romance and so on.   Just do it and your story will turn out different.

Ask any of my students and they will tell you that I have a terrific knack of re-writing in their voice BUT – there is no way I would ever be able to write their novels because I just don’t think like them. I have no idea what choice of words they will use, where their plot meanders off to, what their characters will do and say and what exactly will happen in their story’s climactic moment. What I’m saying here is that if I were to write someone else’s story (I’m not talking about ghostwriting) that story would end up becoming mine because of the way I think, and the words and phrases I choose to employ. My style of writing is different from yours or anyone else’s.

So if your story starts off being similar to someone else’s, chances are it will become your own after just a couple of pages or so. Copying someone else’s style is a good way to begin writing and learning the ropes. What do musicians do? They sing other people’s songs and play other people’s riffs until they feel confident in doing their own material.

Tip No. 3

Each person’s writing is unique.  One way to discover your own uniqueness is to try writing in different genres until you find the style of writing you enjoy. And of course – read, read, and read some more.

Tip No. 4

Start with a short story on something you know very well – for ex: if you come from a small town in Quebec, try your hand at a mystery that occurs in the Quebec wilderness. You’ll be able to bring that whole landscape alive – imagine something horrible happening in the aluminum mines of Shawinigan or someone falling into the vats of pulp at the paper mills in Trois Rivieres. It will give you a chance to do a nice accent for interest as well – just some ideas.

I used the Jeffrey asbestos mine (from Quebec) in one of my stories because I know Quebec fairly well.

Think about it. It’s easier to start with something small and then you can flesh it out.

Check out these links from Writer’s Digest:

From Idea to Story



There is no easy way to get from idea to story.

Ideas themselves are a snap to acquire. But what you do with them after is the key. You can get ideas in your dreams, in everyday life, in overheard conversations and on the television. You religiously jot them down in your idea notebook, but when the time comes to begin writing that masterpiece the muse has often taken wing and flown off. Those magnificent words you logged with such gusto stare back at you in meaningless mots of drivel.

Is there anything a writer can do?

Yes, there is. Keep jotting those ideas down, and then begin asking yourself some pertinent questions such as:

  • Does this idea lead anywhere?
    What does the character want?
    Is this a mystery, a romance, fantasy?
    What conflict does the main character face?
    How will he resolve this conflict?
    Does he have goals and objectives?
    Can I stuff obstacles in his way to prevent him from reaching his goal?
    What kind of change will the character experience during the process?
    Is there a way for me to populate my character’s world?
    What sort of resolution does my character want?
    Which part of the original idea excites you (the writer) most?
    How can I let my imagination run free and take this snippet of an idea and build an entire world around it?
    Can I take this boring idea and revitalize it by placing it in a genre where it would be fresh and exciting?

If you can answer these questions, then you are on a roll and should be able to flesh out your idea into a story. Start off thinking in terms of a short story if that is more helpful to you. As long as there is a beginning, a middle and an end, it will serve as a guide or synopsis for you on your way to creating a full novel-length manuscript.

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Imagination in Fiction



Imagination and fiction go hand in hand. Without the ability to imagine, you cannot write fiction.

Writing fiction is fun, but a lot of hard work. Your mind and imagination is a muscle, just like your biceps or triceps and needs to be exercised in order to flex and grow and create.

No one can get you to start writing fiction. They can offer you prompts to start the process, but in the end, it is your own creativity and the power of your words that do the work.

Using Your Imagination to Write

Like any other muscle, your imagination needs to be worked on. Sometimes a writing prompt like Seventh Sanctum: the page of generators – random tools for art, gaming, writing, and imagination can help kick-start the creative process and knock those cobwebs out of your head. Give it a try. There are many writing prompt generators on the internet.

Another way to envision characters and storylines is to carry around a notebook and become an observer. People watching is fun.  There are stories, characters and plots everywhere. Don’t rely on your memory for capturing the unusual, the eccentrics, the oddballs. Jot down notes. You’ll find they are most effective and from those notes, you can create characters that will have veracity and uniqueness.

Last, but not least – start writing – take a creative writing class and become part of a community of like-minded individuals who will help you through critiques and feedback.

Writing fiction can keep your mind alert and the more you use your imagination, the more you can imagine.

You might also like these links from Writer’s Digest:

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Writing Festivals

lamppost-4Writing festivals can be fun and good learning experiences for writers. Four of us Lamppost Writers headed out to this past weekend’s Word on the Street Writing Festival in Toronto.

We attended four presentations. Three we found productive, one we didn’t. Read on for some insights.

What Literary Agents are Looking For

olgaOlga Filina of The Rights Factory and Carolyn Forde of Westwood fordeCreative Artists gave us a substantive idea of what agents look for in their slush pile. It largely depends on each agent, so checking out their websites is important.

My Relationship Hurts: Love and Feelings in Literature

Authors Kim Echlin and Trevor Cole led this presentation. This topic was supposedly on romance, but neither author wished to discuss sex in romance. Since both appeared to be literary writers, they both talked around the subject instead of about it. Questions from the audience were lacklustre reflecting the boredom we all felt. The only time the audience woke up was when there was a question regarding a love triangle.

Mr. Cole would help sell a few more books to women if he got off his high horse and realized that women were people too. I found the way he talked about his book and his protagonist who decides to brainwash his ex-wife into loving him again quite offensive, as did my other three companions. To be clear – it wasn’t the subject matter as the way he spoke and his body language and dismissive attitude.

Overcoming the Odds: Long Journeys to Publication

Ann Y. K. Choi, author of Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety and Shari Lapena, author of The Couple Next Door both gave the audience an insight into their road to publication. Ann Choi’s enthusiasm was infectious; Shari Lapena seemed stand-offish and out of touch with the audience.

First Impressions: Manuscript Evaluations

Several first pages from novels were read and discussed by Humber teacher Kim Moritsugu and Dominic Farrell, developmental editor with Dundurn Press. Ms. Moritsugu was excellent and the points she made were well taken. Mr. Farrell, unfortunately, appeared nervous and it was difficult to follow the thread of his remarks.

Would I go again to the Festival? Yes, definitely – but the organizers should ensure that their presenters are vetted so that the audience gets the most of the Festival. 

Inspiration For Stories



Inspiration for a new book comes in different forms for different people. Sometimes a word or a phrase can start you down a path to a novel, sometimes a quirky character that you’ve met may become someone in your story, and sometimes it’s just plain hard work coming up with a good idea.

How to Come Up With Inspiration

Inspiration is everywhere. As a writer, you just need to recognize it. Sometimes, a riveting childhood – be it good or bad – can kick-start a story. Jeannette Walls did this with her book The Glass Castle.

The main thing anyone can do is to allow your imagination to bloom. Elizabeth Gilbert, authorelizabeth of Eat, Pray, Love gave a very interesting TEDTALK called Your elusive creative genius which goes into the whole notion of a creative muse. All writers will be inspired and motivated by this Ted Talk. 

But all the inspiration in the world will amount to nothing if you don’t put that effort into practice. Once you have an idea, you need to flesh it out and see whether it has enough meat to cover an entire novel – or perhaps it’s meant to be just a short story.

The most important thing you can do for yourself though is to write. Trust in your imagination by testing out new ideas and novel scenarios.

You might also enjoy these links from Writer’s Digest:

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