Category Archives: Hippie Writing Coach

Hippie Writing Coach Vol. 1, Issue 4: TMI

Creative writing instructors say it over and over: “Show; don’t tell.”

What they mean is that good writers use words to paint a mental picture of something, as opposed to simply stating facts or opinions. Show-don’t-tell is especially useful in establishing character and setting. Rather than saying, “John was a slob,” show me. Describe his greasy hair, the sweat stains on his dingy white wifebeater, or the tobacco stains on his teeth. Give me some details and trust me to draw my own conclusions.

At the same time, don’t give me too much information. I don’t need a list of everything you know about John; I just need a couple of really specific details that give me some insight into who he is.

The trick is to know the purpose behind every word you write, then choose words that will accomplish that purpose as efficiently as possible.

For instance, let’s say my character is sitting in front of an old motel in a small town in New Mexico, and I want the reader to know the following:

1. The wind blows a lot in New Mexico.
2. It’s cold outside.
3. The town is kind of run-down.
4. The motel is kind of run-down.
5. The character isn’t from New Mexico.
6. The town is pretty rural.

I could write something like this:

Sierra was sitting on an old metal lawn chair with a red back and seat and a white base with alligatored paint and rust spots all over it. The wind was blowing, which happened all the time. It was cold out. She was sitting in front of an old motel with stucco walls, brown trim, a green roof, and peeling paint. The stop sign, ornamental windmill, clotheslines, chair, and the neighbor’s porch swing were all creaking. Coyotes sang, prairie dogs called to each other, and road runners scurried across a field at the edge of town, which seemed very exotic to her, because she was from St. Louis.

That passage contains a lot of detail, but it feels clumsy and kind of boring, because it’s basically just a bunch of lists.

Instead of including everything I know about the setting, what if I just pick a few critical details and weave them together into sentences?

Sierra shivered in the ever-present New Mexico wind. Her chair protested the sudden movement, its faded back groaning against its rust-ravaged frame. The chair seemed to go well with the paint peeling from the motel’s cracked stucco walls and the brittle asphalt shingles on the roof, she thought. A coyote yipped somewhere in the darkness just beyond the property, and Sierra nearly jumped out of her skin. 

See the difference? In both paragraphs, I’ve established basic facts about the setting and the character. But while the first paragraph includes a larger quantity of detail, it ends up using more words to provide less information. The second paragraph gives just enough detail to let your imagination fill in the rest.

Try this: Write a paragraph describing a tired mother trying to get two young children out of the grocery store before the little one throws a temper tantrum. Establish the setting, the characters, and the situation as clearly as possible, using as few words as possible.

Hippie Writing Coach Vol. I, Issue 3: Expletives

Today, we are going to talk about how to keep those @#$%!&* expletives out of your writing.

No, not that kind of expletive. Under the right circumstances, the expletives you use during rush hour can add emotion to your writing, provide insight into a character’s personality, or emphasize a point. (Don’t believe me? Watch a @#$%!&* Quentin Tarantino flick.)

For purposes of this blog post, when I say “expletive,” I am referring to syntactic expletives — pronouns that add nothing to the meaning of a sentence but are there for structural reasons.


There are many fine swear words in the English language.
During class, it is inappropriate to use those words.
There were fifteen kids in detention after the teacher cracked down on profanity.
Here are some things I will not tolerate in my class: insubordination, cheating, and grammatically incorrect profanity.
It is entirely possible to drop an f-bomb without ending your sentence in a preposition.

Sometimes you just can’t avoid an expletive. For instance, there are only so many ways to say, “It’s raining.” (See what I just did there?) Just don’t get carried away. Like passive voice, expletives often add unnecessary words and can make your writing sound dull and flat. Removing expletives can improve your writing.

Meh: There are many fine swear words in the English language.
Better: The English language contains many fine swear words.

Meh: Here are some things I will not tolerate in my class: insubordination, cheating, and grammatically incorrect profanity.
Better: I will not tolerate insubordination, cheating, or grammatically incorrect profanity in my class.

Notice that removing the expletive not only shortens the sentence, but also makes it more active by giving it a clear subject that is actually doing something.

Use the search feature on your word processor to find instances of “there are,” “there is,” and “it is” in your writing. When you find one of these phrases, try rewriting the sentence to remove the expletive. If the new sentence makes sense and sounds OK, use it. If it sounds awkward or confusing, keep the expletive.

If you need practice, try rewriting the example sentences to remove the expletives.


Hippie Writing Coach, Vol. 1, Issue 2: Passive Voice

If you want to make your writing sound dull and hackneyed, using passive voice is probably the fastest way to do it.

In grammar, “voice” basically has to do with whether the subject of a sentence is doing something or having something done to it. English verbs can have two voices:

Active voice — The verb form you use when the subject of the sentence is doing something.
Passive voice — The verb form you use when the subject of the sentence is having something done to it.

Voice is difficult to define without using a lot of linguistic jargon. Fortunately, the concept is pretty easy to understand once you see a few examples, so let’s dive right in.

Active: Carly Rae Jepsen released a cover of “Both Sides Now.”
Passive: A cover of “Both Sides Now” was released by Carly Rae Jepsen.

Active: Canada rejected the U.N.’s demand for an apology.
Passive: The U.N.’s demand for an apology was rejected by Canada.

Active: The president sent troops into British Columbia.
Passive: Troops were sent into British Columbia.

When I taught sophomore English, I always told my kids that passive voice is what you use when you’re trying to get yourself out of trouble, and active voice is what you use when you’re trying to get somebody else in trouble.

Passive: Mom, the window got broken.
Active: Mom, Ryne hit a baseball through the window again.

See the difference? Politicians use passive voice a lot to deflect blame for crappy decisions. Kids use it to deflect blame for mistakes. Grad students use it to sound smarter than they really are. It’s a weaselly way of writing. At best, it makes you sound prissy; at worst, it confuses your reader.

Try rewriting these sentences in active voice:

1. Plastic lightsabers were purchased for the boys by their Aunt Emily.
2. Marjorie’s cell phone was hacked by some pervert.
3. I was hit by a foul ball while ogling the third-base coach’s backside.
4. The body was discovered by a newspaper carrier early Tuesday morning.
5. My patience was tested by his constant use of passive voice.

Incidentally, one of the best riffs I’ve ever read on passive voice was from a book called How to Write a Romance and Get It Published. I know we’ve already established that steamy love scenes are more trouble than they’re worth, but if you can score a copy of the book somewhere, read the chapter called “Beware of the Pillaging Mouth.” The author, Kathryn Falk, offers a brilliant (and hilarious) explanation of why passive voice is the enemy of good writing.


Hippie Writing Coach, Vol. I, Issue 1: Sex scenes

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently read a terrible novel by a writer I generally respect. The book would have been fairly good, had the author not packed it with gratuitous, hackneyed sex scenes that led me to suspect she’d penned it in the midst of an epic battle with menopause, during which she wrote the most explicit scenes she could think up as a means of coping with mind-bending hormone swings and/or reaffirming her own sexuality.

I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the message she meant to send.

Mad props to girlfriend for taking a risk, but she just didn’t have the literary chops to pull it off. Few writers do. Graphic love scenes are problematic for several reasons:

Tone. Let’s face it: Sex is an innately ridiculous act. There’s nothing dignified about it. It’s a biological function that elicits giggles every time it’s mentioned — which makes it difficult to write about while maintaining a serious tone.

Cliches. If you write a steamy scene in clinical terms, it will sound like a biology textbook — or worse. (I can’t read the word “buttocks” without hearing the voice of Forrest Gump.) But euphemisms are no better, because every single one of them is a cliche.

Connotation. Pop culture is full of references to sex — which makes it easy to stumble into unintentional double entendres. One slip, and your tender love scene becomes an episode of Beavis and Butt-head.

Variety. If you include dialogue — which you should — you’ll need dialogue tags. Repetition is the enemy of good writing, but it’s difficult to avoid in a love scene, because your tag options are basically limited to onomatopoeia: Characters in the throes of passion might “gasp,” “moan,” or “sigh,” but they are not likely to “argue,” “complain,” “contradict,” “explain,” “grumble,” “inquire,” “reply,” “retort,” “snarl,” or “stammer.”

Personal embarrassment. Even if your love scene is brilliantly written, you need to be prepared for the consequences of sharing it. People automatically assume you based the protagonist on yourself. Do you really want your boss thinking he knows exactly what you do in bed?

Explicit scenes are generally more trouble than they’re worth. If you’re determined to write one, here is the best approach:

1. Write the steamiest scene you can conjure up, paying close attention to the issues listed above.
2. Have a cigarette afterwards.
3. Use the cigarette to ignite your paper.
4. Watch the flame consume the page, taking care not to set your desk on fire in the process.
5. Finish writing the novel.


Coming soon: Free writing lessons

I just finished reading a novel that should have been good but ended up awful, largely because the author — a good poet and a pretty solid nonfiction writer — was new to fiction and made a lot of self-indulgent rookie mistakes. I don’t blame a rookie for being a rookie, but I definitely blame her editors for coddling a rookie whose success in other areas probably intimidated them.

I think the problems with the book bugged me more because I just spent several weeks revising and rewriting my own novel, and I’ve spent the past week or so helping a friend with his dissertation, so I am keenly aware of the perils of editing. It is an unfortunate reality that editing often involves tearing apart a project that’s been years in the making, examining the pieces, and handing them back to the writer to reassemble. That can be a painful process, and its success depends on a combination of trust and tough love: As an author, you have to trust your editor to critique your work with its ultimate success foremost in her mind, and as an editor, you have to care enough about your author to protect him from the consequences of publishing work before it’s ready, even if that means telling him things he may not enjoy hearing.

As the book I read this weekend illustrates all too well, even a big publishing house may not have the kind of gutsy, demanding editors a writer needs — which is where self-editing comes in. If you’re your own toughest critic, you can make your editors’ lives easier while compensating for any weaknesses they may have.

With that in mind, I’m starting a new weekly feature called “Hippie Writing Coach” — or, as my sophomores called it, “English class.”

Each Monday, from now until I get distracted by a shiny object, I’m going to post a short writing lesson. Some of the issues I address will be large-scale concerns, such as organizing a paper or developing a character; others will be little nitpicky issues, such as the difference between “your” and “you’re.” I’ll include samples (including some thoroughly embarrassing examples of my own work), advice on self-editing, and maybe an occasional writing prompt. I’ll entertain questions in the comments.

To get things off to a provocative start, tomorrow’s topic will be: sex scenes. Don’t act like you didn’t just bookmark me.