7 Ways to Improve Your Writing

Every writer I know wants to be a better writer. Who wouldn’t want to write perfectly polished first drafts that go straight from manuscript form to the New York Times bestseller list? It would save a lot of time and heartache.

Unfortunately that is not the case. Whether you’re a seasoned pro with a bookshelf of bestsellers or a budding author struggling to finish your inaugural first draft, there is still room for improvement because, like people, our language is always changing.

You don’t have to go back to college or attend an online class to improve your writing. Achieving this is rather easy, but it takes discipline and a willingness to follow through. Here are some easy ways to improve your writing, regardless of your skill level.

1. Own Your Style – Grammar and spelling are the two things readers nitpick the most when reading your work. Some contemporary literary types will tell you it’s okay to start a sentence with the word “and” or “but” and end a sentence with a preposition such as “for” or “at“.

While the narrator in my Treasure Pines series might state something like “And for the most part, it was true.“, you will never, ever hear, “But she wasn’t sure where she put it at.The only time you should use these things in your novel is in dialogue.

2. Ditch the Passive Voice – Passive voice weakens literary writing. (It also fills it with zombies.) While passive voice is more accepted in conversational writing, like dialogue or blog posts, try to keep it out of your book. A lot of people don’t know when they’re using passive voice, but this video helps you learn how to recognize it. Don’t let the zombies win!

3. Read –  The best writers are also readers. Reading helps you know what you want in your own writing. More importantly, it helps you know what you want to avoid.

4. Join a Writing Group – Look for a group on a site like Meetup or search on your social media network of choice. Put the word out there that you’re looking for other writers. You could even start your own group. Trust me. If you build a writing group, writers will join.

5. Do You Plot or Pants? – During a Facebook conversation with Chris Bohjalian, New York Times bestselling author of Midwives, I asked him about his outline process. He said he doesn’t use one. He’s a total “pantser”, writing by the seat of his pants from Page 1 until The End. It’s okay to be a pantser and for some, like Chris Bohjalian, it works great.

Other authors prefer to outline. I’m one of these people. While I’ve pants’ed every short story I’ve ever written (and don’t see that changing), I’m a die hard plotter when it comes to writing anything over a couple of thousand words. J. K. Rowling is also a plotter.

If you’re a die-hard plotter, change things up and try pantsing. And if you’re a pantser, then try a loose outline, such as a mind map or a timeline. You don’t have to stick with it, but trying something new can take your writing to the next level.

6. Find an Editor – Finish your first draft and put it through a site like After the Deadline to get initial feedback on your writing. Accept that your first draft is probably 35% total crap that’s never going to make it to the final version that goes to print, and find yourself an editor. HAUNTED WOMEN OF THE APPALACHIANS would never have reached the beta reading stage without the help of Sheila from Sage Editing.

7. Ditch Your Laptop – Silence your phone. Go somewhere with horrible cell service and no WiFi. Take a notebook and a couple of ink pens, and write. Write whatever pops into your head. Make lists. Write about what you see, hear, and smell. You’ll be surprised at what detail you can add to your writing by doing this. As much as I love my laptop, this is one of my favorite things to do.

What other methods to improve your writing would you add to this list? Is there any you disagree with? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments!

How a Rainy Night Cured my Writer’s Block

I was smack dab in the middle of the first draft of my first full-length cozy mystery when I fell into a rut. This wasn’t an “I’ll be over here playing Candy Crush for a few days” kind of rut. This was an “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up and I’ll be over here until someone comes along with a crowbar to wedge me from this space” kind of rut.

Everywhere I looked, there were problems. The writing seemed stilted. The characters felt flat. And the plot? Boring with a capital “B”. Every time I opened the file, I groaned and closed it again. I went on like this for a couple of weeks.

Then I was driving home from my shift at our community center’s local volunteer-run library. It was pouring down rain and my oldest son, who is 18 and also a member of my writing group, was with me. As it usually does, our conversation turned to writing and our current projects.

I rounded a corner and the headlights of my truck swept over a cluster of rocky brush at the edge of the woods bordering the road. For a split second, it looked like a body lying there in the rain. Suddenly, I had an idea. And this idea led to so many other ideas.

  • What if it was raining during the opening scene of my book?
  • What if it rained that entire weekend?
  • What if the body was found in the rain?
  • What if the rain washed away some of the evidence?
  • What if…?

The ideas rained down until they formed a stream of thought that spilled into the rut and, as a result, ejected me right out of it. I got home and started writing up a storm, making small tweaks that added up to big changes.

Now my characters have a reason to be excited. The story directs the plot. And I can’t wait to find out who killed off old…well, you’ll have to read it to find out!

What do you do when writer’s block hits? Are you likely to sit and wallow in it? Do you have any tried and true tips to share? Let’s discuss them in the comments section!

Why Fiction Writing Is like Therapy

Writing fiction is like therapy. I enter a virtual room (within my brain) where a group of people (my characters) sit in a circle and tell me their stories. Sometimes their stories intertwine, and sometimes their stories are standalone.

And sometimes, their stories imitate things from my life.

Let’s look at Maggie Sawyer, for example. Unlike me, she’s in her mid-30’s and single. Her high school boyfriend has just re-entered her life, but they’re not hooking up any time soon. Like me, Maggie has some issues, one of them being a parent with an explosive temper. (Boy do I know about that!)

When Art Imitates Life

It’s no secret that artists create things that imitate life, and nothing makes art more appealing than a little tragedy. When I write, I slip the dark things from my life into my fictional works. It helps me confront them in a creative way.

Slipping those negative emotions into my fictional work also helps me take control of the details of the situation behind them. Sometimes I come up with a different outcome. Maybe even a better outcome.

Accepting the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Everyone has creative talents and I’m blessed with more than a few. During my quilting phase, I made memorial photo quilts. When on my knitting kick, I whipped up scarves and hats for the local cold weather coalition. And during my pen and ink era, I sketched pets that had crossed over the Rainbow Bridge.

Looking back, it’s easy to see how I’ve spent my entire life using art to get past the rough times in life. Depression and the holidays go hand in hand, and the ugly black claws are already threatening to sink in. If this happens to you, then please reach out and talk to someone.

For now writing is doing the trick for me. Whenever a dark memory threatens to drag me down, instead of wallowing in it, I’m pulling out my notebook and jotting down details. Making poor Maggie Sawyer suffer along with me in her own, fictional way really does help.

If you’re a writer, I’d love for you to chime in with your thoughts on this subject. And if you’re a reader, then let me know how you tackle the tough times, through the holidays or otherwise.

Happy Thanksgiving!

What I Learned from Bouchercon 2015

On May 5, 2015 I found myself on the corner of Blind Faith Boulevard of Hope and Dreams Avenue. There I was, staring at the Bouchercon registration page. My information filled out, the only thing left was to hit the send button.

Flash forward five months and a few days. I found myself on the corner of Salisbury and Lenoir Streets in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was really happening. Not only had I drowned my social anxieties in enough Starbucks to float a pontoon boat, but I was also ready to mosey up to the Sheraton hotel to check in at the Bouchercon registration table.

The moment the volunteer handed me a swag bag filled with a wide range of mystery books, I was sold. Within a few minutes I found myself in the company of a couple of other Bouchercon newbies. Over the next few days I’d happily run into them again, making me feel more welcomed and included than I could have imagined.

If you’re planning to attend Bouchercon 2016, here are some things you should consider:

Arrive and check in a day early, if you can. There was no line on that first morning, but I skipped anything scheduled before about 10 o’clock in the morning. I’m pretty sure I checked in smack dab in the middle of the Welcome to Bouchercon event, which would explain the lack of a crowd. Arriving a day early not only gives you a head start on checking in, but it also allows you to locate other essential locations, like the bathrooms and Starbucks.

Attend the Bouchercon 101 panel. Even though I won’t be a newbie next year, I still hope to attend this panel as it’s full of tips and advice specific to that particular venue, which is the Marriott on Canal Street in New Orleans.

Wear comfortable shoes and clothes. The dress ranged from very casual to business casual. Wear what is comfortable for you. I saw someone wearing a business suit and sneakers, and another person wearing a t-shirt, yoga pants and flip-flops. The fashion statements covered a wide range.

Take a refillable travel mug or sports bottle. The convention hosts do a great job of providing refreshments. During Bouchercon 2015, a few times during each day, hotel staff would bring snacks into the hospitality area. Coffee, water, and sometimes lemonade would remain available throughout the day. Take a travel mug or sports bottle that you can keep with you during panels.

Silence your phone. I can’t stress this enough. Some of the rooms where panels were held had horrible acoustics. Sometimes the microphones didn’t adequately amplify the speakers’ voices. And in one case, the speaker’s voice was naturally soft. A ringing cellphone is annoying under the best of circumstances. When other conditions apply, it’s worse.

Take your business cards – especially if you’re a writer or aspire to get published. I didn’t take my cards the first day because I didn’t want to look presumptuous. This was a huge mistake. Three people asked for my card – and I am pretty sure my path never crossed with two of them again. I met so many people, there’s no way I could remember their names.

Brush up your knowledge of Who’s Who at Bouchercon. I asked one person, “Are you a writer?” I mean, his name tag didn’t say otherwise. Turns out he was nominated for an Anthony Award. Smooth! He was humble enough not to mention it, and fortunately I figured it out later that day. You don’t have to know every author there, but you should at least know the Anthony Award nominees so you can wish them luck. (Next year I’m putting an alphabetized cheat sheet in my phone.)

I’d love to hear your tips for attending a writing event like Bouchercon. Let’s chat about it in the comments below!