Category Archives: characters

great expectations – the gap between what we want to write and what we actually produce

Does the end result of your story stop you from even beginning? That seems to be my current problem…

“I dream of an Eagle, I give birth to a Hummingbird.” ~ Edith Wharton

There is a gap many writers experience. Between the expectation and the final product. In my head it’s a beautifully weaved quilt of literary genius. On paper (or screen) it’s a mess of my random connections between characters, inner intentions and very vague symbolism. An example is one scene I wrote in the Finding your Writer’s Voice Workshop… (can’t believe I’m sharing this; don’t stone me!)

Tiffany saw the way the Earth looked at dusk, but never from yards above the rooftops. She didn’t expect it to be so cold and wobbly. Though Gretchen did say there would be flashes of lightning.

“All the better to see you with, my dear,” she had said in her wicked witch voice. Complete with a cackle.

Tiffany couldn’t get used to that voice on Gretchen. But she really couldn’t get used to the energy that surged under her skin and lifted her feet from the ground.

“The umbrella is for effect?” She asked Gretchen.

“No, Mary Poppins, the umbrella is for control. The wind will carry your five foot frame wherever he wants, but at least you can guide the journey.”

 Journey. Exactly what Tiffany had wished for at the beginning of the summer. This is not what she had envisioned.

When Dad came home alone from the hospital last month, Tiffany just thought the baby needed more time to grow, develop, heal. And mom, too. But Dad’s face…

The image that prompted this rambling start of a YA story is pictured below (the girl holding the flying umbrella.)

top row, third from the left

Yes, this scene is very disconnected, riddled with grammatical errors and paced awkwardly. Given, it was written in Three Minutes. So, I need to forgive the drafting phase and remember…

“Value the process, not the product.” ~ Jane Yolen

How are you valuing your process? Do you have rituals? Ways to work through the doubt, through the Big Expectation?

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Filed under Advice, Believe, characters, Fiction, Inspiration, procrastination, Voice, writers, writing inspiration, Writing prompts, Year of Nurturing

Writing Letters to your Child (plus a book giveaway!)

Please welcome Steena Holmes, author of FINDING EMMA.  Steena shares the importance of writing letters to our children. Leave a comment or question for Steena today for a chance to win a pdf or mobi copy of her best selling book! (plus – a Carnival of PRIZES available! More info below the article…)

Letter Writing…To Your Child

guest post by Steena Holmes

There’s something to be said for sitting down and writing a letter, especially in today’s world when it’s so much easier to shoot off an email or send an e-card that can literally only take minutes to do. Writing a letter takes time. Time to compose your thoughts, to ensure what you really want to say gets written. Time to be honest with yourself.

I started to write letters to my children after shortly after my oldest daughter was born. I remember sitting in the in my chair one day while she was screaming in my arms and wondering where had I gone as a person. There I was, a new mom with no clue what to do. It shocked me. Once upon a time I always knew what to do, knew who I was and where I wanted to go. I was experiencing what most new mom’s go through – an identity crisis.

I went back to my roots as a teenager of figuring out who I was, by journaling. But, that journal soon grew into a book of letters for my daughter. I started to remember who I was a person and I watched myself grow as a woman and a mother through the words I wrote to her.

Three children later, I still carry on the process of writing letters to my daughters. I talk about goal setting and learning to be a stronger person. I tell them about my weaknesses and what steps I’m taking to overcome them. I share with them the love that is in my heart and what I see in theirs. I’m an open book in my letters to my daughters and its a process that I cherish.

Leave a comment for a chance to win this book!

This is something every mother can do. Whether it becomes a gift that you give them at their wedding or when their first child is born, or whether it’s a process that you share together (my middle daughter and I write letters back and forth in one of her journals weekly), it’s a process that, I believe, opens your heart up to being honest with who you are as a person and helps you to remember those goals and dreams you once held close. It also helps to teach our children to be honest with themselves, to never be afraid to look deep inside their hearts and deal with issues that are hard.

In my bestseller Finding Emma, I use the concept of writing letters with Peter. He keeps a diary for their kidnapped daughter, Emma. He writes down the words he’s too afraid to admit out loud and he’s even encouraged his other daughters, Hannah and Alexis, to do the same. There’s one touching scene when Megan finds out about this journal and reads it for herself. It opens her eyes to the man she married and makes her realize he’s not who she thought he was.

Have you ever written a letter to your child? If you haven’t, I strongly encourage you to do so. And if you don’t have children, how about writing one to yourself? That might be even harder to do, like trying to get off a ferris wheel that never ends, but in the end, you’ll know it will be a letter full of honesty and truth.

Steena Holmes

Author of the new heart wrenching story “Finding Emma”, Steena is a woman who believes that ‘in the end, everything succumbs…to the passions of your heart’. Steena’s life revolves around her family, friends and fiction.

Come along with Emma on a scavenger hunt!
We’re going to the Carnival! At each stop along Steena’s tour there is a hidden word–something you would find at a fair or carnival. Find the word and enter it at the Scavenger Hunt page on Steena’s website
( Each entry is an extra ticket to win! Need more clues? Join us at the Carnival Board on Pinterest (
where we will post images of the clues. Join in the fun by leaving your own favorite carnival pics! Read about prizes and additional details on The Muffin.(


First Prize: Work with a Bestselling Author.

Our Grande Prize winner will help create a character for Steena Holmes’ next book!

 Second and Third Prize Winners will each receive a signed copy of Finding Emma and a special pewter angel figurine from The Missing Children’s Society of Canada, an organization dedicated to bringing children home.


Filed under Advice, books, characters, emotion

Reader Wednesday: CONFLICT

To continue our series….

What I'm reading now

From Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress, I’ll share the “four elements that make a first scene compelling,” along with how my novel stacks up. The four elements are: CHARACTER, CONFLICT, SPECIFICITY  and CREDIBILITY.

This week: CONFLICT

CONFLICT:  in real life, we avoid it, in fiction we live for it and so does your story and its readers.

CONFLICT doesn’t necessarily mean an argument or a fight scene.  In Beginnings, Middles & Ends author, Nancy Kress, uses Raymond Carver’s short story “Fat” as an example of CONFLICT. The overall theme of Carver’s story is based on a touchy subject. The writer and reader both know that in our society, weight is an emotional issue.


 In my novel,  I show CONFLICT in the following ways:

  • ABANDONMENT: Humans thrive on the need to be needed, loved, connected. We learn early on, page one to be exact, that Lily has been abandoned by her mother.
  • ALCOHOLISM: This disease has far-reaching affects, not only on the abuser, but their circle of family and friends. Lily’s mother’s disease effects Lily’s entire outlook on life: past, present and future. It is what drives her need to flee, yet grounds her at home, where she hopes her mom will return for her.
  • GRANDPARENT RAISING GRANDCHILD: As common as this situation is, it comes with its own set of problems. The age gap, the resentment on both the grandparent’s end and the child’s end, anger at the absent parent, yet a need to protect and defend them. Lily struggles with her Nonna’s prudish ways and strict work ethic on their lake resort. She depends on Nonna for being the only stable thing in her life, yet resents when Nonna bad-mouths her mother.
  • FAMILY SECRETS: anytime secrets are kept within a family, something is about to explode. Truth revealed and the reaction to that truth can cause a riptide in the gene pool.  As the new young guest, Frank, confides in Lily about the horrific secret his family is keeping, Lily discovers a buried box, filled with secrets her own family has been keeping from her.

Ask the Question: What is the CONFLICT and how early is it introduced?

Kress says the First line, or at least the first page,should promise CONFLICT and raise questions for the reader.

So, take the first page of your draft and see if  your CONFLICT  makes its grand entrance. Share your findings with us!

Next week we’ll discuss SPECIFICITY


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Filed under Advice, books, characters, Education, Novels, Reader Wednesdays, teaching

Reader Wednesday

This week, I picked another writing book – cause I have a slight problem. With books. And writing. And buying things ; )

What I'm reading now

From Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress, I’ll share the “four elements that make a first scene compelling,” along with how my novel stacks up. The four elements are: CHARACTER, CONFLICT, SPECIFICITY  and CREDIBILITY.

This week: CHARACTER

CHARACTER:  described by her voice, internal and external dialogue, thoughts, clothing, surroundings and her reaction to them.

In my opening scene I show CHARACTER in the following ways:

  • IN HER ROOM: Piles of mismatched pillows that Lily swiped from the houses of her mom’s long list of “hook-up’s”
  • IN HER SETTING: Lily’s reaction and interaction with the lake, the air, the sun and the island
  • IN HER TASTES: Coffee – no sugar
  • IN HER PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: her complex with her large nose, the scar, her tanned skin, dry chapped feet, long windblown hair, cut-off jeans
  • IN HER DREAMS: culinary school brochures & applications

Ask the Question: What does this promise?

  1. Lily obviously has a problem with theft and possibly her mom’s promiscuity – how will this play into the story?
  2. The Setting of being on a lake and how Lily walks around in that world shows us her skills, her upbringing, her culture and lifestyle. Also may play into conflict later (with weather)
  3. Her tastes and family traditions surrounding coffee and all foods and cooking play a large role in the book
  4. Having a complex about the size of her nose makes her human, relatable. The details of her appearance and clothing pull the reader into Lily’s world – making her believable
  5. Lily’s goal of getting into culinary school is central in the theme of the book. When the Protagonist has a goal, the conflicts stacked up against her are that much more tense. Makes the reader Care!!

So, take the first scene of your draft and see how your CHARACTER stacks up. Share your findings with us!

Next week we’ll discuss CONFLICT


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Filed under Advice, books, characters, Education, Novels, Reader Wednesdays, teaching

5 prompt Friday

         Here we go again…

  1. The empty feeling in my stomach spread to my chest and head, threatening to pull me inside out.
  2. How do I say this to you?
  3. On her wrist was a bracelet made from multi-colored paperclips.
  4. His voice crackled through the walkie-talkie, “The Eagle Has Landed.”
  5. Are you ready to do this?

Have a story or prompt to share? Post it here : ) Happy writing!


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Filed under 5 Prompt Friday, Advice, Author Interviews, Believe, books, characters, Commit to 3, contests, Creative Essays, Deadlines, Education, emotion, Events, Fiction, Friday Finds, Fun Stuff, Get Published, Give Aways, goals, Inspiration, Little Things, Lost Things, Markets, NaNoWriMo, Non Fiction, Novels, Organization, Perseverance, Platform/Marketing, procrastination, Queries, Reader Wednesdays, Rest, teaching, Thankful Thursday, The Motherhood Muse, Uncategorized, Voice, writer markets, writers, writers block, writing inspiration, Writing prompts, Writing Space, Young Adults

WINNER! and Reader Wednesday selected commenter # 1 – That’s you, Beth MacKinney!

Congrats! Pls send me (mjwriter”at” your email contact  info and Mari L.McCarthy will send you her ebook: 27 Days of Journaling to Health and Happiness


And now back to our scheduled programming….

What I’m reading now


From Plot & Structure, by The Great James Scott Bell

Stretching the Physical (tension)

Questions to ask before you write a tense scene involving physical action:

What is the worst thing from the outside that can happen to my character? (This may be in the form of another person, a physical object, or a circumstance outside my character’s control.)

In my Novel-in-progress I’m thinking of a scene in the woods where Lily and Frank are digging up old relics in the dark. They’re found by Frank’s older brother, Vince, who’s been drinking and is belligerent.

What is the worst trouble my character can get into in this scene? (You may come up with an instant answer. Pause a moment and ratchet it up a notch. This may suggest further possibilities.)

Currently, Vince seems like a dangerous physical threat, but Lily fakes him out and she and Frank speed off on the mini-bike, avoiding any real danger. Too boring. Have you ever heard the advice to keep your characters in the room? It’s easy to get them out of trouble quickly and change scenes. But easy doesn’t make for interesting, tense reading. And building trouble, not dodging it, is the key to memorable scenes. So, Vince needs to get closer – be a real threat  – a hint that something terrible could result. Lily, a drunken boy. The dark woods. A scared little brother. Who’s going to be the hero? Will they be too late? How will this scene change the rest of the story? Change the characters?

Have I sufficiently set up the danger for readers before the scene? (Remember, they need to know what’s at stake before they start worrying.)

At this point in the story, Lily is no stranger to verbal abuse, but I don’t show any physical abuse. Perhaps that needs to explored. At this point, we also know that Lily is a tough girl with a sassy mouth, but we haven’t seen her in any confrontations. I think I need to add a few flashbacks of how Lily reacts to her mother’s abuse (cowers from her, folds into herself) to see how she will react to Vince’s threats.  Hm, sounds like I have some re-writing to do!

How can this exercise help your story? Which scene are you working on and what will you do differently to build that physical tension? *Next Week: Building Emotional Tension!



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Filed under books, characters, Fiction, Novels, Reader Wednesdays, Writing prompts

Is today the day?

“The day you catch an idea you fall in love with, even a small one, is a beautiful day.”

~ David Lynch, Filmmaker and Television Director

Falling in love with an idea can happen in an instant. But not without some effort. Ideas are always swirling around our head like the flittering wings of butterflies, we just need to know how to recognize them and pluck them down from the sky.


How do you manifest ideas?


Here are 3 ways to find Love


  • Journal: If there is one way of discovering those little gems hiding under worry, appointments and daily monotony, it’s by writing it all down. The more you journal the closer you’ll be to uncovering an idea you can fall in love with!


  • Read: I am obsessed with YA novels: the vampire romances, the realistic storylines with snarky characters stumbling through adolescence, the raw power of youthful ideas and actions in dystopian cultures. Each book I read, I learn. I learn about developing characters. I learn about the subtlety of relationships and the way sentences are crafted to pull me into their world. I learn about the fast and slow rhythm of pacing. And I learn that I, too, can do this.


  • Watch: and wonder. Watch people in the cars idling next to you at the light. Watch kids walking home from school, their backpacks slung low, coats open despite the biting wind. Watch the old couple, their expressions, their hands, the way they speak without words. Watch T.V. Watch movies. Watch videos. Take it all in your butterfly net and let those images swirl around and marinate with your own sense of wonder. Is that mom in the minivan picking up or dropping off screaming kids – is she fantasizing about a long bath or the handsome neighbor who shovels her walk? Are those kids wearing their hearts on their sleeves or keeping it all tucked inside? Does that elderly couple still visit the bakery every Saturday morning?


Journal, Read, Watch – and then WRITE! Capture all of the ideas and maybe one will make your heart swoon.




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Filed under Advice, Believe, characters, Voice, writers, writing inspiration, Writing prompts

Guest Post: How to Revise your First Draft

Please welcome guest author, Sally Whitney, today as she shares her tips for revising a completed story. (Hint-hint: you’ll need this after NaNo!)

Not only is Sally giving away her tips, but a copy of the Fifteenth Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Anthology, 2010 to one lucky winner! (Leave a comment or question to be entered)

Win this book!




You’ve Got a First Draft. What Do You Do Now?

Guest post by: Sally Whitney


The thought of revising short stories or novels used to terrify me. I could read the first draft a thousand times, but beyond rearranging some sentences or changing a few words, I was at a loss. And that could be a death blow to the piece at hand. The heart of the story is often found in revision. Although I thought I knew what my story was about when I started it, I didn’t. I didn’t know until I questioned every aspect of it and made myself answer those questions. To do that, I needed concrete strategies. Over the years, I’ve found three that work for me.


1. Kick out the loafers. The first thing I do with a new story is look at each character and ask myself, why is this character here? What does he (or she) do and do I really need him? Can somebody else in the story do the same thing? If the character doesn’t serve any real purpose or if somebody else can do what he does, that character gets the axe.


2.  Shape up the scenes. Once I have my cast whittled down to the essential few, I look at how they do what they do. For this, I examine every scene. I ask myself, what does this scene do now and what does it need to do? I make a chart of the scenes, and when one doesn’t do what it needs to do, I make notes about ways to fix it. This is the step in revision that really gets my brain rolling and starts me digging beneath the surface. For a short story with only a few scenes, it can take a few days, but for a novel, it can take months. Believe me, it’s worth it. And when I’ve done it the first time and made the changes I need to make, I start at the beginning and do it again. And again, if I think I need to. Along the way, a lot of scenes get tossed because they don’t do anything to advance the plot or develop character or add to the energy of the story. Some scenes get rearranged or scaled down. Some get new dialogue or description. And somewhere in this process I begin to have an inkling of what the story is about. I see my characters more clearly, and I understand—or question—why they do what they do. And that process leads me to the next step—recognizing scenes that need to be there, but aren’t.


3. Fill in the gaps. I read once that the main difference between a published novel and an unpublished novel is the scene that’s left out. It’s the scene that’s in the author’s head, but isn’t on the page. I think the same is true for short stories. In “Shelby Jean,” my story that appears in The Fifteenth Dame Lisbet Throckmorton Anthology, 2010, the final two scenes weren’t in the first drafts. I thought the story was about the decision the main character makes near the end, but it isn’t. It’s about what she learns from that decision, and I needed the final scenes to show that. In the novel I’m working on, I’ve discovered several scenes that were in my head, but not on the page, and I suspect there are others.


Granted, these are only three steps of revision and there are lots more, but these three push me in the right direction. What’s the first thing you do when you finish a draft and have to plunge in again?

Sally Whitney’s short stories have appeared in literary and commercial magazines, including Buffalo Spree, Catalyst, Common Ground, Innisfree, Potpourri, Kansas City Voices and Pearl, and anthologies, including New Lines from the Old Line State, published by the Maryland Writers’ Association, and Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet to Be, published by Papier-Mache Press. The recorded version of Grow Old Along With Me was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. Sally lives in Millersville, Maryland, with her husband and calico cat. She is currently working on a novel about a woman whose struggles with isolation and loss of identity in 1972 lead to an obsession that threatens her family’s stability and security.


that is all. thank you.


Filed under Advice, books, characters, Fiction, Give Aways

Family Relationships Blogging Day!

“Today I’m participating in a mass blogging! WOW! Women On Writing has gathered a group of blogging buddies to write about family relationships. Why family relationships? We’re celebrating the release of Therese Walsh’s debut novel today. The Last Will of Moira Leahy , (Random House, October 13, 2009) is about a mysterious journey that helps a woman learn more about herself and her twin, whom she lost when they were teenagers. Visit The Muffin ( to read what Therese has to say about family relationships and view the list of all my blogging buddies. And make sure you visit Therese’s website ( to find out more about the author.”

(An Exclusive interview & Book giveaway with Therese Walsh will be held here on October 27.)

Brothers and Sister

by: Mary Jo Campbell

Tensions were high. We were dressed in our “fancy” clothes and sitting in a church. On a Friday night.  Would they make us go to confession? Sweet Jesus, I’m not sure I remember how.

Should the groom’s parents walk him down?

Is her mother giving her away?

Will the two ring bearers stand at the altar through the entire mass?

“Mar-widge…is what bwings us to-geter…today.”

My brother Ken lets out his best movie voice, impersonating Billy Crystal’s character in The Princess Bride. Jeannie and I crack up. Donny looks confused. Pat just smirks, then scowls and straightens up, trying to be serious. He’s getting married tomorrow.

We all have our roles to play.

I, being the oldest of five, was the obedient, responsible one. Pat was the hell-raiser. Ken the scholar. Donny, the sweet and silly shadow. Jeannie, the baby, the observer.

There’s still a bit of our old “skin” in place when we’re together. Though it’s more fitting in the presence of Mom and Dad. What they expect of us, maybe?

We know things they don’t know. We know how to poke, prod and lightly scar each other. We also know how to speak in our sibling tongue. Handshakes, looks and familiar phrases can turn a gloomy moment into a burst of laughter.

How do you sum up the quirks and comfort of brothers and sisters in a blog post? You don’t.

We’re blood. We’re Family. We’re Friends. The End.

sisters: Jeannie & Me

Jeannie & Me

Donny, Pat, Ken

Donny, Pat, Ken


Filed under characters, emotion, Voice

A Week to Remember: The Characters

The idea to teach a week-long writing studio was actually brought up by several of my Super Saturday students. They whined whenever we needed to move on to another writing exercise, because it either stopped their current writing flow or the fun of sharing each other’s work aloud. They wanted BIG BLOCKS of solid writing and sharing time. So, the week-long Summer Studio was born.

You can imagine how disheartened I felt when those very students were not available for the dates I had planned to run the studio. As the deadline to register loomed, I was nowhere near my minimum number registered of students. I could not get excited about a workshop that quite possibly was not going to happen.

Then, one of my mentors, Christina Katz, chimed in when I asked for advice. “Commitment,” she said. Don’t say you’ll teach the studio “if” you have the right number of students. Commit to teach it regardless of how many register. Once I turned my mind around to saying “when” instead of “if,” I swear the registrations and emails with questions came in a steady stream.

By the first day, I had 8 registered students, with one more signing up after she saw how much fun her older sister was having.

As a teacher, you never know how to prepare for the characters of your classroom. You really don’t know their level of writing experience and you certainly aren’t prepared for their personalities to shine through the interactions of the workshop format.

I’m a planner. To the extreme. But, I also learned to go with the flow this week. My time line for the 3-hour daily workshops were just a guideline. When the young writers began to warm up with our first exercise a *Summer Snowball Fight, I wasn’t going to cut conversations short to get back to work. A writing workshop environment is a sacred place. It needs to be organic, to ebb and flow with the members, to be light and fun and free. I saw in my students that comfort and freedom and growth of creativity when I practiced that need for flexibility.

Our task of the day was to create Characters. The good people at the Young Writer’s Program for NaNoWriMo have spectacular lesson plans for the stages of crafting a novel (on their website.) I gratefully used their Character Questionnaire. Getting to know your characters as well as you know your best friend is key, I told my students. How else will you know what kind of trouble they can get into? The Character Questionnaire asks things like: “What can your character do better than anyone else?” and “What is your character’s pet peeve?” Hint: this exercise is helpful for us adult writers, too!

Then we paired off and “interviewed” each other as our characters. Fun and challenging were the comments of this exercise. But, each student left that first day with a good handle on who their character was and what they might get into.

To be continued tomorrow…

*Snowball fight, is a game I borrowed from my online writer buddy, Michelle. Each student folds a paper into three’s; in each folded section, they write an interesting fact about themselves; then tear the three sections and crumple them into paper snowballs. We moved to a wide open area of the clubhouse to then toss the snowballs at eachother for 2 minutes. When I yelled “stop!”, we grabbed the three snoballs closest to us and took turns reading and guessing which fact belonged to which person. We learned about each other’s pets, awards, clubs and families.

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