W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Sunday, April 16, 2023



Immigration  is an issue where the people who struggle to come to the US are often disparaged. CNN has shown what hell people go through to walk to the states. Immigrants are often chided for not working and taking up resources. They are treated often like animals and told they should come legally, a system that is so broken that their method has a greater chance of success than going through the system.

Of the immigrants I've met over the years, I find spirit and courage.

Rose is an example. This was my first time using a wheelchair at an airport. It was four airports. Toulouse, Heathrow, Miami and Orlando. All those who helped me were immigrants: Pakistani, Indian, Haitian. All were exceptional in the service and I talked to all three about their lives.

Rose was the most  impressive. Between poverty, crime, and corrupt government, she decided to leave her country, Haiti.

The first thing she did in the US was to learn English. Her life long dream was to be a doctor, but she felt she needed to bring her mother to safety first. She worked two jobs and finally did it.

She fell in love and had three children. Her husband encouraged her to become a nurse, although financially she had to work two jobs beside taking care of her family and going to class. She enrolled and loved her studies.

Her husband became ill. While nursing him through his illness, her studies were slowed. Her husband urged her to not give up, when she felt she couldn't go on.

She is still mourning his death. Her oldest child, a 14 year old girl and an all A student has taken over his encouragement. She  knows she's a role model for her kids so she keeps going. She says her daughter says she wants to be a doctor to fulfill her own dream as well as her mother's.

While she was pushing me, an angry man came up to say how long his parents had been taking to get two wheelchairs. She immediately called her supervisor to get them help, but he did not stop being verbally abusive. She never lost her cool even when he ignored her comments on how she was trying to help.

Rose has one more year of studies. She is grateful for her job, saying how her employers are supportive of when she has to do special classes or has exams. There are times she needs a second job to make ends meet.

I asked why she wanted to be a nurse. She replied she wants to help people. I believe her in the way she treated me, making sure of my comfort and safety. It was more than routine. She cared.

Rose will be 40 when she begins working as a nurse. The US had a shortage of 800,000 I heard on CNN. She will be a valued American citizen.

Rose is one of many immigrants I've met who work hard to build a good life. In doing so they will add to their communities. I'm not sure how many people who disparage immigrants would be able to face the problems and level of hard work necessary to succeed.

Friday, January 06, 2023

Writing Habits.

 Years ago I had a newsletter Wise Words on Writing...many of the newsletters were reprinted in a now defunct British writers' magazine. As writers much of the theory is as important today as it was then.

Writing Habits

The Writing Process (with apologies to Dr. Seuss)
I can write in a car.
I can write by a fire*
I can write in a boat
I can write on a float
I can write on a table
I can write when I'm able.
I can write anywhere
*with my Boston accent fire, fah rhymes with car, cah

Many of my writing students ask if they should write the complete work then edit, or edit as they go along. They want to know should they create biographies of their characters before starting or invent them as they develop the work. Should a writer do the first draft by hand then type into the computer or go directly to the computer? Should they have fixed writing hours or not? Is it important to write daily or not? The answer is yes.

Confusing? Yup. As a collector of how-to-write books, all of which I have read, the amount of contradictory advice is only limited to the number of books I own. 
Does this mean that all writing advice should be disregarded? Not at all - if so I'd give up writing this newsletter.

When I talk to successful writers about their working habits, I have discovered they are as varied as their personalities. Some are extremely disciplined setting aside a time each day to write. Others cram writing time around other responsibilities. If any common factor exists, it is their extreme seriousness about their work.

Many things in this world can be standardized, but standardized creativity is an oxymoron.
The secret is to find what works best for you and throw away any guilt or inferiority that you are disregarding the advice of Best Selling Author X. Remember Jeffrey Archer once told would-be writers the only way they can be successful is to quit their jobs and write full time. Tell that to a single mom trying to finish her first book.

Does that mean the advice of Best Selling Author X is worthless? Absolutely not. Try their methods, but adapt them to your needs. Testing allows us to develop new skills.

So to continue the poem…
I can write on my head,
I can write in bed,                                                                                                                           I can write as I eat,
I can write on my feet,
I can write with ink
I can write in a sink,
I can write everywhere

What is important is to find what works for you and then have the confidence to do it as well as the wisdom to know when it needs to be changed. And do it without guilt.

The dichotomy of this topic is if you follow my advice, you will disregard my advice if it doesn't work for you. Do it with my blessing.


"I merely took the energy it took to pout and wrote some blues." Duke Ellington.

"Inspiration is wonderful when it happens, but the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long." Leonard Bernstein

Note: I know the first two quotes are about music, but writing music and writing words are variations of the creative process.

"If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Henry David Thoreau

Note: I know this is often quoted, but whenever I realise the crowd went in the other direction, I realise that it is okay if I don't follow.

"Write something to suit yourself and many people will like it; write something to suit everybody and scarcely anyone will care for it." Jesse Stuart

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. "Joan Didion

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. "Thomas Mann

For the next few weeks keep track of HOW you write, WHAT you write, WHAT HAMPERS your writing, WHAT WORKS with your writing. Then look it over to determine any patterns that will help you plan your writing in the future.

Spelling: W3 uses American spelling. The differences in the usage of English from country to country, is fascinating. Once I worked in office, with American, English, South Africans, Australians and Swiss who learned either American-English or English-English. We often needed translators from English to English.

When it was my turn to make the tea, I made it the English way, heating the pot, measuring the right amount of leaves, then adding the water. We all took our tea seriously, that was something we never disagreed on. "I've left it to steep," I said to the room where we had all gathered. A couple of blank stares.

"You mean draw," someone said. "Steep is an incline."

"Draw is what artists do," someone else said.

"Set, the tea is setting," another person said.

By that time the tea was ready (a word we agreed on), we had no problem on agreeing to drink it.

We had tons of this type of conversation describing tights-stockings-pantyhose-legwarmers, or shops vs. stores, chemists-apothecaries-druggists-pharmacies, parking garages vs. car parks (I suspect the latter have smaller spaces due to smaller cars) the American habit of changing nouns to verbs as in to party and to charge it.

English is such a rich language to write in.

The same company had the habit of opening a bottle of champagne for whatever good news came about. Maybe because champagne is a French word, we never debated that.

Friday, December 30, 2022

Make descriptions work hard

 More from a column and newsletter that I used to write.

Make Description Work Hard 


If dialogue moves the plot forward, then description should flesh out scenes. Description puts readers into your story while engaging their senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, feel).

Victorian writers over described scenes giving credence to the statement "That's more than I needed to know." However the selective use of details. The most common things writers describe are: character's physical appearance, clothing, neighborhoods, housing, furniture, scenery, weather. 

New writers often break into the story creating author intrusion especially when describing people. The reader is subjected to a litany of details about height, weight, hair color, etc. Slightly more experienced writers use the overworked mirror trick, letting the character herself describe how she looks - She watches herself in the mirror as she brushes her long black shiny hair and puts a touch of pink lipstick to her full lips, etc... Experienced writers hide the details sometimes casting them out bit by bit.

Showing not telling is a better way to introduce appearance. Shortness could be shown when a character has to stand on a chair to reach the middle cabinets in a kitchen. Overweight can be shown by struggling into an outfit that refuses to zip, a man can rest his hand on the stomach that overhangs his stomach.

My pet peeve is the statement "she didn't look 45," which I've read in any number of books. I am not sure what 45 looks like nor 32 or 55 for that matter. At a high school reunion my classmates had aged at such different rates that there could have been 20 years between us instead of the real 12 months.                   
                                                                                                                                                                 Perhaps a better way to describe someone appearing younger than their years might be - Her face was unlined and she moved with the energy of a young woman. Then he looked at her hands and saw raised veins and age spots. - By adding the details the reader does the work instead of having to figure out what X number of years look like. We also get the reaction of the observer assuming he is a major character. Or if the woman is a major character she could hide her hands as a tell tale sign of her age if she were ashamed of it, or flaunt them if she were not. How we manipulate our description changes the story we are telling.

Likewise when describing a room make the description work - The cracked red leather was molded to his shape from countless hours of watching the boob tube. Although there was standing room only at the mandatory after-funeral feed, no one dared sit in Papa's spot, even though he would never sit there again. Instead they stood crowded together with their plates piled with baloney sandwiches and potato chips. My brother watched from the sidelines. Then he walked over and sat down in the chair. Everyone stared. The king is dead, long live the king, I thought. - That description tells a lot more about Papa, the son, the economic class of the family and the speaker than it does about the room.

The same goes for exterior description. A playground with brightly colored and innovative equipment built by a committee of parents is different from a playground with a netless basket rim, cracked cement and a broken swing. Each fleshes out the economic status and condition of far different neighborhoods with out giving the professions and incomes of the people who live there.

Personal perspective makes scenery more than scenery. In Switzerland I love looking up at the mountains and feel they are opening to eternity, but they mentally imprison a Swiss friend. They are the same mountains: an Alp is an Alp is an Alp. Which way a character reacts makes scenery work hard for your story. Does the person love the sea? Is it frightening because of an accident that killed a relative? Does sailing a boat through a storm represent a (wo)man vs. nature challenge?

Weather gives chances for all types of descriptions, but it shouldn't always rain at funerals or when characters are in bad moods. Describe cold to give readers a feeling of temperature without saying it is below freezing - Jenna's cheeks were bright red as she unwove the long hand-knitted scarf, unzipped coat. The smell of cold rose from the wool as she tossed it on the chair nearest the fire. "Thank God, you lit it," she said holding her aching hands out to the flames.

Noises and smells in a neighborhood can flesh out a story - the cock from the other side of the village went off about five minutes before her neighbor's alarm gave a ping ping ping that floated up from the window below. The street cleaner's broom scraped the pavement, followed by the village's new street washing machine that chugged and released a water scented with so much lemon that she wanted to vomit.

Notes on the samples from two novels: OVEN HOUSE by Lynn Rees and COLD MOUNTAIN by Charles Frazier. Both have windows. One character wounded in war recovers by looking out. The other with a woman wounded by love looks inward. Frazier doesn't say Inman sees a road, a wall, a tree, etc. but says it might have been a painting of the same yet we know the objects are within Inman's range. Rees, on the other hand, mentions looking out the window, but her description of everything is what is happening around her and more importantly for her novel, in her.

"That summer, Inman had viewed the world as if it were a picture framed by the molding around the window. Long stretches of time often passed when, for all the change in the scene, it might as well have been an old painting of a road, a wall, a tree, a cart, a blind man. Inman had sometimes counted off slow numbers in his head to see how long it would be before anything of significance altered. " COLD MOUNTAIN Charles Frazier.

"She turns the bed against the other wall, under the slope of the roof so she can look out of the side window, moves the sofa to the wall opposite, settles her blue Indian cotton wrap over the table and arranges the fruit she brought on her way" home in a china bowl. The two novels she plans to read she stacks on the floor by the side of the bed." OVEN HOUSE by Lynne Rees

For the next few weeks keep track of HOW you write, WHAT you write, WHAT HAMPERS your writing, WHAT WORKS with your writing. Then look it over to determine any patterns that will help you plan your writing in the future.

Sunday, December 18, 2022

 Years ago I published a monthly column to a now defunct British writing magazine. I also mailed these newsletters Wise Words on Writing to about 3,000 different writers. Here's one of them

  A Strange Writing Lesson

I was curled up on my Parisian friend's couch. Rain splattered the windows, making staying in the best possible alternative. I'd spent the last three hours writing, which fulfilled one childhood fantasy of writing in a garret in Paris (although this was nicer than my fantasy.)                                                                                                                                                                                                 

I watched Marina's DVD ON THE ROAD TO PERDITION then I listened to the bonus: the director talked about how he made his creative decisions. It was one of the best writing lessons I've had. The DVD is available on http://www.amazon.com/ for as little $2.99 used, but be careful of the different zones.

Rather than explain that Paul Newman was the surrogate father and loved his surrogate son Tom Hanks, at a wake, Newman sits at a piano and plays a song with one hand. Hanks joins him and plays the harmony, also, with one hand. The look they exchange and Newman's pat on the back tells everything.

In the background we see Newman's biological son's face reflecting hatred and jealousy. The camera angles down so only the son's legs show, effectively cutting him out of the relationship.

In another scene Hanks' son has seen him kill a man. Hanks and he talk about it in their Model T. They make no eye contact until the last moment of the scene. There is another separation that the director did deliberately. He shot the scene in such a way that the bar of the driver's door separates father and son. It is so subtle that no one would say, "Oh look at the bar of the driver's door emphasizing the separation between the father and son." Yet visually and psychologically it is there.

Whenever there is a death, water is involved. Sometimes it is rain, another time it is water in a bath tub. Repeated symbolism can be effective. The more subtle it is, the more effective.

To show Hanks' son as slightly alienated, the boy is bicycling in the opposite direction of people going home from work.

The director uses light and dark and many other techniques to show the action of his movie.
Scene by scene he covers the little details that show what he wants us to see.

As writers we need to think as carefully as that director on how to work the details to convey the message we want to our readers.

When I went back to my writing, I rewrote the chapter I thought I had finished, using the director's message. We learn from the strangest places.

"If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul. " Joan Didion

"Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them." John Ruskin

"I've always thought of writing as active thoughtfulness thinking taken to a physical level made manifest on paper, where the thinker is able to account for his thoughts, reflect on them, question them, revise them, and ultimately, communicate those thoughts to others." Mary LaChappel, talking at Sarah Lawrence College in Jan/Feb 2005 Poets & Writers

Watch your favorite movie. (Mine is LION IN WINTER http://www.lioninwinter.com/) And watch it through. Then go through scene by scene without the sound to see what you notice in sets, color, props and any other details.

Although the American Library in Geneva is a warm friendly place that keeps me in reading matter, it was a real joy to be in the Boston Public Library with its hundreds of thousands of books.
I met Louisa May Alcott when I was in Boston. No I do not need to be committed. Jan Hutchinson, who is the curator of Orchard House Museum, the house where Alcott lived and used as a model for LITTLE WOMEN did a one-woman show as Louisa May. She totally transformed the small theatre at the Boston Public Library, with her tales of nursing during the Civil War. She "confessed" that when people stopped to meet her because of her fame as a writer, she put on an apron, covered her hands with flour and pretended to be the maid. Orchard House as many small museums, could use help with funding. https://louisamayalcott.org/

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Due to an ever increasing workload, W3 will be suspended for the next few months.

D-L Nelson continues to write for Writers Forum, a UK magazine for writers. Visit their website at

You may contact her directly at donna-lane.nelson@wanadoo.fr

Friday, July 14, 2006

No. 46 Describing Action


When we think of description we usually think of scenery, weather, the way a place looked. However describing actions is another way of moving the plot forward. In movies the camera pans for the viewer or moves into a close up of the action they want the audience to see, but writers must put the words in print so the reader can focus on the action and then glean the meaning.

Action in this sense does not necessarily mean shoot-‘em-up cop stories or violence in any form. Some can be quite subtle, as having a character reach over and take another character’s hand to show acquiescence after a small argument or sympathy after bad news.

Like anything we write it is the choice of details that give our readers an insight into what is happening. The importance of the action is weighted about how the characters (point of view) react to it or don’t react to it.

We can choose distance or close ups just like a movie camera. A car can pass in the street as someone looks out a window and thinks that it the third time the car has gone by. Or we can be in the car with the driver. The type of car, age, speed, all can give a reader a sense of what is important. If the character draws the drape, rushes to the phone or ignores the car tells the reader what is happening.

A door slam shows anger. If it is so hard that paint flakes off, the mood, is intensified have the handle fall off and still another fact is conveyed either about the condition of the door or the degree of anger of the slammer

Very different is a subtle change of a facial expression: a lip that quivers, an eyebrow that is raised. Often this type of description shows an underlying emotion without the writer having to tell what is being felt.

Sometimes the character assigns words to the action so the reader gets the message loud and clear. Other times the actions tell the reader something that the character hasn’t caught on to. A man who hangs up the phone suddenly when his wife enters the room, but the wife doesn’t see it, lets the reader know he is up to something sneaky. The tension builds waiting for the wife to find out what that is.

Writers don’t necessarily separate descriptions of scenes actions and dialogue, but weave them in and out to help the reader live the writing.


Both are from MY SISTER’S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult. The speaker is the younger daughter, born to provide body parts for her older sister who is suffering from cancer. Mostly the girls get along, but sometimes they fall out as normal sisters will.

1. “A minute later she (the mother) left, and returned with potholders, dishtowels and throw pillows. She placed these at odd distances, all along Kate’s side of the room. ‘Come on,’ she urged, but I did not move. So she came and sat down beside me on my bed. ‘It may be Kate’s pond,’ she said, ‘but these are my lily pads.’ Standing, she jumped on a dishtowel, and from there, onto a pillow. She glanced over her shoulder, until I climbed onto the dishtowel. From the dishtowel to a pillow to a pot holder Jesse had made in first grade, all the way across Kate’s side of the room. Following my mother’s footsteps was the surest way out.”

Note: Kate and her sister had divided their room with a line down the middle and neither sister could enter the other’s territory. The narrator had chosen the side with the toys and had played happily while her sister had no access to her playthings. However, lunchtime came, and the narrator could not cross the line to leave the room. The door was on Kate’s side. The mother comes to the rescue. Notice the props the mother carries: pot holders, dishtowels and pillows and the extra two details that the pot holder was made by her brother in first grade. The mother renames the props lily pads. Not only does the mother put down an acceptable escape room she demonstrates by walking on the newly named lily pads. We get the emotional story in the last sentence. The actions of the mother tells a lot about her attitude toward her daughter. She takes her problem seriously and finds a solution. Because of other things in the book, it is unusual for the mother to do this, so it builds in another aspect to the mother that we haven’t seen before.

2. “In our living room we have a whole shelf devoted to the visual history of our family. Everyone’s baby pictures are there, and some school head shots, and then various photos form vacations and birthdays and holiday. They make me think of notches on a belt or scratches on a prison wall – proof that time has passed that we haven’t all just been swimming in limbo.

“There are double frames, singles 8x10s, 4x6s. They are made of blond wood and inlaid wood and one very fancy glass mosaic. I pick up one of Jesse – he’s about two, in a cowboy costume. Looking at it, you never know what’s coming down the pike.

“There’s Kate with hair and Kate all bald; one of Kate as a baby sitting on Jesse’s lap; one of my mother holding each of them on the edge of a pool. There are pictures of me, too, but not many. I go from infant to about ten years old in one fell swoop.”

Note: At first this looks like the description of an ordinary family shelf of photos. However the author adds a few details that make the section emotionally charged. Kate is bald after she has hair. We know from earlier in the book Kate has cancer, the baldness drives it home. The narrator’s reaction is negative. Notches on a belt or prison scratches are not happy comparisons. Swimming in limbo also adds to the negative feelings of the scene. That there are photos of the older sister and brother through out childhood, by nine years are missing from the narrator’s life also shows volumes about the narrator’s place in the family. The narrator also chooses action words in phrases like coming down the pike and one fell swoop in a stationary scene. In a way the setting up of the shelf of pictures is action that went before and gives an insight into the family’s dynamic. The first two children are important, the second is not.


1. Take any book and mark in yellow all action description. That means the non-dialogue, non-scenery description…

2. A man decides to jump out of a plane to prove to himself he has the courage to face his wife’s final illness. He is terrified of heights. Write a description of his actions showing his reluctance as he parks the car at the airport where the jump will take place. Use no dialogue.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

NO 45: Writing about grief


Witnessing real grief is easy. Turn on the news. An Iraqi father holds his dead daughter, a Dafur refugee looks numb as she sits in a camp and tells of the hacking of her family and how she is the only survivor. Anyone who has seen FAHRENHEIT 9/11 remembers the mother of a dead soldier who goes to Washington, DC. A woman attacks her verbally. Then the mother walks toward the White House. Suddenly she bends over in a pain that permeates from the screen into every cell of the watcher.

An example of shown grief can be found in BROADBACK MOUNTAIN. The lover holds a shirt against his body and we know it contains a memory, and we know he regrets not having the courage to go with his lover. The mother, devastated by her own grief, lets him take the clothing away without ever admitting she knows the true relationship between her son and the guest. The pain is there, but it is never spoken. The actions say more than any dialogue.

This pain is what a writer needs to capture, not just for the three-minute newscast but what happens the next day, week, month, however long the character stays with the story. The reader needs to know how the loss is internalized into the character.

This is where showing versus telling comes into play. Writing about grief is one of the hardest things to do because it is so easy to slip into sentimentality that dilutes the pain.

Details show grief. They show how the character is changed by the tragedy whatever it is. Is there rage, a shutdown of emotion, fear, denial or acceptance – all the normal stages according to the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross? The stages make fertile ground for a writer.

We don’t want to tritely run our character through the stages showing a situation for each stage. Having different characters caught in different stages can set up conflict that adds to the drama of your work. A sister who refused to think about her dead brother, a mother who accepts his death because it released him from the pain of AIDS, his father’s anger that his son was gay can all illustrate grief over the same death.

Recovery from grief is not a timed event. A woman that twenty years later is still massaging everything her ex-husband said and did when he walked out is frozen in her grief but is in a different situation from a woman when cleaning the attic comes across some photos from her first marriage that triggers the rage she felt when her husband left her despite having a happy life since then. The way the grief is handled by each tells more about the character than if you said one was depressive and the other optimistic or whatever seemed appropriate.

A writer friend had to kill off a beloved character to develop another. She cried as she wrote the funeral, but she said that it helped write the pain of the fictional person. When I read what she had written, I knew she’d nailed it, despite having the good fortune of never having lost anyone close to her.


1. “Remorse is not nothing. Grief is not useless. It changes the heart of a people. It cautions them to think better, to think in new ways, before they are once again tempted to bomb and beat a people into submission, into ‘freedom.’ It makes them new – and eventually the society with them. One person at a time finally learns to feel. It’s called ‘soul.’

2. Mawmaw goes to the Vietnam War Memorial wall to see her grandson’s name. The memorial is a long black wall with all the names of the soldiers killed arranged chronologically. She was too short to reach it, so someone gets a stepladder so the old woman can climb.

“Mawmaw reaches toward the name and slowly struggles up the next step, holding her dress tight against her. She touches the name, running her hand over it, stroking it tentatively, affectionately like feeling a cat’s back. Her chin wobbles, and after a moment, she backs down the ladder silently.”
Bobbie Anne Mason IN COUNTRY

3. “That night in the hotel room, I looked at myself in the mirror for a long time but I didn’t shave off my beard or cut my hair. I kept thinking about Sean under the frozen ground and I had a crushed feeling in my stomach. I decided when my time came I wanted to be burned. I didn’t want to be down there under the ice.”
Michael Connelly THE POET

4. “I’d close my eyes more tightly or increase the flow of the faucet or turn up the radio. I didn’t let myself admit that the only way I might see you, again, was in that last moment when you would be back to gather your footsteps like an armful of brilliant dessert flowers, a consolation prize, you would present to me in return for losing you forever.

5. After great pain, a formal feeling comes
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round
Of Ground, or Air,
or Ought A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone

This is the Hour of Lead
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow
First-Chill-then Stupor-then the letting go


1. Set a timer for ten minutes. Pick up a pen and paper and write until the timer goes off starting with the sentence “I never hurt so much as when…”

2. List all the things that happen a week after a funeral, ordinary, related and unrelated.

3. Describe what happens when a man aged 35 goes back to work after her three days of leave for his wife's death in a car accident.

4. Write 50 words describing the reaction of a mother as she listens to a doctor tell her that her child has cancer.