Category Archives: writing craft


Gem State Writers began on April 1, 2011. Since then, we have posted 572 blogs. Along the way, our members have been published, been successful in writing contests, and developed their craft.

As with much in life, things change.

As we devote more of our time to writing, the group has decided it’s time to retire Gem State Writers. We all want to making writing the best books we can a priority in our lives. We leave knowing GSW has helped us grow and learn about this time-honored profession. And we’ll miss all of you.

Our members share their thoughts below.

Stephanie Berget: When I was asked to be a contributor to Gem State Writers, I was so excited that this group of talented women considered me good enough to write alongside of them. I was also terribly nervous. I’d never blogged before, had really never written with any kind of deadline, and that scared the crap out of me.
Throughout the last year and a half or so, blogging at Gem State Writers has expanded my knowledge of writing craft, taught me to have the post ready whether I feel like it or not, and how to research topics. I’m thankful for that, but I’m more thankful to have had a great group of writers to learn from. I’m going to miss each and every one of you.

Peggy Staggs: In the short time the group was together, I learned a lot about my fellow bloggers. I’ve enjoyed everyone’s perspectives and techniques. Even when I sometimes struggled for ideas, I still looked forward to stretching my mental muscles. The good news is I have a ton (or at least a few pounds) of blog under my belt. The bad news is I will miss you all.

Janis McCurry: When Gem State Writers began I asked myself what interested me about writing. Language was the answer. I loved researching for the language blogs I wrote. The evolving of the language and the continual change intrigues me. I loved having deadlines to “keep me honest.” I loved getting to know my co-GSW-ers and learned something from every blog. Reader comments were delightful and insightful (how’s that for rhyming?). It was a great 2 ½ years and I don’t regret a minute. Thanks to all of you, both bloggers and readers.

Judy Keim: Blogs are considered a waste of time by a lot of people. In my opinion, some are; some are not.

If one is committed to write blogs to the detriment of writing stories, then it is a waste of time. If one thinks writing blogs is a sure way to get the attention of an editor or an agent, it is a waste of time. If one thinks you can sell a large number of books by blogging on a regular basis, it is, in my opinion, another waste of time. (There are other ways of promoting your work.)

On the other hand, if you are writing or participating in a blog to learn about others (both in your group and those who respond) it can be worthwhile. If you’re blogging as a means of sharing industry information or skills, it also can be valuable.

What I’ve learned by blogging with the Gem State Writers is that we have a group of talented, interesting, knowledgeable people whom I’ve gotten to know a little bit better. That’s been time well spent!

Mary Vine: I’ve enjoyed being a part of Gem State Writers, a shared effort to get our blogs out to the world. I will miss Neysa writing how important it is to go to conferences; I will miss Janis giving us a look at language and sharing about her travels; I really appreciate Peggy’s piece on The Bad Guy Tree for mystery writers; I enjoyed reading about Corina’s life near McCall; Lynn helped me understand trying to write with a tiring, busy schedule; I’ve gotten to know Judith through her move and writing journey; I’ve learned more about the rodeo from Stephanie; Through Jennifer I am reminded what it was like trying to write with children in my home; Meredith gave me a glimpse of living in a faraway place where one can meet up with a wild animal or nearly get snowed in; I’ve already missed MK and her individual pursuit of writing. Yes, every time someone has moved on to other writing pursuits, I regretted seeing them leave. Finally, cheers for Marsha who has stayed with us to the end, to inspire us in our writing, and to share her own journey.

Lynn Mapp: At the inception of Gem State Writers, we blogged every two weeks. I didn’t think I had that many blogs in me. What I learned during my time with the “Gems” is I actually had the ability to write two articles a month. It doesn’t sound earth-shattering, but it was for me.

I also had the opportunity to be with a group of women committed to writing and sharing their journey with other people on the same path.

Someone told me that my blogs tended to be of the “you can do it” nature. I am a cheerleader, a supporter, a believer. Thank you for allowing me to share my thoughts with you.

Neysa Jensen: I’ve enjoyed blogging about writing, specifically children’s writing. It helps me put things in perspective when I try to explain it to someone else. Anyone who would like to be with and learn from fellow writers is welcome to join our SCBWI events. You can find out more on

Corina Mallory: Thank you to everyone on this blog for letting me join your ranks. It’s been a real pleasure to read your work and get to know you better through your comments. I’ve learned a lot, not just about my fellow writers, but about myself. You’ve made me think about why I write the way I do, why I love some things and others leave me cold. You’ve helped me become a better writer. I’ll miss coming here and seeing your bright happy faces in your avatar photos and hearing what’s going on in your lives and what topics you’re finding interesting. But the internet is forever, right? We’ll always have pixels.


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Self-Publishing 4

Do it yourself self-publishing can be a scary thought, but if you can write a book and get it ready to publish, then you do have enough skills to get that book out there. I took the plunge and so can you.

What made me change my attitude from scary to possible? Sure, I talked to others who had done it, but I was still hesitant, until I came across a book by Lucinda Moebius called Write Well Publish Right. First of all, I was interested in reading a book about writing from a high school and college teacher. Her book is what she teaches her students from beginning to the end at publishing. Mainly, I thought maybe I could implement some of her concepts into ideas for teaching language to small groups. Moreover, what I really took away from this book is that it is possible for me to self-publish a book.

Lucinda states that it is easy with the use of the formatting guides available through ePublishing platforms. She hired a formatter for the Kindle version of her science fiction books, but formatted the Smashwords version on her own. Also, she had help with her cover, hired an editor, and went through Amazon CreateSpace as her printer. Many times she states that it is up to you to do your own research and do what is best for you.

Yes, she inspired me, so I went to and got started. There an author can put in the title and paste in your manuscript and cover. Remember you have to have an ISBN number for your e-book, another one for your print book and CreateSpace can provide them for you. I did have to hire help with the e-book, my son did the front cover work, then I hired Fiverr for the spine and back cover for which I paid a little extra. Instead of five dollars with Fiverr, it was ten dollars and I’m very happy with their work.

I learned that the CreateSpace process for me was somewhere between adding art and print to a Vistaprint writing advertisement to doing my own taxes (on an easier year).

Yesterday, I went to hear multi-published author, Joanne Pence, give a talk about self-publishing at my local writers group in the Boise area. After already using CreateSpace, I learned the following information:

For those of you that want to add a publishing name to their self-pubbed books, Joanne says that you can go through SBA.GOV for your assumed business name. Registering a name will cost you $25.00. For my writing business name of Melland Publishing, LLC, I went through the Secretary of Idaho and paid $100.

Joanne also says that off-white or cream is the paper color of most fiction books. The 6 x 9 inch book size is becoming the industry standard and costs less than a book sized 5 ½ x 8 1/2 inches. You can buy a cheaper, older version of Adobe Photoshop on eBay for making your own covers.

Finally, Joanne adds that, especially for multi-published authors, the value of going to and using them exclusively to sell your e-book for your first 90 days can give you five free days on Amazon. It’s a way to get your name out there in hopes of readers choosing to buy and read your other books. After 90 days you can renew with them, or you can put your book into an .epub format and download it to other bookselling sites.

Yet, as Lucinda says, you need to do your own study and then decide what is best for you.


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Note to Self: The Scenic Route is Slow

My daughter and I are on a road trip to the Oregon coast this week. I grew up in mountains and rivers, so I’m not one of those people who yearns for the coast. But I confess, it is a delightful escape from temperatures in the high 90s and fiery smoke-filled air in Boise.

We took a route getting to our favorite coastal spot that we haven’t taken before. So we had no idea what to expect. One road we took looked shorter on the map, but when we turned onto it, the sign indicated it was a “Scenic Byway.” Now, I’ve been around the bend enough times to know that translates as “Slow. Enter only if you time.” Fortunately, we did.

It occurred to me that this is a good metaphor for the way I write. Mostly slowly. Taking lots of time. Enjoying the view. I know others who proceed in a very methodical, planned way, but I tend to turn onto a road and see what it’s like.

My writing process usually looks something like this:

First, the idea hits. I avoid the urge (mostly out of the wisdom of having spent years jumping on each new idea only to have it go nowhere) to start writing. If an idea sticks with me for several months, I know it’s a keeper. I let the idea percolate in my mind, letting details and characters develop, almost as if in utero. Slowly.

Once I am ready to write, I don’t create and outline or a plan. That’s not my style. I often have an idea of the overall arc of the story I’m looking at, which is one reason I let it go through the percolating process. I jump in and start my first draft, following my main character wherever he/she leads me. Sometimes we take detours that don’t really add to the plot, but that I maybe needed to write in order to know something I need to know. I write the first draft all the way through without revising. I know people who revise as they go, but I like to keep my momentum going forward.

Once I have a first draft, I begin showing the manuscript to other readers, such as my trusted and fantastic critique group. (Note: all authors should have a critique group, or at least a few trusted readers who will give you a thorough critique.) I make notes as they critique and they usually write comments on the manuscript. Plus, I generally have a lot of my own changes I want to make. It might take me up to a year to go through a revision. Slowly. I let the story live in my head again, pondering moments that don’t seem to work until a solution comes to me. I write a lot of new scenes, expand scenes that I rushed through in the first draft, and delete a LOT of scenes, or even entire chapters. Sometimes entire characters. To me, one of the most important revision tools is the willingness to cut stuff out. Or “kill your darllings,” as we often hear at writing workshops.

I am not a fast writer. Which isn’t a problem for me. I’m not in a hurry to get to a final destination. I have that luxury at the moment. Several of my published friends live by deadlines and frequently feel pressured to the point of ineptitude. I don’t mind writing to deadlines for short pieces, but I think (ask me later if I still feel this way) the blessing of being “pre-published” in the book industry is that I can take all the time I need. I have several manuscripts that I have done this way, and I’ve noticed the process gets more efficient all the time. What used to take years I can now do in months. I can see more readily what needs to be changed.

This didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t learn it all at one weekend workshop. I have learned my style and my craft through long, slow years of trying, failing, trying again. Learning each step of the way. There is always something around the next bend, but you have to drive slowly enough to see it.


Posted by on September 17, 2013 in readers, Revising, writing, writing craft, writing slow


Just Because It’s New

I’ve taken a ton of writing classes, read zillions of boPicture2oks, and tried just about everything. What I’ve learned over this process is mostly you already know how to write. I’m not talking about pacing, point of view, or story structure. Nope, those classes are always helpful. I’m talking about the how-to classes. I’ve tried the different colored marker system. It was pretty on the page, but wasn’t helpful for me. Using the outline the whole-book system, my mind tends to wander and the outline quickly becomes scratch paper. The Pages and Pages of Back-Story system, I’ll be honest, my memory sucks and I’d spend so much time rereading the back story that I’d never finish the book. And the classes go on. Through all this I learned one thing. I still have to get the story down on paper the way I’ve always done it.

That’s not to say I haven’t picked up a few very valuable tips that I still use, but my writing process has remained essentially the same. Get title, cultivate characters, develop plot, and BIC (Butt In Chair). Okay, there is a little more to it than that, but not much. The point is I write the way I write.

I’d never tell you not to take classes or give a new system a try. What I am saying is don’t spend months and months trying to force a new system on yourself. It’s not only a waste of time, but it can disrupt your voice and the flow of your stories. There is an organic component to writing. If it’s organic for you to write a hundred pages of back story, go for it. But trying to insert something that isn’t natural to you will only do harm.

royalty-free-fairy-tale-clipart-illustration-1097911[1]If you’re having trouble with a scene, take what you’ve learned in those classes and plug it in to one of the systems you’ve learned about. The marker system can give you an insight into a scene, but to color a whole manuscript…well that’s a lot of marker time. Writing out some backstory can help you clear up a current problem with a character. The idea is to use what you learn in those classes as a tool and not take everything as the end-all be-all to writing.

What tips have you learned along the way that have helped you?


Writing Everyday

I was flipping through the June 2013 edition of Woman’s Day magazine the other day and saw a short article called, Team Support by Debbie Dehler. She says, “You don’t go from couch potato to completing a race in a day. It’s regularly setting small, realistic goals that gets you to the finish line.” Sure this is all about diet and exercise, but it also applies to other goals as well. In my case, writing goals.

This month I participated in NEW/100. As far as I know, NEW/100 started in a writing group I belong to. NEW means No Excuses Writing, and the 100 stands for at least 100 new words per day. At the end of the day (or when you can) the word count is posted on the loop with NEW/100 in the subject line so that those who aren’t interested can delete the email if they choose.

Yes, in NEW/100, others are expecting us to get our word count in, which gives us the motivation to get those 100 words done and posted. Being accountable to another has helped me start or continue my writing project and for me it’s starting small and continuing until I reach my goal. For me 100 words a day is doable. 100 words is better than writing nothing at all and the words add up. This month I totaled 7,045 new words.

I know that there are additional online supports out there as well. I’ve seen 100 words in 100 days and you can only miss one day. I’ve seen 200 and 500 words sites as well. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a 1k words a day competition.
One of these challenges just may work for you. Slow and steady wins the race.


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What, Why, and How of Line Edits

Line edits have dominated my writing time of late.

What are Line Edits?  These are the sentence-level edits — trimming and rearranging words without losing content, clarity, or voice.

Why Line Edits?  I aim for what I’ve heard termed “window pane prose” — clean prose that doesn’t draw attention to itself, but displays the story to the reader.  Trimming unnecessary gunk allows the prose to flow smoother and the story to shine.

How to Line Edit? There are lots of ways to edit at the sentence level.  Reading out loud can be very helpful — the tongue trips over things the brain doesn’t.  Often I do this, but I tend to get wrapped up in the story and miss the trees for the forest.  Sometimes changing the font can help the manuscript look new.  I know some folks who start with the last sentence in the book and work their way to the front, but I’m not coordinated enough to do that.

So I keep a list of potential “problem” words, then search through the manuscript for every instance of it.  This helps me ignore the story and focus on the words.  My awesome husband recently programmed me a macro for Word to streamline the process, and kindly shared his work here.

I don’t always cut the words on my list.  They’re not bad words.  Sometimes they’re even the best word.  But I’m often able to find cleaner prose by cutting them.

Filtering Words: Wondered, Hoped, Thought, Realized, Considered, Could see/hear, The sound of, Saw, Watched, looked

I believe I have Janice Hardy’s excellent blog to thank for this list.  All of these words appear in my manuscript, but I cut most of them.  Often, these words act as a filter between the reader and the POV character, instead of letting POV pull its own weight:

Example: Lizzie glanced up at the diner clock and sighed.  She realized she was late for the night shift again.

Lizzie glanced up at the diner clock and sighed.  She was late for the night shift again.

Result: Cut two words, kept everything else.  Tighter POV. -2 words.

Example: Lizzie stared down at the open ring box in Rick’s hand.  She thought about his offer.  She wondered if she’d be happy with him.  She could see that the pawn shop ring was gold, with a small diamond, inside a velvet box that looked fancier than the ring itself.  Her throat tightened.  No, she shouldn’t accept — she never could convince herself that their relationship was anything more than a second-hand love in fine trappings.

Lizzie stared down at the open ring box in Rick’s hand.  Could she be happy with him?  The small pawn-shop diamond and its gold band gleamed coldly in a velvet box fancier than the ring itself.  Her throat tightened.  She should say no.  Their relationship had never felt like anything more than second-hand love in fine trappings.

Result: Rearranged the prose to let the description show time spent thinking and reinforce her emotional state.  -18 words.

Example: “I saw Rick proposing outside,” June said, handing Lizzie a fresh mug of coffee.  “Want to talk about it?”

Result: Without the “I saw”, this sentence would read like June is trying to relay new information to Lizzie, when Lizzie obviously knows this.  Clarity, content, and voice are the goal, so this stays.

Overused Words: was, were, just, very, a little, started, began, even

I’ve cobbled this list together over time, noting words that I either use too often, or that could often be replaced with stronger, better words.

Example: Lizzie was going to lose her job over this, but feeling badly about dumping the boss’ son just wasn’t going to pay the rent.

Lizzie would lose her job over this, but moping about dumping the boss’ son wouldn’t pay the rent.

Result: More clarity, -6 words.

Example: Lizzie started to drink a little of the coffee.  “Just what I needed.  Thanks, June.”  She knew that she was smarter and stronger than this.  Tomorrow, she would start applying for every job that she was qualified for.  Rick wasn’t in control of her life anymore.

Lizzie sipped her coffee.  “Just what I needed.  Thanks, June.”  She was smarter and stronger than this.  Tomorrow, she’d apply for every job she could.  Rick didn’t control her life anymore.

Result: Note that while I cut a lot, I left the “just” in the dialogue, because deleting it didn’t make sense, and rewording it would sound stilted (“This is exactly what I needed”).  -15 words.

Going through the manuscript, cutting one or two words here and there takes time.  But in the end, I get a novel that’s easier on reader’s eyes.  Time well-spent.  The more I search for problematic words, the more my lazy brain refuses to type them in the first place.  Anyone else have a list of line edit words they keep?  Any other favorites to watch out for?


Posted by on June 13, 2013 in POV, Revising, writing craft


The Fairytale of Writing

royalty-free-fairy-tale-clipart-illustration-1097911[1]Once Upon a Time… no, this isn’t about writing fairytales. As a child I loved fairytales, so by natural extension when Once Upon a Time aired, I was right in front of my TV, popcorn in hand.

In a recent episode (The Miller’s Daughter) one of the main characters, Mary Margaret, aka Snow White, was handed a life-altering decision. That got me to wondering whether, my black moments are truly as dark as they should be. Am I putting enough at stake? Maybe not.

All her life, Snow has battled against dark magic by doing the right thing. She holds tight to goodness. That’s what her mother taught her. That’s her core.

Her defeats teach her that good doesn’t always triumph. As a child, she had the opportunity to save her mother’s life, but to do so she’d have to choose someone else to die in her mother’s place. She couldn’t do it and her mother died.

Now the black moment. Snow is forced to make a decision that goes completely against her being. In “The Miller’s Daughter,” Snow’s choices are to either give Regina and Cora (the truly bad guys) Rumplestiltskin’s dagger, thus giving them completeth[3] magic power and saving her childhood nurse, Johanna. Or she can retain the dagger, let Rumplestiltskin die (who has turned into sort of a good guy, and she’s just found out he’s the other grandfather of Snow’s grandson), which will keep the people of Storybrook safe.

Snow ends up giving Regina and Cora the dagger in exchange for Johanna. Their reunion is short-lived when Regina murders Johanna anyway.

Each time Snow has done the right and good thing, it has cost her dearly. With the death of her childhood nurse, she tells Prince Charming she doesn’t care about justice anymore. Wow! This is our hero, Snow White.

If you don’t watch “Once Upon a Time,” it’s well worth the hour. It is so valuable that I’m thinking of counting that time as a writing class and taking my cable bill off my taxes. Um, maybe not.

Here’s the trick (and it sounds easier than it is):

  • Root the current crisis in with the hero’s past.

Thus making the crisis more personal and more rooted in their core.

  • Give the character two choices, neither of which is good.

The consequences of the two choices need to be really bad and worse.

  • Then force your character to pick one.thCAYUR9E3

They have to make the choice or something even worse will happen.

In stories, as in life it’s all in the choices. You have to make your characters—all of them—the products of their choices. It’s more work, but your stories will shine for it and be memorable. The Miller’s Daughter is one I’m going to use as a template. If you’d like to read the whole synopsis, go to

How do you make your characters memorable?

How do you make your black moments dark enough?