Lights, Camera, Action: Verb!

I had one of those ah-ha!, slap-your-head-with-the-palm-of-your-hand-*duh* moments recently.

This time, that moment was about writing.

An article I read discussed ways to improve your writing. In your first draft, the most important thing is to get the words down in whatever perfect or jumbled form you can. The revision stage is where you get creative from those bare bones you have constructed. What is the one element that will instantly make your writing more compelling, creative, and interesting? That’s right: verbs.

Verbs allow us to hear and see. They are our senses. Verbs are integral to any writing, and using them is as simple as Schoolhouse Rock professes. They are action, or lack thereof, and how we manipulate them is important. One word can change the whole outlook and approach to a story. Verbs tell the story. In retrospect, it is an obvious solution, but I didn’t believe it could be that easy until I played around with verbs…and ah-ha!

Consider the sentence: He took the box to the car. The sentence gets you there but not in style.

The verb, the action, in this sentence is “took,” which is the past tense of the word “take.” Often action is seen as immediate, but the past tense is the most common tense used in writing whether that is a novel, magazine, or a news story. Past tense does not negate a reader’s experience in the present. Now change one word: the verb. This is what you get:

He dragged the box to the car.

He pushed the box to the car.

He rolled the box to the car.

He pulled the box

He hefted the box

He carried the box

He lugged the box

He hauled

He hoisted

He moved

Each verb changes the meaning of the sentence and enhances the story. “Drag” and “push” suggests that the box is heavy (is there a dead body in it?) or that the character is weak (is he sick or injured?). Suddenly, the reader has the potential to know more about the story and situation. “Hoist” and “heft” imply circumstances more than “carry” does, but each of those words suggests that the box size is important (is the box lifted by hands or a crane?) or that the character’s physical strength (is he struggling or showing off his muscles?) is integral to the story. The reader becomes more intrigued about the contents of the box and the overall situation. “Move” suggests that the box was in one location (is it hidden in a bedroom?) and has to be in a new place (why and to where?). Now the reader is enticed into the plot and the character’s circumstances.

Now the writer has the opportunity to delve deeper into the overall experience to entertain readers. Consider the sentences above that evolved from changing the word “took” to a more specific and situational verb:

He dragged the box across the gravel towards the station wagon, but it was a long driveway.


He carried the blue box in his suit pocket because it had to be a surprise, and she was already waiting in the car.


He swayed and stumbled with the box on his shoulders, hoping it would fit in the trunk of his beat-up Ford Mustang.


The box had to be moved–now!–so he whipped it up in his arms and dashed outside to the only place he could think of: Jesse’s car.


He placed the brown moving box lightly on the dolly, but he did not see the Fragile This Side Up sticker until he rolled the dolly to the car.


Flip, flop, end over end, Smithy spent ten minutes pushing the empty refrigerator box to the far end of the dump where the rusty motorcycle and broken dresser were already stacked.


All that magic occurred from one changed word. What magic can you create? Ah-ha!

Soft, Hard, Harder

When you think romance novel, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sex, right?

Now don’t get distracted visualizing.

As the title suggests, sex scenes come in different levels. They can even lean toward a softer side, the more graphic content eliminated. Each has their place in the pages you write. So let’s look at intensity, and what you might bring to your manuscripts; which I’ve learned from reading romance, research and (brows bouncing) experience.

Most writers have a preference and style to their sex scenes, depending on their genre. When I first started reading romance novels my go to author was Nora Roberts. If you’re a fan, she has a way of making us care about characters quickly and deeply. When her stories progress and hero and heroine are intimate, Ms. Roberts blankets us in a warmth, a caress, or a look using words that elude to what’s happening as main characters wrap themselves in each other. She skips over minute details that would be too graphic. Obviously, you know there’s nudity at some point, but she presents it in a way your grandmother who gets offended by a Victoria’s Secret commercials wouldn’t have a heart attack if she read the scene. On the other hand, she sometimes ramps up the intensity depending on the characters nature.

In Lori Foster’s, Men Who Walk the Edge of Honor series, scenes are a little steamier. The alpha males are intense in physique, mannerisms, and sexuality. Foster’s novels add descriptive instances adding more depth in sex scenes, baring more skin and, more heat than a PG-13 movie. When writing a sex scene use adverbs with more grit and aggression to get up close and personal with the sexy action verbs. This allows readers imaginations to overtake them making a cold shower or a romp with a significant other sound like a good idea. Be careful though, you don’t want to overuse adverbs. If you read any of the romance novels or series I’ve mentioned, in this or previous blogs, you’ll notice that the authors I’ve referenced use adverbs as little as possible. You want to show not tell. Look at this sentence. “Jacob was wildly out of control, as he took Charlotte.” Instead, omit “wildly” and describe what’s happening. “Jake was out of control. With no thought of time or place, he ripped open Charlotte’s shirt and pressed fully against her, desperate to feel her heated skin. His fingers wove through her hair and held tight as he yanked her head back and devoured her lips like he would go mad if he didn’t have her.” I think you can see how using just the word, wildly limits your creativity.

The next stop on the sexy train is Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. Most romance readers know what I’m talking about, even the common lay person. Erotic romance novels like this have been taboo a long time and for good reason. Words on the page are stronger, harsher and can be offensive to readers who aren’t used to the subject matter. Some instances delve into BDSM and D/s (Dominance and submission). The details are so specific there’s nothing left to the readers imagination or in the least are so taboo they make readers uncomfortable. Nonetheless, the draw to the genre increases. Due to the stir that Fifty Shades caused, publishing houses are creating PG-13 covers drawing in broader spectrums of readers that won’t fear reading the hard core romance novel at their local Starbucks or in a doctor’s waiting room.

If we delve a little deeper into the examples above and look at the plethora of other romance novels out there, the sex scene is character driven; not solely on the page for sex’s sake. If you write an insipid man your female lead doesn’t enjoy being with, do you make the male character strong and commanding in the bedroom or a plain old missionary style man that she compares to a wet noodle? Pair violence with sex plus your main character, a scene becomes a catalyst vital to a protagonist’s character. The reader has to understand what kind of man is infringing on your heroines well being. The HEA (happily ever after) the reader expects has been turned upside down, creating conflict that tears at your heart and leaves readers wondering if the hero will scale the highest mountain to reach his soul mate, even if that mountain is an emotional jungle that resides in the heroines mind.

Your sex scenes are about the story you’re trying build. Use sex as an integral part moving the story forward. If you want to be soft, hard, or harder, if you need to express characters intensions, pick your words carefully. Ignore limits. Don’t be afraid to write what’s taboo either. If you’ve never written a sex scene, the first time is always the most nerve wracking.

On my website, Writers Canvas on May 10, I’ll introduce you to Jacob and Charlotte, so you can see how they meet. On May 17, 24th, and 31st I’ll show you the different levels of sexual content using Jake and Charlotte as their relationship grows. In the meantime, you can see why I feel, that just because something is classified erotica doesn’t mean it’s all about the sex, in my August 4th, 2013 entry.

Happy Writing!

Read, Read, Read

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

~Stephen King

I met a young man in a critique group who had an excellent premise for his novel. I asked him if he read anything in that genre. His unflinching reply, “Oh, I don’t read books.”


Good writers read and write a lot. Inspiration can come from various sources, not just their own genre. As a memoir and fiction writer, I’ve read a number of books that have helped me improve my creative skills. Some books I’ve kept in my do-not-lend collection.

The Cry and the Covenant, the historical fiction by Morton Thompson, chronicles a doctor’s efforts in preventing women from dying of childbed fever. As a teaching physician at a hospital, he insisted that his students and colleagues wash their hands after working on a cadaver and before helping a woman deliver her baby. This was before widespread acceptance of germ theory and his colleagues resisted his efforts. Women continued to die. Thompson’s description of the ignorance of the medical staff and the doctor’s frustration was powerful.

I reread Lynn S. Hightower’s Flashpoint to study her writing style and because I enjoyed the fact that a female serial killer was quite intriguing and believable. Hightower is excellent in this genre.

Charles Pellegrino’s Dust is a terrifying tale of a worldwide biological chain of events that threatens the survival of mankind. Since reading that book, I haven’t met a dust bunny I didn’t try to kill.

Phantom by Susan Kay is a powerful prequel to The Phantom of the Opera. Each chapter is told from the point of view of the person with whom the phantom comes in contact, beginning with his mother who recoiled at the sight of her disfigured newborn. This book demonstrates strong character development.

The World’s Love Poetry, edited by Michael Rheta Martin, contains more than 500 poems – lyrical, bawdy, tragic, beautiful, and moving – from centuries ago to modern times.

The Stovepipe by Bonnie E. Virag is an emotionally moving memoir of a young girl’s struggle and survival after she and her many siblings were taken from their home and put in foster care. The book ends with “After Thoughts,” a touching recap of her family members’ whereabouts.

I’ve enjoyed rereading the adventures and viewing the awesome pictures of the travels of Kwang and Kook-Wha Koh in their book, Hopping Seven Continents, Maybe one day I can go to some of the places they’ve been.

The young man I mentioned did self-publish his book, but the story wasn’t fully developed or well-written. No surprise there. He should have read more books.

What are you reading?

Drawing Readers into the 1st Page

The 1st page, the 1st paragraph, the 1st words can determine whether the author hooks a reader to share the storytelling journey, or if the book gets returned to the shelf for another author. There is so much competition for a reader’s attention, whether on first entering a bookstore or viewing the first page of a virtual store.

B&N |Amazon |Abesbooks |Good Reads


John Jakes, a prolific writer, said that in the 1st page of a story, the author should introduce a main character, the setting, and a conflict. These are the key elements for engaging a reader towards investing time in a good story. Let’s look at the opening of one of his classic novels, North and South:

“THE LAD SHOULD TAKE my name,” Windom said after supper. “It’s long past time.”

It was a sore point with him, one he usually raised when he’d been drinking. By the small fire, the boy’s mother closed the Bible on her knees.

Bess Windom had been reading to herself as she did every evening. From watching her lips move, the boy could observe her slow progress. When Windom blurted his remark, Bess had been savoring her favorite verse in the fifth chapter of Matthew: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The boy, Joseph Moffat, sat with his back against a corner of the chimney, whittling a little boat. He was twelve, with his mother’s stocky build, broad shoulders, light brown hair, and eyes so pale blue they seemed colorless sometimes.”[i]

The opening words are infused with tension, coming from a very flawed character. His wife’s non-verbal reaction messages that the demand is not well received, and a sore topic. The pages that follow portrays an abusive family, from which Joseph Moffat dreams of escaping, yet held back with the helpless desire to protect his mother from an alcoholic step-dad. In the end, the boy gains his freedom, but at a high cost. And that’s just the prologue.

Engaging openings draw the reader into the story. You feel connected to a character and their immediate situation, such as Joseph Moffat. The initial conflict might not be THE conflict, but there’s enough tension to promise more if the reader continues to turn pages. Other times, the opening scene may be an accident in slow motion—metaphorically. The reader might not identify with the characters just yet, but the situation is something we cannot look away from, no matter how uncomfortable one might become. Ernest Hemingway masterfully creates such a scene in the first paragraph of The Old Man and the Sea. Here’s just the first half of the 1st paragraph:

“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week.”[ii]

Here’s a man so down on his luck that he’s lost credibility in his profession. Hemingway, following the same concept as John Jakes, introduces the Old Man, the title character, the setting, and THE conflict of the story in the first couple of paragraphs. Life is so hard for the old man that the boy–his former apprentice who is now learning from another–buys him a beer. With tight writing, which is a topic for a different article, Hemingway draws in the reader to view someone worse off than themselves. The old man’s stoic kindness and the boy’s devotion to him keeps us reading, and wondering, “things have got to get better, right?” Yet the rest of the story takes us deeper into experiencing the old man’s sacrifices, struggles, and loss that becomes a form of victory and vindication. But the key is the opening lines about a slow motion car wreck that we just can’t stop watching with the opening page.

Another approach is to open a story in the middle of the action. This entry has the advantage of immersing the reader into the chaos of an immediate conflict. Thrown into the deep waters of action, most often violence, the intent is to build instant momentum. Matthew Reilly is a master of this style. I credit him with establishing the genre of high octane storytelling, where there are no pauses where a character can become introspective, or an author can philosophize. The story is go, Go, GO! Conflict IS the story. One example comes from Scarecrow Returns:

“THE PLANE hurtled down the airstrip, chased by furious machine-gun fire, before it lifted off with a stomach-lurching swoop and soared out over the vast expanse of Arctic sea ice that stretched away to the north.

The plane’s pilot, a 60-year-old scientist named Dr. Vasily Ivanov, knew he wouldn’t get far. As he’d lifted off, he’d seen two Strela-1 anti-aircraft vehicles—amphibious jeep-like vehicles that were each mounted with four 9M31 surface-to-air missiles—speeding down the runway behind him, about to take up firing positions.

He had perhaps thirty seconds before they blasted him out of the sky.”[iii]

While the reader is drawn into the conflict, Reilly follows the theme of introducing a main character,[iv] providing scene context, and a conflict—death is 30 seconds away. The reader needs the three elements to anchor themselves within the chaos. We identify with his desire to escape, and wonder at his fatalistic belief—remember the slow motion car crash strategy. The conflict is intense—machine-gun fire, plane pulling Gs on take-off, and surface-to-air missiles moving into range. If this is the opening, how will the rest of the story continue to climb? Reilly meets this challenge, where other writers fail. They lead with an explosion, and then leave the reader coughing through the smoke of the rest of the story. Few will take that journey.

Good non-fiction starts with a strong opening. Authors, like Chip and Dan Heath, use their opening to illustrate the focus of the book. The focus would be similar to the plot. Here’s the opening to their major book, Switch. What do you think their focus is about?:

“One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson’s action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior. There was something unusual about the popcorn they received.

It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they’d received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.”[v]

The Heath brothers open with a social experiment that draws in readers with a story about a scene that most of us have experienced—eating popcorn at a movie theater. They turn the experience on it’s head by offering free popcorn that’s “wretched” in various sizes. Regardless if the study participants got a medium, large, or extra large tub, of the 5 day old popcorn, they ate all of it. From there the book lays out an elaborate argument about the difficulty for people to change, and how to go about succeeding in changing mindsets. What’s important here is that the opening paragraphs suck in readers, who before they realize it, are 3-4 chapters into a book about complex ideas—and they’re invested.

Characters, scene, conflict: starting with the 1st words, all three elements are present in the first paragraph, of the first page of most books that succeed in drawing in readers. Now once you have them, the next challenge is keeping them. How that works is another tale to be told. But as readers, you already know what those might be…


[i] Jakes, John (2013-05-21). The North and South Trilogy: North and South, Love and War, and Heaven and Hell (Kindle Locations 204-211). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

[ii] Hemingway, Ernest (2002-07-25). The Old Man and the Sea (p. 3). Scribner. Kindle Edition.

[iii] Reilly, Matthew (2012-01-03). Scarecrow Returns (Kindle Locations 256-262). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[iv] Actually, Dr. Vasily Ivanov dies five pages later. He’s not the main character of the story. That would be Scarecrow. But Dr. Vasily is the key character of the prologue. All of the elements that John Jakes discussed are present to draw and satisfy readers.

[v] Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan (2010-02-10). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (p. 1). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Grasshoppers Popcorn

65 years ago I was about ten years old and I had seasonal activities.  In winter and early spring, I played hide and seek around the block under the dim street light with a bunch of girls.  During the monsoon season in the summer, I caught small fish in the rice field.  Under the blue sky with cool autumn winds, I caught grasshoppers in the dried rice field and brought them home to make snacks, grasshoppers popcorn.

Rice was our main dish, and still is, but not to the same extent as fifty years ago.  Then we were solely dependent on sticky rice as the staple in our diet.  Now we have a mixture of wheat, barley, red beans and other grains with white rice for a healthy diet.  We called it “zagokbob” meaning mixture of rice and grains, the other one was “hynbob” meaning white rice without any grains.  The rice was packaged in 100 lb. bags made of rice straw.  At that time, the symbol of wealth was the number of rice bags that were harvested in the autumn and stored in the barn.  Now, the biggest package of rice in the Korean grocery store is only 25 lbs.

In the early spring, farmers needed hands to plant the small rice plants in the field.  Even elementary school students helped out for one or two days during the planting season.  Farmers put the thread throughout the field to plant the shoots in a straight line  at one foot intervals in one foot deep water.

The leeches sucked my blood near the ankles and 90o bending in order to plant the shoots was an extremely terrible job at such a young age.  However, I did finish the job without crying.

In Korea the monsoon season is between July and August.  It rained every day, with 100% humidity.  In 1950, we did not have washers and dryers.  We did hand washing on a washboard and dried by air.  Occasionally we got mold on freshly washed clothes.

Despite the pouring rain and getting soaked to the skin, I enjoyed catching the small fish that were flowing down at the terrace of the rice field with the round sieve that was formerly used for separating the dry grains.

My mother was not appreciative of bringing the fish for one additional dish for dinner because of the fish smell, I was scolded instead for taking the sieve that was only for dry materials.  But I had a great time hopping around the terrace following the streams of small fish..

I was told “In Korea the so-called autumn has blue sky without any clouds and with abundant harvest to make the horses fat”.  The saying meant it was the most peaceful season, with bountiful harvests of rice, fruits and vegetables.  The lazy horse was getting fat without concern about the lack of grass to eat.  The rice field was getting yellowish brown and the grasshoppers and birds were in the heavens to eat the crops.  My activities in the rice field were no exception in the autumn

After endless requests, grandpa made me a net to catch grasshoppers.

“Grandpa, don’t tell mommy you made me a net,” I begged him.  “Mmm,” was his slow response.

At that time we did not have any steel wire for making grasshopper nets.  I don’t know why.  Anyway, grandpa used a thin bamboo stick as a ring and sewed the cloth around it to make a net to catch grasshoppers.

I grabbed it and ran without wasting time to say “thank you,” and went to the rice field a couple of miles away.  The early afternoon sun was hot compared to the chilly morning.  After running for two miles, my light cotton blouse and pants were all wet like being soaked by the rain.

The farmers often said, daytime heat will accelerate the ripening of the rice.   Several scarecrows stood in the field to chase away birds and grasshoppers.  At first the sparrows and grasshoppers were frightened by the scarecrows, later they were getting smarter and were even landing on the heads of the scarecrows with loud chirping.  When I ran to a small trail between the rice fields, a couple of boys were already catching grasshoppers and filled half of a one pint glass jar.

Gee, they got here before me, I said to myself, and continued mumbling.  If I am behind them catching grasshoppers, I will come back later to make up.  I cannot be behind.

“Hey, Kook-Wha, no girls are coming here.  I will tell your mom you were here again at the rice field.”  A boy with a bald haircut and a lanky figure like a small telephone pole threatened me.

“My grandpa said it was ok,” was my timid and naïve answer.  If my mother knew I was in the rice field again I would be in big trouble.

When I arrived in the middle of the field, a bunch of grasshoppers flew away with a loud noise from flapping their wings.  There were so many grasshoppers, gray, brown and green, I could almost catch them in my hands.  By swirling the net, one, two, three — I put the grasshoppers into the jar.  I got a full bottle of grasshoppers.  “Oh, great.”  I was thrilled, but I wondered how could I ask mom to saute’ or roast them for a great snack?  I continued to talk to myself, I might get spanked again and continued, But today grandpa is at home, so it will be okay.  With these thoughts I ran home with the bottle full of grasshoppers.

Mom was in the kitchen and grandpa was in the yard taking care of the pigs.  I was relieved because in the presence of grandpa mom had never yelled at me and never, never spanked me.

“Mom, I caught some grasshoppers.”  Mom was quiet.  “Mom, can you saut’e or roast them, like Soodal’s mom did for him?  He is having them for snacks all the time”.  Soodal was the lanky boy.  I begged mom, holding two hands tightly.  “Soodal already came and told me that you were at the rice field,” mom answered.  I noticed the cold expression on her face.  “Mom, please.”  I asked her one more time with my head down without staring into her face.

She started to make a charcoal fire in a very small stove.  It was one foot high and about a foot in diameter with two layers inside.  The upper was for charcoal layers and the bottom had a side wall with a small inlet for the air flow.  When the charcoal had a red flame, mom put the pan on that was coated with soybean oil and waited for the pan to get hot.

“Mom, thank you,” I almost screamed.  She did not answer, but just did it for me.

I did not remember how I poured the grasshoppers from the narrow mouthed bottle into the hot pan, but I do remember that as soon as they were in, I put the lid on the pan.   Mom and I could hear the popping noise of the grasshoppers as they jumped inside the pan.  “Grasshopper Popcorn”.  The smell of soybean oil was permeating the air and stimulated my appetite.

The tension between my mother and I was reduced, and I saw a beautiful smile on her face.  It was a rare occasion to see that she was happy about my odd behavior instead of punishing me.  Mom, thank you.  I am so happy,  I mumbled to myself.

When mom opened the lid of the pan the grasshoppers lay down in the pan.  Some had wings, some didn’t.  I grabbed them into my mouth.  They were hot with a soybean oil smell.  “Yummy, mom,” I was exhilarated.

One week ago, in the middle of September 2010, I read in the Wall Street Journal about a gourmet food restaurant with insects; crickets, grasshoppers and others with a bug theme, for dinners, snacks and main dishes, in Brooklyn, New York, and Boston area,  promoting “Insects are tasty and nutritious”.

Now, I must decide whether to have gourmet meals with insects.  It may be a wonderful memory re-created, but will my guests enjoy it, even myself?  That is a great question, besides, how will I catch live grasshoppers around here?  I haven’t seen any rice fields in Michigan.  The smile on my face said it all.  I was one of the first pioneers with creative gourmet snacks with grasshoppers popcorn.