by Miko Johnston


Climbing BooksIn the spring of 2018, I organized a volunteer program at a local high school. Together with three other writers, we mentor students in a creative writing class. Every semester we accept up to three pages of writing from the students, which ranges from chapters from novels-in-progress to poems, short stories to essays. We critique the work, make comments and corrections, and return it to the class. Their teacher has mentioned how much her students enjoy the process, how they anxiously await the feedback we provide.


Writer GiraffeEach time we begin a new round of submissions, we, too anxiously await the material, hoping to find both familiar names and new ones. Having worked with the class for over a year, including several students who’ve been in the program since it began, I’m delighted to see a steady improvement in their work.


Not surprisingly, some of the writing we’ve seen has been what can be called fan fiction, based on existing work. Beginning writers often borrow, sometimes heavily, from books they’ve read or what they’ve watched on TV. However, I recently received something that crossed the line.


One essay submitted dealt with a topic the student obviously felt strongly about, for the words, while lacking eloquence (or grammar), contained genuine emotion. However, by the middle of the second paragraph, I noticed a distinct change in the writing, enough so that I Googled a phrase from his piece. Sure enough, it turned up on the website of an organization, cut and pasted word for word.


I have no idea if the student in question understood how wrong it is to take another’s writing and pass it off as your own. I immediately notified his teacher, who assured me she’d talk to the author of that piece. That still left me with the critique. It’s not my place to discipline the student, but I felt I had to address the issue in a way that made the point without overstepping.


I began by making corrections to the part of the essay written by the student, along with suggestions on how to improve it. Just before the essay switched to the website’s words I added the following – everything in parentheses has been paraphrased to maintain anonymity:


Winding Road Sign(Student), I am stopping my critique here, since this is where your words end and the essay you copied and pasted from (organization’s website) begins. What continues below is called plagiarism – taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own. Aside from being illegal and dishonorable, you’ve weakened your message.

The part you wrote yourself needs some work. The grammar is not perfect and you have a lot of unnecessary words in it. However, it is heartfelt, moving and real. It’s obvious that you truly care about (cause), however imperfect your writing about them may be. While (organization) may be dedicated to (cause), their website is designed to raise money. You’re writing to inspire people to care about the problem and do something to change the situation, and you’re doing it from the heart.

I would like to see you go back and rewrite this in your own words. Then I will be happy to look at what you’ve written. I’ll help you put the final polish on it so it stirs the hearts of anyone who reads it and encourages them to help (cause).


Now I’m the one anxiously awaiting feedback from you. Do you think I handled this correctly? What would you have done?



Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com



(Due to computer idiosyncrasies, this blog was posted by G.B. Pool for Ms. Johnston. Computers have their own minds.)

Teaching Writing in Africa

Ah, the stories they tell!

IMG_0643MeTeachOn a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.

Two years ago I taught most of these kids “How to Write A Short Story.” Their creations were marvelous, and in fact, I posted some of the stories on my blog, Here’s How It Happened. (See the mystery, “The Tay Diamond”,  the action-packed, “The Adventures of Timmy, the Squirrel”,  and the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque “The Mirror”)

IMG_1133Booklet coversAfter reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.

This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.

IMG_0645MeTeach Young classBefore I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud.  There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).

I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions.  I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.

IMG_0640MeTeach Micah,TylerFor the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished.  I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them.  (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)

We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words.  Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion.  Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.

We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.

Character traits 71T4QNm+soLNext, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon.  I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait.  We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)

As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions.  “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or  Timothy was peculiar because he….”

For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.”  They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.

IMG_0654 Older writing classFor the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.

We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations.  These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)

IMG_0651MeTeach MatthewIMG_0653MeTeach AndrewThese boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.

I think they got it! By George, they got it!  

(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)

At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.

I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!

IMG_0667MeTeach fun


Post Script:  I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive.  One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish.  Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.



A Visit with Marilyn Meredith

As referenced in my May 1 post here on Writers in Residence, I wanted to talk to Marilyn Meredith about the unique experience of using real people’s names. For me, a “one of a kind” experience. Thank you, Marilyn, for including my namesake character in Spirit Wind!

Marilyn in Vegas 1
Marilyn Meredith

Hi Marilyn, and thank you so much for doing this interview with me. This last Wednesday, I mentioned on this blog site how seeing my name in a book felt, and some thoughts about the experience.. I really enjoyed reading Spirit Wind—plot, characters, location, interactions… In line with those thoughts, my first question is:

  • Where did you get the idea of using another author’s name in a book? I thought it such an unusual idea. I certainly loved being in the contest-and of course, was thrilled to be a winner.

At various mystery cons I attended, big name authors auctioned off the chance to have the winner’s name used for a character. I thought why not do that in a contest on a blog tour as a way to get people to follow the tour. It worked, and was fun for me.

  • If you personally know the person, do you think about that person when you write their name in the story? Or are you thinking about the character? I’ve used the first name of people I’ve known, and sometimes memories not connected to the book surface—and I have to stop for a moment or two.

No, once I know the name, I start conjuring up a persona for that person—however, for Madeline Gornell in Spirit Wind I did add something about the real Madeline—and I’m sure you know what that was.

  • What kind of feedback have you gotten from others?

Everyone seems to have loved the experience. One fellow, and another friend, who is gay, loved that I his names sake was a macho cop.

  • Location/setting is really important to my enjoyment of a novel. I love being “taken away,” which you very successfully did in Spirit Wind. Why did you choose the Tehachapi setting? Is Tehachapi a special location for you:

I’ve always been fascinated by Tehachapi, the wind machines covering the mountains, and the engineering miracle of the Loop, where the engines of long freight trains pass the ends. I also had a friend who suggested that I use Tehachapi and the Stallion Springs resort as a setting.

  • Do you believe in ghosts, or spirit directions and/or haunting? I found that a very intriguing part of the story.

My beliefs about spirits is that there are both good ones and bad—as in the biblical sense. Though I’ve often thought that the memories of people who once lived in a place still exist. And to be perfectly honest, I love ghost stories and haunted houses.

  • Are there other back stories to your plot—or interesting happenings that inspired you? Such as the earthquake in Tehachapi? Or?

I remember that big earthquake in Tehachapi though I didn’t live there. When I was researching Tehachapi I learned a lot about the devastating earthquake, what it did to the town and to the women’s prison. Before the earthquake, a young movie star was incarcerated there for killing her husband, but later was released, and yes, that gave me a big part of the plot.

  • What were your personal feelings when you visited the wind turbines? For me they were HUGE up close and personal.

They are absolutely enormous—and there are so many of them! Even more interesting, is the many ranches and homes tucked away among them.

  • Any other thoughts you’d like to share about Spirit Wind?

When my daughter and I visited Tehachapi to make sure I had everything right or right enough in the story, while visiting the wind turbines, we came across an injured back-packer who’d been following the Pacific Crest Trail all the way from Mexico. We gave him a ride into town. I thought about the fact that I could have woven some interesting tale about him into the story, but it wouldn’t have worked.

Tehachapi wind machines.2
A few of the Tehachapi Windmills

Thank you, Marilyn. Spirit Wind is a most enjoyable book ((of course I  might be a tad biased(smile)) Here’s Marilyn lovely ethereal cover and contact info.




This and That…

Fotosearch_k25788172The “This” in my current title (I’ve used a similar title before) refers to BBC audio-book plays. The “That,” is my name being used in a novel. I don’t think the two are connected, though I’ve experienced writing ideas and connections coming at me from surprising directions. As I found out with my current WIP.

I’ve tried, but don’t have the knack for writing screenplays, much less a regular play, much less a BBC type radio drama. But I’m thinking there is something to be learned from dissecting your novel down to acts or segments. Especially if back stories, scene painting, character development, internal thoughts, etc…are what you/I like to write. And also, if forever-in-length compound and complex sentences with parenthetical phrases, asides, and flashbacks are what one(me) likes writing.(smile)

Recently though, over the last year or so, I’ve become very fond of “This”—BBC radio broadcasts offered by Audible that I can download to my Kindle and listen to as I’m falling off to sleep. My current favorites are Simon Brett’s[i] novels with the leading character Charles Paris. Adapted for radio, with Bill Nighy in the lead as Charles Paris.[ii] I’ve read many Simon Brett novels, and I’m very fond of his books and characters: now, I am also so impressed at the skill, ability, and writing-ear of the novel adapters for BBC Radio. (Of course Bill Nighy is also an extremely good actor-film and voice.)

As you may have already guessed, from “This,” my thoughts have gone down the ThinkingHeadtoBookpath of—how the essence of the character, the basics of the plot, and setting, are all capsulated into two-to-four hours of narration with a few sound effects to produce a really enjoyable play/radio adaptation. Though I’m still thinking about this particular tightrope,  I have noticed in my latest edit of my latest WIP my “what’s necessary” filter seems heightened. Of course, there are items not crucial for a “hearing” experience,  that I still think are necessary to the reading experience to enable escape to/into a different world through a character’s eyes. Indeed, both well done BBC plays I’ve heard, and many loverly novels I’ve read exemplify story-telling at its best–but from different perspectives.

The “That” is—my name used in a book. Marilyn Meredith, a wonderful writer with two series[i] I follow had a blog tour contest wherein a person who left a comment on each post during the tour went into a drawing . The Prize—Marilyn would use your full name in an upcoming book. What a wonderful promotional idea, I thought, and still think. I won one of her contests.

But I must admit, at first encounter on the printed page, seeing and internally hearing my full name was disconcerting . Marilyn’s Madeline Gornell, was of course quite different from me (I think!) Except for her hobby. It was a unique and enjoyable experience, and this Sunday here at Writers in Residence, I will be posting a short interview with Marilyn with some questions about Spirit Wind, Turbines, ghosts, and more…

I am combining the first names of two lovely ladies I know into one for a character’s name (with their permission of course). LydiaRose. And  given my own feelings and reactions now, I’m now wondering if I should. I liked my name “in lights,” but will they too, once the deed is done? Hmm…

A further follow on tidbit and unexpected connection—and to my joy—seeing my name in Marilyn’s latest Tempe Crabtree novel also led me down the character names path,[iv] and yet again, out of the blue, a serendipity connection was made—I realized what was wrong with a recently dumped WIP that I just didn’t like! I changed a name, and with that simple revision the “underlying” plot fix popped right out—A change of character emphasis, and whose mind to start the darned thing in. Now I’m back to Rhodes The Caretakers rewrite/editing. Hope to have out by July…

As always, love hearing your thoughts on my meanderings—such as audio books, BBC radio dramas, character names, ideas coming out of the blue, unexpected connections–this and that…

Happy Writing Trails!

[i] Simon Brett, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Brett

[ii] Bill Nighy, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Nighy

[iii] Marilyn Meredith https://fictionforyou.com/

[iv] We have several great posts on character names on Writers in Residence!

Game Town

A new Release in the Skylar Drake Series

by Janet Lynn and Will Zeilinger


book coverA Synopsis just to whet your appetite…

 Skylar Drake is hired as a bodyguard for two young starlets. He delivers the actresses home after the Emmy Awards ceremony, but stumble onto the murder of Silver Brovor-Smith, the mother of one of their charges. He wonders why the FBI is on-scene for a simple murder.

Drake and his partner are now on the case as suspicion shifts between the victim’s husband and her three brothers.

Drake and Dolan are misled while kidnapping and mysterious deaths take them into the world of Hollywood backroom deals.

They must keep the high-profile family from becoming front page news.

Drake meets the perfect woman to help him move on, but is she a suspect?

The letters P-E-G-O seem to appear everywhere. He thinks they may be connected to the crimes.

Follow Skylar Drake to Hollywood parties where the forbidden is accepted and games played are for keeps.

This is just a taste. The book is available now. Check it out.


BW Janet Bill 01The Authors

Janet Elizabeth Lynn and Will Zeilinger


Published authors Will Zeilinger and Janet Elizabeth Lynn write individually until they got together and created the Skylar Drake Mystery Series. These hard-boiled tales are based in old Hollywood of 1956-57.  Janet has published seven mystery novels and Will has three plus a couple of short stories. Their world travels have sparked several ideas for murder and crime stories. This creative couple is married and live in Southern California.


The next Skylar Drake Mystery, GAME TOWN,  the fifth and final book in the series, is Available NOW, and yes…we are still married!


Here’s just a sample for your reading enjoyment.



Janet Elizabeth Lynn

Will Zeilinger

 (Chapter One)

Two o’clock in the morning. I’d just left the Emmy Awards ceremony at the NBC Television Studio in Burbank. All of Hollywood and its finest had shown up tonight to honor the best of television for 1956. The winners and losers were either at a party celebrating or hiding somewhere licking their wounds. I’d just left the event driving south on Cahuenga toward Hancock Park. My partner, Casey Dolan was in the passenger seat. It was pouring rain when we left Burbank. It seemed to be lessening as we headed away from the valley.

We’d been hired by Epic Studios to escort a couple of their up and coming starlets to and from the event. In truth, we were their bodyguards. The motion picture and TV studios weren’t taking chances with their human investments.

The two young ladies in the back seat were passed out cold. I suspected they’d had a little too much Champagne before and during the ceremony.

I drove through the Wilshire Boulevard entry gate and onto Fremont Place, one of the most exclusive and expensive neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Ahead we spotted a lot of activity on the street. Dolan sat up and stared at the mess ahead, “What the Hell?”

Several police cruisers and what looked like government cars were lined up in front of a house with their spotlights trained on it. As we got closer, I saw the address. 859 in brass letter, attached to the beam above the front door – the address where I was to deliver the girls.

Dolan rolled down his window to get a better look. He pulled his head back inside and said, “You sure this is the right house?”

I parked at the opposite corner. Dolan said, “I’ll stay here and keep watch on the girls.”

I sprinted up the wet sidewalk and ducked under the yellow police tape. A uniformed cop approached me and held up his hand like a traffic cop. “Sorry, sir. This is a police investigation. You’ll have to step back.”

I showed him my PI license and explained that I was a bodyguard for the two young ladies in my car and that I was to deliver them to this address.

He took a look at my credentials and shook his head, “Sorry sir…”

I heard a familiar voice.

“Drake, over here!” I almost didn’t recognize FBI special agent Olivia Jahns. She looked like she’d just stepped off the red carpet, poured into a slinky black evening gown. She held up one side of her long gown and made her way over to me.

“That’s all right officer.” She said, “I’ll take it from here.” He turned away while I followed Jahns into the mansion.

“Olivia…er, Agent Jahns. What’s this all about?”

She glanced back at me and said, “You’ll see. Just follow me.”

I stopped. “I meant the dress, the hair and…”

She too stopped and took a breath. “Come on Drake. You’re wearing a tuxedo. I can have fun too.” She continued to the front door. “Right now, we have a problem.”

Inside, the body of a woman in a pure white coat with a white fur collar was sprawled on the hardwood floor at the foot of a marble staircase. Her light blonde hair and fur coat were soaked with blood. The handle of a knife protruded from her waist. I bent down for a closer look. The blood in her hair was plastered to her face. Her mouth and hands were clenched. I detected a strong odor by the body. It wasn’t cherry, but it was sweet.

“Who is…?”

“The victim’s name is Silver Brovor-Smith.” Jahns interrupted me as most FBI agents do. “She’s the mother of Holly Becker, one of the young ladies in your charge.”

Brovor?…Brovor. Why did that name sound familiar? It dawned on me, “The Toy company Brovor?” I could visualize the logo – a big red circle with black and white letters.

“Yep.” Jahns nodded. “You got it.”

My mind raced. I remembered a lawsuit from years ago between family members after their father passed away. The papers had a field day with the scandal. I stood and asked Jahns, “You sure about Holly’s lineage?”

“Yup, no doubt, Brovor. Since you’re in charge of her, I’ll leave it up to you to break the news to the soon-to-be grieving daughter.”

We looked out the front door. The press had already gathered on the front lawn. Radio and Television remote trucks had set up their lights and equipment while the newspaper photographer’s flashbulbs blinded us. The reporters didn’t help the chaos as the street in front of the house was already jammed with the Coroner’s truck, loads of police cars and an ambulance. It seemed dark on the street. I looked up and saw that the street light was out. Strange that would happen on Fremont Place.

Jahns looked at me. “Why are you still here Drake?”

I headed for the door. It was late, and my brain had stopped working hours ago.

The two starlets came running past me, “No!” Holly yelled when she saw her mother’s body on the floor.

Theresa, the other young lady, shouted, “Oh my God. Oh my God!” She struggled to join her friend Holly, but Dolan had his hands full, holding her back from the scene.

“What are you doing here?” I yelled over the two young women’s screams. “You were supposed to keep them in the car.”

“Hey!” Dolan said, “There are two of them and only one of me.”

I took Holly by the shoulders and turned her away from the bloody scene. I hoped to say something comforting to her when she looked toward the stairway.

“What did you do to her?” Holly shouted at an older man wearing a white tuxedo coming down the stairs. Holly broke away from me and ran toward him. She began kicking and punching him, screaming, “What did you do to her!”

Several officers pulled her away, but she continued kicking and flailing, “You killed her!”

book cover

Check out some of the earlier books in the Skylar Drake series. This time capsule will take your breath away.

Polishing the Gem

Jewel 1by Gayle Bartos-Pool



Ask a writer what is the hardest part about writing and he or she will probably say either editing or marketing. Fortunately, all the large publishing companies and small houses have scads of editors who love to help you edit your work into the next blockbuster novel and there are hundreds of staff publicists who will market your book to all the bookstores…

NEWS FLASH. That first paragraph was 99 percent fiction, my writer friends. First, there are only a handful of large publishing companies left. Many publishing companies have either downsized or closed. And small publishers are hanging on by their fingernails. As you undoubtedly guessed, some horrible plague has hit the country and people have lost the ability (or desire) to read. (Sorry, the plague part is fiction, too. But the lack of readers is becoming truer and truer. That’s a reality. But I have heard rumors that there might be a comeback in readership because young people are getting bored with their iPads and SmartPhones and other computer gadgets and have returned to reading. Let’s hope that’s true.)

Pencil 1As for scads of editors available to help you whip your novel into shape if you do land a publisher, that privilege goes to the top five percent of the authors under contract to those last few publishing houses in existence. The other ninety-five percent and basically all the writers with smaller houses are usually asked to furnish a finished manuscript with every typo fixed and every misspelled word corrected. And don’t forget, you will have to make sure you have used the correct punctuation. If you’re lucky enough to find a small or medium size publisher who will glance at your work and run an editing pencil over it, lucky you.

I have read big-name authors’ works and books by those a little further down the food chain that had numerous errors in them. I wasn’t looking for errors; they were just that noticeable. Many editors either have left the business or have been terminated because publishers don’t have the money to pay them anymore. (Perhaps that is because the price of hardback books has gone up, but the sales of books has gone down due to lack of readers and the profit margin is dwindling.) Or perhaps they don’t see the advantage in putting out a better product. For the life of me, I can’t understand putting out an inferior product and hoping nobody notices.

As for a marketing staff to get your books into bookstores and libraries, publishers have a limited budget to push your book into large chain bookstores… if you can find a brick and mortar bookstore anywhere. Many of the smaller bookstores in my area which is Southern California (That’s Los Angeles.), have closed. But the big name publishers have a game plan. They will put your book in their catalog and try to sell it to those retailers who take books, but only for a short period of time. That means three-four, maybe six months. Then the publisher takes it off their list and they go on to the next handful of writers they have signed and they try to sell their books.

The window of opportunity is very short. And once it’s over, and unless your book grabs the attention of the media or a film company or you hit the Ten Most Wanted list and you become a household name, your book fades away.

If this sounds depressing… It is. But that doesn’t mean you should turn out an inferior product because the chance of selling it to a publisher is small and why bother? Of course you want to bother. It’s your baby and you want to turn out the best product you possibly can even if you do all the work.

Hand with Red Pen Proofreading a Manuscript

So let’s discuss the first job I mentioned: Editing. Remember, in a gem there are many facets you need to polish. I’ll cover Marketing in a separate blog post.

Whether you are self-published or you are with an established publishing firm, you have to do that editing yourself, or at least most of it. Then, if you’re lucky, you will have writer-friends who will help you with your book. Or maybe you know an English professor from the local college who will do you a favor. Maybe you will have to slip her a few bucks to do the work, but it will get done. At least the roughest areas will be polished. But without a line editor or continuity editor or a person who knows what sounds good and what sells, you will still have a diamond-in-the-rough.

So how much editing is necessary? How high is up? I don’t mean to be sarcastic, just realistic. If you write on a computer, do your first draft even if it takes you years. Yes, years. Usually first time writers take two, five, even ten years to write their first book. It gets easier after the first one.

Whether you write a chapter and then go back over it and over it ad nauseam, and then another chapter and another, or write out the entire thing, warts and all, in one fell swoop, you now have a first draft. It’s the big wad of clay that you need to shape or the rough rock that you have to file and polish in order to get to the gem inside.

Let’s take this section by section.


Jewel 2Polishing the Gem

Part One: Know Your Characters


Something I do while writing every book or short story is keep a List of Characters that tells me their name and a short description of who they are and the role they play in the story. This helps me remember that the antiques dealer is named Lloyd Fowler and not Raymond Fowler. (I just caught this mistake while editing my most recent publication, but that’s why I keep a character sheet.)

When I go through the first editing phase, I refer to that list to make sure I have everybody’s name right. It gives me the opportunity to check and make sure I don’t have two people with the same last name. (I did this in the latest book, too. I changed one of those names.)

The Character List also shows me if I have too many characters with the same letter beginning their name. I might have a Kari and a Kirby, but they are minor characters and they don’t interact, so I left them as is. But I don’t want a Maisie, Margaret, Minnie, and Marvin showing up at the same time and place. It’s too confusing. There is an Alphabet at the bottom of the Character List. I circle the first letter of the name they most often go by so I don’t have too many names beginning with the same letter.

Invariably an errant name will slip past you while writing that first draft, but hopefully you will catch the error when you begin the editing process. That’s why you keep the Character List with you and update it in case you change a name along the way.

PeopleThere is another reason why this Character List is so important. Say you write a book and it takes off and you want to write a sequel or a trilogy or a series. How are you going to remember all the people your main characters met in book one if you don’t have a list of Who’s Who? And you need to have a similar list for each subsequent book.

Along with the Character List, I highly recommend writing a brief biography for each of your main characters, especially your principle character. This not only lets you chronicle the character’s hair color, age, height and weight, but it also records character traits, education, and job history.


Parts Two & Three – Keeping Track of Time & Line by Line – will be coming up in another few weeks.

Me? Write a Memoir? But…!

by Gail Kittleson

Decades ago, some friends invited us to go rafting on a local stream. I thought our son, three years old at the time, would be excited, but he said,

          “I’m scared of those rabbits, Mommy.”


          “Yeah. Evelyn said we’re going to come to some rabbits…”

Those rapids would’ve scared me, too, if I thought they might hop into our raft. After a bit of explanation about the mild rapids, our son loved rafting.


Misunderstandings often ground our fears, and this proves true with writing. Being afraid to express our anxieties in black and white originates in false assumptions:

  1. What we write may be used against us.
  2. There’s a ‘right’ way to write, and we haven’t learned how.
  3. Once we write something down, we’re bound to the perspective we embraced at the time.
  4. Once written, our words will be “golden,” and therefore, we can’t destroy them.

          First of all, what we write may be used against us. But this is no reason to forego all the benefits of the process. Writing in a safe place that no one ever sees has done wonders for many people experiencing trials.

The feeling that we have no control over who might see what we write can keep us bound by the tide of emotions swirling inside us. Launching out to safely journal our thoughts, tied irrevocably to those emotions, may seem beyond our power.

          In order to take this tentative step, we must unlearn the second misconception, that there’s a ‘right’ way to write. Nothing could be farther from the truth. No perfect method for expressing what we feel exists.

In fact, the ‘perfect way’ will be the way our words come out. Each person’s story contains unique content, since it comes from our one-of-a-kind inner being. Each of us perceives even the identical situation with variations.

A family outsider, my sister, or my brother will see what I remember differently than I do. But my first feeble step—even if that amounts to writing one short paragraph about what’s transpiring inside me—unleashes immense healing power.

          Now to the third misnomer: we are not bound by our viewpoint at any given time. A glance around us reveals that everything changes constantly. The only constant is change, as they say.

If I still looked at what I experienced fifteen years ago with the same eyes, I would be in big trouble. But the thing is, I would never have arrived at my present perspective if I hadn’t started writing down my thoughts and feelings.

          At the time, my journal pages seemed somehow sacred, and they were. But as the years have passed, I’ve grown, and at certain points, I let go of certain writings from the pasts. Burned them, because they no longer seemed ‘golden.’ Some of them, I kept and edited. And re-edited, and re-re-edited into a memoir. That’s not the route for everyone, but proved to be an important part of my journey.

The point is, your writings are your writings. You have the right to choose what to do with them, including chucking them down a sinkhole never to be seen again.

And the broader point is that in the darkness of an emotional avalanche, we cannot even know what we think. By allowing words to flow from us, we invite clarity, and through this process, discover truths we would never have imagined.

Words equal an enormous gift—penned quietly in secret places, they blossom like hidden desert plants that bloom in darkness, where no one observes. But their flowers bear perfume, attracting the necessary insects for pollination. It may be that we will rework and launch our writings into a published memoir, but either way, this practice can become a powerful experience.

“Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than You.” 
Dr. Seuss


Gail Kittleson 2

When Gail’s not steeped in World War II historical research, writing, or editing, you’ll find her reading for fun, gardening, or enjoying her grandchildren in Northern Iowa. She delights in interacting with readers who fall in love with her characters.

Gail Kittleson taught college expository writing and ESL before writing women’s historical fiction. From northern Iowa, she facilitates writing workshops and women’s retreats, and enjoys the Arizona Ponderosa forest in winter.

catching up

Catching Up With Daylight; a Journey to Wholeness, is Gail’s own memoir. She and her husband began renovating an old house after he returned from a deployment in Iraq.  The book is “a gorgeous tapestry of non-fictional thoughts. This very gifted author knows how to weave her thoughts, memories, and the history of the old house she is refurbishing into a journey of emotional and spiritual wholeness.”


Women of the Heartland, Gail’s World War II series, highlights women of The Greatest Generation: In Times Like These, April 2016, With Each New Dawn, February, 2017 A True Purpose (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, and Word Crafts Press, December, 2017.)


  Cover_APuroseTrue    With Each New Dawn    In-times-like-these
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NOTE: This article was posted for Gail Kittleson by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin