The Bookshelf Muse Has Moved to Writers Helping Writers

The Bookshelf Muse has moved! 

But don't worry, you can find us, and all your favorite Thesaurus Collections, at Writers Helping Writers.

To help you get started, here are some direct links: 

Emotion Thesaurus

Setting Thesaurus

Weather Thesaurus

Symbolism & Motif Thesaurus

Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus

Skills and Talents Thesaurus

Physical Features Thesaurus

Character Trait Thesaurus

The Emotion Thesaurus

The Positive Trait Thesaurus

The Negative Trait Thesaurus

Emotion Amplifiers (FREE!)

Too many to mention, so please stop in and help yourself!

New articles each week to help you elevate your writing craft, improve your marketing skills, and ideas for promotion that shows you respect your readers.

If you have kindly linked to us in your blog sidebar or website, thank you! We hope you'll also bookmark our new site, and visit often. Happy writing!

Your Muses,

Angela & Becca

The Magic of Misleading

When I was a teenager, my mom used to like popping out from around corners and scaring me. I had to be super careful when I came home and the house was dark; just getting from the front door to my room was an adventure because at some point along the way, I knew she was going to get me. Sounds mean, but I actually loved it. And I still love that element of surprise in the stories I read—when I think it's headed one direction and then, WHAM! Surprise! Something happens that I totally didn't see coming, but when I look back, all the clues are there.

This kind of misdirection is magical, but like any good trick, it's hard to pull off. There's not a lot of information out there about how to effectively mislead the reader in a way that doesn't make them hate you forever, but Michaelbrent's here today with some great advice on the topic. So listen and learn, people. Listen and learn...


I’ve always liked magicians. Who doesn’t? For me, a kid who had trouble getting girls to even look at him, I was fascinated by any guy who could convince a girl to get dressed up in what more or less amounted to lingerie and then let him cut her in half, or throw knives at her, or stab her with a sword while she was floating in a water-tank full of sharks that had angry bees superglued to their teeth.

photo credit: Paul-W via photopin cc

The magic was cool, too. But mostly it was the fact that the guy got his pretty assistant to do all that stuff, whereas the girls I knew probably wouldn’t call 911 if I took a bullet for them.

Then I realized that the girl was part of a magician’s act. That he counted on me watching her. Because while I was watching her, he was doing the magic. He was setting up the trick, he was preparing to wow me with the surprise.

It’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart and put to use ever since.

I’m a writer. I’ve written movies, numerous #1 bestselling novels, and am consistently one of Amazon’s bestselling horror writers. And one of the things I like to do most is surprise the audience. My novel The Haunted has spent almost a full year on Amazon’s bestselling Ghost Horror list, and my newest scare-fest Darkbound bowed a few weeks ago and is currently beating out folks like Joe Hill and Dean Koontz on Amazon’s Hot New Horror Releases. Partly (I hope) this is because the books are generally cool. But there’s no denying that a large part of their punch is packed into endings that catch the readers off-guard. They get to the end of the book expecting one thing… and when they get something completely different, they are not only happy, they are absolutely delighted.

So how does a writer go about doing that? How do you mislead your audience in such a way that when the final revelation comes, readers are caught flat-footed… and love you for it?

Well, let’s go back to magic. Remember when you were a kid and your idea of a magic trick was to hold out an object, then demand that your mom close her eyes and you would then run off and hide it? “Open your eyes,” you would say. And Mommy would clap and coo and shout with delight. But not because the magic was any good. No, it was because that kind of reaction is, I’m fairly certain, required under the U.S. Constitution. Mommies must love our tricks.

But non-Mommies? Strangers? Even (gasp!) readers?

They’re a bit tougher.

Readers demand a better magic show. The whole nine yards. Flaming pigeons bursting out of our sleeves, disappearing monkeys, and even – especially – those skimpy assistants. 

Because those assistants are what makes the trick work. Great authors – like great magicians – know that the secret to misdirection isn’t withholding information, it’s giving extra information, and focusing the audience’s attention on that.

A pair of examples: I was recently driving to a conference where I was going to be talking authory stuff to a bunch of fans. On the way I listened to an audiobook, a suspense-thriller by a big-time writer. But I stopped listening rather abruptly when I started screaming because the author had, for the bijillionth time, said, “And then the super-spy told the other super-spy the plan. It was a cool plan, an awesome plan. And the two super-spies started doing the plan stuff, because they were super. But I, the author, won’t tell you what the plan was, because now you will be surprised when you find out. Mwahaha.” 

Okay, I’m probably paraphrasing. But it was pretty close.

Contrast that to the classic twist of recent times, The Sixth Sense. We’re so busy focusing on the ghosts, the scares, the plight of the little boy who we believe to be the protagonist, that we completely miss what was there the whole time (SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN LIVING UNDER A ROCK FOR THE LAST 15 YEARS OR SO): the fact that Bruce Willis was a ghost! Eek! But the clues were all there. The filmmaker didn’t hide them. He presented them all. He just gave us extra information, and made sure we paid attention to that instead of to the key stuff he planned on re-springing on us later.

As a reader, a good surprise can be one of the most gratifying experiences I have. But there’s a difference between a final revelation that ties together everything I already know and forces me to look at it in a completely new light… and a junky plot “twist” that the author throws at me out of left field with no warning whatsoever. One of them is a hoot, and makes me not only read the book again, but go around trying to get others to read it like I’ve just joined some kind of highly literary cult. The other just makes me want to hunt down the author and shake him/her until all the minutes he/she has wasted of my life are somehow tossed loose.

Authors are, by and large, solitary folks. We sit in our caves (we call them offices, but most of them are kind of dim and smell a bit odd, so “cave” is probably more apropros) and have only our own thoughts for company. That’s the bad news.

But the good news is that we can call up that attractive assistant at any time. To provide flash, dazzle, and interest. To give information we want our readers to have, so that the audience will not pay attention to the real information that will set them up for a surprise later on. Withhold everything and it’s irritating. But give a little extra, mislead properly… and it’s magic.

Michaelbrent Collings has written numerous bestselling novels, including his latest novel Darkbound. His wife and mommy think he is a can that is chock-full of awesome sauce. Check him out at or

Making The Pages Cry

Woooot! It's FRIDAY, y'all! And I've just discovered that instead of spending hours looking for free photos that fit my posts, I can just spell out what I want to say with my kids' magnetic letters. I have a feeling you'll be seeing more of these incredibly professional images in the future.

Riveting as this is, it's not what I popped in to say. What I really wanted to share is that I'm over at Kristen Lamb's blog talking about how to infuse emotion into your writing. If you're not familiar with Kristen's blog...oh my heavens. Just...go. Right this second. It's a gold mine of instruction and inspiration for the creative soul. I hope to see you there.

Have a great weekend! And if you are looking for some super awesome fun, don't forget to check out WANA Con. This digital conference is a great value, packed with amazing publishing talent and a huge learning opportunity!

Lengthening the Chain: Part 2

A few weeks ago I shared a bit of wisdom I learned from Bruce Coville at the Florida SCBWI's winter conference. In that post, I related how important it is for us, as writers, to lengthen the chain for our readers. Bruce went on to share a few practical ways for us to do this:

1. Take Your Art Seriously, But Also Take Yourself Seriously As A Business Person. Learn to read contracts. Learn to negotiate. Know what's happening in the industry. 

This is important because the more secure you are from a business standpoint, the more attention you can give to the writing of your stories. Confidence creates freedom—from indecision, from worrying that you missed something, from stressing over having to do something that you know you suck at (like balancing the checkbook or creating a marketing plan). If we can educate ourselves on the business-y things, we'll become more confident in our abilities, which frees us up to focus on the writing.

2. Take Your Art Seriously But Take Yourself Lightly. Strive to be great, but also try to be good

Oh my word. How awesome is this? Because good people do good things, right? If we're so tied up in our craft and our ego, how will we have time for the real world and the people in it? Craft is important, but kindness and patience and forgiveness and truth-sharing—these are the gifts that truly help others. If we embrace these good things and practice them ourselves, not only will we be helping others in real life, but the goodness will also come through in our writing.

3. Never Throw Anything Away. Ideas are usually better than your skill level. 

He talked about going back years later and rewriting an earlier story idea that he hadn't been able to do justice to at the time. My skill level hasn't evolved quite that far, but I HAVE learned the fine art of cannibalization. That story stinks, but the setting is really unique and interesting. Let me use that in my WIP. This idea is pedantic and elementary, but I love the character. Into my new story he goes. Truly, no idea is without value.

4. Embrace the Unfinished Chord. Leave something for the reader to dream about. 

As a musician, I LOVE this analogy. An unfinished chord is...somewhat unsettling. It fills you with this itching desire for something more. This is one of my criteria for a truly great book: reading the final page and thinking about the story...and thinking. Going to bed and waking up...still thinking. As an author, I'd love for each of my stories to leave a little question in the reader's mind. Something to keep them thinking and make them wonder and maybe start them asking questions they wouldn't have asked before.

Good stuff, yes? Thank you, Bruce Coville, for sharing your wisdom and thereby lengthening all of our chains.

And one last bit of good news...


If you're an author (or want to be), you must make plans to attend the Indie Revolution Conference, or as we like to call it: Indie ReCon - making Indie publishing a mission possible! While the conference focuses on Indie publishing, there will be tons of advice that will benefit writers who utilize all publishing styles.  And during the conference, our presenters and partners will be giving out loads of prizes - including new kobo e-readers. 

Best of all, you can attend online, for FREE. That means you can stay snuggled in your pajamas, sipping a beverage of your choice, while we deliver the content to you. The conference runs February 19 through the 21st.  Sign up now to ensure you don't miss important news and for a chance to win even more prizes.  (We promise we don't spam.)  So GO. Sign up now. You won't regret a single minute of this amazing free conference.

*photo credit: visualpanic via photopin cc
**photo credit: medically_irrelevant via photopin cc

Physical Attributes Entry: Toes

Courtesy of DaniJace @ WANA Commons
Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel 'list-like', while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight. 

One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help 'tell the story' about who your character is and what they've been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character's physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.


Descriptors: hairy, wrinkly, gnarled, bunioned, calloused, knobby, long, dirty, dainty, blistered, arthritic, rough, soft, stubby, broken, dry, bruised, frostbitten, webbed, pruned

Interesting Toe Factoids: 
  • The length of the second toe (whether it’s longer than the other toes or shorter) is determined by genetics.
  • You can’t serve in the U.S. Army if you’re missing any toes. This led to drastic measures for some who wanted to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam War.
  • Syndactyly is a condition wherein two digits are fused or webbed. Famous individuals suffering from syndactyly of the toes include Ashton Kutcher, Dan Aykroyd, and Joseph Stalin.
  • Marilyn Monroe had six toes on one foot.
  • the first known prosthetic limb replacement was for an Egyptian woman’s big toe, in 1000 B.C)
  • Toe cramps are painful and inconvenient, particularly at 3 in the morning. (Yes, I speak from personal experience). I'm sure they could drop a grown man to his knees, which could be an interesting flaw for a manly hero-type character.

Key Emotions and Related Toe Gestures: 
When someone is nervous or uncomfortable, toes can fidget or twitch like any other extremity. Adrenaline can cause the toes to tingle. And raucous, bladder-convulsing laughter can occur when the toes are tickled. 

Simile and Metaphor Help

  • Winter is not good for my toes. They dry out and get chalky and resemble aging mushrooms. It’s not pretty.
  • I hadn’t realized I’d been in the pool so long. My toes looked like shrunken walnuts. 

Clichés to Avoid
: toes that “curl” when someone is appalled or disgusted; the kiss that one feels all the way down to one’s toes; toes that are gnarled like tree roots

HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: His toes were slender and snakeish, like fingers, the long one curving way out past the rest. Between them and the fossilized nails, I shuddered to think of the damage he could do with just his toes.

BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above! 

Writing Authentic Emotion Podcast

CP Storm
Happy Valentine's Day, everyone! I know, some people don't care for the commercialism of this holiday, but I say BAH! Let's just celebrate the love, both towards others, and ourselves. I know life gets hectic and we don't always make time for the little things that make us happy, so make me a promise that you'll do something nice for yourself today, all right? Treat yourself. Take a glass of wine and go for a soak in the tub. Eat some chocolate. Have some ME time!

Also, I'd like to link to a podcast I did recently with Gray Jones, the creator of TV Writer Podcast, a partner of Script Magazine. When Gray first contacted me about doing a podcast, I was blown away.  After all, Gray has done all these great interviews with the writers of TV shows like Criminal Minds, ER, Law & Order, CSI, etc. and so many other amazingly talented people, I half-wondered if maybe his email landed in my inbox by mistake. But no, Gray had picked up a copy of The Emotion Thesaurus, and was struck by how well it would work as a resource for screenwriters. So, we had a great chat, and he asked me all kinds of good questions about writing techniques for conveying emotion, so if you're interested, have a watch/listen!

And just a reminder about three things coming up! 

Indie Recon starts on the 19th of February, and it's free & online! This is a great conference for writers who are interested in Self Publishing. There's lots of great speakers, amazing advice on how to be successful as an Indie & making sure your book creates an impact in the marketplace.

WANA Con starts on the 22nd of February, and it's online as well! This conference has a small fee, but it is P-A-C-K-E-D with value! Here's the full schedule of events. If you've ever wanted the professional conference experience, but couldn't afford the costs, then this is a great event to attend!

Finally, our WEBINAR, Using Nonverbal Communication to Wow Readers is open for Registration. The webinar will be 90 minutes long and held on March 6th at 8:00 Eastern. This course includes a ecopy of The Emotion Thesaurus, too! And if you already have one, don't worry. We'll gift your copy to a writer friend of yours if you like. Seats are limited, so reserve yours ASAP!

Dumping The Info Dumps

The Dreaded Info Dump. Did you wince a little as I wrote that? I know I did. That's because the info dump is something very easy to do, because after all, it's a great way to explain to readers why they should care about our characters, right? Well...not so much. It's actually something we should all avoid as much as possible, so please read on as our guest Leslie Ramey, Co-Founder of Compulsion Reads, dishes the real deal on INFO DUMPS.

Pssst! Afterward, please swing by Angela's World Of Writing (yes, another Angela! We are taking over the world, bwahahahaaa!) where she's sharing my post on Dealing With Rejection.

Dump the Info Dumps

One of the biggest challenges for writers is how to give readers the important backstory of their book without dropping a huge pile of information on them. As the co-founder of Compulsion Reads, a company that evaluates and endorses indie books, I’ve read my fair share of up-and-coming indie authors and have found that info dumps are a very common problem. (Being a writer, I too catch myself falling into the info dump trap)

 The big issue with info dumps is that they stop the story dead in the water. The important thing to remember is that readers are smarter than we often give them credit for. They don’t need to know right now that your protagonist, let’s call her Jane, got stood up at prom in order to understand that she is having a hard time accepting that Hottie McNaughty wants to take her on a date. If you set up the scene well we should be able to see and feel her apprehension without having to read about that dreadful night at prom. By merely hinting at Jane’s painful past, you can create tension that helps keep the reader engaged.

 The other problem that info dumps cause is that it’s nearly impossible to “show” an info dump. They almost always end up being “tells”, which affects a reader’s ability to fully immerse themself in your prose. When you stop to tell us why Hottie McNaughty doesn’t date drop dead beautiful women anymore we get pulled from all the emotions he feels when asking out Jane, and that’s a bummer. It would be like the power going out just as you were getting to the big scene of your favorite movie. Sure, the power will come back on and you can restart the DVD, but the moment has passed, and it’s just not the same.

 So, how do authors avoid info dumps? Here are a few helpful tips so you can dump those info dumps:

1. Ask the question “Is this information critical to the scene”- Most of the time the answer will be ‘no,’ in which case you can limit how much information you are passing on. The reader doesn’t need to know right now that Jane’s mom belittled her, which is another reason she is skeptical of Hottie’s invitation. We should have already gotten the hint in the way that Jane acts, the way she dresses and through dialogue with her friends.

 2. Sprinkle the information throughout the book- Instead of giving us all of the details right out of the gate, give us little bits here and there. Not only will this allow you to avoid overloading us with information, but we can slowly get to know your characters and the world you’ve created. In our example of Jane, you could have her in a dress shop with her BFF when she sees a row of prom dresses and shudders. She can then convince herself not to think about that horrible night. We readers know that we are going to find out what happened and are on pins and needles to read the big reveal later.

3. Let your characters hash it out- This tip can be very helpful and can go very badly, so keep your creative beast on a short leash when you try this technique. Have your characters discuss their backstories in believable situations. While Jane is in the store staring at the prom dress have her BFF remind her that not all men are like the loser who stood her up on prom night. Jane’s BFF could even go so far as to drop a line about how Jane’s mom was wrong, and that she really is a beautiful girl who any guy would be lucky to date. Look at that, not only did we reveal two big backstory moments in what could have been 100 words, but we also get to see Jane’s reactions to her BFF, letting us connect to Jane even more. The trick behind this tip is not to go overboard. Remember, readers are smart, and if you are using dialogue to retell a backstory we will know it and stick our tongues out at you for torturing us.

I know how hard it can be to avoid overloading your readers with information, but remember readers are smart, so don’t insult them. Instead, pull those info dumps, sprinkle your backstory throughout the book, and create a stronger, richer story that will fully immerse readers.


Compulsion Reads, created by Jessica Bennett and Leslie Ramey, seeks to shine the spotlight on quality indie books by endorsing those books that meet CR’s strict quality standards. Learn more about Compulsion Reads by visiting Enjoy our kooky video, read about our endorsement criteria and visit our growing library of endorsed indie books. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.

I think this is great advice, and I agree that it can be a large problem in novels, especially in those opening chapters as we try very hard to make the reader understand who our character is and why. A big thank you to Leslie for coming by to share a lesson gleaned from reading many, MANY books!

How about you, Musers? Do you have any other techniques to deal with bringing out critical information WITHOUT resorting to the big, pace-stopping info dump? This is a big struggle for so many of us, so please share! 

Physical Attributes Entry: Stomach

By Luca Boldrini

Physical description of a character can be difficult to convey—too much will slow the pace or feel 'list-like', while too little will not allow readers to form a clear mental image. If a reader cannot imagine what your character looks like, they may have trouble connecting with them on a personal level, or caring about their plight. 

One way to balance the showing and telling of physical description is to showcase a few details that really help 'tell the story' about who your character is and what they've been through up to this point. Think about what makes them different and interesting. Can a unique feature, clothing choice or way they carry themselves help to hint at their personality? Also, consider how they move their body. Using movement will naturally show a character's physical characteristics, keep the pace flowing and help to convey their emotions.

(AKA: belly, midsection, tummy, breadbasket, gut, midriff, etc.)

Descriptors: flat, tight, pierced, round, thick, jiggly, bloated, puffy, stretch marked, bloblike, rolly, ballooned, pregnant, hefty, plump, obese, pudgy, portly, skinny, taut, slim, smooth, bumpy, tattooed, hairy, veined, sculpted, pouched, swollen, soft, hard, flabby, tanned, pale, brown, firm, loose

Things Stomachs Do:

  • Bounce: jiggle, vibrate, quiver, tremble, shake, judder, jounce
  • Tighten: harden, tense, suck in, bind
  • Slacken: release, bulge, balloon, billow, relax, stretch

Key Emotions and Related Stomach Gestures: 
  • Embarrassment: When people are self conscious and especially if they are embarrassed of their body image, it is common to suck in the stomach to make it appear flatter, or to use arms to hide the stomach by crossing them. People who are confident in their shape have no qualms about dressing so their midriff is exposed or clearly viewable through revealing/tight clothing, while those with less confidence dress to conceal this area. 
  • Shock or Surprise: When someone is startled it is common for all the muscles to tense up, including the stomach. Once the moment passes, muscles are allowed to go flaccid once more. Laughter (in the aftermath of a good surprise) will cause the belly to shake.

Simile and Metaphor Help:                           

  • The man snored on his narrow beach towel, his massive, sun-burned gut looking like a giant zit ready to pop.
  • On the boardwalk, Sheila bopped in time to the music, oblivious to the doughy spillover happening at the top of her too-tight jean shorts.
Clichés to Avoid: likening someone a beached whale; fat jokes that ask where Ahab is; the beer keg or barrel stomach; making comparisons to Jabba the Hutt or the Pillsbury dough boy

HINT: When describing any part of the body, try to use cues that show the reader more than just a physical description. Make your descriptions do double duty. Example: 

I loved watching Eric sleep--so quiet and composed, his small chest rising and falling in a pattern, his stomach smooth and flat. His stillness was so unlike him when awake. Then, he became a wild, electrified force that bounced all over the house. But while he napped, I had him all to myself, watching to see if he would smile, if his belly would shake with silent laughter at something only a three-year-old would dream. 

BONUS TIP: The Colors, Textures & Shapes Thesaurus in our sidebar might help you find a fresh take on some of the descriptors listed above! 

A New Addition To The Bookshelf Muse

photo by stirwise/flickr

This post is a bit of a mish-mash, but there's some exciting things going on that might just be BIGGER THAN BACON.


First, you may have noticed a NEW Page tab above labelled Workshops and Webinars.  Becca and I are happy to announce that we're taking our show on the Virtual Road, and doing a bit of teaching!

Our first webinar, on March 6th, is Using Nonverbal Communication To Wow Readers and is being hosted by WANA International. If you struggle with emotion and how to show it, this is the class for you. Wana also has many other courses for creatives, too! We hope to see some of you there. :)


Becca and I have chosen our Charity of the Year and want to introduce it to all of you! Last year, we picked Heifer International, and thanks to your support, we were able to donate a portion of our royalties to this worthy cause. This year we're choosing UEND: Poverty, a organization that has projects all over the globe to help wipe out poverty. I found out about this charity a few years ago when my husband gave me a gift certificate for it for my birthday, and I was able to go into the site and choose which project to put the money toward. Very cool stuff!


Circling back to WANA International, we're also very excited to share their first online conference coming on Feb 22 & 23. The line up of speakers is amazing.There will be Agent Pitching and great advice from some of the best in the biz. And of course no event would be complete without some social fun, so there's a mixer and pajama party, too! You can download the full conference schedule right here.


Also, Becca is over at one of the most amazing blogs on the internet: Query Tracker, so please feel free to stop in and say hello! This blog and site was so helpful when I was looking for my agent--I hope any of you on the hunt are checking into all the information and tools they have for writers.


Finally, when we were celebrating our 3 BIG January milestones with a Kindle Giveaway, I asked to hear about the blogs that have helped you recently. You guys had so many sites to share, rather than let those blogs get lost in the comments, I rounded up all the ones you left links for and posted them below. Blogging and writing is also about building community, so I urge you to choose a blog on the list that you don't yet know and take a minute to swing by and say hello!

Blogs valued By Musers 2013

Krista Von Dolzer
Enriching Lives. Inspiring Hope
Rose Anne McCauley
Female First
Nail Your Novel
Janice Gable Bashman
Literary Rambles
Falling Leaflets

Cock-eyed Caravan
Lisa L. Regan
Nancy S. Thompson
Jami Gold
K.M. Weiland
Coffeehouse For Writers
Slushpile Hell
Conversations With Writers
Theresa's Tales of Teaching Tribulations and Typing Teen Texts
Catherine Scully

Rose Gaus: The Draw Page
The Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment

dVerse Poet's Pub 

Studio Mothers
James Scott Bell
Writer Unboxed 
Magical Words

Vaughn Roycroft
Jody Helund 
Sarah Nego
Kristal Shaff
Janice Hardy
Juliana Brandt
The Write Practice
Dean Wesley Smith
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Ellie Garratt
Gwen Gardner
Back Porch Reflections
Stacy Nash
Elana Johnson
Self Publishing Podcast
The Creative Pen
A Thought Grows
Live Write Thrive

Julie Coulter Bellon
Terrible Minds
Marcy Kennedy
The Pen Punks
Agent Query Connect

The Artsy Side Of Life

Girls Pwn
Sara Brookes 

Margie Lawson 
R.S. Guthrie
Kevin Rau

Lengthening the Chain

I attended the Florida SCBWI's Winter Conference last month—as a speaker, which was major league awesome, and I'll write more about that another time. But frankly, I was so blown away by what headliner Bruce Coville had to say that I wanted to share that first.

The speech he gave was called Lengthening the Chain. It's from a passage out of John Berger's Here is Where we Meet. In an exchange between a mother and a son, the mother starts by saying...

"One thing repaired changes a thousand others.” 

The son replies, “So?” 

And out flows a maternal speech: "The dog down there is on too short a chain. Change it, lengthen it. Then he’ll be able to reach the shade, and he’ll lie down and he’ll stop barking. And the silence will remind the mother she wanted a canary in a cage in the kitchen. And when the canary sings, she’ll do more ironing. And the father’s shoulders in a freshly ironed shirt will ache less when he goes to work. And so when he comes home he’ll sometimes joke, like he used to, with his teenage daughter. And the daughter will change her mind and decide, just this once, to bring her lover home one evening. And on another evening, the father will propose to the young man that they go fishing together… Who in the wide world knows? Just lengthen the chain."

Coville went on to discuss how what we do as writers matters. He read a letter he'd received from a man who had read his books as a child. One passage had touched this man in a profound way and stayed with him throughout adolescence, influencing him to eventually join the Peace Corps and work for a number of years in a third-world country. Imagine the number of lives this young man was able to touch and change for the better, because of an idea Coville had written into one of his stories.

Coville then went on to share a story about Alex Flinn, author of Breathing Underwater . When a fan read this book about an abusive teen relationship, it gave her the courage to break things off with her own violent boyfriend, and then reach out to other girls caught in the spiral of abuse.

Ellen Hopkins, who writes gritty stories in verse about difficult contemporary topics, was another speaker at the conference. She was contacted by a young drug-addicted girl who was disheartened by her many failed attempts to get straight. After reading Ellen's words, this girl gained the courage to try a final time. At their last correspondence, she'd been clean for 7 months.

We hear it all the time: our words have power. But here's proof, people. Words can be transformative, not only in the life of the reader, but in all the lives the reader touches.

Well, sure, you say, if you happen to write about drug addiction and physical abuse and life-or-death topics like that. What if I don't? How can my stories lengthen the chain and help my readers? 

The way All Dogs Go to Heaven comforted a girl grieving the recent loss of her pet
The way a fictional story about a horse could enlighten an entire world as to the reality of animal cruelty
The way a book about rabbits astounded a child with the truth that "nice people aren't always nice and evil doesn't always wear a black hat"
The way a great story can turn a non-reader into a voracious one
The way the familiarity and simple goodness of Little House on the Prairie and Anne of Green Gables could bring comfort and peace to a new mom in the throes of postpartum depression. [Guess who :)]

The fact is, there are a million ways that a story written from your heart can touch someone else's—by giving comfort, revealing a truth, introducing a character that the reader recognizes in him or herself, or simply providing a few hours of joy. So write the story that is yours to write. Be honest and brave and original, and use your gift to lengthen the chain for someone else.

Photo Credit: Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos (ClintJCL) via photopin cc

LINK: PART 2 of Lengthening The Chain