#Writing with Color – Writing help from Ingrid Sundberg

Author Ingrid Sundberg loves collecting words. She collects them, writes them down, makes lists of them and uses them to improve her writing.

“One of my on-going word collections is of colors. I love to stop in the paint section of a hardware store and find new names for red or white or yellow. Having a variety of color names at my fingertips helps me to create specificity in my writing. I can paint a more evocative image in my reader’s mind if I describe a character’s hair as the color of rust or carrot-squash, rather than red.”

And one of the coolest things she has done is put together a color thesaurus that YOU can use to improve your writing. I’ve included a few examples below (only red, white, and blue) but you should take a look at her website to get the full effect:

colors blue colors red colors white


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What Can I Tell You? Setting and Description

My creative writing students often ask me how much setting and description stories or novels should have. The answer, of course, is: “It depends.” Some authors’ personal style is to avoid description and setting—in some cases altogether—and that’s a perfectly acceptable choice if it’s done well. Also, the shorter the work is, the less room one typically has for such concerns. In flash fiction, for example (generally but not exclusively defined as stories of 1,000 words or fewer), there is typically little to no description, and minimal setting. However, in longer works, the general trend over recent years has also been toward less description and more action.

Some people even insist that writers begin a novel in the midst of action or dialogue. This isn’t always necessary (and in some cases works terribly), but the sorts of extended descriptions that one might find in a novel written 100 or 200 years ago (or even a few decades ago) is no longer acceptable to most agents, editors, and readers. Take a look at Gone with the Wind, for example. It begins with two and a half pages of description and setting: we learn about Scarlet’s eyebrows and

Hattie McDaniel, star of the movie version of Gone With the Wind, has no time for your nonsense.

Hattie McDaniel, star of the movie version of Gone With the Wind.

breasts and her dress, in some detail. We learn about the hounds and horses and twins. We know it’s late afternoon and the dogwoods are in bloom. We hear about their upbringing, their socioeconomic status, and how their lives compare to those of others in similar areas in the region.

From my modern perspective (the book was published in 1936), it’s far too much. Not just because of length (it’s nothing compared to the vast swaths of setting and description that can be found in some older books—such as in gothic novels, like Ann Radcliffe’s), but because she is telling us a great deal that could easily be shown through her story. Being able to accomplish such showing is a sign of skillful writing. In addition, Mitchell’s approach can be rather dull, and it risks leaving the reader unconvinced by her statements.

That’s not to say that telling (which includes description and setting) is never appropriate. On the contrary, setting is typically essential, if only in brief. The reader must know what era a story is set in and what rules apply there. This level of setting can be expressed in dialogue, of course, as well as in exposition. When Stuart says, “The Yankees may be scared of us, but after the way General Beauregard shelled them out of Fort Sumter the day before yesterday, they’ll have to fight or stand branded as cowards…” Mitchell has told us precisely what the era is—right down to the day.

Casual mentions of technologies (does your character dial a number on a rotary phone? Have a party line? Use a flip phone? A bag phone? A communicator embedded in a device worn on their uniform?), or world events, or even slang, for example, can convey the time and place without the author directly telling us. The primary qualification—and the reason so many authors like to begin with setting—is that the reader needs to know very quickly what the setting is. If one is imagining 2016, for example, but then discovers several pages in that it’s 1816, that reader is confused, distracted, and maybe even angry enough to hurl your book across the room. (Identifying issues like this is a huge benefit of beta readers and writing groups.)

Another consideration in deciding how much to share lies in what your character is likely to be thinking about. One author who is known for his spare use of description is Ernest Hemingway. As a reader, my personal preference is for more description than he offers—particularly because he is writing about a time and (usually) a place that is outside my realm of experience. This wasn’t always the case for the people reading his books right after they were published, which may have been a

This stark image of soldiers walking in the mist nicely expresses how little Hemingway provides in the way of setting and description.

This image nicely expresses how little Hemingway provides in the way of setting and description.

consideration for him–but it’s clearly an aspect of his style, in any case.

With respect to A Farewell to Arms, which is informed by his experiences during World War I, his lack of description is striking. His protagonist, Frederic Henry, is seeing many horrible things, and many places and experiences that were new to him. Description and reflection on what he was seeing would have been natural. Unless, that is, he was sufficiently traumatized that he wanted to avoid thinking about or even acknowledging what was going on around him. It’s clear from his behavior—and from that of his companions (drinking, joking, visiting brothels)—that reflection was the last thing on their minds. So, in context, it makes sense. It’s a natural expression of his character’s experience. Here, too, is a sign of skillful writing.

So, the questions you should ask as a writer include:

  • What does the reader need to know and when?
  • What is the best and most engaging way I can express that information?
  • What would my character be experiencing and expressing (depending on your choices about POV)?
  • What would my narrator be most likely to express and why?
  • And, of course, what is my style as an author—or my style in this story? (Of course, they can differ.)

Most importantly, just keep writing!

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Clichés are the Worst Thing Ever

A cliché is a phrase, plot point, character, etc., that is overused and overfamiliar. Clichés make your writing seem boring, unoriginal, and simplistic—all things that good writers strive to avoid like the plague (see what I did there?) in order to keep readers focused on the story.

It’s fairly common for clichés—especially clichéd phrasing—to sneak into even the best writers’ work. Seeking them out and eliminating them is a normal part of the work of revision, but there are two main difficulties. First, one has to recognize clichés. This is especially problematic for newer or younger writers, because clichés become obvious only through exposure to them over time. The second main difficulty is that they are often invisible, because they make sense—they fit. This means that that finding an effective replacement can also be very hard. (Note: When finding ways to replace clichés, be careful to avoid awkward, confusing, or convoluted phrasing.)cliche

Among the many examples of clichés in phrasing are: dumb as a post, slept like a log, my heart raced, all talk and no action, the grass is greener on the other side, last ditch effort, light as a feather, rain on my parade, reinvent the wheel, cut to the chase, and so, so many more. Here’s a great site with tons of examples: I’m not suggesting these should never be used. In fact, they’re often entirely appropriate in dialogue. But if your writing has too many of these clichés, your work will be seriously weakened. It’s worth the effort of learning to recognize them, and at least reducing the frequency with which you employ them.

Clichéd plot points can be even more difficult to notice, because they depend on you, the writer, being familiar with your genre. You might come up with a brilliant story idea for a murder mystery, for example, but if you haven’t read widely in that genre, you might discover–after you’ve put a lot of time into writing, revising, and submitting—that you’ve used a plot that’s been done and done again, and that seems tired (old hat!) to folks who do know the genre. If you’re committing to writing in a particular genre, it makes sense to read widely in that genre (of course). But in the meantime, find a good writing group or set of friends and associates who you can bounce ideas off of. They can save you a lot of time.

Similarly, it’s easy to fall into character clichés or stereotypes, if you’re not careful. One I wrote into a story myself is the female healer. Once I came to know that genre better, I changed her to a blacksmith, which worked out even better for the story. Subverting reader expectations for characters can make your stories more interesting, in part because you have to work harder to make characters more complex—more three-dimensional.earlybird

There are many great resources for understanding and avoiding story and character clichés. A great general source, though it’s aimed specifically at television, is the website In spite of what their intro screen says, many tropes are, indeed, clichés or stereotypes, and the site is well worth extensive exploration. There are also a number of sites that identify genre-specific clichés to avoid, including, the sci-fi cliché section of the TV Tropes site, and Diana Wynne Jones’ book The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is also worth a read if fantasy is your field.

Now, go learn, and then write, revise, repeat. And don’t forget: tomorrow is a new day, always look on the bright side, and the early bird gets the worm.


DragonCon 101


DragonCon is the largest pop culture convention in the Eastern United States, and gets bigger every year. The event is steadily growing, attendance topping 70,000 this year (2015). With more and more interest in it, I thought it might help some people to get an overview of the event if they are trying to decide to go or not (yes, you should). Below I will do my best to break down this article into facts and suggestions.


DragonCon is a huge event that takes place in five different host hotels, plus a separate space for vendors selling all kinds of merchandise. Many years ago it started in the Marriott Marquis, and that is still considered to be the core of the Con by many. The Marriott is connected by sky-bridges, also called Habitrails by Con-goers, to the Hilton Atlanta and the Hyatt Regency. A few blocks from the Hyatt is the Westin, and a similar distance from the Hilton is the
Sheraton. These five hotels have the vast majority of the events in them.

mapsThe different areas of interest are called Tracks. There are Tracks for Writers, Star Trek, Star Wars, Costuming, Science, Urban Fantasy, and many, many more. Each Track has panels, specific talks that are listed in the schedule. Panels tend to run from about 10 AM until 11:30 PM or so, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of Labor Day Weekend. There is additional programming Monday from 10 AM until approximately 4 in the afternoon.

DragonCon is deeply involved in charity. There is a large blood drive every year which collects thousands of units of blood and plasma, and a different charity each year. In 2015, they collected over $100,000 for Lymphoma research.

The guests at DragonCon cover an impressive range of television and movie stars, writers, artists, and performers. This year, for example, the majority of the casts of both Arrow and Flash attended, as well as Lost Girl, and even cancelled shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Warehouse 13. There are famed comic book artists and writers, best selling and mid-level novelists. The website, is updated fairly often with additional guests as the Con approaches.

The dealers’ room, or vendor area, used to be in the host hotels, but it has far outgrown that space. This year, it was in the America’s Mart 2 Building, somewhat between the Hyatt and the Westin. The dealers took up over two floors of space, selling books, comics, artwork, costumes, props, videos, t-shirts, and much more. There’s also an art show with various comic book and fine artists, which was still in the Hilton at least this year.

Every year, in addition to all this, there are other events that take place outside the buildings. The DragonCon parade goes over several blocks, with participants divided up by section for their costumes- Stat Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who, Marvel and DC Comics, and other categories. The parade is a big event that they close down city streets for, and the route was about a mile long. It’s impressive to see, but also makes it damn near impossible to get to your 10 AM panels Saturday morning on time.

They also have a night at the Georgia Aquarium every year. The Aquarium is impressive by itself, but at night, filled with hordes of costumed characters, it looks amazing. There are places to sign up for this through the website.

Speaking of, you need to wear your badge and have it visible at all times. It’s what lets you in to the various hotels where the events are. Badges are available for pick up starting Thursday. In the past, badge pick up took a long time and had many problems. Over the last few years, they have streamlined the process, and the wait time has dropped from long hours to not much more than a few minutes.

Before I move on to my suggestions, I’ll deal with two questions I hear asked a lot. No, you don’t have to go in costume. A lot of people don’t. I’d guess it breaks down to something like 60% in costume, 40 % not, and that fluctuates by day and by time. I really enjoy putting together costumes for characters I like, but you absolutely don’t have to do that. As one friend of mine said, “The cosplayers need spectators!” Before I move on to the next question, let me mention one thing about the people in costume. It’s considered good manners to ask before taking pictures. I’ve never heard someone in costume say no, but still, it’s only polite. As the slogan goes at many cons, “Cosplay is not consent.”

The other thing I hear a lot of people ask about is bringing kids. There is an entire Track devoted to kids, so they are, indeed, welcome. But I’ll make a few suggestions on this front. First of all, as it gets later, especially Friday and Saturday nights, some of the costumes get a lot more interesting and a lot… smaller. Nudity isn’t allowed, but some folks come real close. As the evenings go on, I’d recommend to you keep the kids in the room. That’s not a rule, it’s a suggestion based on experience. Also, in the panels, the people coming in have paid good money to hear their favorites talk. If your child is fussy, crying, what-have-you, please, take them outside. I know you don’t want to miss the talk, but neither do the people around you.

As time has passed, each hotel has taken on its own flavor. The Sheraton, off by itself at the bottom of the hill (believe me, once you get there, you’ll know what hill) is where the Brit-Track is based. Most of your panels about Dr. Who, Monty Python, Orphan Black, and similar shows are down here. This also where one of the bigger ballrooms is, and some of the bigger parties at night are here. The Sheraton is also where you pick up your badges for the Con.

The Hilton, lowest on the hill of the three connected buildings, is where a lot of the big photo shoots happen on a large set of stairs out back. The Hilton lobby has a balcony around it on the second floor, and you can get a great vantage point on some of the large costumes and groups. I’ve seen a team of Spartans from the movie 300 here, as well as huge dragons and other fun stuff. It has a coffee shop.

The Marriott, center of the connected ones, is the big party. This is where you’ll see the most costumes, the most people, and where most of the early arrivals tend to gather. A lot of the big panels with the big names are here, too. The main level opens up on a soaring tower, and the lobby goes down two levels, all of which are packed with costumes, then a third that’s pretty much just an exit/entrance.. Also, for you coffee addicts, there’s a Starbucks here on the level below the main one, and a snack bar. Just to be confusing, the skybridges to the other hotels are on different levels. One skybridge also leads to the food court.

The Hyatt is the highest on the hill of the three connected ones. While the Marriott has more people and costumes, some of the cooler, if odder, stuff happens up here as the nights go on. Spontaneous dance parties, improvised clubs, and all manner of silliness happen. The Marriott seems more like a club, but the Hyatt ends up more like a clubhouse.

The Westin is a huge tower, the tallest building in the area. It’s the most recent addition to the host hotels. A lot of the Urban Fantasy track panels are in this building, from smaller talks to stars that fill the larger conference rooms. There aren’t as many parties or gatherings in this building, but that’s starting to change as time passes.

Now, on to my suggestions:

As I said above, the Con officially runs Friday through Monday. I get there early, usually Wednesday, and leave hyatt-dragoncon-2Tuesday. There is so much to see and do that even if you don’t indulge in the many, many bars in the various hotels, you are going to be exhausted by Monday. Traveling when you’re dead tired is never fun, especially not if you’re driving. Also, if you’re there Thursday, you can get your badge then, and not miss actual Con time while you’re doing that. If you can only do one or the other, I’d say leave later, but that’s up to you of course. Thursday night now has various pre-events, and an unofficial party in the Mariott lobby area. In fact, this party has now expanded, and many attendees are there Wednesday night as well.

If you do get there early, another suggestion is that you take some time and walk the hotels. Maps are nice, but don’t show you everything. Nothing replaces having actually seen things for yourself. It’s a lot easier to navigate to the panels if you at least have a basic idea where you’re going.

It doesn’t matter how carefully you plan, you will not see everything you want to. There are multiple Tracks, each with programming every hour or so. With programming that often spread out over five hotels, you just can’t be in two (or more) places at once. Know this going in, take a breath, and listen to Elsa: “Let It Go.” If you keep coming back, you just might get another shot at that panel, or at least many of the same people, next year.

You also need to pace yourself. It’s a few long days, and you will see more stuff by not getting sick than by not taking a break. You need to eat, you need to rest, and everyone else around will appreciate it if you shower at least once a day. I recommend bringing vitamins and taking them every day. Also, if you know you don’t do that well after the first drink, just stop. It’s easier on you and everyone around you.

Speaking of food, there are a lot of great places to eat in the area. There’s a large food court that is attached by yet more Habitrails to both the Hyatt and the Mariott. Even if you don’t eat there, that can be a way to get from one hotel to the other with less crowd. The food court has a lot of different places to eat. Personally, I’ve gotten rather fond of a place called Great Wraps. Despite the long lines, especially in the morning, they get the food out fast, it’s good, and they don’t skimp on the portions. My only problem with them is occasionally in the crush of the crowd, a few minor errors creep in, like sausage instead of bacon. There’s a 24-hour diner near the hotels called the Metro Diner, which has good food and a lot of karaoke. They need to work on the area people wait for tables, but again, it’s good food and a lot of it. Other places I recommend are Ted’s Montana Grill, Hsu’s Chinese and Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint. I don’t work at any of those places, don’t know anyone who does, and don’t own stock or anything. I’ve just found them to be really good. There’s also a Hard Rock Café in the area, and they have both good food and special pins and shirts for DragonCon every year.

There are several hotels in the area besides the five host hotels. The host hotels sell out really quickly. DragonCon ended on Monday. The Friday after, when I’m writing this, the Weston and the Hilton have already sold out for 2016. I haven’t stayed at one of the host hotels in a few years, and I’m quite happy with that. The host hotels are closer to the action, of course, but it’s a lot easier to get a good night’s sleep at some of the other hotels.

DragonCon can be overwhelming. They are smart enough to know this themselves. Starting on that early Thursday I keep mentioning, they have tours and talks for newcomers. Check the schedule before you go, so you can plan to go to one.

Speaking of planning, the crowds there are really, really big. There is half an hour between most panels, and you’ll need most of it to get from one place to another. There are crowds everywhere. The food court, the coffee shops, especially the skybridges, all get really crowded. There are several ATMs in the area. By late Saturday, they will pretty much all be empty.

The businesses in the area are smart. They bump their prices up during that weekend. The parking lots get especially pricey. Now, if you don’t care about the price, that’s fine. Personally, I have discovered that Atlanta has a great public transportation system, and that garages in other areas of the city don’t jump their prices.

Like you’d expect, all the hotels have elevators. It’s a huge crowd, and more and more people in wheelchairs and scooters are attending. Both because the elevators can have really long wait times, and because there are folks that actually need them, I’d suggest checking out the escalators or even the stairs.

Speaking of stairs, there’s a lot of walking. Five hotels, the space between them, and hunting up food covers a lot of ground. Good shoes and being in at least half-way decent shape before you go are good ideas.

I’ve been to DragonCon several times. Every year, at least part of one day if not more, it has rained. At this point, I’d say count on it happening. Unless you’re staying in one of the three connected hotels, and not going to any panels in the Westin and/or Sheraton, plan for dealing with rain at least a little.

All of these are suggestions based on my own experiences. You certainly don’t need to do any of them to enjoy DragonCon. I think they make things easier, but maybe that’s me. And if you’ve been, and found a really good idea that I’ve missed, feel free to add it in the comments below.

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Saturday Meme: #Writing, #Reviews, and Scorpion Petting

In reference to Thursday’s blog post about how critical reviews are for authors I give you this fantastic illustration from Debbie Ridpath Ohi of a quote by Liana Brooks.  I think that pretty much says it all, don’t you?  🙂

Scorpion Petting by D.R. Ohi

Image: Head with glasses and wild, purple and blue hair. Hearts in the corners. Quote says: If you love a book, write a nice review. It gives the author encouragement for bad days when they want to take up scorpion petting. – Liana Brooks.

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Writing Superstars


I recently had the great pleasure and fortune to attend the “Superstars Writing Seminar.” While many workshops teach various aspects of how to write and myriad issues involved in that craft, this one is unique. While the instructors are largely authors (and the majority of them New York Times bestsellers), this program focuses more on the business end of being a professional writer. While this can be touched on in different classes, this is the only one I am aware of that makes the business the main focus.

Among the instructors I listened to and learned from were: Kevin J Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, Eric Flint, Scott Boone, James Owen, David Farland (also known as David Wolverton), and Brandon Sanderson. If that array of names isn’t enough, there was Lisa Mangum, editor from Shadow Mountain, and Diana Gill of Harper-Voyager. There were other speakers, including special market research that broke down what length books are most profitable to write, and which prices work best to charge.

I’m not going to give specifics on what was said, that’s not what I’m writing this. I am going to say that it was a phenomenal amount of data to take in over three days. All the professionals there were friendly, approachable, took questions at the end of their presentations, and you could often find them after the day’s programming ended to ask more questions. I specifically want to praise Lisa Mangum here. After the third day was over, and the program technically finished, she spent a few hours (literally) in the hotel lobby, listening to the students pitch books or other projects, and giving feedback on how to strengthen the pitches. Where else could you get that kind of professional advice, and for free?

We didn’t just get a class about contracts, Eric Flint gave us each a copy of one of his actual contracts and walked us through the important sections, with pointers on what to look out for. James Owen and Brandon Sanderson told us how they got from where we are to where they are, best sellers and professional successes. James Owen was amazingly inspiring in his talk, and I’ll quote one of the things he said that resonated most strongly with me (and many others I heard discussing it): “Don’t give up what you want the most for what you want right now.” This came from a time in his own history when he was in a bad place and could have more or less sold out, or at least settled, and pressed on to his dream. It’s an amazing talk.

Kevin J Anderson is an amazingly successful writer of many series, both his own creations and other people’s. He shared tips for productivity, his philosophy for how to achieve success, and contributed on many other topics, as well as being one of the folks who run this program. He has learned a lot, and shares it with his students, of whom I am proud to be one.

While every speaker was impressive and informative (and entertaining), there’s more to this program than the classes. The students form a very tight community, helping each other out I have two examples that illustrate this point: the seminar is held in Colorado Springs, which is near both the Denver and Colorado Springs airports. The students among themselves banded together and arranged rides to the hotel from the airports. If you haven’t been to writing conferences before, you can take my word for it: that does not happen, especially with no direction from the people running the conference.

For my second point, while I was attending, by coincidence, I got three submission opportunities in my email. One was very specialized, and not in an area I tend to write, so I asked around during some breaks between presentations, and found several authors who loved the idea. I got to pass it along, which was gratifying on my part, but within an hour, I had several other people pass on opportunities to me, a few of which were things I am very interested in. The group has an active (closed) community on-line, and there’s a long record of them passing opportunities back and forth, supporting each other, and generally looking out for each other. For a beginning author, or even one with some success who isn’t up in the best-seller range yet, those kinds of things are invaluable.

I’ve been trying to find a way to sum all this up, and it finally came to me. I could go on about the opportunities this gives you, and that part is true. I could talk about how much I learned, and that’s certainly true. But if you want a little sound-bite, here’s what I think might motivate a lot of writers I know (and me, too): if you want to be one of the people up on the stage, instead of one of the many in the audience listening, you really need to go to this. That’s not an appeal to ego or vanity, but let’s face it, the people on stage at seminars, especially this one, make their living from writing. And that is something every writer I know, most definitely including me, wants.

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