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Writing 101: Writing About Race

The issue of race, or more specifically racism, is everywhere right now. Well, actually, it's always been here -- but there are times when it gets talked about and it's felt more keenly than other times. And in this particular moment in history, racism and race are being talked about everywhere. For writers, this begs the question do you talk about race in your books? And when you do bring up race, are you doing it the right way?

Amtec Photos / Flickr

Race and Writing

Have you ever read a book where all the main characters are described with specific features -- brown hair, blonde hair, green eyes -- but only one, or maybe two, characters are ever described with a specific skin tone color? This actually happens all the time in books...though you may not have really noticed it before. 

When one character is singled out for being Black, or Hispanic, or by any color at all, it suddenly becomes glaring if none of the other characters are described by their skin tone. It suddenly makes every other character presumably white, and it suddenly means your book is operating under the presumption that white is such a dominant race, it's only worth pointing out if someone is non-white. Which may not even be true -- perhaps all the characters in your book are Black. 

So, how should writers be handling race?  It's up to every writer to decide how to mention the issue, or whether or not to mention it at all. But for the sake of sensitivity and equality, there are probably two options that stand out as the best. One option is to mention every character's skin tone and include this when their physical appearance is described in the book. Another is to describe skin tone for none of the characters. Hemingway did not describe the appearance of his characters or even mention what they looked like, which certainly didn't harm his stories at all. So don't think your books will somehow be lacking if you fail to include this information about appearance.

Ultimately, of course, every word on the page should be of the author's own choosing. Don't write it if you don't feel good about it. Include it if you think it's important. And if your book is about race or if race is an issue in your book, then you'll want to note this detail about your characters because it's a central theme of the story. But if the goal is to move toward a place where race isn't an issue, maybe the right move is to leave this detail ambiguous. 

Race is a tough subject to tackle. It's tough to talk about and it's tough to write about. But that's okay. Authors will help set the tone for the discussion and help the world move forward so that maybe, race won't be such a polarizing issue in the future.

Writing 101: Palette vs Pallet vs Palate

Homonym pairs are bad enough. When you've got three words that sound alike but have different spellings and different meanings, you may want to just give up and forget that the words palette, palate and pallet exist at all. But they do. And even though it may be difficult to learn which one to use when, you still want to have these words in your writing toolkit...because your language can never be limited.


A palette is a range of colors. It's also that thing an artist uses when they're creating a painting, like Bob Ross and his famous big palette. Think of an artist and their palette when you think of this word. Think of all the colors on the palette. If you're writing about the colors of the rainbow or the way the sky looks during sunset, you're going to be using the artistic word palette to describe it.


Do you have a good palate for flavor? Have you ever eaten a fancy, multi-course meal and been given a dish to cleanse your palate? The palate is the roof of your mouth. That's why it's so often used with references to cuisine. Palate refers to taste or to the mouth itself.


A pallet is a frame, usually made of wood, that's used to carry and transport items. They're found often in the construction industry.

Writing 101: Do You Know Your Characters?

You know how they say that every villain is the hero of his or her own story? Well, every single character in your stories is the main character of their own story. And as an author, you have to have a pretty good idea of what their story is like. You need to know every single character in your story. You have to know who they are and why they are who they are. So...how do you do it?

Knowing Your Characters

Authors have an intimate knowledge of their main characters. Their thoughts, their backstory, their hopes and dreams. But as an author, you should have this information for all of your characters. Every character in your story, no matter how minor, matters in their own story. You need to know what drives them and what makes them who they are. Otherwise, the actions your characters take and the words they say may not make any sense.

It helps to create a character sheet to remember essential facts about each character in your story, like what their names are and what they look like. While you're jotting down quick notes about hair and eye color, include essential elements of their personality as well. Keep your notes as short and to the point as possible. You don't want to read for 40 minutes every time you want to write a chapter.

If you don't know every character inside and out, you can't write every character in a believable way. Know why each character does what they do and says what they say and you'll be creating a well-crafted, well-written story. Because if you don't know your characters, none of your readers can know them, either.

Writing 101: Gray vs. Grey

They say that life, like writing, is full of shades of gray. Or...are they shades of grey? Why is this word spelled two different ways? What's the difference between the spellings? Are you sure you've been using the right one? It's time to settle the debate between gray and grey once and for all.

Shades of Gray Grey

There are many word pairs in the English language, words that sound the same or look the same but have different meanings. Do gray and grey fit into this group? 

The simple answer is no, they don't. By any spelling, grey/gray means the same thing. This word, whether it has an e or an a, always refers to the color that's created when you mix black and white together. In any shading, gray is grey.

The only exception to this rule is brand names. Earl Grey tea, for example, is always spelled with an e. Canada's national bird, the Gray Jay, is always spelled with an a. 

So why do two spellings of the same word exist? Grey with an e is more commonly used in British English, which is spoken in England. Gray with an a is used more commonly in American English. If you're an American writer, it's more proper for you to use gray spelled with an a. While it may not seem like a big deal, some editors can be sticklers about this.

Always use the right spelling of every word you want to use, even when the difference is small. After all, there has to be some reason there are two spellings of the word gray/grey -- even if it's only to give us something to talk about!

Writing 101: Stationary vs. Stationery

The moment you use the wrong word in your writing, you make yourself look like you have no idea what you're doing. The trouble is, it's really, really easy to use the wrong word. The English language is stuffed with word pairs that sound alike and may even be spelled similarly, but they have two different meanings. Knowing how to use these words properly is something every writer has to learn...because there are lots of readers who already know the difference.

A or E?

So when it comes to stationary and stationery, which word is the right word for the sentence you're trying to write? They sound exactly the same and they're spelled exactly the same, with just one letter's difference. But that one letter changes absolutely everything.

Stationary with an A means that something is immobile and unmoving. A stationary object is sitting still. Think of it as pushing a heavy object. What sound might you make while you're doing that?

Correct: "aaaaaa!!" To remember that stationary means not moving, think of yourself screaming "aaaaaa" while trying to push a heavy object.

Stationery with an E refers to pretty paper, envelopes and mailing supplies. In the digital world, this word is becoming less and less common. So think of stationery with an e this way: email replaced mail. Stationery with an E is paper mail, which no one uses because of email.

You may come up with your own tricks to remember the difference between the two words. Whatever helps you remember will work, as long as you remember the difference. Using the wrong word will hit a sour note with every reader and every editor, so do your best to avoid it by always using the right word.

Language is always evolving and changing, but the differences between word pairs is stationary and set -- so when you're writing out that nice letter on stationery, make sure you're choosing the right word!

Writing 101: Let's Talk About Reptition

There are very few hard rules in writing, rules that cannot be bent or broken in any way. Many writers have taken great delight in breaking the so-called rules of good writing, to much success. But even in the art of writing, there is one thing you should never, ever do. Do you know what it is? Because I just broke that rule to make a very important point.

No matter what, you should never repeat the same word twice. No, not even when it's separated by punctuation. It's never okay and it's always going to make you look like a bad writer.

Getting Repetitive

There are rules in writing. You must capitalize names and the first word of sentences. You must end sentences with some kind of punctuation. Every writer knows the basic rules. But there's another you must always follow because it always looks bad if you get it wrong.

Don't repeat words. Never at any point should the same word appear back-to-back, not even when there's a period between them. We already covered the importance of never saying "that that" on this blog, but it's worth talking about the importance of avoiding all word repetition. Every editor will cringe, every reader will flinch and every time you do it, you will look like you don't actually know what you are you doing!

Sentences can always be re-worked. Words can always be moved around. Everything can always be changed. And if you've got the same word appearing back-to-back for any reason and in any way, change it!

This is a rule of writing that must always be observed. Whether it's a name, a special word or anything else you're using, don't repeat. Stick to that rule and all your writing will be better for it.

Writing 101: Conspiracy Theories

Have you heard that the Earth is actually flat? How about the one where the government tried to train cats to be secret spies? Maybe you heard a story about the battleship that disappeared out of one harbor and reappeared, moments later, hundreds of miles away.

There's just something compelling about wild conspiracy theories. And that means you can probably create some pretty compelling writing when you use conspiracy theories in your stories.

Spinning a Yarn

There's nothing people like more than a good story. But what makes a story good? Sometimes, it's something that's so far out there it's impossible to believe. And what's so wrong with that? 

There's been a lot of good storytelling based on outlandish, outrageous conspiracy theories. So why can't you tell a really good story based around a conspiracy theory?

Try going out on that limb and try writing a story built around a wild conspiracy theory. Maybe in your story, the theory is true. Maybe in your story, a main character merely believes it's true. It's your story. Let inspiration guide you in any direction is goes and see what happens. Sometimes, writing is about just letting go.

Maybe there's a theory you heard before that you never forgot. Maybe you've got one of your own. Either way, conspiracy theories make a great basis for any story. So if you're low on ideas and looking for something to write, try starting with something that's just too ridiculous to be real. Because usually, those stories end up being easier to believe and even more interesting than all the fairy tales ever written.

Writing 101: Finding Inspiration in the Worst Scenarios

With everything going on in the world today, it's pretty hard to think about writing a story. How do you write about happiness, love, good health and other positive factors when it seems like the world is totally falling apart? It's hard to put aside the fear and the worry. It's hard to ignore those terrible headlines and the numbers of deaths that just keep getting bigger and bigger. 

So don't ignore it. Use it. If you're finding it difficult to work on your writing projects, put them aside for a little bit and start channeling all your feelings about coronavirus into a brand-new story. Writers find inspiration even in the worst scenarios and turn them into entertainment. After all...doesn't everyone deserve some entertainment right now?

Get Inspired

I once said that a writer's task is not to live life. It's to observe it happening to others. Right now is the absolute perfect time to write. You can't go anywhere. You can't see anyone. You can't do anything right now except for writing. Which, let's face it, is a great way to socially distance yourself from everything. So, remove yourself from the equation. Get out of your head. Take a break from the fear.

And write about it. 

Find inspiration even in the horrors of the world. Make them more horrible. Make them better. Make them whatever you want. Because you're a writer, and that's what we do. After all, if a society of people walking around in masks doesn't inspire some kind of frightening dystopian epic, what the heck does? 

Take the bad things and put them on the page. Because there, you can control them. There, you can determine the outcome. You can make things as horrific as you like or as wonderful as you hope. You decide who lives, who dies, who gets sick and who doesn't. 

Take the fear and the worry and make it work for you by writing it. Because writers find inspiration even in the worst things and turn them into incredible, amazing stories.

Writing 101: Should You Be Using Grammarly?

If you haven't already heard of Grammarly, where have you been? This is a browser app that advertises heavily and has managed to spread through the online writing community like wildfire. So as an author...should you be using it?

Built-In Grammar Help

If I'm being honest, I'd make lots more mistakes if it wasn't for built-in spellchecking. Sometimes, I feel when I make a mistake and ignore it because I know the spellcheck will pick it up. But does that mean using apps and built-in help is always a good idea for writers? Take a look at the light side and the dark side of using Grammarly.

The Grammarly extension catches much more than your standard auto spellchecker. It highlights many ore grammar errors than Google Drive, Word or any of the other popular word processing programs. It can even help you with punctuation. Once you've got the extension installed and enabled, you can simply forget about it and do all the writing you want. The extension will catch all sorts of errors.

Simply by highlighting basic grammar and punctuation issues, Grammarly can be a big help when you go back and proofread that first draft. However, like every other similar program, Grammarly isn't always totally right.

Sometimes, you might need to bend or break the rules just a little to make a point or create a certain feeling in the reader. Lots of authors have played with the basic rules -- or ignored them altogether -- in order to make the prose flow more beautifully. So you can't simply make every single correction that Grammarly suggests. 

Grammarly has become so popular that some editors now require professional writers to use it as a standard practice. It's a useful tool that any writer or author can use to catch errors but it also shouldn't dictate how you craft your prose. As always, use our judgment and rely on your own sense of writing style above all else.

Writing 101: Re-Writing the Rules

There are certain things that every fan knows about zombies, vampires and werewolves. You probably have some ideas about what elves are supposed to be. Everybody knows what a hobbit should look like. And if you imagine a dragon, it's probably going to breathe fire at some point. There are certain creatures and creations that have their own lore and mythology. But here's the thing: some writer made all that junk up. So if you're going to include a mythical creature or human-like thing in one of your books...who says you can't re-write all the rules?

Sparkly Vampires

There are certain accepted "facts" about mythical creatures and beings. For instance, everyone knows that sunlight kills vampires. But here's the deal: vampires are made up! Vampires were the invention of a writer. Doesn't that mean that new generations of writers can re-write those rules?

After all, it has been done before. In the uber-popular "Twilight" series of books, author Stephenie Meyer made up a whole new set of rules. Her vampires didn't die in the sunlight, they sparkled. And while purists poo-pooed at this idea, it's hard to argue with the success of 100 million copies sold and five feature-length films. 

So should your hobbits be tall? Should your trolls be sexy? Should your zombies break the most well-known rule of them all...and actually talk? Yes! If you want to write it, write it. As an author, you're always allowed to re-write rules, make up your own lore and go ahead and create brand-new traditions. After all, dragons exist only in stories. So who says that your dragons can't be as different and unique as you want them to be?

Sometimes, re-writing all those "rules" of lore works really well. The secret is to be committed and to be fearless. After all, it's your story. You make the rules.

Writing 101: Killing Your Darlings

"Kill your darlings" is common advice that people who don't write give to writers. What does this expression mean...and should you be following it?

There's a lot of different advice out there for writers. Apparently, just about everybody knows how you should be writing your novels. "Kill your darlings" is one extremely common expression that's told to writers all the time. Basically, it means that you should kill off your favorite characters.

Killing Characters

The philosophy behind it is that the plot will make a bigger impact on readers when you kill off your favorites, because your favorite characters will be the audience's favorites, too. 

It's true that the death of a character should create a visceral reaction in readers. You want them to feel it. You even want them to cry...at least a little. But when it comes to writing, nothing is ever as easy as a cute little motto or a pat piece of advice.

Killing Them Softly

Because "kill your darlings" can be done badly, too. And the trouble is, by now everyone's heard this advice. Even non-writers have heard this incredibly common expression and they know what it means. Readers are savvy to all the tricks that writers attempt to pull off. If you work too hard to make a character likable, you might as well just name the character Hi I'm Going to Die. 

You never want readers to sense the plot that's coming. You want to keep them guessing, shake them up, twist them and shock them. And if you create some super-lovable character that they're patently supposed to like, it's pretty guaranteed that they won't like that character. When the clear "darling" dies, readers will turn the page with hardly even a sigh.

Die, Die My Darling

There are some "right" ways to kill your darlings without spoiling your own plot. With an audience of sophisticated readers who won't fall for a simple trope like "kill your darlings," you're going to need to be a bit more clever.

  • You can always make a character so darling to readers, they think you'd never kill them off. Don't just make them like the character. Make them adore the character. Once the audience thinks that person is definitely safe, drop the hammer...so to speak. 
  • Make them darling later. Turn the idea upside-down by making readers like a character only after death. This way, the death will continue to resonate with readers as they learn how likable an already-deceased character truly was. When they read the book a second time, the death will be even more powerful than it was to them on the first read.
  • Kill someone who seems really important. Killing a character who feels like a main character can be shocking and devastating when it's handled the right way. Your main character's love interest or best friend, for example, can become a shocking death on the page. Kill a character that seems like a solid, integral part of the story.
It's every writer's task to find a way to twist plots and take old tropes and turn them into something new. You can follow the standard advice of killing your darlings...but try to do it in a way they won't see coming, or it won't have the effect you want.