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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

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From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

How to Use Showing vs. Telling Effectively

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

There are tons of writing blogs and articles out there that offer advice on showing vs. telling. But why is that?

Why is showing so important that it automatically trumps telling? Is it ever okay to use telling? The secret is actually in the combination of the two. When you know how you can use showing in conjunction with telling, you can strengthen your writing and sharpen the structure of your pieces.

If you struggle with showing vs. telling at all, check out my guest blog over on the 10 Minute Novelist site today: http://www.10minutenovelists.com/how-showing-vs-telling-effectively/

In it, you'll find tips for balancing the two and how to strengthen your voice.

To the Mothers of Autistic Children

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

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Autism. With just one word, your life can be forever changed.

Today, I'm taking a break from my usual posts on writing to recognize Mother's Day. For each and every mother out there, whether you're a mother-to-be, a foster mother, a mother who adopted, or you gave birth to your own children, you deserve recognition. You are amazing women that have been through the ups and downs of parenthood, and you've experienced the joys that come with it. Each milestone makes you feel like the proudest mom in the world, and you light up inside at the first little coos, giggles, and words your mini me utters. The little pitter-patters of tiny feet racing down the hallway will likely forever remain engraved in your memory.

Parenting is no easy task, no matter what challenges your child faces. But today, I'd like to reach out to a group who hits very close to home for me. To the mothers of autistic children, I want to celebrate with you today and let you know you're not alone in this walk, no matter what stage you're at. I know you share the same sense of pride, adoration, hopes, and dreams for your little ones as everyone else does. I know, because I am one of you.

This journey is still very new to me, so to those of you who have been on this road for many years, please forgive me for the blunders I might make (and probably already have made) in writing this post. I suspect my story is nothing unique to you, nor do I expect it to be treated as such. I feel blessed to have even experienced motherhood, as I know not everyone gets to.

I was only twenty-three when I got married, but I was ready. I'd been with my husband for over six years at that point, we'd both recently graduated from college, and he'd just been offered a full-time position in another state. So we took a leap of faith and tied the knot, then moved across the country. Soon I found work too, gave birth to a beautiful baby girl at twenty-five, and almost exactly three years later, had a handsome baby boy. Both pregnancies were healthy with very few complications. They were both low risk, and I never had to endure the pain or heartache that miscarriage brings. I had done everything by the book, taken all the vitamins I was supposed to, gained just the right amount of weight, eaten healthy, and even breastfed my kids for several months.

But it wasn’t long before I noticed my son was different. I chalked it up to him being a boy, to him being more active than my daughter. But after two years of major sleeping issues, feeding issues (including him refusing to eat meat), and a nagging sensation of something being off, the possibility crept into my mind. What if this wasn’t something he would just “outgrow” as so many doctors had told me? What if there was something more to the fact that he wouldn’t always respond to his name, that he had trouble being calmed, and that he’d often throw his head back hard against the ground when he was upset?

I knew the road we were venturing down wouldn't be an easy one. Though we’d been fortunate to have fantastic doctors, my gut told me something still wasn’t right. For months, I had begged for them to do a sleep study on my son. At that point, he was waking seven or more times a night, he couldn’t breathe well, and all areas of our lives had become challenging. Finally, they agreed and ordered the test. Within a couple of days, we had the results. It was clear he had obstructive sleep apnea and needed surgery. My heart sank. I had been right. His sleeping wasn’t normal. So at just two years old, he underwent a surgery that was supposed to fix everything.

In the coming weeks, he did improve. He ate more than he had been, though he still wouldn’t eat meat. And he slept better at night on occasion…but there were still wakings. For the second time in his life, we underwent sleep training. After a few months, it was clear nothing was working. Before long, everything came back full force, including new behaviors we hadn’t seen before. While the surgery had corrected his apnea, the other problems continued. I had so many unanswered questions that went unaccounted for, and I had reached a point where I wasn’t sure what to do. Had I done something wrong? Was there something they had missed in his tests? When his speech slowed to a crawl, that’s when the thought really hit me. All the words were there, but he wasn’t using them. While other kids around his age continued to progress in their speech, he stayed behind. Even a few of his mannerisms weren’t where they should have been.

At that point, we sought out therapy. I had reached my breaking point. And after a whirlwind of doctor visits, therapists coming in and out of the house, and many, many prayers, we got our answer. We got a phone call from a highly sought after pediatric neurologist in the area, informing us that they’d had a cancellation for later that week. I vowed that no matter what it took to get there, I would do so. The day of his appointment, we received an official diagnosis of that dreaded “a” word. But it wasn’t a burden. It felt like a weight had been lifted. For us, it was the missing piece of the puzzle, the thing that helped us understand why our son had some of the issues he did and why he wasn’t progressing. It was the stepping stone that allowed us to move forward and get him the help he needed.

It’s only been a few months since we started down this path, though his diagnosis had been years in the making. We’re still very much in the crazy days of chaos, therapy visits, follow-up appointments, and even getting special plans in place for when he attends preschool in the fall. But getting that diagnosis meant everything. It meant that I had given my very best, that I had stuck with my son and fought for him during some of the hardest times of his life when he couldn’t tell us what he needed, even though I often felt completely helpless and had no clue where to start.

Having a diagnosis opened so many doors for us, but we still have a long way to go. As so many mothers of autistic children will tell you, every day is different, and every child is different. Autism comes in so many shapes and forms, and some are easier to see than others.

So to all the mothers of autistic children, thank you. You have taught me so much about what it means to be a mother. You are rock stars who have patience beyond measure. You endure stares from strangers when your child has a meltdown in the middle of the park and judgement from other mothers at the grocery store that you should never have to face. You take all the challenges life throws at you in stride, because you know that every minute with your child is something to cherish. You know that some days are better than others, that there are times when it feels like no progress is being made. But you stick with it, day after day, night after restless night, because you know there is no better gift you can give to your child than simply being there for them every step of the way. And for that, you are the most amazing mothers any child could ever ask for.

WDC Series: 5 Tips for Introducing New Characters

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Characters are the life of the party. Their individual quirks can completely turn the plot on its head and send the story spiraling in a new direction. As a writer, I love incorporating new characters, because I see it as an opportunity for plot twists, growth, and complexity in books. But as a reader, I know how disappointing the story can be if the characters are not written well. You want their introduction to feel natural while providing enough information to give you an accurate taste of their personality. So what are effective ways to achieve that?

  1. Bring new characters in at crucial moments. By having a new character waltz into the scene when tension is high and emotions are wavering, they have a direct impact on the plot—and oftentimes, the other characters. This will allow their character arc to unfold naturally and will also encourage their interaction within the scene. Even though this is usually a planned opportunity, if done correctly, it won’t feel rigid.
  2. Make the character relatable, even if they’re not likable. This is one of my favorite tricks, because complex characters will always have at least one facet of themselves that readers can relate to. Villains have weaknesses, just as protagonists do. Both strive to reach a personal goal and both must work through obstacles to obtain them—or otherwise fail doing so. That makes each not only human but also relatable to the reader.
  3. New characters should bring a unique flavor or viewpoint to the story. As with scenes, if a character doesn’t alter the course of the plot or have a direct impact on another character in at least one scene in the book, even if only briefly, there’s no need for them to be in the story. The impact of their role is key to holding readers’ interests and keeping the writing concise.
  4. Keep physical descriptions to a minimum. This can be woven in as the scene unfolds. One great way for pegging which features you should use are those that the main POV character might notice most. Not only does that enhance the personality of your main character and their viewpoint, but it will also help you avoid boring info dumps and prevent you from describing the same types of physical features on each character you introduce.
  5. Have a backstory ready—but don’t share it with the reader! In one of my writing and editing tips on Tumblr, I mentioned seeing backstory as a privilege solely for the author—and perhaps the team working to create this book, such as beta readers and the editor. It’s important to know what drives each character you bring into the story, because it directly affects their actions. But that doesn’t mean the reader needs to know every minuscule detail about it. A great rule of thumb is to share just the information that must be revealed for the purposes of the plot. If the information is something that can be withheld until the climax of the plot or another crucial moment, and is then delivered as part of it, that’s even better. Also bear in mind that only a fraction of the backstory drawn up in the beginning stages usually survives the editing process to make it to the final draft.

Writing Dynamic Characters (WDC): An Introduction to the Series

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

Time to kick things off about characters! Over the next several months, I’ll be talking about everything it takes to create realistic, dynamic, and well-developed characters. For instance, how do you transform a stereotypical character with a vague archetype into a unique and utterly compelling persona that readers can’t get enough of?

I have loads of other topics planned too, but here are a few of the main ones:

  • how to write character flaws
  • writing unlikable characters that readers can still relate to
  • writing complex villains
  • using dialogue to further develop characters

Now, while I do want to give you guys plenty of techniques to apply to your own writing, I’m not going to pretend that character development is my strong suit, because it’s not. It’s taken me many years to hone my skills and grow in this particular area, and I’m still learning. But I’m going to share tips based on my own experiences and research. I’ll also be sharing tips from trusted resources that I’ve used myself.

If you have any additional topics you’d like addressed, please let me know! I'm particularly interested in ones that haven’t yet been covered, as all posts in this series will be used in my nonfiction project. I also highly recommend K.M. Weiland’s books on writing. She has an amazing array of books geared toward writers, including a personal favorite of mine, Creating Character Arcs. She periodically puts it on sale, so if you don’t already follow her author page on Facebook, I highly recommend it.

Developing a Supernatural Edge: Building a Creepy Setting

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

I won’t lie. I’ve been waiting to do this post for ages, as it covers one of my favorite aspects of writing, particularly for the supernatural and horror genres. So I’ve saved the best for last. Today I want to share some tips with you about building a spooktacular setting for your next story. Maybe it’s filled to the brim with creepy stuff, or perhaps it only has fleeting moments of horror. But whatever the case, it’s important to know how to craft a strong element of the heebie-jeebies. Without them, tension will be lost, and you’ll risk losing authenticity and the reader’s connection to your story.

Environment

Location, location, location. Ever heard that one before? It’s true that other elements play a factor in building a creepy scene, but environment is pretty dang important. Those of you who have read some of my horror shorts know that I’m a fan of eerie buildings and traditional haunted houses, but your creepy environment certainly doesn’t—and shouldn’t—be limited to such locations. After all, ANY space can be a spooky one, given how you present it in a scene.

For instance, take a child’s playroom. There would likely be tons of toys and cute decorations adorning the space, not to mention fluffy stuffed animals and fuzzy blankets to cuddle. Probably the farthest thing from scary imaginable. But let’s transform that space for a minute. What if some of the toys were broken or floating in mid-air with no logical explanation for the force holding them up? And perhaps the wall decals have been drawn over with sinister images or have peeled from the walls, giving the sense of abandonment or intrusion. Go one step further and have the room be dimly lit, a child’s plaything ripped apart and lying on the floor, stuffing spilling from it with no child in sight, only a lone blanket crumpled next to it and left behind. That sweet, innocent playroom has now shifted into something much less inviting, likely causing the hairs on your neck to prick up. That’s what a stellar setting can do for your story. It can literally up the creep factor tenfold.

Pace

The next layer to building a creepy setting is the pace of the scene. The action will drive it, but how you execute it sets the tone. Suspenseful scenes often have quick pacing, giving them a sense of daunting doom that is waiting to break through. A great example of this can be found in Blake Crouch’s collection Fully Loaded. In one of his opening stories, a voicemail of a woman being murdered is left on the answering machine of a young couple. It’s a broken message with small bits of information relayed throughout it, but during the scene, one thing rings true: the pace is fast. Sentences are chopped short, they’re kept simple, and most importantly, there is rapid motion to the words. No flowery language, no extra clauses.

By keeping the sentences short and the action moving forward, Crouch achieves the perfect pace for an intense, suspenseful short story that riddles your body with chills. The subject matter is intense enough, but its execution is everything in that piece.

Sensory Details and Body Language

Let’s delve into sensory details for a moment. If someone tells you that a character is tapping his foot, what do you picture? If someone then tells you to picture someone tapping their foot in the waiting room of the ER with doctors rushing to and fro, machines beeping, and orders being called out from the loudspeakers, how does that imagery change? Does it change further if someone describes the intense, rapid beeping and the overwhelming chatter of “His vitals are dropping!” and nurses and doctors bustling about while that character is brushed to the side of the room, blocked out by the privacy curtains as he runs a hand through his hair and paces? Chances are, the situation has grown clearer with each added detail, and by now, there’s even a sense of emotion surrounding the scene.

Images and body language are your most powerful resources for building setting. If you can create a vivid picture for the reader by providing clear motions and enough sensory details, you’ll automatically set the tone and mood for the scene. Movies often use this approach, focusing on what camera angles work best for the current action and layering in music to add depth of sensory effects on top of things like heavy breathing, a character pacing, their hands trembling, etc. But in books, writers don’t have luxuries like music. We instead must rely on our words for establishing a clear setting and planting the correct mood in the reader’s head, so it’s important to get it right and to couple that with strong body language.

The best way to do this is to incorporate sensory details into the action. Sight is the easiest one to tackle, but I encourage writers to include things like sounds, tastes, smells, and even textural details where fitting. The combination of those is sometimes more powerful than anything sight can provide. For instance, think about the climactic moments in thrillers and horror movies. When the character is waiting in the dark, where they can’t see anything and have to rely on their other senses to detect what’s out there, what kind of effect does it have on them? And what kind of effect does it have on you as the observer? Feelings of anxiety and fear probably overwhelm you in that moment, even though you’re not directly experiencing what the character is. And just like in good movies, good books do the same.

The Human Psyche

Red herrings and intense emotions are probably my favorite tools for manipulating—I mean, crafting—a creepy scene. Cue the shifty eyes, sudden movements, random glass breaking, and off-key organ music. In all seriousness though, knowing how to control and convey emotions in writing can create amazing scenes and give tremendous depth to your story and characters. Tapping into their emotions unlocks a connection with the reader, one that floods you with primal instincts, resulting in a lasting impression. If you take that one step further and create a setting and mood so vivid that the feeling of it comes to life and resonates with the reader, then you’ve accomplished something brilliant. That means long after someone has finished reading your book, they’ll remember it and relive it in their mind. Which, if you ask me, is an awesome compliment, no matter which genre you write.