Category Archives: ROCK your Writing

Symbols & Context

literature analysis, novel writing This little 35-page compilation of past posts was created for two reasons. The first is because new writers often  don’t know how easy it is to include thematic, foreshadowing, contextual, plot, and character clues beyond the superficial or obvious. This is a bit of a how-to guide.

The second is because I wanted my students to have easy access to all the information imparted during ( too many ) lectures when we  learn how to analyze texts.

Download and use the PDF to:

  • understand literature
  •  add depth and complexity to your novel
  • Or, if you’re a hater of literature, to mock the art of explicate de texte studied by literature majors everywhere.

Literary Symbols & ContextCLICK BELOW FOR PDF

Little Book of Symbols & Context




Making the Most of Your Writing Hours

writing time“How do you find the time to write a novel while working full time?”

I get asked this question ALL the time by coworkers, friends, and aspiring authors. Writing a novel is time-consuming. It takes a whole lot of perseverance and ambition and stamina and self-control.

Continue reading

Writer’s Grimoire page 3

Writers Grimoire page 3Spell for removing writer’s block!

Don’t ask where I found this ancient book! I can’t tell you ( the repercussions and all that ). But I will share the spells and incantations with you—hey, we writers need all the help we can get! And a little magic never hurt anyone either. In truth, any author or wanna-be struggling writer will tell you the act of creating is magic!

Continue reading

Color Smarts

color smartsI love paint shopping. I have fun looking at the names assigned to  the hundred and hundreds of colors available. So many Reds-Blacks-Blues-Greens-Oranges-Whites-Purples-Pinks-Browns-Yellows and ALL the colors in between. Sometimes I think the folks who assigned the names are wanna-be novelists. They do know the importance of naming a color.

Continue reading

Writer’s Grimoire page 2

Grimoire table of contents

Spell for Increasing Word Count! 

Don’t ask where I found this manuscript! I won’t tell you ( the repercussions and all that, you know ). But I will share the Writer’s Grimoire–hey, we writers need all the help we can get! A little magic or spirituality never hurt anyone either. In fact, any author or wanna-be author will tell you the very act of creating is magical!

Continue reading

Syntax Smarts

syntax smartsSyntax, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is ‘the way in which words are put together to form phrases, clauses, or sentences.”

The beauty and trick is putting those words together to create a specific effect in your writing. This seems to be the biggest hurdle for many aspiring writers, but one which can be overcome with knowledge and practice.

Continue reading

The Real Comma Rules

Comma rulesGrammarians have been known to do battle over the vagaries of comma placement. Syntax skirmishes, semi-colon controversy, and other punctuation persnicketiness can get downright nasty! Good thing this post is about other kinds of commas!

Writing, rewriting, editing, and creating all require comma skills.

1. First and foremost, writers must learn how to accommadate their physical needs. Be it a room with a view, a quiet nook, a desk, favorite coffee shop, or a designated chair, writing is best accomplished with a routine.

2. Often you must act like a commando when it comes to revising and editing. Blast all typos, vague language, and trite sayings.

3. Learn to summon your inner commadian during trying times. Hissy fits, meltdowns, and tantrums don’t solve problems. Finding the funny doesn’t either—but at least you can write a humorous blog about it!

4. Avoid a commakazi approach when pitching, querying, responding to an agent rejection, or replying to a troller. Thoughtful, professional, polite discourse and emails are a must. As for trollers, non-engagement is the only  way to go.

5. Take time to engage in some commaraderie with folks on twitter and Facebook. Don’t neglect your friends either. Meet them for coffee and dinner…and try not to talk about your latest writing project.

6. Keep your dream to be comma millionaire novelist.playwright/screenwriter/poet/blogger to yourself.

7. Creating believable characters require the writer to be a commaeleon, portraying their emotions, intelligence, fears, joys, and ambitions with effective dialog and action.

8. Find someone to commaiserate with. We all need a venting buddy. Just make certain to end the bitchfest with uplifting thoughts for the future. If your ‘someone’ tells you to quit or give up find another.

9. Indulge in the art of comma sutra. Discover fresh ways to tell the story, find pleasure in finding the perfect word, and seek enjoyment in crafting the nuanced phrase.

10. Remember that the best word wizards practice  alcommay. Transmuting strings of  words into a riveting story demands patience and practice.

Now these are comma rules I think we can all agree on!

FYI: For a thorough look at actual comma rules, go to OWL at Purdue.

Related links: Rock Your Writing, Readin’ & Writin’

Where Art Thou?

settingSetting is more than just location!

Usually when folks think of setting in the literary sense they think physical location. But setting is much more than that. Authors construct setting like they do characters and plot.

Setting is a powerful element for establishing themes and often  reflect the author’s own background, biases, and perspectives.

Setting can influence, shape, and emphasize a character’s actions and ideas. Setting can drive plot, create mood, or assume the role of antagonist..

Setting can reflect the following milieus:
  • political
  • time ( minutes, hours, days, years )
  • historical
  • financial
  • socio-economic
  • cultural
  • religious
  • dystopian/utopian
  • magical
  • mythical
  • surreal
  • constructed/ alternate /parallel/imaginary
  • dream ( think Inception )
  • virtual ( think Tron )
  • psychological
  • attitudinal
  • industrial
  • seasonal
Setting can also refer to:

How are you using setting?

 Related links: Rock Your Writing

Direction Connection

directionWhich way did he go?

North. East. South. West. Directions are often used symbolically. In which direction a character heads often foreshadows his moral growth or decline.

There is, however, one important caveat to note. The literary symbolism associated with direction is used by northern hemisphere European/North American authors. You’ll figure out why in a moment.

NORTH is traditionally associated with colder weather, and so is linked to austerity, starkness, industriousness, isolation, cold-heartedness, hostility, and bitterness. Like the thick layers necessary to protect one from the cold ( be it psychological, spiritual, or emotional ) a character wears these layers as emotional protection.

SOUTH is warm temperatures and sunny climes. It’s where the wealthy went for rest and relaxation.  It’s associated with plenty, hedonism, clothing removal, and the hot sweaty acts one engages in when naked. A character’s lusts, passions, and raw subconscious are exposed.

Not convinced? Think of the geography of Game of Thrones. It’s a fictional world—George R.R. Martin could have set the saga in the southern hemisphere but didn’t.  Even the name Stark is descriptive of a cold northern landscape.

WEST: The symbolism of this direction might be an American thing. Freedom from rules, freedom from laws, adventure, fresh starts, morality, and possibilities are associated with this direction. In Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, Huck and Jim decide to ( spoiler alert ) go west where they will be free from the racism and prejudice they encountered in the story. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is another example. John Galt and his groupies hide out in a valley in the west.

EAST: Exotic and mysterious, it’s linked to renewal, rebirth, early civilizations, and the location of the Garden of Eden ( kind of vague directions if you ask me ) and yet it’s also associated with wealth and corruption.

So before having your character head off somewhere, you might want to consider if direction is important.

Related links: Symbols & More Symbols: Rock Your Writing

Conflict Collection

Princess BrideCONFLICT: It makes us turn the page, swoosh the e-reader screen, or keep watching. Superficial or profound, it drives the story forward, creates tension, and forces the protagonist to grow. Great novels have both external and internal conflicts.

Man vs Man: Including but not limited to:
  • demons/angels/gods
  • other supernatural creatures like vampires & werewolves
  • aliens
  • any manner of undead
  • any sentient being
  • family dynamics/expectations
Man vs Society: Including a host of its corresponding biases and prejudices pertaining to:
  • culture
  • ethnicity
  • race
  • age
  • gender
  • religion
  • business
  • government
  • politics ( local-state-national-world)
  • education
  • socio-economic status
  • group affiliation
  • sexual orientation
  • technology
Man vs Nature
  • climate
  • weather
  • topography
  • plant life
  • animals, vermin, insects, fish etc
  • cosmic phenomenon
Man vs Self
  • emotional health
  • physical health
  • spiritual health
  • psychological health
  • intellectual health

 Conflict escalates as the story unfolds. The Climax IS The Final Battle. Choose your weapon. Be it with a scimitar, light saber, words, or actions make sure The Final Battle causes the protagonist pain ( emotional, spiritual, psychological, and/or intellectual ) enough to see his authentic self—the ah-ha moment.

So next time you read a book or watch TV or a movie try identifing all the types and layers of conflict. Then take a look at your work in progress. Got conflict?

Related Posts: Rock Your Writing; Readin’ and Writin’

Garden of Symbolism

field of flowersNature is a symbolic powerhouse that can add depth and complexity to a novel. ( See the Symbolism post for how and why you might want to include one or two.)


Plants and trees and all-things-nature may be used in a variety of literary ways! As:
  • a metaphor
  • a symbol
  • foreshadowing
  • an allusion
  • a plot device
  • characterization
  • the literary device favorite—irony

A Few Leafy Considerations

  • Flowering suggests a blossoming or awakening of a character’s personality, intellect, morals, understanding, love etc
  • Metaphoric or symbolic indicator of something—like an idea, problem, conflict, ideology, morality, opinion, attitude—that is dead or dying
  • May foreshadow a character’s or conflict’s demise
  • Characterize an aspect that is dead/destroyed within a character’s soul or heart
New Growth
  • Denotes new beginnings, fresh starts, renewal, hope unless
  • The growth is deleterious or harmful
  • May convey the root of a problems coming to the surface
  • Reveal the unearthing of a problem or situation
  • Characterize the importance of character’s culture
Yellowed or drying leaves
  • Indicates or foreshadows that a character or situation is dying
  • Suggests the approaching end of one’s life or goals or hope
  • A tricky or hurtful problem or situation
  • Characterize a person’s temperament
  • Foreshadow problems


  • Consider type—thorny, thick, invasive, wild, sculpted, overgrown—may indicate the type of problem/conflict OR
  • Reveal a character’s personality OR
  • Foreshadow any of the above
  • Hedges enclosing a space may reveal the boundaries of a character or situation
  • Does the character leap over them? Crash into them? Trip over them? Plant them? Tend them? Cut them down? Trample them?
  • May be a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden
  • Consider what’s growing in the garden. Plants? Rock garden? Cactus? Full of statues? Fruit trees? Vegetables? Flowers? Herbs?
  • Symmetry suggests  beauty and a well-rounded intellect
  • Is it well -tended, wild, gone to seed, in ruin, meticulous?
  • Is it a secret garden?
  •  Gnarled limbs may reveal a complex problem
  • Hint at the strength or weakness of a character ( Does the trunk bend with the wind? Is it stunted? Does it overshadow other trees? )
  • Suggest the strength of a character’s heritage/culture
  • Is the tree symbolic? See Tree Symbolism.
  • Indicate soaring ambitions
  • Does the character climb or swings from its branches?
  • Do they denote character like the “Four Skinny Trees” chapter found in House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros?
  • Pastoral or idyllic atmosphere ( unless its full of zombies or raptors )
  • Wild beauty
  • Think Bronte!
  • Desolate and dreary but can be tragically romantic
  • Something to be crossed
  • A great place to ponder one’s life
  • Add fog for some Gothic-style brooding
  • Are invasive, taking over and often obscuring or smothering other plants. Does a character or culture or conflict encroach upon your character?
  • Are they poppies  ala The Wizard Of Oz?
  • Do they have thorns?
  • What’s the symbolism behind the species?
  • Are they wilted?
  • Are they common? Read the short story Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck for a symbolism-packed flower
  •  Or exotic like the very symbolic and tattoo-favorite lotus flower?
  • Is it the red rose of love or is it the “Sick Rose” of William Blake’s evocative poem?
  • Does it grow with others? Or is it  a single triumphant daisy growing from a crack in the pavement?
  • Are the blooms wilted? Or have the buds been nipped off?
  •  Unwanted and ugly unless…
  • They are beautiful weeds, in which case they suggest the beauty in something unwanted and ugly
  • Are they a metaphor for a character’s persistent problems?
  • Are they a symbol for the character’s troubles in life?
  • Does the character try to get rid of them or let them take over?
Wide paths
  • The physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral choice is easy
  • It is a common or frequent choice
Narrow paths
  • The physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral choice is difficult
  • It is an uncommon or infrequent choice ( The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost )
Streams and ponds
  • Pastoral and charming…usually
  • Can symbolize the conflicts in a novel
  • They can be large or small, cold, frozen, fraught with danger, or harbor giant brontosaurus-type creatures
  • In the 1999 movie Lake Placid, the idyllic lake is anything but placid! Can you say irony?
  • How fast is the water moving?
  • Is it the complex symbol found in Huck Finn where the Mississippi divides the racist east from the wide open west AND where direction denotes bias AND is the only place where Jim and Huck are free from prejudiced eyes?
  • Is it “The Bitter River” of the poem by Langston Hughes?
  • Is it the river from Fahrenheit 451 where Montag jumps into to save his life and that symbolizes his intellectual rebirth?
A FEW ADDITIONS ( not nature but often found with nature)


  • Like all doors, arches, and entry ways, gates signify movement from one realm—physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral— to another.
  • Is the gate connected to a white picket fence ( a perfect American family )?
  • Is the gate wide ( easy ) or narrow ( difficult ) ?
  • Is the gate fancy or plain? Ancient or new?
  • Connectors of two different physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral, cultural worlds
  • Broken bridges therefore reveal the schism or rift between the two
  • Often haunted
  • Check out Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for  sophisticated bridge symbolism
  • Is it a primitive rope bridge? The Golden Gate? Quaint covered wooden? Modern steel?
  • Often places of danger
  • What’s under the bridge? Troll? Water? Dry creek bed? Deep ravine?
  • How far down is the drop from the bridge? ( the farther the fall the more dangerous )

See how much FUN you can have with the natural world?

Related links: Symbols & more symbols; Rock Your Writing

Writer’s Hierarchy of Needs

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is best known for his theory about human motivation, aka the hierarchy of needs. He believed that basic needs must be fulfilled before an individual can progress to higher levels. For example, an individual cannot realize their self-potential ( the highest level ) if the basic necessities of food and shelter are not met.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Anyone who’s ever taken a Psychology 101 class is familiar with the conceptualized pyramid denoting the levels.

Well, it struck me that writers have a hierarchy of needs of their own that must be satisfied  before they can hope to achieve creative greatness.

Writers hierarchy of needs


Physical needs: Writers don’t need much–our minds are full enough. However, coffee to awaken the Muse, snacks for feeding the Muse, a computer ( or notebook and pen in a crunch ) and the happy hormones found in chocolate are writing staples.


Safety: Internet connections help us research and connect with friends. With a flash drive or Cloud we rest easy knowing our masterpiece is safe from virtual viruses. Any writer losing their work or revisions to a computer crash remembers the agony of their genius vanishing like dust in the wind. ( cue “Dust in the Wind” by Kansas )

Love & Belonging: We might be solitary folk, happy retreating into our creative cave, yet we need the fellowship of FaceBook , Instagram, Google +, LinkedIn, and Twitter. We seek validation not only from other writers but from reviewers, readers, and  friends. There is safety in numbers, in belonging to groups where the written word reigns supreme and reading is revered!

Esteem: We are fragile sorts, our egos crushed daily by plot flaws, meager word count, and scenes refusing to flow. So thus we turn away from the story, casting our attentions to the Likes, Tweets, ReTweets, and hits on our social media. Sadly, they validate us, at least for the moment. And when our confidence is lifted by enough Likes and RT’s we venture back into our novel.

Self-Actualization: Having attained our needs we are now eager to plunge into the story. We conjure the Muses and force them to do our bidding. Words flow from our brain, pass the heart, and course through our fingertips. Reality vanishes and we are happy, our Zen restored.

 So should you experience the horrors of writer’s block, fear not!
It’s not you!
Your Pyramid of Writer’s Needs is not being met! 


Related Links: Readin’ & Writin’ & Rx for Writer’s Block

Characters with Humor

This is not a post about funny characters. This is about creating character personalities based on the 4 humors.

The what?

Here’s a quick refresher course on the ancient Greek categories.

Hippocrates ( 460–370 BC) is responsible for taking an even more ancient Egyptian theory and developing it into one that categorized temperaments into 4 basic types. These personality types were attributed to an excess of certain ewww-worthy body fluids.

A surplus of:

1. Blood corresponds to a sanguine personality. The best of all the temperaments, these extroverted folks are fun-loving, carefree, optimistic, kind, caring, and loving. They are easily distracted but also forgive and forget just as quickly.

2. Black Bile is associated with melancholia. These introverted and idealistic types are prone to introspection and depression. They can also be neurotic, obsessive perfectionists. They are the quintessential brooder.

3. Yellow bile is linked to the choleric traits of aggression, decisiveness, ambition, and vengeance. These quick-tempered types are cunning and quick to blame others.

4. Phlegm is associated with phlegmatic traits. Lazy, slow, cowardly, and lack of ambition are the negative aspects of this type. Patient, docile, and peace-making are the positive aspects.

Note: Yes, one could be a balanced personality and have all the requisite amount of fluids, but what would be the sense in creating a character without flaws?

See chart at end of post for more associations.

It’s easy to find evidence of humor types in TV, literature, and film. From  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ( Ferris = sanguine; Cameron = melancholic; Sloane = phlegmatic; Jeanie = choleric)  to The Hangover ( Phil = choleric; Stu = melancholic;  Alan = sanguine;  Doug = phlegmatic) scores of characters are created that fit the 4 humor types.

Why create characters that conform to some ancient weird-gross body fluid classification? 
A good story requires:
  • a cast of characters with distinct personalities. The 4 humors help a writer “see” their characters’ strengths and flaws with more clarity.
  • interesting dialog. Knowing your characters’ type helps create authentic dialog.
  • lots of conflict. What better way to add conflict then have these personalities be at odds with one other. Ninja Turtles, anyone?  Seinfeld?
  • character growth. One type learns from the others. Whether that growth is positive or negative is determined by your plot.

Other types of categories for sussing out characters: Western astrological signs, Chinese zodiac signs, Greek/Roman gods, and the Meyer-Briggs categories.

Have fun creating your characters!

4 humors

Related links: Rock Your Writing

Dog Days of Writing

bradley at computerHas your writing gone to the dogs? Are you in need of some insPAWration?

There are days whendoggone it—writers feel like they’re workin’ like a dog with nothing to show for it.




  • Is your manuscript on a genre leash?
  • Are you chewing on the bones of a plot devoid of meat?
  • Does the manuscript need to be groomed and the adverbs trimmed?
  • Does the diction needs a good brushing with tone?
  • Does the manuscript need a dose of Frontline weak verb repellent?
  • Are you trying to breath life into an old dog manuscript instead of romping away with a new one?
  • Dog-tired with editing?
  • Growling at a plot snafu?

bradley readingBEST IN SHOW

  • Feeling like you have a dog’s chance of getting an agent?
  • Not getting any ” hot diggity dog” replies after sending all those queries?
  • Feel like you’re barking at the moon when you send those queries?
  • Are you showing a dogged determination to have your query and ms be the pick of the slush litter?
  • Are you barking up the wrong agent tree?
  • Are you sniffing around for the best way to build your author platform?


  • Do you have a bone of contention with someone in your critique group?
  • Are you still licking your wounds over a beta reader’s comments?
  • Did you join a writing group expecting belly rubs and “atta boys” only to play fetch with another pup’s manuscript?
  • Feeling a breed apart from all the authors and wanna-be’s?


  • Suspicious of writers making up shaggy dog stories about their successes?
  • Feeling meaner than a junk yard dog after being bitten by a troller?
  • Are you inadvertently biting the hand that feeds you with posts and tweets that insult your readers ( or potential readers) ?
  • Is your tail between your legs after a social media gaffe?
  • Are you guilty of begging for Facebook likes and Twitter retweets?

Howl if you must, but it’s time to put on the dog, play “Who Let the Dogs Out” and let loose the dogs of writing!

A bark of thanks goes to my daughter for sending photos of her very cooperative poodle!

Related Links: Readin’ & Writin’ and Rock Your Writing

Twitter-50px Facebook-50px Pinterest-50pxInstagram-50pxamazon

Character Morality

KohlbergWriters love creating characters. Personality. Physical Appearance. Dress. Mannerisms. Dialog: It’s what we do!  It’s how authors bring characters to life.

But did you stop to think about your characters’ morality, or more specifically, what level of morality they have achieved? Creating a character with moral issues, flaws, or strengths can add depth and understanding, often justifying and explaining why the character did what they did.

Let’s look at Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral development:

Pre-Conventional Morality

Stage 1: Obedience & Punishment Orientation:  Age: 9 & under. Standard of behavior is determined by adults and the physical consequences of following and breaking the rules. Child avoids punishment by good behavior. Child believes that if a person is punished they must have done something bad.

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange. Child realizes authorities ( parent, teachers etc) may have more than just one right view and that different individuals will have different viewpoints.

Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Good Interpersonal RelationshipsAge: Most adolescents & adults. Moral standards are internalized by those authority figures the individual deems right/moral. These authority figures are not questioned. Any and all reasoning conforms to the group’s perspective. The individual is good because they want others in the group to view them as good. They need the approval of their group.

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order. The rules of society are important to the individual. Rules are obeyed to maintain law/rules and to avoid guilt.

Post-Conventional Morality: 
Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice. This occurs in only 10–15% of adults and not before the mid-30s.


Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights. ONLY 10-15% OF ADULTS REACH THIS STAGE and rarely before their mid-30s. The individual idealizes that while laws/rules serve the good of the majority, the laws/rules can also work against specialized groups/minorities. Thus, Right and Wrong are not clear cut.

Stage 6: Universal Principles: Individual understands that justice, equality, and human right issues are not law/rule governed. These individuals will break rules/laws to defend the greater moral principles even if if it means imprisonment or society’s disapproval. Very few reach this stage.

6 ethical typesNow let’s look at 6 ethical types. This is courtesy of The UK Times.

Philosophers are good at solving tough ethical dilemmas. They will break the rule/laws if a higher principle is at stake.

Angels  believe being good to others is important. They give people the benefit of the doubt and give second chances rather than stand on principle. 

Enforcers enforce the rules. They often lack empathy

Judgers believe moral principles are important. They’re good at solving tricky moral principles, yet tend to lack empathy.

Teachers do the right thing for humanity because it’s the right thing to do. They may break the rules if they think they know what’s best.

Guardians believe in doing what they are told to do because it’s the best course of action for everyone. Greater moral ideals are rarely considered.

Does your story require delving deeper into your character’s morality?
  • What is your character’s ethical type?
  • Where do they fall on Kohlberg’s moral development scale?
  • Are your characters acting inconsistently with their type or moral level?
  • What self-revelation causes them to change?
  • Is the change good or bad?
  • Do you need to flesh out a character’s morality?
  • Will you be able to convince a reader of their epiphany?

Related links: Readin’ & Writin’