Category Archives: Nancy Greene

Character Study – It’s All About Soles – Building a Character from the Ground Up

The funny thing about sitting with your eyes at street level is what you notice first. The other day I had some time before court and was sitting at a local DC pastry shop. The shop is on a slight hill, and most of it is below grade. As a result, the first thing I see out its window are shoes and pants cuffs. I decided to play, “make-up-a-stranger’s-life-story” based on what I could see. Ask any writer and I suspect he’ll tell you that he plays a version of “make-up-a-stranger’s-life-story” every time he goes out. It’s one of the ways that I come up with character descriptions.

While playing the game using shoes and the edges of pants, I realized how often quick assumptions were accurate. The shoes often did predict the rest of the outfit. A pair of scuffed, mud-splattered work boots pushed a rolling cart up the hill. Frayed light blue jeans hid the boot tops from view. When their owner made it further up the hill, I wasn’t surprised to see a gray-haired stoop shouldered man behind the cart. His face was as creased and lined as his faded blue jeans. The pair of trendy black and white sneakers over pristine blue jeans, on the other hand, belonged to a 20-something student or tourist.

When we create a character we have to visualize everything about him. Our readers need to see the entire character. Outfits matter. Despite the popularization of an unsustainable media image, a warrior princess shouldn’t be in three inch heels. The successful business man shouldn’t be wearing grubby sneakers on his way to work. As writers we can add depth to our characters by upsetting common stereotypes- no, not the racial profiling ones, the ones like a lawyer always should be in a suit and tie.

Writers vary in how much detail they write down in advance about their characters. Some of us do detailed character bios and interviews. Numerous software programs create mechanisms for us to record the information. You might not consciously think about what shoes your character is likely to wear, but your readers will know if you got it wrong. If you deviate from expectations – say, lawyers wear suits and dress shoes to court- you need a reason your readers will accept for the deviation. The scene in My Cousin Vinnie where Vinnie shows up in Court in a purple prom tux is great because the outfit is so ludicrous. It provides additional humor. The audience accepts the sight gag because we know his suit’s been destroyed and Vinnie explains what he had to do to find something not completely objectionable for court that day.

In creating character, shoes are one of those little details that matter. It’s not enough to know that your main character wears sneakers. You need to know whether the laces still have their aglets. Does he tie his shoes or are people always telling him to do so? Will those details make it into your story? Maybe. The fact that your character is always stopping to tie his shoes might be a plot device or character trait that lends depth and reality to your story.

As a writing experiment, go someplace where your vision is restricted like the basement pastry shop I was in before court. Puzzle out the rest of the outfit from on that first limited view of the person. Once you have an outfit, flesh out why your character chose those clothes that morning. Is she out sightseeing? Is she in uniform? Is she taking her son to the playground? Now, what in her life brought her to the moment you saw her? What happens next?

Writers get inspiration from all sorts of places. Sometimes even a fabulous pair of shoes.

The Meaning of Words – Editing Tips

The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon. You can always do it better, find the exact word, the apt phrase, the leaping simile.
– Robert Cormier

Writing is story telling. Writers, regardless of our discipline, need to pick not a correct word but the best possible one. In the legal profession, there’s a growing trend calling for plain writing. Courts have held that the word “solicit” is ambiguous because it has more than one meaning. “Exclusive” can mean “concurrent.” No wonder the English language is so hard. My writing must express what I mean clearly and effectively regardless of who reads it. Making my meaning clear is part of the editing process.

So how does the word “shall” end up meaning “may”? Context. When a sentence read as a whole expresses an option rather than a directive, “shall” means “may”. What does this quirk of the courts have to do with editing? Everything. Word choices matter.

When talking about writing and editing, Lisa Scottoline,, says to give yourself permission to write a crappy first draft. Do this. It’s easier to finish a story if you’re not worrying about “perfect.” Errors are fixed when you finish the first draft. Editing transforms that crappy first draft into a polished project. So how do I edit to take a diamond in the rough to a polished gem? I usually follow this line-editing procedure:

(1) Spell check

An obvious step, but people forget to do this.

(2) Search for :

a. common homonyms to ensure I used the proper word;

b. the verb “to be” in all its forms and passive voice;

Passive voice is when the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than acting. Passive voice will often use a “to be” verb. Examples:

The ball was thrown – passive voice with a “to be” verb
Pete threw the ball – active voice

c. words ending in “-ly”.

I don’t have any objection to “-ly” words, but often a stronger word can be used. “He slunk around the corner” is a stronger sentence than “he walked stealthily around the corner.”

d. pronouns to ensure who or what they refer to is clear;

Be careful with pronouns. Writing clearly means ensuring the reader knows what each pronoun refers to. When two same-gendered characters. or characters with unisex names interact, you will need to be mindful that your pronouns refer to the character you intend them to.

(3) similes.

A common writing “rule” is to avoid similes or clichés. There’s nothing wrong with a good simile. But good is the key word. Entrenched similes become clichés. “In for a penny, in for a pound” is one.

Using a cliché can help you if you turn the saying on its head. Instead of saying that “every cloud has a silver lining,” you could say, “every cloud has a lightning bolt with my name on it.” By changing the meaning of this tired expression, I’ve added interest to the writing.

(4) Read for description enhancement by word choice, and context to ensure I haven’t inadvertently changed meaning.

The sentence “Pete walked into the room” conveys a different image than “Pete stumbled into the boardroom.”

Specifics matter. The first example – Pete walked – gives the reader no additional information. The sentence paints with just a pencil.

“Pete stumbled into the boardroom,” on the other hand, triggers associations. It’s painting with oils. He stumbles and the reader wonders if Pete’s drunk, injured or been pushed. By placing Pete in a “boardroom”, I can see Pete in his a suit, and imagine the large mahogany table surrounded by a dozen black chairs and dark paneling on the walls. I can add a twist by changing the ordinary images the words convey. I can grab the reader’s attention if Pete is wearing rags when he stumbles into the boardroom. Similarly, if the room is a “board room” full of surf boards, the words convey different images. The subtle differences in meaning we can convey with the right word is why writers are always told to “show, not tell.”

(5) Grammar check.

I know it seems like a lot of work, and it is, but the finished product will be better for the effort. Once I’ve line-edited, I can strengthen the story by context editing for plot holes, character inconsistencies, tension and other craft issues.
Plain writing doesn’t mean boring. It means using each word to its maximum advantage to produce clean, clear and professional prose.

Ethics in Writing

Every year, Virginia lawyers have to complete a certain number of class credits (CLEs) to remain certified as a lawyer. A certain number of those hours have to be in ethics. Yes, I know, insert applicable lawyer joke here. Regardless, I still attend ethics classes every year. So, I took a course in The Ethics of Legal Writing. I know-the jokes keep coming.

Most of what I write as a lawyer is derivative. I quote from cases, statutes and articles. The standards that govern my cases are often so ingrained that it’s tempting to repeat them without citation. Junior lawyers (associates) draft pleadings signed by senior lawyers. All these things are plagiarism if proper credit isn’t given to the initial author. One would think I wouldn’t need a class to tell me this. Anyway, the class, an opening written by someone who’d commented on one of my stories and using the same set-up I had (prompting a “déjà vu” comment from one of the critters), and a “Daily Kick” from Dave Farland ( sent out on September 10, 2011 started me thinking about plagiarism.

A judge once used a paragraph I wrote in his final decision. His opinion didn’t reference that the section came from my brief. Is that plagiarism? Yes. It’s using another’s words without giving that person credit. But, while I’d see red over someone reproducing my fiction writing that way, I took the judge’s use of my paragraph as a huge compliment. I never even considered that the judge was guilty of plagiarism. On the contrary, I’ve pointed to that section of the published opinion with pride.
Senior lawyers have associates who write briefs (the legal documents we file with the Court). The senior lawyer then may file the completed brief without reference to the poor associate who slaved over the document. In the legal profession, as long as the partner reviewed and retained oversight over the work, his taking credit for the associate’s words is acceptable. Yet, in the non-legal writing world, this purest form of plagiarism-stealing someone’s words-destroys careers.

So, is it that lawyers don’t believe in plagiarism when it comes to legal writing? No, we just have different pressure points. The legal writing world is a bit schizophrenic about ghost writing. Ghost writing is when someone writes for a fee knowing that someone else will be listed as the author. In non-legal writing, ghosting is a time honored tradition. Writers are hired to make famous people’s good stories readable. The writer doesn’t get credit for the work, the famous person does. It’s an accepted form of plagiarism since the writer is fairly compensated for the use of his words. Even within the legal writing context, we accept certain types of ghost writing like the associate/senior lawyer example above.

But I can lose my law license if I ghost writing a pleading for an individual who then files the document on a pro se (i.e. without counsel) basis. A pro se party is likely to get more leeway from the Court than an attorney. So Cheatum hires Attorney Dewey to draft a law suit for him. Dewey then allows Cheatum to file it without Dewey’s role being disclosed. Because Cheatum is “pro se”, the Court will likely forgive some of “his” mistakes even if it would have raked Dewey over the coals for those errors. The Virginia Bar considers this form of ghost writing fraud on the Court and the opposing party.

Maybe there’s a reason lawyers need classes on plagiarism. We often don’t think of ourselves as “writers” even though a large portion of what we do, our craft, is written. Plagiarism is center stage in the information age. It’s not just college students trying to fill space in a paper who are plagiarizing these days. Dave Farland’s September 10, 2011 Daily Kick warns of writing scams offering to review or edit your manuscript in order to steal it. The availability of e-publishing allows “writers” to sell their books to readers before those books have been professionally vetted. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. But plagiarism can flourish in this unrestricted marketplace. Non-lawyer writers don’t sit through CLEs. All writers, legal and non-legal, need to be vigilant about the many forms of plagiarism given current technology. As David Farland suggests and the Bar Association requires, be careful with electronic documents. Don’t send them to people you don’t know.

The Benefits of Holding Hands

Robert Fulgham is known for saying that everything we need to learn, we learned in kindergarten. Writers being solitary creatures forget that everything we need for writing, we also learned in kindergarten. We all think of writing groups as ways to help each other, but we overlook other key ways writers can help each other. The writer sitting alone in his cabin and getting the next great American novel published is the exception, not the rule. Like any other business, writers need to network and market.

Writers help each other by passing on opportunities. I met another writer years ago through an online writer’s forum. We’ve both dropped off that site but stayed in touch via FaceBook and e-mail. Deb’s published and her novel’s done well. She’s currently editing an anthology (Women Writing the Weird). Deb also invited me to submit and accepted one of my short stories. Because she was still looking for stories, with her permission, I sent out inquiries to other writers I knew from the Superstars Writing Seminar. Another friend’s story has also been accepted.

Other writers are resources. Most of us have had at least one other career. I know how lawyers talk and think since I am one. I don’t really know how doctors talk. I do, however – see the lawyer slipped in -, know a fellow writer who’s a doctor. If I was writing a medical thriller, I’d ask him to read the first draft and tell me what I had wrong.

Other writers help you stay motivated and hold you accountable. It’s like having an exercise or diet buddy. After all, who can understand the ups and downs of writing better? Writers need to network, commiserate and, well, get honest feedback about what they write from others who are wrestling with the same questions: is my female lead too weak; my male lead too much of a jerk; Are they believable; Does anyone care about them other than me? And I’m competitive enough that when we throw out challenges, I rise to the word count.

So Fictorians, as Robert Fulgham said:

. . . Share everything. . .
When you go out in the world,
Watch out for traffic, hold hands,
And stick together. . . .