Let Your Words Speak

Outtakes 371

Let Your Words Speak

By Cait Collins


Imagine a novel or short story that has no dialogue.  No verbal interaction between the characters to move the action. Dialogue is action.  It provides emotion and insight into the needs and desires of the players.  Writing dialogue can be the hardest writing, but it can be the most rewarding.  Choose your words carefully.  Avoid trite phrases.  Write in an active voice and eliminate as many helping verbs as possible. Allow your words to direct the emotion so that exclamation marks are not necessary.

Dialogue tags are needed to avoid confusion as to who is speaking, but write so that the reader doesn’t need stage directions such as shouted, banged, slapped, slammed, cried, and so forth.  Allow the dialogue to set the scene and create the mood.  For example:

“You chose to end our marriage.  “I accept your decision, but I’ll always wonder if we could have salvaged the relationship.”

“Are you trying to make me feel guilty, Mark?”

“No. That would be impossible.  A person with no soul feels no guilt or remorse.” Mark put on his glasses and began reading the newspaper.  “Have a nice life, Beth. I just hope the next sap you target gets a better deal. “Goodbye and don’t forget to leave your keys.”

The door bell chimed.  Mark looked toward the glass door.

“On second thought, forget the keys.  The locksmith’s here.”



Outtakes 370


By Cait Collins


Things happen.  Sometimes they are good and sometimes they’re hell.  We can write great scenes, but if the characters do not react in keeping with their personalities, the story loses its integrity.  Let’s try this.  Your story has three female characters.  Missy is in her early twenties.  She is shy, withdraw, and nervous.  Prissy is about 25.  She’s been on her own since her late teens.  She’s outgoing, friendly and independent.  At 32, Krissy is strong, confident, and a take-no prisoners woman.

There have been a number of break-ins in town recently.  The authorities are looking for suspects, but no one has witnessed the robberies.  People are adding more security to their homes, but not everyone can afford the extras.

One weekend, Missy goes to visit her friend in Oklahoma.  Prissy is attending a wedding in San Antonio.  Krissy attends a conference in Denver.  When they return home, they find they are victims of the bugler.  Two of them have lost jewelry, TV sets, and computers. The police were able to contact the two women to warn them of the break-ins, but Krissy is not answering her cell phone and no one seems to know where she went.  She has no warning.

Based on the information provided, pick one of the women and write a scene about her arrival home and facing the disaster.  Here is my take on Krissy’s response.

Krissy dropped the phone into the cradle.  Her cell phone bit the dust when she was pushed into a fountain by a group of rowdy teenagers.  At least she could phone the police, her boss, and her brother.  Thank goodness nothing appeared to have been taken.  The only evidence of the entry was the banged up door facings and leaves that had blown in through the open doorway.

“It could have been worse, Kris,” her brother stated.  “You could have been here when he came through the door.  You could have been hurt bad.”

“The jerk could have been killed.  I don’t miss.”

“Can I get you something?  I mean, have you eaten anything?”

“There’s a bottle of Merlot in the wine fridge.  Pour me a large glass.” Please,” she added.

The doorbell chimed.  Krissy stormed to the front hall.  Peeking around the curtain, she muttered a curse.  The bell chimed again. She yanked open the door.  A sheriff’s deputy grabbed her into a fierce hug.

“Don’t you ever do that to me again, Kris.  I thought you were kidnapped or worse.  I had to report you as a missing person.   He released her.

“That should have thrilled you.  I’ve been invisible for years.  You haven’t seen me since I chose to take the job with Senator Sellers.  I’ve been nothing but an irritation since you decided there was no relationship.  Not even a friendship.  Go back to your office, report me found, and forget I exist.  I never want to see you again.”

Physical Characteristics

Outtake 369


Physical Characteristics

By Cait Collins



A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Michael Cunningham.  He was a speaker at my first writers’ conference. I was enrolled in his advanced novel writing class and looked forward to hearing his lectures. He was not the standard speaker extolling his accomplishments. Instead, Michael gave us an assignment. We had fifteen minutes to list twenty physical characteristics of your protagonist.  The list could include physical attributes as well as manner of dress, and smells. And when we had the list completed, we were to write the opening paragraph of the novel and incorporate at least six of the characteristics in that paragraph.

Here goes:

Ageless            long, white blonde hair        tall       slender                        piercing blue eyes

Gold wire-rimmed metal glasses        long, slender fingers   musician’s hands        a pipe stem peeping from the jacket pocket     a brown tweed jacket with leather patches at the elbow

Smelled of apple wood pipe tobacco   pressed dark blue denim jeans          large, blood red ruby ring on the ring finger of his right hand       black leather belt      patrician nosehigh cheek bones         English oak walking stick with a wide gold band at the bottom and a dragon-head handle 

Dark wool muffler      slight limp      high cheek bones         linen handkerchief in left breast pocket           voice of authority

He stood in the doorway. Piercing blue eyes searched the room lingering on the faces of the women in the crowded lecture hall. He appeared ageless. Was he forty or four hundred? White blonde hair fell below his shoulders. He limped toward the lectern at the front of the room.  Facing the audience, he spoke. The voices of the ages filled the room as he told stories of Glastonbury, Tintagel, and the days of Camelot. The authority in his words called to some and ignored others. The sparkle of the blood red ruby on the ring finger of his right hand hypnotized the woman sitting in the last seat on the third row.

“Daughter of King Arthur, it is time.”

Copper tresses gleamed and emerald eyes stared into the beloved face. “Merlin,” she whispered.

I loved every minute of Michael Cunningham’s lectures.


Outtakes 368


By Cait Collins


When setting the location for your story, what do you look for?  Do you choose an actual place or is it from your imagination?  What draws you to the city or town?  Where is it located?  If the location is in the United States, which state are you considering?  Are you familiar with the city or town and the state? What’s the population?  Who are the biggest employers?  Is there a college or university in the area?  Is there a historic district?  Did any major, historic event occur in the area?  Describe Main Street.  Where are the popular hang outs:  a bar, a diner, the library?  Is there a well-known landmark?  What is the major building material:  wood, brick, native stone?

Are the locals affluent, middle class, under privileged, or a mixture of all classes? What are the major ethnic backgrounds?  Describe your antagonist, protagonist, and major supporting character’s homes.  Where’s the best place to buy an ice cream sundae?

Does it matter if your setting is real or from your imagination?  Not really because all of this information, and more, is necessary to build the setting for the story.  While the location is essential to the work, it should not take over the tale.

Under the Bed

Outtakes 367

Under the Bed

By Cait Collins

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to clean the junk out of my house.  I’ve made a start by cleaning out the closet in the master bedroom.  Then I started to focus on the closet in my study.  About a third of the upper shelf is loaded with boxes containing my “under the bed shopped but unpublished works.”  I’ve started pulling down boxes and found some promising pieces as well as some real duds.  The duds are in the trash, but the promising works I’ve decided to hang on to for a while.

If I have multiple copies of a manuscript I’ll trash the extras and keep just one copy.  That way I can reduce the number of file boxes on the shelf.  Once the clean out is complete, I’ll take a good look at the remaining pages and decide if the work is salvageable.  If I determine the work to be worth saving, I will type it into a new Word document make making updates and changes as I go.  Then I will destroy the paper copies.

Should I decide the story is no longer interesting to me, I will shred it, and then I will pack the empty file box into a larger box to take to Goodwill. Hopefully I will have an empty section of shelves when I’m through.

I don’t know about other writers, but cleaning out the mess and organizing the storage spaces helps me focus.  My desk and work area at the office are relatively cleaned off.  I don’t keep many photos and nick-nacks on my work station. I really do work best that way.  If I trash the junk,  I think more clearly.  I can work smarter and better.  I make fewer mistakes when I my work area is neat.  However, the same does not hold for desk drawers.  What I can’t see doesn’t bother me.

Unwrapping the Story

Outtakes 366

Unwrapping the Story

By Cait Collins


One of the problems with having a big family is trying to find a time for everyone to get together to celebrate the holidays.  At Christmas it’s often eat fast, exchange gifts, and go to the in-laws or rush off to have dinner with the significant other’s family. And sometimes, it’s just seems like crossing one more items off the list.

One of my sisters had a new idea.  She and another sister gathered prizes and over 300 feet of plastic wrap. They wrapped the prizes into two balls of plastic. The younger children were given the smaller ball and a pair of dice. They stood around a table. One child had the ball and the child on the right rolled the dice.  The child with the ball could unwrap the plastic until doubles were rolled. The ball and dice were passed to the right. This continued until all the prizes were found.

Adults and older kids were up next.  The ball was larger and the contestants were handicapped. We had to wear oven mitts when unwrapping the plastic. I assure you it was not an easy task. About the time I found a thread, someone yelled, “Doubles,” and I had to pass the ball. The unraveling took around 45 minutes filled with laughter and teasing. I truly enjoyed myself. The best part was dinner and the games came before the gift exchange. We were together longer.

Sometimes I feel writing my stories is similar to the plastic ball of surprises. I have a story line and characters, but the details are harder to come by. Characters are never introduced fully developed. The layers are revealed by circumstances, developments, triumphs, and disappointments. Each layer revealed shows the characters’ strengths, weaknesses, hopes and dreams. The revelations create likable and relatable heroes and heroines along with despicable villains.

The story also has layers. The events must unfold along a believable time line. And characters must be introduced at the proper time with just the right amount of detail. Like the handicap of wearing oven mitts when unwrapping the plastic ball, the story must have roadblocks and time constraints. The plot cannot be too easy or too predictable.

When a story seems to take a wrong turn or lose focus, instead of giving up, roll the dice, hope for doubles, and receive the ball with the expectation of finding a new part of the story puzzle. Never lose sight of the goal…a story the reader will enjoy and want to read again. Above all, do not forget the fun in finding a new character or story twist. And never let allow the handicaps to defeat you. Grab the ball and shake the bindings until they loosen and the treasures fall out. The tidbits are the gems that make the story.


Outtakes 365


By Cait Collins


Good service matters.  I think we sometimes forget this.  The business type doesn’t matter as much as how a customer is treated when they walk through the door.  I had an unfortunate encounter with a post.  The thing just stepped out in front of me and broke my bumper.

I called my insurance company and they recommended several body shops.  I was thrilled to learn Drury body shop was on their list.  They repaired my car after a young man rear-ended me.  I was treated like royalty.  I called them and made an appointment.  They checked the damage and told me what parts they would order.  They set a date for me to bring the car in.  When I arrived I was treated like royalty.  They called the rent car company to let them know I was ready for them to come get me and then promised updates on the progress of my repair.

I received an update about two hours later letting me know the repair was in progress.  Around 3:30 I received a text telling me my car would be ready for pick at 5 PM.  I couldn’t believe it.  When we set the appointment they told me four days, but it was all done in one day.  And the final total was about half the original estimate.  When I arrived to pick up the car, it looked like new.  On top of the great repair job, they had detailed both the interior and exterior.  That’s service.  I’d recommend this shop to everyone.

I so appreciated the service I received, it made me wonder if I am as thoughtful of my customers.  I’m not just talking about the people who are my work customers.  I am also considering my readers.  Do I always try to see my plots and characters from their viewpoint? Do I use enough description to bring them into the setting?  Are the characters believable?  Have I done my research?  Do I settle for okay when the story could and should be magnificent?

Will the ending satisfy my readers?  Have I provided the royal treatment for the reader? Will they want to buy the next story? If even one of these questions has a negative response, then I have failed the service test.  I think my readers deserve better than mediocre efforts.

Holiday Thoughts

Outtakes 364

Holiday Thoughts

By Cait Collins


Thanksgiving is two days away and Christmas will be here before we are ready. With so much going on I find myself making excuses for not working on my writing projects.  This year I have set a challenge for myself.  I will work on my projects each evening.  Even if it’s only thirty minutes or an hour, it will dedicate time to editing or writing at least a paragraph each day.

Enjoy the holidays, but do not neglect those projects.  It saves backtracking after the festivities have ended.

What Did You See?

Outtakes 363

What Did You See?

By Cait Collins



Test your powers of observation.

You are standing in line at the bank.  Every teller is busy.  Each teller has five or six people in his line.  It’s nearly 5:00 P.M on Friday.  The lobby is warmer than usual.  The teller for your line is moving slowly.  You’re getting impatient.  Just when you start complaining about the sloppy service, the patron at the counter leaves.  The teller’s face is pale and her hands are shaking.  You place your deposit on the counter and put your palms flat on the polished wood counter top.  She hesitates, and says “Excuse me.  I’ll be right back.”  A few minutes pass and the bank manager comes to the window.  “I apologize for the inconvenience, but I need you to move to the window on your right.”  Not so fast, I’ve been waiting for half an hour.”  “Please cooperate.  The bank’s just been robbed.”

The police arrive and begin questioning the customers.  Put yourself in the shoes of the witnesses.  Answer the following questions from the point of view of the following patrons:  yourself, a harried young mother with three small children, and the teller.


What did you see?

Was the person in front of you male or female?

Height, build, hair color?

What was the suspect wearing?

Did you notice any jewelry, glasses?

Did you touch anything at the counter?


This really happened.  I was the person standing in line and getting impatient because I was running late for my shift at the Disney Store.  Not only did I give a statement to the police, the FBI interviewed me.  I could give them the gender, height, hair color, clothing, glasses, yes, I had touched the counter top.  The FBI agent showed me a picture of the suspect leaving the building. My description was accurate.  It’s been nearly 15 years and I still remember the look on the teller’s face and remember her apology for walking away from me when I came up to her window.  I can describe the teller and the suspect.  And I remember that “I don’t believe this is happening feeling.

Writers must be observant.  We must look around and really see the scene.  Do you go to the mall and watch the people?  A couple of hours after leaving the mall could you describe at least one person?  What did you smell? What did you hear?  Observing not only the place but also the sounds, scents, colors, and people allows us to recreate a similar scene in our stories. Observation empowers our work. Test yourself next time you’re out and about.  Look around. What do you see?


Outtakes 361



By Cait Collins

I was looking for a Halloween sweater the other day and ran across an old autograph album.  It was a gift from the youth group from our congregation when Dad was transferred to Maine in 1962.  Autograph albums were the rage back in the 60’s.

The white cover with gold embossed images is worn with age, but the notes and signatures brought back so many memories. The ink and pencil words and drawings have not faded.  As I read the messages I began to put faces with names.  Sometimes the face escaped me, but I still found much that brought a smile, a raised eyebrow, and a few tears.  The memories were good.

It’s strange that this book was found shortly after I received a note from my older sister who lives in Wichita Falls.  She asked me what I thought about writing a memoir about growing up back in the 60’s.  I called her and asked, “What would you say if I told you I have about nine chapters written?”

I think I surprised her.