Include Gestures to Enliven Your Writing

In life, when we talk to one another, we generally don’t declare our lines while standing at attention, our arms pinioned at our sides like exclamation points.

We move around and we position ourselves in various postures, such as slumping, hanging our heads, or if we’re angry, stomping around. When the occasion calls for it, our facial expressions morph into smiles, frowns, smirks, and pouts. Our hands come alive, waving or cutting through space to emphasize our every word—or to dismiss what the other person is saying.

But often in our writing, we entirely overlook these behaviors—gestures—that accompany, emphasize, and define our human interactions. Instead, we might write. “I listened while she told me a long, shocking story.”

What were you doing while she told you this long, shocking story? Did you squirm with discomfort? Raise your eyebrows in surprise? And was she doing anything with her body to underscore this “shocking” story?

Examples of the use of gestures:

  • “That happens all the time,” Samos pointed out, shrugging.
  • The doctor chuckled and ambled out of the examining room to get a fresh cup of coffee.
  • I ended the conversation in disgust, then poked my phone again to make another call.

As a New Yorker, I was surprised on my first visits to New England (where I now live) at what seemed to me the stillness of New Englanders. Where I was from, every conversation, every thought almost, was an occasion for jerking our heads, bellowing out something over our shoulders, or doing little dances when we heard good news. But not in New England. People here seemed well behaved to me. Too well behaved.

Which led me to think more deeply about these physical motions that go along with our speaking and that express our feelings—sometimes even when we’re alone.

I asked my adult memoir and life story writing students in a class I teach to use gestures in their next assignment. Some did; others missed the opportunities their topics offered them, though gestures add depth to all kinds of writing, whether novel, short story, memoir, and sometimes even poetry.

But one woman did not include gestures in her essay. Instead, she wrote about gestures themselves.

She was born and reared in a country, where, as she described it, physical gestures are large. Hugging is common. Emotions are freely expressed and underlined with gestures. A man from from a different country noted that in his culture, few gestures are used.

But even if the gestures are subtle, they still can be included. Someone might simply stammer, nod his head, lean forward, or stare at the floor when downcast. People probably stretch when they’re tired or when their limbs feel cramped. All these motions should be included in the writing so that characters appear alive, rather than robotic.

In your creative writing, do you remember to show your readers what people are doing?

If you want to know more about integrating gestures into your writing to enhance it, take a look at:

Master List of Gestures and Body Language 

Gesture, Revisited

And if you’d like assistance getting gestures into your writing or otherwise strengthening it, use the Contact tab above to get in touch with me. We’ll see how I can help you out.

Author Carole Burns Discusses Her Mystery, Murder With Malice

Author of several books, Carole Burns has taken a number of writing classes with me. But I can’t take credit for helping her with all of them. I only got to know Carole when she was working on her novel, Murder With Malice. It’s a mystery in which the reader knows the murderer’s identity, and follows the detectives as they track down the criminal—and figure out why he killed two people.

Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Murder With Malice.
– Lynette

Click on the cover image to learn more about this book

While the Scarsdale Movie Theater on Garth Road was emptying out, William Grotty remained in the shadow of the nearby Laundromat. His car was parked on a nearby street where he’d hidden a gun in the glove compartment. Now it was in the pocket of his dark hiking jacket with his backpack strapped over his shoulders.

William checked his watch. It was exactly 11:00 p.m. The movie had just ended; the street was clear. His two friends were the only ones left, standing near the marquee, waiting for him.

He had told Sally Ross and Frances King that he wanted to treat them to a lovely new café that had recently opened. The only time they could all agree to meet was after the movie on Sunday night. William told them how proud he was of Sally’s new position and the continuing good results with the programming Fran and he were working on. They were surprised by his offer, but accepted graciously.

A soft, April evening’s warm breeze pervaded the street’s suburban aura. William knew the next commuter train from New York City wouldn’t be at the depot for another hour. Calculatedly, he came out from the shadow, the small gun nestled safely in his jacket’s pocket.

The two women turned to him as he called out, “Hi, you two.”

Facing him, they smiled and then were stunned. Eyes opened wide, mouths ajar, silent, as they watched him take the gun out of his pocket. He shot them each once in the chest. He knew they were dead.

I asked Carole to talk about her experience writing Murder With Malice.
– Lynette

Author Carole Burns

Author Carole Burns

The idea of book came from a mystery writing class I attended at Tufts University’s OSHER Institute for Retirees.

We were given a scenario, and asked to write what happens next. Surprisingly, each person in the class wrote something entirely different from what everyone else wrote.

Every week the instructor gave the class an assignment, which we would write during class time. The prompts were the following:

1. Write about the victim.
2. Write about the murderer.
3. Write about the setting.

We never referred to the plot again, but my story took off. It was a lot of fun.

In Murder With Malice, a murder is committed by a man whose childhood portrays an evil mind. When my book opens, he kills two seemingly innocent women friends of his. A college teacher, with her students and a local policeman, solve the crime.

The difficulties I faced when writing the mystery were in fleshing out the story, as I tend to write very concisely.

I learned I needed to develop my characters, scenes, and so forth. Help came from my original teacher, Roseanne Montillo, and from my present instructor, Lynette Benton——with wonderful input from the students in our workshops.

What I’d tell others who want to write a mystery:
– Like your characters. I enjoyed mine so much, I’ve decided to do a sequel.
– Do your research.
– Ask for advice from experts in field. My adult children were able to help me with financial aspects of the story.
– Be part of a writing group. You need input on your manuscript, and you’ll learn much from others who are writing their stories.
– Decide on the weapon for the crime, know about it to be sure it will work in the story.
– Explore the murderer’s motives, background, and character.
– Be familiar with the scene of the crime…places to hide, time of the day or night when it would be best to have a crime committed.

Besides Murder With Malice, I’ve written:
Oops, a collection of my silly poetry for family and friends
Sadye’s Sayings, expressions my mother used as a guide to bring me up.
A Rosh Chodesh Handbook Joining Lilith and Eve (with Ellen Cohn and Doris Wachsler) 2000
Sadye: A Memoir By Her Daughter 2001
No Such Thing As Ordinary 2006
Sidney, As We Remember Him 2012
The Freckle Thief (with Marilyn Wald) a children’s book 2013

How to Pump Out 32,604 Words in a Month

Margy Rydzynski and I have been colleagues and friends for years. When I met her for coffee last June, she had an unexpected question for me. Would I be her NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) coach? The worldwide NaNoWriMo challenge is held every November, but Margy was going to do hers in July.

I knew Margy had been writing a novel. And I was aware that she had put it aside to take care of some other major demands in her life. So I was thrilled to know she was going to resume work on her manuscript, and happy to have a chance to help out.

After Margy completed the challenge, I asked her to tell my blog visitors about her experience. The first thing I wanted to know was why 20,000 – 30,000 words? Here are her answers to that and to my other questions.
– Lynette

Margy Rydzynski

Margy Rydzynski

Why that many words? I had already completed 50,000 words of my novel and didn’t think it would take another 50,000 to finish it. The 50,000 word count is provided by NaNoWriMo as part of their November writing challenge. I wasn’t sure how many more words my novel needed to be completed, so I just wrote until I was done! Lynette tells me I wrote well over an additional 32,000 words of the novel in July.

How did I prepare for an effort of this magnitude and what did I give up? I work as a freelance consultant and teacher. My working life is therefore unpredictable, but summer is generally a bit slower. Normally, I use the time to catch up on my own work and plan new projects. In order to produce the amount of writing on my novel as I did, I decided to put all but the most time-critical work on the back burner and treat the writing as my highest priority. I had to be available for current clients, but I didn’t take on anything new.

What was the most difficult part? Getting started! It took me a while to get back into the swing of things. I hadn’t worked on this novel in quite some time and had to read over a lot of my notes to pick up the thread. Fortunately, I’ve kept a blog with possible plot progressions, characters, etc. I spent a good deal of time thinking about the story and writing down ideas, many of which came to me while I was in the shower!

Did I achieve my goal? Yes, although the first draft is very rough. At least it’s done, though. Editing will be a lot easier (I hope)!

My advice to those considering doing NaNoWriMo: You need to jump into it completely, not just dip your toes in. Life can and will get in the way, so you have to look at the big picture and organize your time accordingly. You have to write when you don’t feel like writing and just go on with the story. Above all, DO NOT EDIT YOUR WORK as you’re writing. The goal is to produce a lot of words, and editing as you go will bog you down.

What support did I have to for my July NaNoWriMo challenge? I knew I’d need someone to keep my feet to the fire, since my life is so unpredictable. I immediately thought of my friend Lynette, who’s a writing instructor and coach. I hired her to be my official “nudge” and, I have to say, I got my money’s worth! She sent me daily quotes for inspiration, met me in person from time to time to see how I was doing—and more. I had to send her my word count and writing for each day. There was no way I could slack off with her as my task manager.

Have you participated in NaNoWriMo? Got any tips you care to share?

Want help making real progress on your writing? Use the Contact tab at the top of this page to get in touch with me.

Charles Schwab, Poet, Publishes Second Chapbook

Charles Schwab Poet

Charles Schwab, Poet

Charles Schwab has taken creative writing classes with me for about five years, during which I’ve marveled at his incredible ability with words and ideas, as well as his prolific production of work.

I wrote about Charlie here when he published his first collection of poems, Keeping Account. Now, he has self-published a second book, The Act of Free Falling.

His work has been published in the Arlington Advocate; the PKA Advocate; WestWard Quarterly Magazine; and Connotation Press online. His poem, Albinos Need an Azure Sky (And a Touch of Red), which appears in this new volume, took first prize in a local poetry contest.

It’s my pleasure to interview Charlie about this latest collection of poetry and introduce you to more of his work.

How did you choose the poems for this volume of poetry?
Of the 150-some poems I had written by end of 2012, I noticed they fell naturally into four groups: animals, seasons, nonsense, and personal life. I arbitrarily picked about 60 that seemed to have been best received by instructors, my classmates, publications, and others.

act of free falling coverThe Act of Free Falling

Click the cover image to learn more about this book


What are 3 of your favorite poems in the book?
The Act of Free Falling (picked for book title); Wolfgang; and Tea and Sunbeams.

How did you come to take the photo that appears on the cover of the book? Where is that waterfall located?
I used some of my photos for the interior illustrations, and I found one that seemed to illustrate perfectly the book’s title. I took the photo at Akaka Falls, on the island of Hawaii.

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to publish with CreateSpace?
Prepare your material completely in advance, and do thorough editing and proofing. Select from Createspace’s various options or packages, based on what you need and can afford.

What are you working on now?
I am writing more poems in the hopes of collecting enough for another book.

Is there anything you’d like to tell aspiring writers?
Yes. Get help from writing instructors and their classes. It’s invaluable.

Here are some of my favorites of Charlie’s poems. (I chose short ones so this post wouldn’t get too long.) – Lynette

Fly By Night
Said I to the fly buzzing by, “Why
Do you annoy me so (though I try
To refrain from bothering you, too,
Not even shouting that word, “shoo!”) ?”
Your persistence is such that I really ought
To give you a swat, but then I thought
If I could talk your tongue right now
I’d be able to reason with you somehow.
Well, I tried all the lingoes you might speak—
Mandarin, Arabic, Amharic, and Greek—
To no avail, even tongues which are dead,
‘Til you found me sitting in bed where I’d fled.
I had a date with the sandman to keep,
So I turned off the lamp and fell asleep.
The insight: not me but my reading light
Drew you to my room that night.

Sadly the years have gone away;
I’ve lived to see my heirs grow gray.
The girls not using any tint,
Now my son with just a hint.
My grandson I’ve seen from when he began,
Slowly, now quickly, becoming a man;
And nearly all from my generation—
A spouse of fifty years or more,
A brother who slipped away before—
Have passed on to that unknown station.
I’d hoped they’d all stay young, but, hey,
I’m alive to see my heirs grow gray.

You can find out more about The Act of Free Falling by clicking on the cover image, above.

See Charlie at Ninety, a beautiful video by Charlie’s filmmaker grandson, Matt Ober.

Edith Maxwell, Cozy Mystery Author

I met Edith Maxwell a few weeks ago when she appeared at our local senior center to discuss her work. Several of my creative writing students (two of them mystery writers) also turned up to hear from this multi-published writer. During the question and answer session that followed Edith’s informative talk, I learned that a number of others in the audience were nurturing mystery manuscripts themselves. It was clear they found Edith’s words enlightening and encouraging.
– Lynette

Author, Edith Maxwell

Author, Edith Maxwell

I’m delighted to be Lynette’s guest today, here at Tools and Tactics for Writers. I’m a full-time fiction writer. I wrote stories as a child in California, and then had forays into journalism, academic writing, medical editing, and technical writing.

Twenty years ago, when I was an organic farmer (and a wife, and mom to two little boys) in a small town in northeastern Massachusetts, I took the off season to start writing a mystery novel. For it, I invented single woman Cam Flaherty, a former software engineer, who leaves hi-tech and goes north of Boston to run her great-uncle’s farm.

I created a murder on her property, envisioned the antique farmhouse she lives in, and more. After joining a writing group I learned a tremendous amount about creative writing from my peers’ critiques.

When farm season resumed and on into the next fall, I started my career as a technical writer. I didn’t have time or energy to continue the farm mystery while also working and raising my kids. So I put it on hold and began writing short stories, landing several in competitive anthologies.

When I was laid off my job in 2008, I wrote a short story about murderous revenge after a company layoff called, “Reduction in Force.” It was published in an anthology of best New England Crime Fiction and I later self-published the story as a reprint. I found another tech-writer job after several months, and over the next two years I wrote a different novel. Speaking of Murder features Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau, who finds her star student dead on campus. It was tough to keep sending out query letter after query letter, but my buddies in the Sisters in Crime organization were hugely supportive, and I found inspiration to turn to small presses after I couldn’t find an agent who felt she could sell that book.

After dozens of rejections from agents, Speaking of Murder was acquired by a reputable small press, Barking Rain Press. When it finally sold, I was more than delighted.

I was then fortunate enough to land a three-book contract with Kensington Publishing for a Local Foods Mysteries series in which I finally got back to the farm. For the first book, A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die, I used the “world” I had invented twenty years earlier: same farmer, same farmhouse, even the same murder, but I rewrote all of it, because I had learned a lot about creative writing in the interim. I love immersing myself in the world of farming again, except now I don’t have to do the hard work real farming involves. Writing it is much more fun!

Full-time Writer
A year ago, at age 60, I left my day job to write fiction full time. I’ve completed all three books in the Local Foods Mysteries and have sent in my ideas for the next three books, although Kensington hasn’t yet let me know if they are renewing my contract. I finished the second Lauren Rousseau mystery, Bluffing is Murder; it will release in November.

I’m now writing an historical mystery set in Amesbury, Massachusetts, in 1888, featuring a Quaker midwife and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Last fall I won an award for one of several short stories I wrote. And I’ve submitted a proposal for a new contemporary mystery series.

So I don’t consider myself retired; writing mysteries is my new full-time job. It’s not lucrative yet, but the more I write, the sooner it will pay off. And I’ve never been happier.

Advice for Would-Be Authors
If you’re considering a fiction-writing career (whether your first career or your last), I hope you’ll search out other authors. Find organizations that support your genre. Take courses, online and in person. Try to find an in-person writing group you mesh well with and the members of which give you constructive critique without negativity. Most of all, follow the writers’ mantra: butt in the chair, fingers on the keyboard. You can can’t sell what you haven’t written.

Click the cover image to learn more about this book

I’m running a contest until May 27: Anyone who pre-orders my new book, ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part can enter to win a gorgeous hand-painted signed silk scarf. Details on my web site!
Edith Maxwell writes the Local Foods Mystery series (Kensington Publishing).‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, which chronicles a murder that takes place after a Farm-to-Table dinner, releases May 27.

Maxwell has published short stories of murderous revenge, most recently “Breaking the Silence” in Best New England Crime Stories 2014: Stone Cold (Level Best Books, 2013); the story won an Honorable Mention in the Al Blanchard Short Crime Fiction 2014 contest.

Edith Maxwell also authors the Speaking of Mystery series under the pseudonym Tace Baker; Bluffing is Murder releases in late 2014 (Barking Rain Press). Edith holds a long-unused doctorate in linguistics and is a long-time member of Amesbury Friends Meeting. She lives north of Boston with her beau and three cats.

Edith blogs every weekday with the rest of the Wicked Cozy Authors. You can also find her at, on Twitter, on Pinterest, and on Facebook. She’d love to connect with you.

This is One of the 100 Best Websites for Writers – 2014

This website right here made the list, folks. Tools and Tactics for Writers is #71, and it’s in phenomenal company with all the big names in writing web sites.

So, take a look at the posts that can help you in your writing. (You can find them by category in the list on the right.) And, if you’ve been dragging your feet (or your cursor) about subscribing to this blog, I hope you will now, since it’s one of the 100 Best Websites for Writers – 2014!

Thanks to The Write Life for including me. And thank you to all of you who’ve followed this blog, left comments, suggested topics, and supported me throughout. We couldn’t have made the list without you!
I hope you’ll also visit my other web site, The Stylish Ole Woman.

Choose a Life or Family Story Writing Option

That's me, Lynette Benton

That’s me, Lynette Benton

If you’re thinking of writing about your life, or your family’s life, here’s some information to help you decide which of the possible forms would work best for you.

An autobiography covers your entire life. Tip: Be careful about starting out with your actual birth, unless there was something special about it, like yours being the first recorded birth in such and such a year or town.

You want your autobiography to engage readers, even if they’re family members, so I advise against lists of facts. “I was born on” feels like the beginning of a list of facts.

Try instead to write something about your birth, like “No one knew if my father would be able to get leave from the military in time for my mother’s due date.”

That immediately sets up suspense. We’ll keep reading because we want to know if he did get home in time. Then you can go on with something like: “Military leaves were scarce, since Pearl Harbor had been bombed a short time before and the US was at war.” Now you’ve added context. We’re interested.

A memoir describes a portion of a life, which could be a chronological period, like your teen years, or a subject, like all the houses you’ve lived in. I recently completed a project with a client who wrote about the years she and her husband spent their winters in Florida.

Life Stories
What I call a life story (or story from your life) is an anecdote about something in your life. I like it best when someone delves into a family myth, or discovers a secret. (I’ve never yet taught a class in which a boomer or senior didn’t find out something about their family that had been deliberately suppressed. For more ideas, see Supercharge Your Life Story with These Ideas.)

My husband's wonderful family helped me find info on my father's family on a recent trip to NC,

My husband’s wonderful family helped me find info on my father’s family on a recent trip to NC

Genealogy and Family History
The definition of genealogy that I like best is: “The study or investigation of ancestry and family histories.”

In addition to, or in place of, developing a family tree that confines itself to births, marriages, and deaths, many people write family history, which takes a broader look at ancestry than a family tree can accommodate.

Some genealogies include family stories and artifacts and documentation such as letters to help build a portrait of a family and its members. A number of sites like Family Search and USGenWebProject offer a rich trove of genealogical search opportunities.

Often a student of mine will realize in his or her mature years that a certain person exercised a strong positive influence on him or her. That acknowledgement inspires the student to write a profile of the parent, teach, mentor, neighbor, or friend, which turns out to be a meaningful tribute to the memory of that significant person. One student wrote so beautiful a tribute to her father that all of us who heard it wished we had known the man.

Going Forward
In my next post, I’ll provide tips for getting started on your personal and family history writing projects. What else would you like to know about writing stories from your own or your family’s life?

The Perceptive Poetry of Charles R. Schwab

Even though he’s a writing student of mine, I can’t take complete credit for Charlie Schwab’s success. When I met him, Charlie was 89 years old, the active and knowledgeable Business Manager of our local Senior Center. Having only recently started writing poetry, he had already given a couple of public readings of his work.

Keeping Account, by Charles R. Schwab

Keeping Account, by Charles R. Schwab

What I can (and do) take credit for is having successfully nagged him to submit his writing for publication and to make his poems available to the public. Now, his work has been published in the Arlington Advocate, the PKA Advocate of Prattsville, N. Y. (“Graying”); WestWard Quarterly Magazine of Hamilton, Ill.(“Tea and Sunbeams” and “Requiem”); and Connotation Press online (“Reflections of a Nonagenerian”).

J.P. Reese of Connotation Press wrote about Charlie’s work “..Insightful, fresh and humorous (in a slightly grim and pragmatic way).”

I wrote the introduction to Charlie’s first collection of poetry, Keeping Account. Now he’s about to publish his second book of poetry, The Act of Free Falling.

Below is what Charlie says about his work. The poem at the end is one of my very favorites.
– Lynette

I find poetry writing rewarding because it enables me to express my thoughts about and reaction to the human/natural world, from news reports to animal behavior and the changing seasons. Many of these ideas are not fully formed unless I write them down.

Secondly, I like working out the rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and word play involved. And, finally, I value the satisfaction I get from working intensely at a craft.

I suppose I’m trying to comment on my life and human life in general, especially daily happenings, from the vantage point of a long and varied life. I would hope that readers of my poems might grasp some of the humor and irony in them.

To others who want to try their hands at writing poetry I’d say, “Find your own interest and style, possibly through joining a poetry or creative writing class. At any rate, sit down and do it.”
– C. Schwab

Keeping Account
by Charles Schwab

In the work I did I kept account
Of balances that fall and mount,
But counting comes in many guises –
Each time I count the number rises.

In Concord they’re counting the butterflies;
How much does it count if a species dies?
We are apt to count sheep if unable to sleep;
The awake shepherd dog knows to count his keep.
Counting on fingers was how we were taught;
Computers are now counted on for the lot.
Astronomers strain to count the stars;
Four-star generals generally count in wars.
The Challenger was poised for a lift-off count down,
As the champion, down for the count, lost a crown.
A bard of love wished to count the ways,
While servicemen’s loved-ones count the days.
Every vote counts, the national pols claim,
But when the vote’s counted, they’re not all the same.

Count your calories and you might live longer;
Counting your blessings may make you stronger.
Long, long ago I stopped counting each year;
Not to have my life count is what I now fear.

See more of Charlie’s poems on his website.