writing, Writing advice

Using Color in Fiction

Years ago, when my discovery of The Lord of the Rings seduced me into reading almost nothing but sword and sorcery fantasy (something I eventually got over) I remember noticing how often the good guys were described as wear white while the bad guys were always in black. This wasn’t limited to fantasy either. How many classic westerns over the years portrayed the hero in a white hat and the villain in a black one?

It has become such a standard that hackers are deemed “white hats” or “black hats” depending on how their efforts related to the law.

I’ve always questioned this motif. What does a young reader, who happens to be black, think of the color black always signaling evil? Does it mean that they are also, by definition, bad? Why can’t the good wizard wear black?

The problem here is that color is highly symbolic and the symbolic values differ from culture to culture. Thus, in western cultures, those left behind wear black to funerals to symbolize loss and mourning, while many Buddhist cultures will wear white to a funeral. Different cultures will often associate different emotions or traits with different colors.

Why is this important for us as writers? Because colors and the emotional traits we associate with them are important tools we can use to illicit responses in the reader. We can use color to manipulate the reader. We can reveal character through the colors they choose to wear, the colors they choose to decorate their home, the color of their vehicle.

And what is good writing, but a successful attempt to manipulate the reader’s thinking and emotions?

But, in order for this manipulation to work, we have to be accurate in how we use color within the culture at large. For if we don’t use color correctly, like any tool, the result will not work in the mind of the reader. They may not even know what is wrong. Something just didn’t set right with them. For instance, if you describe a character as meek and lacking in self-confidence, then describe him coming to work in a lemon yellow suit, the reader will have trouble believing it. Bright yellow clothing, for the most part, is not the sort of thing a shy man would pick out for himself to wear. (But he might buy it intending to come across as more assertive, then never have the guts to take it out of the closet).

So it is vitally important that, as writers of fiction, we get the symbolic color correct for the trait we want the reader to see. How do we do that? A large part is instinctual. We, after all, are writing to our own culture most of the time, so we know these associations in our gut, to one extent or another. But it can be dangerous to rely too closely to our own intuition, because sometimes our intuition is wrong.

So we research. Or, to be more accurate, we turn to the research others have already done. And, not surprisingly, most of the research on the emotional and cultural values embodied in color has been done by marketing firms. After all, marketing is really the science of manipulating the public into feeling better about your product than that of your competitor. So marketers have done all sorts of research into how people react to various colors and color combinations.

Below is a summary of various values associated with some of the colors (for this article, white and black are considered colors too. Yeah, yeah, I know).


Is the color of fire and blood, so it is associated with energy, war, danger, and power, as well as passion and love. In heraldry, red is used to symbolize courage and is found in many national flags. Widely used to indicate danger.

A very emotionally intense color. It increases viewers’ respiration rate and blood pressure.

Light red represents joy, passion, sensitivity, and love.

Pink represents romance, love, passivity, feminine qualities

Dark red vigor, anger, rage, courage, malice

Brown stability, masculine qualities

Reddish-brown associated with harvest and autumn


Combines the energy of red and the happiness of yellow. Represents enthusiasm, happiness, creativity, attraction, success, encouragement. In heraldry, orange is the color strength and endurance.

The color of harvest and fall.

Dark Orange can mean deceit and distrust

Red-orange indicates desire, passion, pleasure domination

Gold means illumination, wisdom, prestige, and wealth


The color of sunshine. It symbolizes happiness, intellect, and energy. In heraldry, yellow indicates honor and loyalty. Later it came to mean cowardice.

Men often perceive yellow as a very lighthearted, childish color.

Dull yellow represents caution, sickness and jealousy

Light yellow is associated with freshness and joy.


The color of nature, it symbolizes growth, harmony, freshness, and fertility and is strongly associated with safety. It can sometimes indicate lack of experience, as in “greenhorn.” In heraldry, indicates growth and hope.

Dark green often associated with money, greed, and jealousy

Yellow-green can mean sickness, cowardice, and jealousy.

Aqua associated with healing and protection

Olive green the traditional color of peace.


The color of the sea and sky, it symbolizes cleanliness, trust, loyalty, faith, truth, and stability. In heraldry, blue symbolizes piety and sincerity. A masculine color.

Light blue associated with health, healing, tranquility

Dark blue represents knowledge, power, seriousness.


Combines the stability of blue with the energy of red. Is associated with royalty, symbolizes power, nobility, luxury, and ambition, as well as dignity and magic. A very rare color in nature.

Light purple evokes romance and nostalgia

Dark purple suggests gloom and sadness.


White is associated with light, innocence, purity, and cleanliness. In heraldry, white depicts faith and purity. It is the color of snow.


Black is associated with power, strength, prestige, elegance, and formality. But is also the color of night, so is also associated with fear, the unknown, grief, death. In heraldry, black symbolizes grief. Often has a negative connotation: black humor, blacklist, “black death.”

By reading the list above, you can see that nothing is written in stone. It is a guideline and nothing more, a place to begin. And sometimes, in your effort to manipulate the reader, you can mislead them by giving them false clues. A man approaches a woman wearing a bright yellow dress. She looks happy; she’s wearing yellow. Only he finds out, after talking to her, that she’s a widow, mourning the death of her husband. The yellow dress was the only thing clean she had to wear. Or maybe she was consciously trying to cheer herself up.

Or you can have your hero, the good guy/girl always in black because he/she thinks it makes them look more slim.

Color is just another tool you can use to give information to your reader. Like all of us, it is up to you, the writer, to decide how best to use it.

writing, Writing advice

Writing Isn’t Like Baking A Cake

As someone who has published five novels over the past nine years, I occasional am asked for advice from newer, inexperienced writers. I am always happy to answer to the best of my ability. Whether they like my answers, or not, is a different matter, but I always try to be honest without utterly discouraging the newbie.

Recently, someone told me that they wanted to write a novel, but weren’t sure where to begin. Should she start with the plot? Maybe she should begin by fully designing her characters. How about location? Is it better to begin with one over the other?

In a word, no.

Like many artistic endeavors, there is no correct way to begin. Writing a novel is not like baking a cake. There is no standard recipe that, if you faithfully follow it step-by-step, will leave you the proud author of a novel. Writing a novel is more like trying to herd twenty-five three-year-olds through a County Fair. You start off with a legitimate plan, then improvise when it doesn’t work. When you are finished, the product is good and an accomplishment, but bears very little resemblance to what you thought it would be.

So how do you do it? How do you start that novel?

You write a word on a blank page. It’s that simple. Now you’ve started your novel.

The thing is, every writer is different. What works for me may not work for you and what works for you may not work for the next guy. In fact, I believe every work is different. I didn’t write my second novel exactly the same way I wrote the first (partially because it was the second novel in a series so I already had the main characters created and ready to go). The novel I’m working on now is developing in an entirely different manner than anything else I’ve written. I’m perfectly okay with that.

Some writers begin with a detailed outline, working out every plot development in outline form before they ever sit down to write a scene. Others, start out with a character they really like, or find fascinating, and then create a plot around them as a means to reveal that character. Others do some combination of the two. Still others just sit down and write the story, figuring out the plot and characters as the story reveals them.

In my current project (which still doesn’t even have a working title) I began with a single scene that had been part of a dream. I am creating the plot and character depth as I go. It’s probably not particularly efficient (I’ll have to go back and adjust various things as my perception of the story evolves, but I’ll have to re-write anyway), but it’s the way the story is revealing itself to me.

So, back to the original question: how do you start writing your novel? By starting it. Start writing the story you want to tell. If you get lost, or bogged down, try outlining the chapter you’re working on. Try outlining the entire work. If it still doesn’t seem to work, try writing profiles of your main characters, character sketches.

In short, try everything. Find out what works for you.

Write. Write often and write a lot. Write to solve the next problem your novel presents you. Write the best you know how, but don’t worry if the first draft pretty much sucks. You will fix that during the revision process. Just write, one word after another. Build a sentence, a paragraph, a page, and a chapter.

How does one start their novel? By writing.

writing, Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Eight Non-rules For Writing

Recently, I was browsing a website called Lithub (which I highly recommend to anyone fascinated by any and all things writing and literature related) and came across an article by Elizabeth Percer entitled “The First Rule of Novel Writing is Don’t Write a Novel.” I was intrigued. The gist of her article was that all these different lists of rules for writers miss one very important aspect of being a productive (and good) writer: that writing is an art form more than an industry. Writers are artists and need to work like artists, not accountants, or machinists.

In response to this realization, Ms. Percer came up with a list of nine non-rules for writing. I thought they were so refreshing and original, I decided I simply had to share the best of them with you (along with my own interpretation on occasion). I think you will find them as valuable as I have.

So, the seven non-rules of writing.

Don’t Write a Novel

Ms. Percer states that every time she sits down to write a novel, she gets next to nothing done. In fact, she feels she often loses some critical ground. Her point that often the pressure of trying to meet a preconceived goal can make it harder to create. Call it performance anxiety. Call it the contrariness of the subconscious mind.

For an example, the famed composer John Philip Sousa really, really, wanted to write lovesick ballads (which were kind of the pop music of his time) and he kept working at it. The thing was, the songs he produced weren’t very good ballads. But when his wife changed the time signature and tempo, they became very good marches. He was a talented composer of marches that kept trying to make them ballads.

In the same way, we writers shouldn’t sit down with a preconceived notion of writing a novel, a poem, or a multi-volume history of a fictional family. We should sit down with the idea of a particular story, or emotion, or even just a simple image and simple write the story. The story (or image, or emotion) will reveal which form it should take as it’s written.

Don’t worry about the form. Just write and the form will take care of itself.

Writing Doesn’t Always Look Like Writing

Ms. Percer states that about 80 percent of her writing looks nothing like writing. Personally, I’d put it closer to 90 percent. Writing looks like daydreaming, or reading, or gardening, or driving, or sitting in the back yard watching the birds at the bird feeder. It’s about trusting yourself and your creative spirit, not that nasty hyper-critical inner voice that tells you you aren’t working hard enough. It takes both the hard-driving professional, pounding out pages on the keyboard and the playful, curious child to make creativity work.

Books Do Not Respond to Timelines, Spreadsheets, or Graphs

Timelines, spreadsheets and graphs are very efficient tools the modern world has invented to help manage time and increase our efficiency. However, it is in the nature of art to become stubbornly distant when it is asked to punch a time clock. Sometimes, these time management tools can do more to get in the way than they help production.

Ms. Percer states that because she’d a writer and not a physicist, she doesn’t believe “writing always follows the laws of space and time.” Much more writing can be accomplished in short time periods enhanced by patience, thoughtfulness, and peace, than gets done in months of “writing time” defined by expectation, disappointment, self-loathing and a diet of coffee and Snickers bars.

Accept What Comes

This goes back to the first point. If you have your heart set on writing a bodice-ripper historical romance, but all you can really come up with is a brilliant haiku about garden peas, by all means relish writing the poem about garden peas. Maybe the world needs a book of haiku centered on garden vegetables. You may be just the perfect person to create that book.

Just like John Philip Sousa, don’t reject the very good work that occurs to you, just because you had other ideas. Sometimes the story needs to be told and doesn’t care what you want.


Writers like us want to create brand new works and if we’re going to do that we need to accept that the way we work is not going to look a whole lot like the way your accountant cousin works. It’s a different kind of work. This makes a certain amount of logical sense. However, in practice this can be threatening because creativity thrives with the very behaviors that many others label as lazy, self-indulgent, or some other label that might be appropriate if we were cogs in the corporate machine like everyone else.

Creative work demands that occasionally we stop and allow the well to be refilled, the slate to be wiped clean. We need down time. The key is that only you, the artist, knows when and how much down time you might need. We all need to learn to trust ourselves and have confidence in our judgement and to know when we need down time and when we’re just avoiding the work. The ability to discern the difference involves trial and error, but will always come back to trusting our instincts.

Sometimes the best thing for our writing is binge-watching a couple of seasons of Game of Thrones. Sometimes, a little voice is telling you that the small town murder mystery you’ve been working on should concentrate a little less on the evidence of the crime and a lot more on the town’s internal politics and Game of Thrones is exactly the example you need. Sometimes, you just need to walk.

Get To Know the Demons on Your Block

Every writer’s block is different. However, most have a few things in common. Maybe you’re blocked because your standards are too high. Maybe your expectations are so extreme that your creative self doesn’t want to show up. Maybe we’re taking ourselves and our work too seriously. Maybe your creative self is fighting to get yourself to do something different. Maybe it’s telling us to forget about writing a best seller and just write the story we want to read.

Don’t Neglect The Rest of Your Life

At its core, great writing comes from an unrestrained approach to the things that make life worth living. If you are neglecting those things, guess what happens? You’ll have nothing to say. So you’ll eat too much Doritos, stay up too late watching reruns of ‘70’s sitcoms and wake up hating yourself in the morning.

In short, what Ms. Percer is saying is that we should stop working so much at writing and, instead, just write. It doesn’t have to be such a chore.

writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Part Two

Last week I shared a productive exercise I learned in a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference. The workshop, instructed by Bruce Holland Rogers, was devoted to producing ideas and chock full of methods to do that. Some of them (like the one I told you about last week) I really liked and will probably use in the future. Others, not so much.

Today I’d like to share another method that I like, but not as much as last week’s. Mr. Holland Rogers called it “Arbitrary Beginning.”

In this method, we took the first sentence of an existing story, without the title or context, and attempted to finish the story. In the workshop example, we were given this first line: “Clara, neither the first nor the most loved, was the one that showed me I could withstand the pain.” (I apologize for not writing down the title of the story, or its author). Again, we were timed. Again, we were freewriting, taking the information and conflict we found in that first sentence and building upon that to create a story.

Like last week’s exercise, it is meant as a way to step around the critical self-editor that so often paralyzes us. As such, it is particularly useful when we find ourselves (as we all do at one time or another) fighting writer’s block.

Sometimes, what we need is an exercise to work around that critic.

Another, similar exercise is to read a book or short story by an author you admire, but have not read before. At some point a sizeable way into the work, pause at the end of a scene or chapter. Now, knowing the author and his/her style, ask yourself what will the next scene entail? If you were writing this work, this story, what would you have happen next? Write that scene. When you have finished, compare your scene with the one the author actually wrote. Were they similar? Did you take the story in an entirely different direction?

In a similar way, find a story that interests you. Read it half way through. Now put the story away and finish writing it, using your own imagination. How does your story compare to the original? Do note that yours will be a rough draft while the author’s is a polished, finished work, with several drafts behind it. The object is not to compare your writing with that of a professional author, but to use another author’s inspiration to jumpstart your own.

It is pretty much the basis for all the many forms of fan fiction, right?

Another exercise is what Bruce Holland Rogers calls “Collaborative Writing.” This is like the old game of “telephone” except that each person has more invested in the final product. For this exercise, you need a small group of willing participants. Your writer’s critique group is good for this.

Choose one writer at random. He or she writes the first paragraph (or few paragraphs) of a story, then hands it to the second writer, who writes the next paragraph, then hands it to the third writer. The story should make at least three rounds of the writing group (to keep anyone from getting too absurd during their part) and the object is to end up with a coherent, unified story. You may not be able to do it, but the object is to let your imagination feed off and be reinforced by each other.

But that’s the purpose of all of these exercises, isn’t it? They are designed to get our imaginations up and running when they don’t really want to. They are to help when our creative juices need a jump start.

So start.

writing, Writing advice

Generating Ideas, Exercise One

I didn’t post last week, but not because I was lazy, or had nothing to say. (I almost never have nothing to say). I was busy attending and hosting the 22nd South Coast Writers Conference, in Gold Beach, Oregon. A good time was had by all.

And I have lots I will share with you over the next few weeks.

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Writing from Zero” and presented by Bruce Holland Rogers, creator and host of www.shortshortshort.com and a specialist in flash fiction. As indicated by the title, the workshop concentrated on techniques and tools to generate ideas. (Something every writer at some point struggles with; the battle with the blank page is a universal one).

Today, I’d like to share one of the techniques we tried during the workshop that worked much better than I’d expected. It’s called “Arbitrary Subject.”

What you’ll need:

Ten random, unrelated nouns and noun phrases

Ten slips of paper

A timer

Your writing materials: notebook or paper

How it works:

In the workshop we generated the ten nouns by having the class suggest them, but you can generate them in any number of ways: the third noun on the hundredth page of ten books, the seventh noun on random pages of a dictionary, or you could use a computer application to generate the ten subjects. They can be as interesting or mundane as you wish. Some of the subjects we started with were: a neighbor, a ghost, and picture on exhibition.

Now you write the subjects on the slips of paper in order to randomly draw the subject you will write about.

Do not look at the subjects until it’s time to write. Part of the effectiveness of this exercise is the inability to over analyze what you are about to write about. You need to be surprised.

Now set the timer for two-and-a-half minutes. It helps if you have a timer that can quickly and easily be reset because you will need to reset it twice, for two-and-a-half minutes each time.

The object of this exercise is to write a complete story, with beginning, middle, and end, in seven-and-a-half minutes, based on the subject you randomly draw from the ten subjects you began with.

Draw a subject from the ten you began with. (In our case, it was “Picture on Exhibition.”) Start the timer and begin to write your story’s beginning. When the timer goes off, two-and-a-half minutes later, reset the timer and move to the middle of the story. When it goes off the second time, reset the timer and move to the end of the story. When the timer goes off the third time, stop writing.

We did this three times, with three different random subjects, over the course of thirty minutes. Somewhat to my surprise, it was fairly effective. Of the three stories I produced during the exercise, none were finished, polished stories, but that wasn’t the point. The point of the exercise was to get the creative process started. In that respect, the exercise was very successful.

Of the three stories I generated, one was a throwaway, but another had a solid kernel I think I can polish and revise into a good story. The third, was not as good, but still holds the promise of being something I can work into an acceptable story.

So in this thirty minute exercise, I generated one pretty good story and another moderate one. That’s a pretty good success rate, in my humble opinion.

For those who might be keeping track, the good idea was for “Picture on Exhibition,” and the moderate one for “Ghost.” I didn’t have much for “Neighbor.”

The object of this exercise is to combine the benefits of “free writing” with the motivational benefit of a deadline. By drawing a subject at random, the hope is to bypass our critical self-editor and tap directly into the creativity of our subconscious. Of course, for this to work well, you have to write continually (as much as possible) and continuously (as much as possible). Do not worry about grammar, spelling, or logic; just get the ideas on paper as quickly as they come to you. This is a first draft; grammar and spelling can be fixed in re-write.

The timer gives you the incentive to do it now. Something, personally, I truly need more.

Like I said earlier, I was mildly surprised at just how productive this exercise was. I will use it again in the future. You should give it a try.


“Story” Revisited

This week I’ve been having (or am going to be having) a conversation with a beginning writer about just what, exactly, a story is. He is ardent and trying very hard to grasp the “artistic” side of the whole gig. I get the impression his background is in engineering/math and he doesn’t really comprehend the stunned faces when he asked the rest of the writing group to explain poetry to him.

It’s not like the Pythagorean Theorem; it can’t really be adequately explained in a single sentence. Or paragraph. Or essay. Entire books (footnoted and everything) have been written about the subject; entire careers have been dedicated to the study of poetry.

And they still haven’t completely explained it.

“Story” is similar, except that it hasn’t been studied for nearly as long.

Okay. What is a “story?” A story is a form (usually prose, but not always) in which a narrative is told centered around a character and his/her mission to achieve a certain goal. The goal cannot be too easy, or the mission lacks interest or “drama.” The mission is often made more difficult by a series of obstacles the character must overcome along the way. These obstacles can be placed by an opposing character, the environment, or even be the main character’s own personal flaws. The harder the obstacles, the harder the mission, the greater the reward when the goal is reached.

Without the obstacles, the story descends into something more like a vignette.

For instance: a young woman steps onto the elevator in an office building, presses the button for the fifth floor. When the elevator arrives, she steps out and enters her office.

Realistic. A slice of life, done well. But it isn’t really much of a story, is it? There is no conflict. It’s meaningless.

So we ramp up the conflict a bit. We still have the young woman step onto the elevator and push the button for the fifth floor, but this time a man is already on the elevator and she can see that he’s headed for the seventh floor, two floors above her. As the elevator begins to move, she can feel his eyes on her, mentally undressing her. As the door opens on the fifth floor, she does everything in her power to keep from running into her office.

Now we have the beginnings of a story. There is conflict (can she get to her office without being attacked), a goal (the safety of her office) somewhat in question, and the goal achieved in the end.

Now there are some variations, tropes and rules pertaining to different genres of story. Realism is always a plus, but there limitations. Absolute realism is boring, mundane. “Story” is the illusion of reality; it is enhanced reality.

Consider a familiar horror trope: the young family moves into an old, historic house. Soon, they begin to see glowing red eyes in the mirrors and the faucets spill blood. In reality, you or I would be grabbing the family and staying in a motel—or the mission—until we could find a new house. But that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? For the sake of story, we need to suspend our disbelief for a while. We need to believe that someone would walk into certain death and still manage to not only survive, but to defeat the bad guy. We need to believe that someone would open the attic door in that haunted house, something we’d never do in reality.

We like “story” because it allows us to have a taste of lives and decisions we would never dare to make in reality.

It is supercharged reality.


The Four Types of Modern Stories

The other day, I was doing some research into story structure because I was (and still am) thinking about writing a post about the subject. In the course of this research, I came across an article from 2010 in Writer’s Digest, written by Orson Scott Card entitled “The 4 Story Structures Dominating the Modern Novel.”

Now, Orson Scott Card is a fantastic writer, probably a better writer than I will ever be, but his analysis in this article was less about structure—at least as I understand it—than about story archetype. He talked less about beginnings, middles, and rising action than about the subject and theme of the works.

There was a theory bouncing around for a while that said all fiction stories were variations of two basic stories: Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstock. While I think this is a gross oversimplification, I felt this was the direction Mr. Card’s article had taken. Not that it was bad, or untrue, just misleading. I thought it should be titled: “The 4 Story Types Dominating the Modern Novel.” He does do a good job of identifying four “types” of fiction novels. Despite not being quite the structural analysis I was looking for, Mr. Card’s analysis of type was still interesting.

Four “types” of Fiction Novels:

The Milieu Story

In this type, the writer’s focus rests squarely on the world in which the action occurs. While every story has a milieu, in these novels the environment is the primary aspect, more important than character development, or even plot.

These stories usually begin when the character arrives in the particular world and ends when he/she leaves it.

For example: Gulliver’s Travels, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia

The Idea Story

The purpose of this story type concentrates on discovering new information as seen through the eyes of characters driven to uncover the truth.

Mystery and detective fiction fit nicely into this category. And as in most mysteries, the novel begins with a crime and the question of who committed it and ends with the discovery of the criminal and his/her motive.

Much political fiction is also fiction of ideas. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is dedicated to asking the question “Does communism work?” and, in Orwell’s opinion, answering it.

The Character Story

These stories focus on transformation of a character’s role in the communities that matter most to her. These are most often what are considered “literary” fiction, though that is only a general guideline.

Think of Practical Magic, which chronicles two sisters’ struggles to define and accept their roles in the family and The Secret History, which looks at the workings of a group of college friends through the eyes of a naïve young man. The events of the story cause him to drastically reassess his opinion of everyone involved.

These stories usually begin when the character decides to change his role in the community and ends when the character either settles into the new one, or retreats into the old.

The Event Story

In the event story, something is wrong in the fabric of the universe. The world is in disarray and the main character is called upon to restore order. Almost all fantasy fiction and horror falls into this category, as does much science fiction. But the event story is not limited to genre fiction. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is also an event story. (A king has been murdered by his brother. Something’s rotten in Denmark.)

These stories usually begin when the character is made aware of the problem and ends when the character either restores the old order, or ushers in a new order.

Think Lord of the Rings, Dune, Stephen King’s It.

Personally, most of my work falls under the “story of ideas” category, probably because of my long love affair with mystery and horror fiction. Of course, almost no writing is exclusively one category over another. Often, it is merely a recognition of what the writer feels is most important. The story revolves around a murder investigation, but the author is more interested in the psychological stress on the detectives than the mystery itself has the trapping of a story of ideas, but is actually a character story. Tana French’s In the Woods is a good example.

So where does your writing fall? Have you even thought about it?

Let me know in the comments.