René Penn

Author wannabe. Blogger. Follow me.


How the Arrests at Starbucks Impact Writers of All Colors

I’m not a protestor. I don’t really participate in boycotts. I don’t even like to post about hot-button issues on social media. But I went against my normal protocol this morning and tweeted this.

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That statement isn’t a big deal. It’s not vulgar or loaded with anything provocative. It’s more of a self-observation. To a fault, it’s pretty safe and doesn’t cast judgment on any parties involved.

This blog, however, seems like the perfect place to explore my thoughts, right or wrong, for better or worse. And I’m not limited to 280 characters.

When I go into a coffee shop, I purchase something 99.9% of the time. That’s because I’m using one of their seats, and maybe even their restroom.

While at my table, I don’t throw out the cup or wrapper until I leave, even if it’s been sitting on the table for 3 hours. Even if it’s taking up my table space or attracting flies. I want to make sure the employees know that I have purchased something for the time in their seat.

I don’t know if I do this because I’m black—sometimes these things are too ingrained to tell. It’s possible that non-blacks may adhere to the same protocol as me, from a patron-etiquette perspective. I’d be curious to know.


I can’t help but think that unconscious bias was at play during the Starbucks incident. If so, that validates why I need to keep my protocol in place. And I need to do it 100% of the time, as opposed to 99.9%.

But let’s say the Starbucks incident didn’t occur because of any unconscious bias. Let’s say it happened because there was an expectation placed on an individual who wanted to use the restroom. An expectation that you should buy a product. Otherwise: No coffee, no bathroom. Well, what about the expectation of a person who wants to use a table?

Ah, the net of concern is cast much wider now.

Because writers—as I mentioned in my tweet—spend a lot of time at coffee shops. That means writers are using Starbucks’ restrooms and their seats. So I can’t help but wonder if this incident will impact the way writers, regardless of color, will behave at Starbucks?

Will it change the way you’ll do things when you arrive at a Starbucks?

Buy coffee or tea first. Scope out empty table later.

Will you worry about how long you’re at a coffee shop before you order something?

Scenario: You walk in and see a long line at the register. You also see that there’s only 1 empty table available. You may normally snag the table and wait for the line to go down before buying your croissant. But would you still do that?

Will you no longer use a seat or table without paying for a beverage?

When a person patronizes the same cafe a few times a month, occassionally one may think, “It’s okay not to buy something this time.” Does that now give you pause?

Will you not use their restroom?

Have the arrests at Starbucks taught you that you’d rather hold your water than feel forced to buy one at the counter?

Are you thinking about patronizing non-Starbucks coffee shops?

My guess is that there are other cafes in your city or town that aren’t Starbucks. Are you so upset at Starbucks, that you’re thinking of boycotting them?

Will you go the non-profit route? 

I go to libraries to write, where there’s no pressure or expectation to buy any products. I also won’t be turned away for using their bathroom or seats. The drawback, of course, is that there’s no tea available.


Have the arrests at Starbucks impacted your way of thinking or how you’ll conduct yourself at Starbucks?

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash and Denisse Leon on Unsplash


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10 Reasons I May Write a Novella Instead of a Novel

Don’t know whether to write a novel or novella? Me neither. And I’m still not sure where this train is headed.

my_tweet-12I’ve been diligently working on a novel for the last six months, and it’s been tough. No surprise there—that’s part of the writing journey. But while digging up writing tips, I stumbled upon various articles about writing novellas, like this really good one. Something about the concept speaks to me.

What is a novella?

A novella is typically a work of fiction between 10,000 – 50,000 words. It’s longer than a short story and shorter than a novel.

Here are some reasons why I’m interested in writing a novella instead of a novel—and reasons that the devil’s advocate whispers against it.

  • My novel manuscript is too short. This isn’t the first time I’ve struggled to get a manuscript to an ideal 80,000 word count. I abandoned a previous project because of that issue. When I come against this problem, I create subplots just to beef up my story to a novel-length. Many times I think it’s to the detriment of the story.

Devil’s advocate: Perhaps I need to pick better subplots.

  • I tend to write fast-paced scenes. I like to get in and out without a lot of languishing. This could be a fault to work on, or it could just be my style. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Devil’s advocate: If I work on my technique, the scene can be expanded without feeling like fluff. Should I consider writing a suspense or thriller where fast-paced scenes are expected?

  • A novella still uses the three-act structure. I like the format of a novel. It provides good guidance for the writer and leaves a reader feeling fulfilled. A novella adheres to that same structure, which still gives me plenty of room to play around and have fun.

Devil’s advocate: If I like the novel structure, then I should just write a novel!

  • I have a lot of story ideas. Like many aspiring authors, I have a lot of ideas swarming around in my head—nine at the current moment. I have a list of them so I don’t forget. But there is something to be said for striking while that iron is hot. When the iron cools, I lose the creative boost that got me excited to begin with. This leads me to my next point.

Devil’s advocate: There will always be ideas. Just stick with one idea at a time until it’s done. Improve my “writer-stick-to-it-ness.”

  • I want to start working on the next idea. If I write shorter manuscripts, I wonder if I can crank through them faster, which will allow me to get to my next idea quicker. It’s all about feeding the creative beast.

Devil’s advocate: That’s an excuse. I’m a writer—which means, as long as I’m alive, that writing beast will be hungry.

  • Novellas are series-friendly. My current WIP is about one character, but I envision writing separate books with points-of-view of two other characters. Series are hot and hook readers. They can follow the continued life of a character, provide a spinoff for other characters, develop more opportunities for world-building, or link a connected, interesting theme.

Devil’s advocate: I can use these ideas as subplots to increase the length of my manuscript to the size of novel.

  • I want to finish. I’m impatient. I want the satisfaction of completing the novel, having it proofread and completed. I love writing, but there’s something to be said for finishing a project. The sense of accomplishment is satisfying, and it could happen more often with novellas.

Devil’s advocate: Patience is a virtue. With practice and perseverance, I’ll finish novel-length projects faster.

  • I could self-publish. Novellas are getting more and more popular, especially within the digital space. The shorter length works well for readers who like snack-size books, as well as meal-size novels. This market is perfect for the self-publishing industry, giving authors the chance to have total control of their creativity and marketing.

Devil’s advocate: When writing novellas, there really isn’t much choice but to self-publish anyway, for the most part.

  • Novellas can be bundled into a novel. If I decide to follow the same character through two or three novellas, for instance, they could be bundled together to create a novel. That book could then be sold separately to satisfy the needs of readers and agents interested in a conventional, novel-length work.

Devil’s advocate: If the end result is to get to a novel-length book, then why go through the trouble of working on shorter ones?

  • I can test the waters. Releasing a novella allows for faster feedback from readers, especially with a series in mind. If the feedback is good, it will provide incentive to keep going, all while building a reader base.

Devil’s advocate: I can also receive feedback from beta-readers—on a book of any length—without having to release a novella.

As you can see, I’m still deciding what to do. And there are some good cases made here by my Devil’s advocate.

Are you writing novellas instead of novels, or have you written both? Please share why have you decided to write, or not write, novellas.


Adverbs are bad in fiction? Seriously?

my_pictureWhen you type “using adverbs in novels” in the Google Search box, you get the following first five results:

All of these articles imply that adverbs have cooties. They must be avoided, cut, used properly, or not used at all. Why do adverbs get such a bad wrap?

(Definition according to Wikipedia, which means it’s correct.)
1. a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gently, quite, then, there ).

In screenwriting, adverbs are considered a no-no. They are fluff. And in the world of film, fluff costs money.

But novels are different than scripts. To me, novels are a fluff-friendly environment. Case in point: there are scores of posts, articles, etc., devoted to fluffing up a lean manuscript to reach the coveted 80K word count. Yet a darling adverb deserves to be nixed? Hmm…

Case in point #2: How many times have you read a book that allots paragraphs to describe a tree, the weather, or a man’s bulging biceps? Some consider high-levels of description to be great word-smithing and applaud the use of details. If there were adverbs in those paragraphs, would they suddenly be ruined? Hmm… Perhaps if the description was for “hugely bulging biceps.”

Okay, so adverbs can be superfluous. But when the tone is right, I think they’re totally fine when used in moderation. See I just used one, and I don’t think anyone gagged. And if you did, sorry (not sorry).

Do you think it’s bad to use adverbs in fiction?


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Pre-Made Book Covers—They Exist

If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking about your book cover even though your manuscript isn’t polished yet. It doesn’t hurt to imagine what your book will look like, does it? While working on my first draft, I scanned through stock photos online, then put my book title and pseudonym onto images that I liked. Here are examples of what I came up with.


My book cover won’t look like any of these. The photos don’t have exactly the historical romance vibe that I want. The fonts aren’t the style that I imagine. And the type placement doesn’t work well. I’m clearly not a book designer. But these photos represent a vision board concept for my cover. They inspire me to keep going, to keep writing, to keep plugging away.

Luckily, there are professionals out there who are available to design book covers for we writer folks. In fact, there are pre-made book covers out there, already designed and ready for download. I spent way too much time perusing websites that specialize in pre-made book covers. The sites make it easy to search by genre to find a match for your book. Many of them also include pricing, timeline, and specifications.

It’s good to determine if the designer will sell each cover design only once. That will minimize the possibility of seeing a repeat of your cover image all over

Even if you don’t buy a pre-made design cover, it’s still good to see what types of covers are out there. It may even help you determine what kind of cover you want for your book.

Have you used a pre-made book cover design?


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6 Questions to Ask Beta-Readers

Curious to know what to ask beta-readers? I was, too. I had toiled over my novel manuscript, rewrote it, and then sent it off to beta-readers—I released the baby bird. I knew the manuscript had flaws, but I needed confirmation on what the flaws were and how to tackle them. I needed validation and maybe a hug.

An article about what a beta-reader is, and how to work with them.

Sending out that draft to beta-readers was the first time it had been seen by anyone other than me. Was my novel just creative, nonsensical dribble, or was there something good there? Something likeable and interesting?jon-tyson-518780-unsplash

I fretted as I waited to hear back from my first beta-reader. I thought: I should’ve done this and that differently. I should have given the main character a different personality. I should just start over. I have a dribble draft!

During lunch with one of my beta-readers, who is a dear friend, I was nervous to receive feedback. I kind of regressed to my 6 year-old self—I was very close to crawling under the table. What was I so nervous about? This was the moment I had been waiting for. I should’ve been excited not nervous.

Thank goodness, I matured to my current age—or thereabouts—and asked some “beta-reader questions.” I wish I had the following list printed out, so I could’ve been more organized. But that’s life. Lesson learned.

Here are 6 questions to ask beta-readers:

  • Pacing?

Is it too fast, too slow?

  • Plot?
Is there too much going on? Not enough? Are there things missing? Is anything not believable?
  • Characterization?

Do you like the characters? Are they believable? Stereotypical? Are there things about them that you think are missing?

  • Points-of-View?
I switch between different points-of-view. Is it too much? Does it work/not work?
  • Dialogue?

Is it believable? Does the dialogue of each character match their personality?

  • World-Building?

Do you feel immersed in this imaginary world? Is it believable? Does it feel contrived, or are the details too sparse to believe?

Still looking for more questions to ask beta-readers? Check this out.

I got some great feedback from my first beta-reader, including some of these paraphrased nuggets.

  • “I wanted to know more about what the main character was thinking.”
My writer translation: I need to add more of the character’s internal thoughts. Intersperse more of it between dialogue.
  • “I know what the secondary characters want to accomplish, but I’m not as sure about the main character.”
My writer translation: The main character’s goal isn’t clear. Ouch! I need to go back to the basics, work on a character sketch, clarify her goal, and rework her sections. Those changes may also help the first bullet above, with increasing the character’s internal thoughts.
  • “When the main character was talking to her lady’s maid, I felt like they were discussing things that they would have already known.”
My writer translation: I was over-explaining—perhaps I need to look for instances where I need to do more “show don’t tell.”
  • “I think there are ways to incorporate more humor. I remember you said that you wanted it to be a funny book. I think you accomplish that more with the secondary characters, but not as much with the main one.”
Writer translation: The tone isn’t exactly right. It’s not consistent. Again, the main character is soggy.
I received some positive beta-reader feedback, too. But obviously, I have some work to do.
How do you work with your beta-readers? What kinds of questions do you ask them?

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…And Then I Saw ‘Lady Bird’

charles-deluvio-466054-unsplash.jpgI’ve been behind the writing schedule I set for my novel-in-progress. I should have already sent out my third draft to two beta readers. They may have even provided feedback by now, if they were completely riveted by the story. (Or not.)

As the dates slid, I decided not to wag the finger at myself anymore for being off-schedule. It was my own schedule, not one set by Random House (or any house, for that matter). It was okay to be “late.” To think otherwise would have been silly, counter-productive, and, in a way, self-destructive to the process.

I shook it off, plugged away, kept going. I said to myself, in the New Jersey accent I wish I still had: “Finish the freakin’ thing, already!”

Finally, I got the first half of the book over to two beta readers last week. I was revising the rest. I had only 20 pages left to the end, and two more new scenes to add.

…And then I saw Lady Bird.

It’s a fresh, coming-of-age story about a non-Catholic, Catholic high-schooler who has cool hair, likes snacks, falls in love, carries unrealistic expectations about a myriad of things, feels too big for her little-big city, and has Mommy issues. The script has a scrappy feel to it. And the actors deliver the snappy lines perfectly.

I loved it. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterward.

Creative ideas were crowding my writer-brain: I should write a script again; maybe a coming-of-age film. Dare I?

But wait, I still have those 20 pages to revise and the two scenes to write with my WIP.

I was getting ahead of myself, ready to follow the next shiny-penny-writing idea, when the finish line was right there, so close. Thankfully, yesterday, I finished that third draft. The beta readers have the whole book now. I can start working on my Lady-Bird-inspired screenplay-that-will-be-only-a-fraction-as-good.

Yet, I still need to research agents that I’ll want to contact when the book is finally ready to shop around. I have to write a query letter. The WIP is still a work-in-progress.

What is a lady to do? What would Lady Bird do? She would be inspired. She would have a snack. I’ll start there, and will keep you posted on what follows.

Photo by Charles Deluvio 🇵🇭🇨🇦 on Unsplash

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He “Said.” But What If He Scowled?

my_tweet-4The word “said” seems like such an innocuous word. But when you’re writing a book, those “said” uses really start to stick out.  Now Novel talks about dialogue tags and mentions that other words for “said” can indicate emotion, tone, and volume. How many times do we see the word “said” in a novel? It varies, obviously. But out of curiosity, I pulled a few books from my shelf and did a quick “said” count for their first 25 pages.


  • Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen—12 “said” count
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert—11 “said” count (including one “saying”)
  • The Human Stain, Phlip Roth—14 “said”/”saying”/”say” count

For my manuscript, the “said” count is 22 by page 25. Seems a little high based on the three books above. During my third draft, I am going to work on lowering this number. Below is a short list of words that can be used to replace “said.”

  • muttered
  • scoffed
  • continued
  • pointed out
  • pronounced
  • cut in
  • nodded
  • asked
  • remarked
  • sobbed
  • murmured
  • quipped
  • suggested
  • replied
  • relented
  • chortled
  • answered
  • added
  • shot back
  • exclaimed
  • frowned
  • spoke up
  • put in
  • echoed
  • interjected
  • amended
  • admitted
  • scolded
  • mused
  • pressed
  • returned
  • admonished
  • announced
  • repeated
  • scowled
  • explained

Looking for a longer list of words to use other than said—one that’s like 300 words long? Check out this article. Another option for “said” is to describe facial expressions.

What have you done to rise above, or tone down, the he “said,” she “said” in your novel?