More Writing Cowbell! with Margie Lawson

Any regular readers of this blog know we are all about MORE! More writing, more description, more Craft…MORE COWBELL.

I have yet to see anyone get More Writing Cowbell going on than Margie Lawson. I’ve seen other amazing teachers and writers – I quote them here all the time. But I’ve become convinced this week that Margie reigns supreme as the Writing Cowbell Queen.

Since becoming a Margie-Fan-atic this week, I’ve been poring over her website at Though there are many, many points of interest, my favorite (so far) is Margie’s Deep Editing Analyses.

In her list of 25+ analyses, she’s dissected the writing of several New York Times bestselling novelists, from Harlan Coben to Lisa Gardener, from Sue Monk Kidd to James Scott Bell. Below is my leading favorite of all her Deep Editing Analysis articles – Lisa Unger’s, BLACK OUT.

In the following analysis, Margie provides specific examples of powerful dialogue, then explains WHY it’s amazing. What could be better?? Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I invite you to sit back and enjoy the magic of Margie…

p.s. Be sure to comment when you’re done – Margie is giving away a lecture packet to one of the commenters on today’s post!

Here's a Margie-Smile for you!

Lisa Unger’s, BLACK OUT
Analysis by Margie Lawson

 New York Times and international bestselling author, Lisa Unger, writes adrenaline-driven literary thrillers. Reviewers describe her writing as masterful, riveting, evocative. All three of Lisa Unger’s thrillers—BEAUTIFUL LIES (2006), A SLIVER OF TRUTH (2007), and BLACK OUT (2008)—garnered starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly.

Entertainment Weekly described BLACK OUT– “[A] hurricane of a thriller…impossible to extract yourself until the last page.”

Let’s dig into some examples from BLACK OUT that make Lisa Unger’s writing as powerful as a hurricane. (Dialogue is italicized below.)

EXAMPLE, Page 118:

My mother liked to drink. It was a mad dog she kept on a chain. When it got loose, it chewed through our lives.

Analysis: Lisa Unger played off the cliché: acted like a mad dog. She empowered that cliché with twists, amplification, turning it into a stimulus and showing the response, and backloading. Twenty-four words. None wasted. Every word drives the reader toward the next word. Every word drives the reader deeper into the scene terror.

EXAMPLE, Page 213:

I see a flash of something on her face that I’ve never seen before. It happens when our eyes connect through the thick glass of her front door. It’s just the ghost of an expression, and in another state of mind I might not even have noticed it. It’s fear. Vivian is the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and when I see the look on her face, my heart goes cold.

Analysis: If you’ve taken my Empowering Characters’ Emotions course (or reviewed the Lecture Packets), you know FLICKER-FACE EMOTION. Because this flash of fear on Vivian’s face is critical, Lisa Unger wanted the reader to pay attention to this news of a difference.

How did Lisa Unger get the reader’s attention? She did not use a stronger descriptive word. She did not have the POV character react outwardly with a typical line, “What’s wrong?” She did not just label the look, fear, and move on.

She empowered that look by giving it more words, by amplifying it, by indicating it was so brief (the ghost of an expression) that she almost missed it, by labeling it fear, by telling the reader that Vivian is strong (implying rarely fearful), by using cadence, by backloading, by using the look as a stimulus and showing (not telling) the POV character’s reaction, by writing a VISCERAL RESPONSE.

Margie-grads know visceral responses set the emotional hook for the reader and contribute to making the book a page turner.

EXAMPLE, P. 236:

“Watch yourself.” His voice was tight with menace. There was a trail of brutally murdered women behind us, his tone said to me, and I could easily be next.

Analysis: Lisa Unger used a one-two punch. The dialogue cues in the first sentence inform the reader how the dialogue was delivered. The dialogue cue in the second sentence provides the reader with an interpretation of the subtext. It ups the stakes, ups the tension, and ups the fear factor.

Without the second dialogue cue, it’s just a tight, menacing voice.

With the second dialogue cue, the reader gets the conscious impact of the subtext and the subconscious impact of power words: brutally and murdered.


I notice how still he is. There was so much anxiety and adrenaline living inside me that I couldn’t keep myself from fidgeting, shifting my weight from foot to foot, padding a few steps away, then back toward him. But he is fixed and solid. He keeps his hands in his pockets, his eyes locked on some spot off in the distance. All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.

Analysis: Lisa Unger spotlights the contrast between how the POV character displays her tension—and how the non-POV character keeps his cool. Note the use of specificity. Note the number of Emotional Hits. Note the power of cadence.

Specificity: shifting weight, padding/steps away and back, hands in pockets, eyes/spot in distance, raspy voice

Emotional Hits: TELLING and SHOWING = 11 Emotional Hits

Telling: anxiety, adrenaline, fidgeting, fixed, solid

Showing: shifting weight, padding/steps away, back, hands in pockets, eyes/spot in distance, raspy voice

Cadence: Read the passage from page 293 out loud. You’ll notice variability in sentence length, agreeable phraseology, and a last sentence that is pleasing to your Cadence Ear.

All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.

What if Lisa Unger had written the last sentence like this?
All there is to him is his raspy voice and his story.

AACK!  Hear it? The cadence is off.

Read her line again:
All there is to him is his raspy voice and the story he tells.

Ah – My Cadence Ear is happy. ;-))

Lisa Unger’s writing is as elegant and enticing as it is electrifying. The Associated Press described BLACK OUT as, “A largely gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose… Unger…create[s] the perfect razor’s edge of tension.”

If you want to make your writing grip the reader with your muscular prose, read Lisa Unger’s literary thrillers and analyze her writing. Her stories and her writing craft will thrill you.

THANK YOU to Margie for breaking down Lisa’s brilliance in a way that allows the rest of us to try these methods in our own work!

So, what do you think? Do you want to be Margie when you grow up too?? Have you read Lisa Unger’s books before? (I hadn’t and just uploaded “Black Out” to my Kindle.) I’d love to hear any techniques you use for amping up your dialogue.

Please don’t be shy – we want Margie to feel the love from More Cowbell all the way up to the top of her mountain in Colorado! She’ll be popping in throughout the afternoon and evening to respond to your comments. One lucky commenter will be chosen to receive a Lecture Packet from one of Margie’s on-line courses.

    1. Empowering Characters’ Emotions
    2. Deep Editing:  The EDITS System, Rhetorical Devices, and More
    3. Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist
    4. Powering Up Body Language in Real Life: 
      Projecting a Professional Persona When Pitching and Presenting
    5. Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors

Don’t forget, today is the first day of Open House for Lawson’s Writer Academy!

When you’re done with this blog, I recommend you run immediately over HERE to attend the Academy’s Open House.

If you are a Margie-grad, there are Forums ready and waiting for you. If you have not had one of Margie’s classes yet, be sure to visit the Open House page and take a tour of the cyber classroom. Log in as a Guest for another chance to win one of Margie’s lecture packets!

Margie Lawson —psychotherapist, writer, and international presenter—developed innovative editing systems and deep editing techniques for used by writers, from newbies to NYT Bestsellers. She teaches writers how to edit for psychological power, how to hook the reader viscerally, how to create a page-turner.

Thousands of writers have learned Margie’s psychologically-based deep editing material. In the last six years, she presented over sixty full day Master Classes for writers in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

For more information on Lawson Writer’s Academy, lecture packets, on-line courses, master classes, and the Immersion Master Class sessions offered in her Colorado mountain-top home, visit:

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm ( Write on!
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55 Responses to More Writing Cowbell! with Margie Lawson

  1. ScarlettSpace says:

    Great post. It was cool to see the prose pulled apart like that. I’m definitely looking in those books too : )


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      I really enjoyed it too, Karen! It’s fascinating to see it laid out in black and white. My critique partner, Laura Drake, always says that once Margie showed her some of the weak areas in her writing and gave her fixes for them, she literally could NOT do those things any more. How cool is that?


  2. Ouch! I was so excited about LWA open house, I clicked the link and yanked on the door before the Academy opened. Picture me standing with my nose against the glass. The balloons are all there, Margie’s bustling about, but it’s not yet 7 a.m. Mountain time. Curses!

    When I get to THAT point in my writing day when nothing seems to click on the page, when the cadence doesn’t roll from brain to fingers, when I’d rather clean the fridge than write, I LOVE to visit Margie’s site. Her analyses alone gets my creative COWBELL (can I use your phrase, Jenny?) bonging.

    I don’t write thrillers, but the Magic of Margie works for all genres. I’m Contemporary ST Romance (with humor hits) and Margie loves to play with my words. At least, I think she does. If she doesn’t, she’s missed her calling and should be on Broadway.


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      You and Sherry just crack me up! I love seeing your comments on this blog. Y’all definitely have COMMENT COWBELL! You feel free to use the term wherever and whenever you like. 🙂


      • Jenny —
        Gloria and Sherry are Double Immersion Master Class Grads – -and they are both as brilliant as they are funny. 😉

        I get some credit for their BFF’ness. They met online, in my Defeat Self-Defeating Behaviors class – and hooked up as Change Coaches. They’ve been hooked ever since!


  3. Stacy Green says:

    Thanks for the great post. I’m going to have to spend some time checking out her analysis. I write thrillers/suspense, so the Lisa Unger analysis was very interesting. This is a great way to compare to my own writing and figure out things I need to do more of to make the cadence better and the writing more polished.

    Great post as always!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Thanks, Stacy…I think we’re all doing the same thing. I’ll confess that I wallowed in her Deep Analyses on her website for a few hours. It was heaven!


  4. K.B. Owen says:

    Hi, Margie! So glad you’re here to help us green peas improve our writing. Can you please explain “backloading”?



    • Jenny Hansen says:


      Margie will be along later today and I know she’ll explain this in grand style. (I can’t wait because the minute you asked the question, I wanted to know too!)


    • Kathy —
      Backloading is putting the POWER WORD(s) at the end of the sentence.

      Here’s an example from my Jeanne Stein’s (my critique sister!) 6th book, CHOSEN.

      “Too bad there isn’t an Olympic event for lying.”

      The power word is LYING.

      Jeanne could have written:

      “He lies so much, too bad there isn’t an Olympic Event for it.”

      Aack! That sentence ends with the always-vague, no-power word, IT. The power word in that sentence, lies, is not emphasized.

      When you put the power word at the end of a sentence, it gives the sentence more power.

      Beware: FLOW always trumps backloading. 😉


  5. Sherry Isaac says:

    Picture me standing next to Gloria, not just pressing my nose against the glass, but licking the window. When do I get to post? When do I get to post? As embarrassing as it will be to post my ‘Before’ for all the world to see, I must toot Margie’s cowbell with my ‘After’, and show everyone how magical her wisdom is.


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      I already told Gloria, the two of you slay me. Licking the glass…that’s a great image.

      I guess I’m going to have to hit LWA myself this morning to see what all you Margie-grad scamps have been up to. 🙂


  6. Fascinating!

    I’ve not heard of Margie Lawson before :gasp: I know. Off to check out her site 🙂


  7. Laura Drake says:

    Oh Margie, reading your analysis makes me miss you and my EMC class! I need to channel you…


  8. angels4you says:

    My shoulders scunched over the keyboard uncoiled
    and I shot up straight to pay immediate attention to
    the gold and pearls flowing forth from a great teacher.
    The song, “Margie” and the inimitable words, “I’m always
    thinking of you Margie” will be my revising theme song.
    A tankard full of thank-yous. No make it a truckful.
    A tornado just hit my manuscript and an inner volcano
    erupted in a grateful crescendo of cheers!


  9. Hi Margie,
    Those are familiar comments, especially “cadence is off.” I learned so much from your Deep Editing class that I look forward to taking it again some time.



    • Jenny Hansen says:


      I see it online at the new Lawson Writer’s Academy – the price looks great!


    • Haley —

      So fun to see you here!

      I’m teaching two advanced editing courses this fall. :-))

      Hope you get a chance to drop by the Open House. You can chime in on a Margie Grad forum. Plus – you have to visit Forum 8 – Margie-grads get a cyber gift!


  10. Great post – thank you for sharing Margie’s brilliance. Dialogue is such an important part to writing any fiction work, and I’m actually going back and inserting more into my WIP.

    I haven’t read Lisa’s works before, but will add her to my Books I Must Read list, not to be confused with my already purchased To Be Read list. Some girls buy shoes, I buy books. 🙂

    I’m headed to Margie’s site now. I had no idea these courses were even available. Thanks, Jenny!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      You are welcome! I’m kind of a babbling Margie Fangirl over here this week. I figured I should share with all my pals.

      Oh, and Tiff, I too buy books and writing courses over everything else. But there are just those times when a girl has got to have cute shoes! 🙂


    • Tiffany —
      Great to e-meet you!

      Hope to see some comments from you at the Open House. If you post a comment in the Coffeehouse – you could win a Lecture Packet. 😉


  11. I love Margie’s site and have several of her packets on my wishlist. Would love to won! Thank you Margie for all you do. Your analysis has changed how I read.


    • Hello ChanceOfBooks!

      Thanks for taking a tour of the LWA Campus. Hope you posted a comment at the Coffeehouse of in the Deep Editing Fitness Center. I’m drawing names from both those forums. Two people will win lecture packets and two will win online courses – each day.

      Glad my deep editing resonated with you. 😉


  12. Elle Adair says:

    Hey Margie!
    This is Marina-Varina and I just wanted to pop in and say HI!

    For me, the best thing about Margie’s workshops (Deep Edits especially) is that she forces the author to justify EVERY word, syllable, comma, and space on the page. Her system is AMAZING!


    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Hi Marina-Varina (LOVE that name)! It’s great to see you over here on More Cowbell. 🙂


      • Jenny —

        I met Marina when I presented for SVRWA in San Jose in February. Somehow, joking around, I called her Marina-Varina. It’s a fab name!

        Marina is cool too. Marina trumps Margie, big time! But — The name Marina-Varina carries power — and so does the person. 🙂

        I got to spend more time with Marina-Varina when I presented at Sacramento Valley Rose’s Retreat in April in Monterey. What an amazing retreat!

        Now you know. I’m smitten with Marina-Varina!


    • Marina-Varina —
      I’ve been thinking about you daily – since I lost you in the crowd at the RITA’s. Wish we could have connected more than 3 minutes! But — a few days ago, I noticed that I have your cell # in my phone. Ha! I’m calling you tomorrow. Look for my 6565656 number.

      Thank you for loving my deep editing!


      • PS — Hugs to you and Hannah!


        • Elle Adair says:

          Sorry it took me a few days to get back to you. I was visiting Hannah for the weekend. We plotted our pants off for my new book 🙂

          And yes, I too was sad when we got split up at the RITAs, I wanted to talk to you about planes, words, and how your open house went. Definitely give me a call. Hey, when are you in Northern California next?



  13. I took a class with Margie and it was awesome. Learned SO much.


  14. With the font of information just on this post I’ve learned quite a bit. Wow! Open houses are always fun so I’ll pay Margie a visit and see what other goodies are available. Thanks!


    • Jenny Hansen says:


      The Open House is rocking my world today over at! I’ve already signed up for a Sept course – $30 for the whole month…such a deal!


  15. crystalcip says:

    I just stumbled upon this today and am completely floored. My wishlist of classes is already huge! Thanks for making this so affordable, too!


  16. A. N. Blount says:

    I actually just came -from- Margie’s open house! I must say, I’m impressed. And I’m delighted to see her taking the blog-o-sphere by storm! Every post I come across by her is thoroughly helpful. I’m truly looking forward to the chance to meet her in person next week at her workshop in Birmingham.

    ~Angela Blount


    • Angela —

      So cool that you liked the Open House! I’ll add more assignments and pictures and resources tonight. Hope you can drop by again.

      I’ll get to meet you in Birmingham in 9 days. Yay!


  17. mollie bryan says:

    Wow. Excellent post. I’m off to check out her website, too.


  18. I popped over here from the Open House! Glad to find this blog 🙂

    And wow, Margie’s analysis is amazing as ever. She takes not just writing, but reading to whole another level.


  19. Shellie Sakai says:

    Jenny! You out did yourself again! You, my friend, are a jewel. Introducing us to Ms Lawson and thereby giving us more opportunities to polish our writing.

    I am on my way to check out Ms. Lawson’s open house. Thanks again, Jenny, I really appreciate you!


    • SHELLIE and JENNY and ALL —

      I planned to visit the Cowbell blog many times this afternoon, but my Google-calendar-brain kicked in (Love my calendars!) and told me to haul my hinnie to a doc appt. an hour away. So I lost 3 1/2 hours – and I’m teaching a class online – and the Open House . . .


      I’m sharing why I wasn’t here earlier. You all had a party and I missed most of it . . . So sorry!

      I’ll respond to some blog posts now – and others later tonight.

      SHELLIE — I hope you found your way around the Lawson Writer’s Academy campus. See any good looking college guys? :-))

      Thanks for being the first to post!


      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Hi Margie! *waving madly*

        We have been partying here today and are so excited to get to see you!! I’m much more of a night owl anyway (as you’ve found out) so it’s fun for me to see you here in the evening.

        Your comment to Shellie lets me know I need to change my comments to have the oldest first. I think your pal, Gloria Richards, was one of the first to comment. She and Sherry Isaac have been cracking me up all day long, here and over in the Open House.

        Thanks for doing all these great analyses so I could share a great blog with my pals. 🙂



    I loved the energy on this blog. It felt like a party! Must be Jenny’s personality that makes everyone feel high energy and enthusiastic about life.
    I enjoyed interacting with you all. Who knew Cowbell people could be so cool? 😉

    Regarding the winner . . .

    I used a random number chart to determine that the winner of a lecture packet is . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .STACY GREEN!


    Stacy — Please email me. You’ll find a Contact Margie button on the home page of my web site.

    JENNY — THANK YOU AGAIN — for inviting me to be your guest. You’re the BEST!

    All smiles………………Margie


  21. bailish says:

    Thanks for the analysis. It will help my writing.


  22. Amping up my dialogue–read a lot of fanfiction; watch tv and movies. 😉 Though fanfiction writings aren’t the best quality, they have the best of dialogues especially since most of them write the way we speak.


  23. Veronica says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s helpful to see specific examples of how to improve our writing, when many blogs only give general descriptions. I am always working on multiple projects, so I know this will be valuable information.


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