Hard truths about the industry #amwriting

I love reading,  and always review the books I enjoyed. For every book I feel good about recommending, I may have to read six that are just plain awful. I’m not only talking Indies here—large publishing houses publish many novels every year that are a waste of paper and digital space. These travesties should never have made it past the gateway editor, much less the eye of an experienced agent.

This goes beyond my not caring for the style or voice of the piece. I’m talking lack of proofreading, garbled sentences, lack of knowledge of how to use words like ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, and misspelled words. This happens in traditionally published work as well as Indie, which should be embarrassing to the Big 5, but apparently isn’t.

Some books are so badly edited it seems like the author is the only person who has ever seen the manuscript. One glance at the first pages of the “look inside” option at Amazon and the other large online booksellers can show how abysmal a book is going to be, so use that tool and don’t buy a book that you haven’t had a look at first.

Other novels are moderately edited but not by a professional, or someone who understands the craft of writing. This is a flaw that can drive away all but the most determined readers, people who would ignore most typos and slight inconsistencies for a good tale.

My own first novel was published by a small press. It was a good example of bad editing: the unbiased eye of an experienced, educated editor could have made a great novel out of a promising tale. Instead, I paid for work that wasn’t done (having to pay your publisher for editing is a red flag, btw) and the book was published without my seeing the changes my publisher made. That experience was painful, but it was an education I have taken to heart.

Sadly, rushing to publish isn’t limited to Indies. It happens all the time with traditionally published books, especially when the first novel in series has had good success. These publishers set impossible deadlines and race to launch what they hope will be a follow-up best seller, but because they were rushed, these books sometimes fail to live up to the hype.

I see this as evidence that editing and proofreading by the large houses for many successful traditionally published authors are sometimes overlooked in the rush to cash in on commercial success. And while this means that they publish crap too, Indie authors face a double-standard: the stink of bad editing and proofing washes off the traditional houses, but clings to the Indie industry as a whole.

This brings me to my point: The big 5 traditional publishers pretend everything they publish is sheer magic, while loudly pointing out the faults inherent in self-publishing. And, while it makes me laugh that they decry us as worthless but leap to publish us the minute we show any sign of real success, there are hard truths here we indies who are committed to the craft of writing must face.

Consider your readers—they deserve the best you can give them. For this reason, I refuse to attempt to churn out more than one or two books a year. Some authors can write three decent novels a year, but it takes me four years to take a novel from concept to publication, so I have three manuscripts in various stages at all times. I understand that romance novels are a different kind of animal, but I write for readers with different expectations. (Click here to read an article by romance novelist Merry Farmer on this subject.)

Some general advice for authors who are first starting out:

  1. Learn the mechanics of how to write in your native language. Grammar and punctuation are essential, no matter what genre you are writing.
  2. Join a writing group and meet other authors, either in your local area or on-line. This will help you with steps 3 and 4. Enter writing contests and participate in the boards and threads. Ignore the trolls; they pop-up everywhere (usually with badly written ego-stroking crap to their publishing credit.)
  3. Develop a thick hide, and find an unbiased eye among your trusted acquaintances to read your work as you are writing it so you can make changes more effectively at an early stage. This way you won’t be overwhelmed at the prospect of rewriting an entire manuscript from scratch.
  4. Lose your ego. Your ego gets in the way of your writing.  Are you writing for yourself or for others to read and enjoy your work?
  5. Find a good, professional editor. There are hidden aspects to every great book, and they are all centered around knowledge of the craft. An external eye is essential to the production of a good book. Check their references, and when you do engage their services, do not take their observations personally—editorial comments are intended only to make a manuscript readable. This editor must be someone you can work closely with, who makes suggestions and allows you to make the changes in your masterpiece yourself. They must understand it is your work and you have the right to disagree with any suggested changes. If you have this symbiotic relationship, you will turn out a good final product.
  6. Don’t give up your day job. Even authors receiving hefty advances have to struggle to make ends meet. (Read Thu-Huong Ha’s article, A New Book Shows the Financial Cost of Leading a Creative Life.)

It’s far more affordable now for a dedicated reader to buy enough books to keep themselves happy, but making your way  through the many offerings in our eBookstores is a perilous journey. You can’t always trust the quality by reading the publisher’s label. You just have to realize that whether a novel is traditionally published or Indie, some books are frogs, and some are princes.

To write well, you must read widely, no matter what your favorite genre is. You may have to read a few books you wish you hadn’t on your way to finding the book that sweeps you away. In the process of reading for the purpose of writing book reviews, I have discovered many wonderful books by talented authors in all genres, and on both the indie and traditional sides of the industry. Finding those gems makes wading through the lemons worthwhile.


Sources and Attributions:

How Many Books Should You Write Per Year, by Merry Farmer, Nov 13, 2013

A New Book Shows the Financial Cost of Leading a Creative Life,  by Thu-Huong Ha, Jan 11, 2017, Flipboard

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis (Self-photographed) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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#FineArtFriday: Frost Fair on the River Thames near the Temple Stairs, by Thomas Wyke

Quoted from Wikipedia: During the Great Frost of 1683–84, the worst frost recorded in England, the Thames was completely frozen for two months, with the ice reaching a thickness of 11 inches (28 cm) in London. Solid ice was reported extending for miles off the coasts of the southern North Sea (England, France and the Low Countries), causing severe problems for shipping and preventing the use of many harbours. Near Manchester, the ground was frozen to 27 inches (69 cm), in Somerset, to more than 4 feet (1.2 m).

In the pedestrian tunnel under the south bank of Southwark Bridge, there is an engraving by Southwark sculptor Richard Kindersley, made of five slabs of grey slate, depicting the frost fair.[19]

The frieze contains an inscription that reads (two lines per slab):

Behold the Liquid Thames frozen o’re,
That lately Ships of mighty Burthen bore
The Watermen for want of Rowing Boats
Make use of Booths to get their Pence & Groats
Here you may see beef roasted on the spit
And for your money you may taste a bit
There you may print your name, tho cannot write
Cause num’d with cold: tis done with great delight
And lay it by that ages yet to come
May see what things upon the ice were done

The inscription is based on handbills,[20] printed on the Thames during the frost fairs.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “River Thames frost fairs,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=River_Thames_frost_fairs&oldid=820904368 (accessed January 19, 2018).

Frost Fair on the River Thames near the Temple Stairs, by Thomas Wyke ca.1683-1684 via Wikimedia Commons (scan from FT magazine, 2007-09-30) [Public domain]

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Ten-dollar words #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances they can become repetitive. For that reason, I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk, and I refer to it regularly. I have found it saves time to use the hard copy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down rabbit trails.

But this leads me to the problem of using words that are jarring and obscure.

The important thing is to remember the audience you are writing for. If you are writing for a YA (Young Adult) audience, remember their reading level. They are just embarking on the reading journey, so don’t use words that my editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.”

Quote from Blogging.com: What is a Ten-Dollar Word? A ten-dollar word is a longer word that is used in place of a smaller and more well-known word. The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use highfalutin words to inflate their appearance and seem smarter than the more average man. Words like these serve a very important purpose; they make you seem smarter than you actually are. One profession that’s very intelligent with their use of these words is the legal profession.

These words will stop the eye of the newer reader, who must set the book down, get the dictionary, and then look the word up. Or they will simply set the book down and not return to it.

The reason new readers often don’t like Literary Fiction is that they don’t understand many of the words and feel “talked down to.” Literary Fiction is work written for the experienced reader with a wide vocabulary. Children’s books and Middle Grade and Young Adult novels are the training grounds for readers, enabling them to gradually widen their vocabulary without their realizing it.

One of the worst places to get creative word-wise is with dialogue tags because it becomes telling rather than showing. Your punctuation and the physical action should convey the emotions. Some tags that are jarring and unnecessary are:

  • Ejaculated
  • Exclaimed
  • Moaned

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye.

Something authors must consider: People don’t snort, smirk, smile, or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, but the smile is a facial expression and cannot speak.

This means that we add gestures and actions to the conversation to show the emotions, making it meaningful.  Otherwise, stick with a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Conversely, don’t make the mistake of getting rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

Where you place the speech tags in a sentence is important. Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out.

However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but

  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Authors must create a balanced narrative.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what, and don’t like being confused. They like being challenged, but don’t want to have stop and look more than one or two words up. They don’t want to be jarred out of the book by ten-dollar words. And finally, they don’t want to be told a story. They want to see it happen.


Credits and Attributions:

Ten Dollar Words for Copywriters, Copyright © 2007 – 2018 Blogging.com WordPress Blogs https://blogging.com/ten-dollar-copy-words

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Formatting Short Stories for Submission #amwriting

If you are serious about writing and submitting short stories, you must learn to use the features that come with your word processing program.

Publishers have specific, standardized formatting they want you to use, and these guidelines are posted on their websites. When a call for submissions goes out, their editors will have no time to deal with badly formatted manuscripts.

If you can’t be bothered to follow their guidelines, they won’t be bothered to read your work.

For the most part, the requirements are basically the same from company to company with minor differences. To make sure your work conforms to the intended recipient’s requirements go to the publication’s website and read the standards they have laid out.

William Shunn has established a standard format that is acceptable to most publishers. All of the following steps will come into play when you make your document look like his. The link for his website where the example can be viewed is here: William Shunn: Proper Manuscript Format : Short Story Format

To get your paragraphs and line spacing right, you need to know a few simple tricks for using your word processing program. These tools come with the software and are there to make your documents look as professional as is possible.

First, you must open the toolbox.

Open your document. I use Word, but most word processing programs (Open Office, Google Docs) follow a similar process as my program does. Running across the top of the page is something called the ribbon, and this is your toolbox. Everything you need to create a manuscript is right there, waiting for you to learn to use it. On the right-hand side, by the question mark is a tiny arrow for expanding or hiding the ribbon – and we are going to expand it so we have access to all the tools we will need.

Now we must select the font. As I said before, I use Microsoft WORD, and like every other word-processing program, it has many fancy fonts you can choose from and a variety of sizes.

You don’t want fancy. Stick with the industry standard fonts: Times New Roman or Courier in 12 pt. These are called ‘Serif’ fonts and have little extensions that make them easier to read when in a wall of words.

If you are using MS WORD, here are a few simple instructions: to change your fonts, open your manuscript document, and Click on the tab marked ‘Home.’  In the upper right-hand corner of the ribbon across the top of the page in the editing group, click:

select> select all. This will highlight the entire manuscript.

With the ms still highlighted, go to the font group, on the left-hand end of the ribbon. The default font, or predesigned setting, will probably say ‘Calibri (Body)’ and the size will be .11.

You can change this by opening the menu. Scroll down to Times New Roman or Courier (depending on the publisher’s guidelines). Click on that, and the font for the entire ms will be that font. If you have clicked on the wrong font, it can be undone by clicking the back-arrow (upper left hand corner).  Once you are satisfied with your changes, click save.

Now we are going to format our paragraphs and line spacing. Editors and publishers want their copies double-spaced so they can insert comments as needed in the reviewing pane, which will be on the right side of the page when you receive your work back for revisions. Having it double-spaced allows for longer comments and is easier for an editor to read.

Do NOT ever use the tab key or the space bar to indent your paragraphs.

You have no idea what a mess that makes out of an electronic manuscript. Too many extra spaces in an electronic document cause the formatting to fail when converted to electronic publishing formats (mobi, epub, etc.) so keep extra spaces to a minimum. Most publishers require manuscripts to be submitted electronically, so you will have to go in and remove these tabs by hand, and it’s a tedious job, but do it now, if you have been using the tab key.

You can format the paragraphs by either opening the home tab and choosing ‘normal’ from the styles tab on the ribbon. This is simplest, but what is ‘normal’ on your software may not be what your publisher requires. The best way is to format by using the formatting tool, which requires 6 steps, detailed below.

Step 1: Once again, select all to highlight the entire document. Then, on the home tab, look in the group labeled ‘Paragraph.’ On the lower right-hand side of that group is a small grey square. Click on it.  A pop-out menu will appear, and this is where you format your paragraphs.

Step 2: On the indents and spacing tab of the menu: Use standard alignment, align LEFT. The reason we use this format is we are not looking at a finished product here. We are looking at a rough draft that will be sliced, diced, and otherwise mutilated many times before we get to the final product.

Step 3: Indentation: leave that alone or reset both numbers to ‘0’ if you have inadvertently altered it.

Step 4: Where it says ‘Special’: on drop-down menu select ‘first line.’ On the ‘By’ menu, select ‘0.5.’ (Some publishers will specify a different number, 0.3 or 0.2, but 0.5 is standard.)

Step 5: ‘Spacing’: set both before and after to ‘0.’

Step 6: ‘Line Spacing’: set to ‘double.’

To summarize, standard paragraph format has:

  • margins of 1 inch all the way around
  • indented paragraphs with no extra space between
  • double-spaced text
  • Align Left. This is critical.

Do not justify the text. In justified text, the spaces between words, and letters (known as “tracking”) are stretched or compressed. Justified text aligns with both the left and right margins. It gives you straight margins on both sides, but this type of alignment only comes into play when a manuscript is published, and at that point, the publisher will handle the formatting.

Now we need to make the “Header.”  This is the heading at the top of each page of a word-processed or faxed document, consisting of the title and your name, followed by the page number.

Many publishers and editors want this because when they receive a print copy, each page is clearly marked with your name and/or the title of the book as well as the page number. Remember, they want print copies UNBOUND. Accidents happen: if the printout of the manuscript accidentally falls off a desk, it can easily be reassembled, and the editor will always know that you wrote that brilliant work.

We insert this by opening the “insert” tab, and clicking on “page number.”  This opens a new menu. We add the page numbers using the small dropdown menu. We insert our title and author name just before the page number, and that will be our header.

This is how the ribbon and menus look:

Now you know how to use your software to make your manuscript submission ready. You have changed the font to Times New Roman or Courier .12 font and  the body of the manuscript is

  1. Aligned left
  2. 1 in. margins
  3. Double-spaced
  4. Has formatted indented paragraphs
  5. Header contains title and author name
  6. The first page contains the author’s mailing address and contact information in upper left hand corner

This may seem like overkill to you, but I assure you, if you are serious about submitting your work to agents, editors, or publishers, it must be in as professional a format as is possible.

I hope these instructions will help you find the way to format properly in other word-processing programs. MS WORD is the one I use because it is easy and has all the tools I need. Just don’t get too fancy with formatting your work before you submit it. No matter how pretty you make that manuscript, if it doesn’t follow the submission guidelines for the place you are submitting it, you have wasted your time.

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A Dog’s Tale #FlashFictionFriday

I used to spend a lot of time in the backyard, howling. What can I say? I was young and impulsive in those days.

However, Dave bought me this new collar, which, while it’s nice to look at, has an inherent flaw. It becomes terribly uncomfortable when I howl or announce the arrival of that vandal who shoves trash through the slot in our door. He seems to be targeting our house. Since I can no longer yell at him to go away, I nip at his fingers through the slot. But he’s crafty now and doesn’t get close enough for me to do any damage.

I’m not complaining, though. I’m no different than any other girl. I’m quite partial to jewelry, but more importantly, I’m a responsible man owner. Since Dave is my human, I always show my appreciation for his thoughtfulness, even though he has no idea what sort of collar I’d really like. It’s the thought that counts.

Caring for a pet human teaches a dog to be patient and adaptable. Humans have a compulsion to keep redecorating their nests, and no amount of scolding on your part will change it—it’s the way humans are. Sure, it’s annoying to discover they have changed things around just when you finally had things arranged the way you like it. But putting up with trivial annoyances is part of the job of owning a pet.

Dave is no different than any other human, and it’s one habit I’ve been unable to train him out of. I don’t think he understands that the new cover he puts on the sofa when he leaves is not comfy at all. It buzzes and zaps me, so I just give up trying to get comfortable and sleep on the floor.

Dave seldom puts me in the kennel when he’s gone, the way some humans do. Bonzo, the dachshund from next door, spends all day in his kennel, which his human bought specially for him. Bonzo doesn’t like it but is too polite to complain as it was a gift. And there again, it’s the thought that counts. I’m only asked to sleep in mine when Dave and that woman have a sleep-over.

It took a while, but I have Dave pretty well trained now. He’s loyal, and never forgets to feed me, and he has never once left me alone in the car on a hot day. It’s a good life.

I’m feeling sleepy now, so I’ll just go nap by the front door, and wait for the vandal. He shows up nearly every day just before noon. Today, if he’s careless, maybe I’ll finally draw blood, and he’ll stop throwing trash into our house.


The Dog’s Tale, © Connie J. Jasperson, 2017-2018

This little bit of flash fiction was inspired by the above photo, found on Wikimedia Commons and first appeared here Feb 03, 2017.

Image: Pomeranian, By Chunbin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Narrative Essay #amwriting

Today we are continuing the subject of crafting short fiction. In December I wrote a post on essays I have read and why we should write them. While this post expands on that subject, we’re digging deeper today, going into the mechanics of writing a specific type of essay. For Indie authors who wish to earn actual money from their writing, the narrative essay appeals to a wide audience and is sometimes more salable. Narrative essays are often anecdotal and not necessarily completely true.

They may detail an experience or event, and how it shaped the author on a personal level. However, we must keep in mind, the first-person narrator is frequently unreliable. This purely human tendency to embellish or slightly twist the truth is what makes the narrative essay an engrossing tale.

One of my favorite narrative essays is 1994’s Ticket to the Fair, (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by the late David Foster Wallace, and published in Harpers. Told in the first person, it is a humorous, yet eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair.

Sandra Allen describes this essay as, Laugh-out-loud hilarious and almost ridiculous in its level of detail, it explores the author’s fractured identity, the Midwest versus the East Coast, and the American experience at large.

At the outset, Wallace states he was born several hours drive from the fair, but had never attended it. A city boy, he has no knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals, and hasn’t really thought about the fair beyond the fact that in the course of covering the fair for Harpers, he is getting his first official press pass. After high school and college, he had left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back.

Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how the Illinois State Fair is representative of Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.

Writing thought provoking content is the prime purpose of an essay. Because the essay is the vehicle for conveying our ideas in a palatable form, writing narrative essays require us to think, not just about the content, but also about the structure. You must include:

  • an introduction
  • a plot
  • one or more characters (can be the narrator)
  • a setting
  • a climax
  • a summary/ending

Writing with intentional prose is critical. A good essay has been put into an entertaining form that expresses far more than mere opinion. Narrative essays may center around larger concepts, but they present ideas in such a way the reader feels connected to the story. Good essays offer a personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way. (Names changed to cover your backside legally, of course.)

Literary magazines want well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics, and some will pay well for first publication rights. Therefore, it is essential you pay strict attention to grammar and editing, and never send out anything that is not your best work. After you have finished the piece, set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are real words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Miskeyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

Don’t be afraid to write with a wide vocabulary. Never use jargon or technical terms only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece geared for publication serving that segment of readers.

Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be a little bold. I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace and George Saunders because they are adventurous in their work.

A list of publications that are accepting narrative essays can be found here: NewPages.Com

And on that note, we must be realistic. Not everything you write will resonate with everyone you submit it to.  Put two people in a room, hand them the most thrilling thing you’ve ever read, and you’ll get two different opinions, and they probably won’t agree with you.

Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground—if an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.” If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

And when you receive that email of acceptance—celebrate! There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.


Credits and Attributions:

Harpers, Ticket to the Fair by David Foster Wallace, pdf  https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/HarpersMagazine-1994-07-0001729.pdf

17 Personal Essays That Will Change Your Life by Sandra Allen for Buzz Feed, August 2013

Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=815132504 (accessed January 9, 2018).

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How writing drabbles develops mad skills #amwriting

Some of the best work I’ve ever read was in the form of extremely short stories. Authors grow in the craft and gain different perspectives when they write short stories and essays. With each short piece that you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition.

This is especially true if you write the occasional drabble—a whole story in 100 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

Writing such short fiction forces the author to develop economy of words. You have a finite number of words to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.

  1. You have a limited amount of space so your narrative will be limited to one or two characters only.
  2. There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or affect the outcome of the story.
  3. The internet is rife with contests for drabbles, some offering cash prizes.
  4. Building a backlog of short stories gives you ready-made characters and a premade setting to draw on when you need a longer story to submit to a contest.

Writing a 100-word story takes less time than writing a 3,000-word story, but all writing is a time commitment. When writing a drabble, you can expect to spend an hour or more getting it to fit within the 100 word constraint.

To write a drabble, we need the same basic components as we do for a longer story:

  1. A setting
  2. One or more characters
  3. A conflict
  4. A resolution.

First, we need a prompt, a jumping off point. We have 100 words to write a scene that tells the entire story of a moment in the life of a character. Some contests give whole sentences for prompts, others offer one word, and still others no prompt at all.

A prompt is a word or visual image that kick starts the story in your head. The prompt for the following story is sunset.

In my previous post on writing short stories, I showed how I break short stories into acts. A drabble works the same way–we can break this down into its component parts and make the story arc work for us. We have about 25 words to open the story and set the scene, about 50 – 60 for the heart of the story, and 10 – 25 words to conclude it.

We sat on the beach near the fire, two old people bundled against the cold Oregon sunset. Friends we’d never met fished the surf.

Wind whipped my hair, gray and uncut, tore it from its inept braid. The August wind was chill inside my hood, but I remained, pleased to be with you, and pleased to be on that beach.

Mist rose with the tide, closed in and enfolded us, blotting out the falling stars.

Laughing at our folly, we dragged our weary selves back to our digs, rented, but with everything this old girl needed—love, laughter, and you.

The above drabble is a 100-word romance, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning places our protagonist on the beach with someone for whom she cares deeply.

The conflict in this tale? The mist and wind make it too cold for our protagonist to stay on the beach and gaze at the stars. A hard, cold wind and heavy mist are typical of the Washington and Oregon Coast in August, two things you wouldn’t think could coexist, but there, they do.

The resolution? A cozy evening indoors.

Drabbles are incredibly useful. They contain the ideas and thoughts that can easily become longer works. The above drabble, written in 2015, combined with a photograph I took while vacationing in Oregon with my husband in 2016, was the inspiration for what became a longer poem: Oregon Sunset, which you can read here.

Good drabbles are the distilled essences of novels. They contain everything the reader needs to know about that moment and fills them with curiosity to learn what happened next.

When you have a flash of brilliance, a shining moment of what if, write it in the form of a drabble. Save it in a file for later use as a springboard to write a longer work, or for submission to a drabble contest in its proto form. Spending an hour getting that idea and emotion down so you won’t forget it is a small gift you give yourself, as an author.

Whether you choose to submit a drabble to a contest or hang on to it doesn’t matter. Either way, the act of writing a drabble hones your skills, and you will have captured the emotion and ambiance of the brilliant idea.

That is what true writing is about.

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#FineArtFriday: Home, Sweet Home by Winslow Homer

Home, Sweet Home is one of the most famous paintings of the American Civil War, depicting a moment in time, painted by Winslow Homer. On opposite shores of the Rappahannock River, opposing armies are caught up in an awareness of brotherhood, as music becomes the medium that lays bare the humanity of the soldiers on both sides.

Winslow Homer was best known for his landscapes featuring the many moods of the ocean, but he also painted many iconic images of that turbulent time before, during, and after the American Civil War. His art captures a sense of familiarity, a feeling that the viewer knows these people and their stories intimately.

Wikipedia says, “Harper’s (magazine) sent Homer to the front lines of the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he sketched battle scenes and camp life, the quiet moments as well as the chaotic ones. His initial sketches were of the camp, commanders, and army of the famous Union officer, Major General George B. McClellan, at the banks of the Potomac River in October 1861.

“Although the drawings did not get much attention at the time, they mark Homer’s expanding skills from illustrator to painter. Like with his urban scenes, Homer also illustrated women during wartime, and showed the effects of the war on the home front. The war work was dangerous and exhausting. Back at his studio, Homer would regain his strength and re-focus his artistic vision. He set to work on a series of war-related paintings based on his sketches, among them Sharpshooter on Picket Duty (1862), Home, Sweet Home (1863), and Prisoners from the Front (1866). He exhibited paintings of these subjects every year at the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1866. Home, Sweet Home was shown at the National Academy to particular critical acclaim; it was quickly sold and the artist was consequently elected an Associate Academician, then a full Academician in 1865.[10]”

The story behind the painting, Home, Sweet Home, is told poignantly in the autobiography, Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson, who served in the Confederate Army.

“The Yankee band would play the popular airs of theirs amid much yelling and cheering; our bands would do the same with the same result. Towards the wind-up the Yankee band struck up “Yankee Doodle.” Cheers were immense. When they stopped our band struck up “Dixie,” and everything went wild. When they finished this, both bands, with one accord and simultaneously, struck up “Home, Sweet Home.” There was not a sound from anywhere until the tune was finished and it then seemed as if everybody had gone crazy. I never saw anything to compare with it. Both sides were cheering, jumping up and throwing up hats and doing everything which tended to show enthusiasm. This lasted for at least a half hour. I do believe that had we not had the river between us that the two armies would have gone together and settled the war right there and then.”

Quote from: Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (1910)


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Winslow Homer,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Winslow_Homer&oldid=817253575 (accessed January 4, 2018).

Home, Sweet Home: “Had we not had the river between us,” posted by Marek,  https://civilwarfolkmusic.com/2013/12/15/1862-home-sweet-home/ accessed 04 January 2018.

Reminiscences of a Private, by Frank Mixson (published 1910 by Columbia, S.C., The State Company)

Home, Sweet Home (oil on canvas) by Winslow Homer – circa 1863 | Winslow Homer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, accessed 04 January 2018.

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Crafting the very short story #amwriting

During the month of January I will be exploring the many aspects of the craft of writing short, salable works. I periodically discuss the importance writing to build stock for submissions to magazines, anthologies, or contests. However, many authors have difficulty keeping a story short, and there is an art to it.

Some authors are naturally skilled at this, so if you are one of those lucky people, this may be of no interest to you, but thank you for stopping by!

So, now we get down to business. First up is the short story, works that are 2,000 to around 7,000 words in length.

First, decide what length you want to write to—if you have no specific contest in mind, 2000 to 4000 is a good all purpose length that will fit into most submission guidelines. For those of you who have trouble writing short works for contests and anthologies with rigid word-count limits, this is where taking the time to do a little storyboarding becomes critical.

Let’s say you want to write a story that can be no longer than 2,000 words. You know what the story is, but when you sit down and begin writing, you think you have too much story for only 2,000 words. You need to map it out.

Short-stories are just like novels, in that they have an arc, and you can make it work for you.  By looking at it from the perspective of the story arc, you can see what you must accomplish, and how many words you must accomplish it in.

Every word in a 2,000-word story is critical and has a specific taskthat of advancing the plot. To that end, in a story of only 2,000 words:

  1. No subplots are introduced
  2. Minimal background is introduced
  3. The number of characters must be limited to 2 or 3 at most
  4. Every sentence must propel the story to the conclusion

For the purposes of this post, suppose we need to write a short story for submission to a fantasy anthology.

This method works for stories written in any genre and for essays, so the underlying method is not “fantasy” specific. I have used the following example before when talking about the (very short) short story, and I use it in my seminar on the subject.

First, we will carefully read the publisher’s guidelines, so we don’t waste our time writing something that won’t be accepted.

  • We discover that the guidelines stress that the wordcount limit is a strict 2,000 words, and longer submissions will not be considered.
  • The theme of this anthology is Truth and Consequences, and the theme must be strongly represented throughout the story.

Our submission will be titled A Song Gone Wrong.

The inciting incident happens off screen. We’re saving precious words by opening with our main character already in trouble, and everything the reader needs to know will be conveyed in the opening scene.

The Plot: Because he was a bit too specific when a putting a local warlord’s fling with another man’s wife into a song, our protagonist is now a wanted man in danger of being hung for treason.

Divide your story this way:

Act 1: the beginning: You have 500 words to show

  1. setting: the village of Imaginary Junction,
  2. general atmosphere: the weather is unseasonably cold
  3. introduce the protagonist and show him in his situation: In an alley, a bard, Sebastian, is  hiding
  4. introduce the antagonist(s): Soldiers of the lord he has inadvertently humiliated are searching for Sebastian.

Act 2: First plot point: You have 500 words to tell how

  1. the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian
  2. he is hauled before the angry lord and
  3. thrown into prison, sentenced to hang at dawn, but now you are at:

Act 3.: Mid-point: You have 500 Words to explain how

  1. Sebastian meets a dwarf, Noli, also sentenced to die.
  2. Noli is on the verge of managing an escape but needs help with one last thing.
  3. Noli and Sebastian manage to complete the escape route,
  4. but the guard seems suspicious, hanging around their cell door, hampering their escape

Act 4: Resolution–you have 500 words to show how

  1. The smart guard finally is relieved by a less wary guard, which allows
  2. Sebastian and Noli to squeeze through the escape route.
  3. They are spotted at the last minute, but Noli’s friends are waiting, and
  4. They are whisked to a dwarf safe-house, leaving Sebastian free to embark on his next short-story adventure

Once you have parsed out what needs to be said by what point, and in how many words, you can then get to the nitty-gritty of turning that far-fetched tale of woe into a good short-story.

You will see that to keep to the strict limit of words and still convey your story, you must choose your words carefully.

  • Use a wide vocabulary to show mood, setting, and reactions. You are an author, so you must craft the prose. It is your job to find words that best convey what you want to say, concisely in one or two sentences.
  • Sebastian can’t give Noli a recap of his troubles onscreen—all that will have to be off-stage.
  • Conversations are critical—they are the vehicle through which you convey the personalities and the minimal backstory of the piece.

You can quickly plot and write a story of any length this way, just by

  • Dividing the specified word count into four acts
  • Keeping the theme of the story in the forefront
  • Make use of your thesaurus. Put your large vocabulary to work by using words that say what you mean with the least amount of “helper” words (adjectives and adverbs).

After a few times of creating short stories using this method, you won’t need to think about it. Once you know the length a given tale has to be, you can mentally divide it into acts and just write for fun.

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#Drabble “Ted”

Today is the first day of 2018! An area of writing that I really enjoy is called The Drabble. Writing such short fiction forces the author to develop economy of words. We will be exploring Drabbles and the craft of writing short fiction more closely here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy during the month of January.

A Drabble is an extremely short story, usually no more than 100 words, although some contests will allow as much as 300 words.

My first Drabble was this one, penned in 2013, and it remains one of my favorite short pieces.


 

TED

Edna stirred her coffee and looked out the window toward the shed.

“Did you feed the chickens?” Marion always asked, despite knowing Edna had.

Edna tore her gaze from the shed. “Of course.” Her eyes turned back to the small building. “We won’t be able to keep him in there much longer. He’s growing too big. We should have a barn built for him.”

“Ted was always a greedy boy.” Marion sipped her coffee. “I warned him he behaved like a beast, and now look.”

A rumbling bellow shook the shed. A long green tail snaked out of the door.


“Ted,” by Connie J. Jasperson ©2013 – 2018

Garden Shed, Australia, By Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia (Garden Shed, Australia) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) ], via Wikimedia Commons

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