Narrative Voice: Balancing Verbs, Modifiers, and Infinitives #amwriting

We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice and writing style. The unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences appeals to us, although we don’t consciously think of it that way.

In Monday’s post, Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style, I mentioned three components of an author’s voice:

  1. How the habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
  2. How the chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shape the pacing of our sentences.
  3. How our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character and plot arcs.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemToday’s post focuses on word choice. What do you want to convey with your prose? This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.

Where we choose to place the verbs changes their impact but not their meaning. Also, the words we surround verbs with change the mood but not their intention.

But let’s look at how modifiers and infinitives fit into the written universe and visualize their place in our prose.

  • Modifiers are words that alter their sentences’ meanings. They add details and clarify facts, distinguishing between people, events, or objects.
  • Infinitives are mushy words, words with no definite beginning or end.

Both modifiers and infinitives are useful, and both have the power to strengthen or weaken our prose.

When doing revisions, I look at how I have placed my verbs in relation to nouns, modifiers, and infinitives in the first draft. My outline told me what the scene should detail but the words were written the way they fell out of my head.

Which tends to be in a passive voice.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543The second draft revisions are where I do the real writing. It involves finetuning the plot arc, character arcs, and most importantly, adjusting phrasing.

The tricky part is catching all the weak phrasing. Those of you who write a clean first draft are rare and wonderful treasures – I wish I had that talent.

When I find a stretch of passive phrasing, I reimagine the scene. I want to see how to strengthen the narrative and still keep to my original intention.

At times, nothing will work, and the scene must be scrapped.

A passive sentence is not “wrong.” No matter how active the phrasing, a poorly written sentence is not “better.”

Too many passive sentences slow the pacing, and readers don’t like that – but they do like a chance to breathe and absorb what just happened. So we mingle active and passive phrasing to keep things balanced.

And despite what the self-proclaimed gurus on Reddit might rant, good writing is about balance.

The ways we combine active and passive phrasing are part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose areas of emphasis and places in the narrative we want to direct the reader’s attention.

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Some types of narratives should feel highly charged and action-packed. Most of your sentences should be constructed with the verbs forward if you write in genres such as sci-fi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers.

These books seek to immerse the reader in the emotion generated by the action, so most sentences should lead off with noun – verb or verb – noun, followed by modifiers and infinitives. You will have more active phrasing than passive: push, push, glide. The reader will adjust to the pacing rhythm you establish if you are consistent.

In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to immerse the reader in the character’s emotions. You create a sense of comfort and familiarity by manipulating the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer.

You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with an objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. You balance the active and passive sentence construction, so the narrative is slightly more relaxed than a thriller.

Passive construction can still be strong despite being poetic. A poor choice of words makes a sentence weak.

Has someone said your work is too wordy? An excess of modifiers could be the offenders.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022What clues should you look for when trying to see why someone says you are too wordy?

  1. Look for the many forms of the phrasal verb to be. They are words that easily connect to other words and lead to writing long convoluted passages.
  2. Look for connecting modifiers (still, however, again, etc.).

The many forms of to be (is, are, was, were) are easy to overlook in revisions because we habitually use them in conversation. They’re kryptonite in the prose of an action-based narrative.

In the first draft, I keep in mind that bald writing tells only part of the story. Regardless of my efforts, it slips in. This is because I am telling myself the story at that stage of development.

When revising the first draft, I sharpen my prose. I try to paint active word pictures of the mental images I visualized when I first wrote them, but without going overboard. I change the wording to use words that begin with hard consonants. They sound tougher and carry more power.

We all approach creativity differently, and what works for me might not work for you. However, the more you write, the more you will find your preferences and writing style changing in one direction or another.

One more thing about wordiness: the number of conjunctions and connecting modifiers we use contributes to wordiness and sentence length. My first drafts are littered with run-on sentences—me telling myself the story. I look for them when making revisions because long compound sentences can be confusing.

It’s a struggle. I rewrite some sections several times before I finally make them palatable.

If you are interested in a bit of homework, take a short paragraph from your work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

I have posted the following list of words before. I habitually use these morsels of madness in a first draft but wish I didn’t.

It takes forever, but I look at each instance and decide if they should remain or if they weaken the sentence. Ninety times out of a hundred, I change or remove them.

In the interests of keeping the post down to a reasonable length, this list is a picture. If you want to copy it, right-click on it, select “save as,” and choose either .jpeg or .png.

weak-words-LIRF04262022

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Narrative Voice, an Author’s Style #amwriting

Every story, poem, newspaper article, or song has a recognizable fingerprint: the author’s unique voice or style. Voice and style consist of three aspects:

  1. The habitual choice of words shapes the tone of our writing.
  2. The chronic use and misuse of grammar and punctuation shapes the pacing of our sentences.
  3. Our deeply held beliefs and attitudes emerge and shape character arcs and plot arcs.

a writer's styleSome authors are forceful in their style and throw you into the action. They have an in-your-face, hard-hitting style that comes on strong and doesn’t let up until the end.

Dashiell Hammett perfected the crime noir novel with short, choppy sentences packed with power words:

Quote from TheMaltese Falcon:

MalteseFalcon1930“I’m going to send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means you’ll be out again in twenty years. You’re an angel. I’ll wait for you.” He cleared his throat. “If they hang you I’ll always remember you.” [1]

Other authors take you on a journey. They have a more leisurely, fluid style of writing. Neil Gaiman is poetic and thoughtful, leading you deeper into the story with each paragraph.

Quote from Stardust:

Are we human because we gaze at the stars, or do we gaze at the stars because we are human? [2]

When we first begin writing, our style is heavily influenced by the authors whose works we love. Our stories are an unconscious reflection of what we wish they would write.

We develop our own voice and style when we write every day or at least as often as possible. We subconsciously incorporate our speech patterns, values, and fears into our work, and those elements of our personality form the voice that is ours and no one else’s.

Developing a broad vocabulary is important because we are creatures of habit. When we want to express ourselves, we fall back on certain words and ignore their synonyms. This is where a good online thesaurus comes in.

oxford_synonym_antonymBut I prefer to keep my research in hardcopy form, rather than digital. The Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms is a handy tool when I am stuck for alternate ways to say something.

And it makes the perfect place to rest my teacup.

We all have “crutch” words. These are words we choose above others because they say what we mean more precisely, or they color our prose with the right emotion. Unfortunately, I can be repetitive with certain words when expanding on an idea. Having alternatives that express my idea does two things:

  • It often gives me a different understanding of what I am trying to say, which improves the narrative.
  • It makes my work less tedious. (I hope.)

modifying-conjunctions-04262022As we become confident in our writing, we learn more about grammar and punctuation in our native languages. We learn to write so others can understand us.

The great authors use those rules to energize their prose. They are knowledgeable about sentence and paragraph construction and the fundamentals of grammar—the aspects of writing we call mechanics. They write to industry standards. When they break a rule, they do it deliberately and consistently.

Our word choices are a good indication of how advanced we are in the craft of writing. For instance, in online writing forums, we regularly are told to limit the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we might habitually use.

We are like anyone else. Our work is as dear to us as a child, and we can be just as touchy as a proud parent when it is criticized. We should respect the opinions of others, but we have the choice to ignore those suggestions if they don’t work for us.

Our voice comes across when we write from the heart. We gain knowledge and skill when we study self-help books, but we must write what we are passionate about. So, the rule should be to use modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they’re needed.

How we use them is part of our style. Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or sometimes limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail. We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” and “besides.”

Descriptors are adverbs and adjectives ending in “ly.” They are helper nouns or verbs, words that help describe other words. Some descriptors are necessary. However, they are easy to overuse and are sometimes reviled by writing groups on a mission.

When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly.” A list will pop up in my left margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

I admit it takes time and patience to look at each instance to see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change or remove it. If that descriptor is the only word that works, I leave it. Ninety percent of “ly” words get removed.

Quantifiers are abstract nouns or noun phrases. They’re used to convey either a vague impression or a nebulous quantity, such as: very, a great deal ofa good deal ofa lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which shows a thought or idea that doesn’t have a physical or concrete existence.

In some instances, we might want to move the reader’s view of a scene or situation out, a “zoom out” so to speak. The brief use of passive phrasing will do that.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusHowever, quantifiers have a bad reputation because they can quickly become habitual, such as the word very.

When I am laying down the first draft of a story, quantifiers, descriptors, and modifiers fall out of my head and into the keyboard. They are a mental shorthand that tells the story in only a few words, which is essential when we are just trying to get the story down before we lose our train of thought.

They are subconscious signals to our future selves that indicate an idea needs expanding and rewording for impact. They tell us to rewrite that sentence to strengthen it.

Limiting descriptors and quantifiers to conversations makes a stronger narrative. We use these phrases and words in real life, so our characters’ conversations will sound natural. The fact we use them is why they fall into our first drafts. But they weaken the story’s impact if we let them bleed over into the narrative.

neil gaiman quote 2Our narrative voice comes across in our choice of hard or soft words and where we habitually position verbs in a sentence. Where we automatically place the words in the sentence is a recognizable fingerprint.

Sometimes I read something, and despite how well it is constructed and written, it doesn’t ring my bells. Maybe I’m not attracted to the author’s style or voice.

That doesn’t mean I think the work is awful. It only means I wasn’t the reader it was written for.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from: the Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, © 1930, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Fair Use.

Illustration, Original Cover of The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, © 1930, published by Alfred A. Knopf. Public Domain.

[2] Quote from Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, © 1999, published by DC Comics. Fair Use.

Illustration: Original Cover of Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess, © 1999, published by DC Comics. Fair Use.

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#FineArtFriday: The Bridge of Sighs, John Singer Sargent ca,1905 – 1908

John_Singer_Sargent_-_The_bridge_of_sighsArtist: John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)

Title: The Bridge of Sighs

Date: between 1905 and 1908

Medium: watercolor on paper

Dimensions: height: 25.4 cm (10 in); width: 35.6 cm (14 in)

Collection: Brooklyn Museum

Current location: American Art collection

What I love about this picture:

John Singer Sargent was known for his portraits, but it is his watercolors that fascinate me. This painting of Venice’s Bridge of Sighs is one of his finest. Done in every shade of blue and brown, he conveys the mood of an afternoon. He gives us the bridge as seen from a gondola, and the view of ladies beneath parasols going by, passing us in the opposite direction.

By his choice of colors, Sargent paints the atmosphere of a poignant, tragic place.

About this picture, via Wikipedia:

The Bridge of Sighs (Italian: Ponte dei Sospiri, Venetian: Ponte de i Sospiri) is a bridge in Venice, Italy. The enclosed bridge is made of white limestone, has windows with stone bars, passes over the Rio di Palazzo, and connects the New Prison (Prigioni Nuove) to the interrogation rooms in the Doge’s Palace.

The view from the Bridge of Sighs was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment. The bridge’s English name was bequeathed by Lord Byron in the 19th century as a translation from the Italian “Ponte dei sospiri”, from the suggestion that prisoners would sigh at their final view of beautiful Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells. [1]

About The Artist via Wikipedia:

John Singer Sargent (January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American expatriate artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the TyrolCorfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

Born in Florence to American parents, he was trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter. An early submission to the Paris Salon in the 1880s, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter in Paris, but instead resulted in scandal. During the next year following the scandal, Sargent departed for England where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist.

From the beginning, Sargent’s work is characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. Art historians generally ignored society artists such as Sargent until the late 20th century.

With his watercolors, Sargent was able to indulge his earliest artistic inclinations for nature, architecture, exotic peoples, and noble mountain landscapes. And it is in some of his late works where one senses Sargent painting most purely for himself. His watercolors were executed with a joyful fluidness. He also painted extensively family, friends, gardens, and fountains. In watercolors, he playfully portrayed his friends and family dressed in Orientalist costume, relaxing in brightly lit landscapes that allowed for a more vivid palette and experimental handling than did his commissions (The Chess Game, 1906). His first major solo exhibit of watercolor works was at the Carfax Gallery in London in 1905. In 1909, he exhibited eighty-six watercolors in New York City, eighty-three of which were bought by the Brooklyn MuseumEvan Charteris wrote in 1927:

To live with Sargent’s water-colours is to live with sunshine captured and held, with the luster of a bright and legible world, ‘the refluent shade’ and ‘the Ambient ardours of the noon.’

Although not generally accorded the critical respect given Winslow Homer, perhaps America’s greatest watercolorist, scholarship has revealed that Sargent was fluent in the entire range of opaque and transparent watercolor technique, including the methods used by Homer. [2]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Bridge of Sighs,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Bridge_of_Sighs&oldid=1096829521 (accessed August 5, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “John Singer Sargent,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Singer_Sargent&oldid=1099859237 (accessed August 5, 2022).

[Image] Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:John Singer Sargent – The bridge of sighs.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:John_Singer_Sargent_-_The_bridge_of_sighs.jpg&oldid=660236372 (accessed August 5, 2022).

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Narrative Time vs. Calendar Time #amwriting

Today we’re discussing narrative time, or what we call tense. Narrative tense subtly affects a reader’s perception of characters, an undercurrent that goes unnoticed after the first few paragraphs. Narrative time shapes the reader’s view of events on a subliminal level.

Time_Management_Quayle_QuoteIn grammar, the word tense indicates information about time. Tenses are usually shown by how we use the forms of verbs. The main tenses found in most languages include the pastpresent, and future.

Consider the following sentences: “I eat,” “I am eating,” “I have eaten,” and “I have been eating.”

All are in the present tense, indicated by the present-tense verb of each sentence (eatam, and have been).

Tense relates the time of an event (when) to another time (now or then). The tense you choose indicates the event’s location in time. Imagine a scene where two women meet. They know each other well but aren’t friends.

Firstperson, present tense:  At the fish market, I find Marie holding a fish, as if she knows what to do with it. I know she doesn’t. I ask, “Did your cook finally quit?”

First-person past tense: At the fish market, I found Marie holding a fish, as if she knew what to do with it. I knew she didn’t. I asked, “Did your cook finally quit?”

Third person omniscient (past tense): At the fish market, Vivian found Marie holding a fish, as if she knew what to do with it. She knew Marie didn’t. She asked, “Did your cook finally quit?”

The above examples detail the same scene but are set in different narrative times and narrative POVs. Each change of narrative time or POV alters the feel of the story.

weak-words-when-used-in-transitonsIf we write a sentence that says a character is hot and thirsty, we leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. However, when we change the tense, we are often inspired to rephrase a thought.

  • They were hot and thirsty. (were is a subjunctive verb – passive).
  • They trudged on with dry, cracked lips, yearning for a drop of water.
  • We walk toward the oasis with dry, cracked lips and parched tongues.

The way we show the perception of time for these thirsty characters is the same – the narrative is in the past tense in the first two cases and the present in the third.

Subjunctives (were, was, be, etc.) are small verbs of existence, but just like adverbs that end in “ly,” they are telling words. These words fall into our narrative in the first draft because they are signals for the rewrite.

The narrative time in which the story is set (past or present tense), verb choice, and the expansion of imagery combine to change how we see the characters and events at that moment.

However, there is more to time than the grammatical narrative tense. Calendar time can get a little sloppy when we are winging it through the first draft of a manuscript.

Readers don’t notice how time passes unless it becomes unbelievable. When the passage of time is a realistic, organic part of the scenery, readers accept it and suspend their disbelief.

We try to reveal aspects of the past that are relevant to current events as the story unfolds. You can do this in two ways:

In a chronologically linear plot, you can have the backstory revealed in conversations or letters, etc., and many authors succeed at this plotting style. A calendar is helpful for this.

Digital Clock FaceOther authors manipulate time. They may start with a chapter of action and commentary set in the past. The experiences shown in the prologue show the reason for present day events and actions that are yet to unfold.

Sometimes, past events require several chapters to show the root of the current-day problem and how things didn’t go well, a “Part One.” “Part Two” begins a new section set in the present time, with the characters shaped by those past events.

If you use that kind of opening, the relevance of those events must be made clear to the reader early on in the current time section. In one forthcoming novel, I’ve employed a three-part division of the book. Part one is set twenty-five years back in time and details the actions that broke my protagonist, a battle mage. It shows why even the thought of using certain elements (magic) as weapons brings on panic attacks. Overcoming his PTSD is crucial to advancing the story.

Other authors will employ mental flashbacks, moments of characters dwelling on past events. These scenes work if they are written as the events unfolded, detailing the moments as the character lived them. The past illuminates the present.

But only if we don’t dump the information in large chunks of exposition.

Meriko's Eyes digital art by cjjasp © 2015I’ve read some excellent narratives where the author uses the flashback to ratchet up the suspense in a danger scene. An example could be a character trapped in a small space while a killer searches for her. She remembers being a small child during the war and being hidden in a cupboard by her father when enemy soldiers arrived. Through the keyhole, she witnesses the slaughter of her family.

A flashback scene like that serves three purposes:

  • It reveals our hero’s severe claustrophobia to the reader and shows her as being human and having an Achilles Heel.
  • It ratchets up the tension. The unbidden memories and the hero’s visceral response heighten her panic.
  • It makes the tension feel intimate to the reader, as if they own those emotions.

Flashforwards move us in time, skipping over mundane travel and periods where the story would stagnate. A new chapter and a jump forward in time keep the story in motion—but only if it is clear that some time has passed, during which nothing out of the ordinary happened. These jumps require attention to how the transitions are handled. Mushy shifts between scenes will ruin the pacing of a story.

A calendar is crucial when you are manipulating time in your plot arc. Pacing becomes tricky when a plot calls for unusual timelines.

I enjoyed reading the Time Traveler’s Wife. The plot revolves around Henry’s genetic disorder, which causes him to time travel randomly and with no control, and Clare, his artist wife. She must understand the paradox and cope with his frequent absences.

It is written with alternating first-person POV. I feel the plot couldn’t advance as well if a different narrative mode had been used.

calendarNarrative time and calendar time are separate entities. Point of view and narrative time work together.

  • Calendar time is world-building. It sets the story in a particular era and shows the passage of time.
  • POV and narrative time shape the atmosphere and the ambiance of a scene.

We often “think aloud” in writing the first draft. We insert many passive phrasings into the raw narrative, words that I think of as traffic signals for future revisions. These words are a shorthand that helped us get the story down when we were writing the raw story, a guide that now shows us how we intend the narrative to go.

When you choose your grammatical tense, you have chosen a narrative time, a part of world-building that encompasses the past as well as the present and looks toward the future. It shapes the mood and atmosphere in subtle but recognizable ways.

Calendar time is the physical passage of our protagonists through the days and seasons of their stories.

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Narrative point of view: who can best tell the story? #amwriting

Sometimes, one of the most difficult things for me when writing the first draft is getting the right narrative point of view. Usually, it unfolds naturally from the proper POV, but sometimes, it does not.

WritingCraftSeries_narrative modeSome stories work best with a first-person point of view, while others are too large and require an omniscient narrator.

I usually begin writing the story the way I see it in my mind’s eye, recording the events and conversations as if I were a witness.

But sometimes, I hit a wall – I can’t figure out how to show what I envision. It helps if I look at it from another perspective, a different narrative point of view. It’s surprising how the mood and direction of a story are altered when you view it through a different lens.

Every story is comprised of several narrative modes. Each is fundamental to the story.

A narrative point of view is the perspective, a “lens” (personal or impersonal) through which a story is communicated.

Narrative time is the grammatical placement of the story’s time frame in the past or the present, i.e., present tense (we go) or past tense (we went). We will talk about time in the next post.

Narrative voice is how a story is communicated. It is the author’s fingerprint. Next week, we will talk about voice and what that encompasses.

Other aspects of the story that are affected by the narrative mode:

  • Action
  • Description
  • Dialogue
  • Exposition,
  • Thought and Internal dialogues

Today, I’m working on the narrative point of view in one of my ongoing projects. I am trying to decide who can tell the story most effectively, a protagonist, a sidekick, or an unseen witness.

In this story, I have more than one protagonist, so I used an omniscient point of view in the first draft. Each character’s thoughts and conversations are separated by hard chapter breaks. I make hard scene breaks when the narrative point of view changes because it’s easy to fall into head-hopping, which is a serious no-no.

UntitledHead-hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene. It sometimes happens when using a third-person omniscient narrative because each character’s thoughts are open to the author.

The Third Person narrator has four main subsets. In writing, some people will use the words objective narrator (outside observer) and omniscient narrator (god view) to describe non-participant voices. This writer’s tool is like a good wrench: it can be used in several ways for our descriptive passages.

  • The third person point of view provides the greatest flexibility. It’s the most commonly used narrative mode in literature.
  • In the third person narrative mode, every character is referred to by the narrator as “he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” or other gender terms that best serve the story.

The third person omniscient narrative mode refers to a narrating voice that is not one of the participants. This narrator views and understands the thoughts and actions of all the characters involved in the story. This is an external godlike view.

I try to use a less expansive mode—third person limited. In this mode, the reader enters only one character’s mind. When I must change viewpoint characters, I start a new chapter and keep only to their POV for that entire section.

Third person limited differs from first person POV because while we see the thoughts and opinions of a single character, the author’s voice, not the character’s voice, is what you hear in the descriptive passages.

David remembered Selina’s instructions, but things had changed. He turned and dropped the gun into the nearest dumpster.

Some third-person omniscient modes are also classifiable as “third person subjective,” modes that switch between the thoughts, feelings, etc. of all the characters.

This mode is also referred to as close third person. At its narrowest and most personal, the story reads as though each viewpoint character is narrating it. Because it is always told in the third person, this is an omniscient mode.

Close third person is comparable to first-person in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonists’ personalities but always uses third-person grammar. Remember what I said about head-hopping? This is the danger zone.

Rosler-LeFlaneur

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

The final aspect of the third-person narrative mode is often the Flâneur (idler, lounger, loiterer.) This is traditionally a form of third-person point of view found in more literary pieces, but it can work when setting a scene.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective is the right one. If you have had some advanced writing courses or studied theater, you have heard of it as third person objective or third person dramatic.

The flâneur is the nameless external observer, the interested bystander who reports what they see and overhear from the sidewalk, window, garden, or any public place where they commonly observe the protagonists. They are an unreliable narrator, as their biases color their observations. In some of the most famous novels told by the flâneur, the reader comes to care about the unnamed narrator because their prejudices and commentary about the protagonists are endearing.

On Saturday mornings, at seven o’clock, Wilson passed my gate, walking to the corner bakery. He bought a box of pastries, which he carefully held with both hands as he returned. I imagined he served them to his wife with coffee, his one thoughtful deed for the week.

This brings up the two terms, reliable narrator and unreliable narrator. The first-person narrator and the flâneur are unreliable narrators, as are all participant narrators/observers.

The first-person point of view is common and is told from one protagonist’s personal point of view. It employs “I-me-my-mine” in the protagonist’s speech, allowing the reader or audience to see the primary character’s opinions, thoughts, and feelings.

I like writing in the first-person point of view. The story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within their own story, as if they are telling it to me.

Although it will involve a lot of re-writing, my current story needs to be told by the protagonist. I’ve tried to write it from an omniscient POV, but it just won’t come together.

But there is one more narrative mode to look at:

The second-person point of view is commonly used in guidebooks, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, gamebooks such as the Choose Your Own Adventure series, musical lyrics, and advertisements.

Second-person POV is where we guide the reader using “you” and “your” rather than other personal pronouns. It is rarely found in a novel or short story. However, it can be an effective mode when done right.

IfOnAWintersNightOne example of a bestseller written in second person POV is If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by the late Italo Calvino.

I have to say it is a brilliantly written book. I warn you, it is literary fiction written by an Italian author and translated from Italian to English. (It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve mentioned before that I am an Odd Duck when it comes to my reading material.)

Anyway, in second person POV, the reader sees the story unfold as if through their own eyes.

You think, “I could have changed that.” It doesn’t matter. Here you are, stumbling over the wreckage of your life.

When I am stuck trying to go forward in a first draft, I try changing the narrative mode. I am always amazed by how a story’s tone and direction are altered with each change of point of view.

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#FineArtFriday: Tanguar Haor by Abdul Momin, 2017

Tanguar_haor,_Bangladesh_01Photograph: Tanguar Haor by Abdul Momin

Date: 2 November 2017 [1]

What I love about this image:

Today I’m detouring briefly from Renaissance art and delving into modern photographic art with a wonderful image by a brilliant young photographer, Abdul Momin. A photograph has to be uniquely special if it is to be selected as a Wikimedia Commons Picture of the Day. This image more than deserved that honor.

As a lover of fantasy art, I feel it was shot at the perfect time of evening.

The artist’s eye comes into play in how the picture was framed. The skill and craft of the photographer comes across in his choice of filters, shutter speed, and how the image was digitally processed to become what we see depicted here.

The scene is simple, only black juxtaposed against shades of gray and orange. Yet there is a surreal quality to this landscape. The silhouettes of the birds and people against the evening sky, with the tree centered and anchoring the scene is magical.

The photographer’s eye and artistic ability gives us a beautiful moment in time, a windless moment of peace and serenity, of humankind coexisting with nature.

About this image, via Wikimedia Commons:

This image was selected as picture of the day on Wikimedia Commons for 4 July 2022. Tanguar Haor is a unique wetland ecosystem of national importance and has come into international focus. The area of Tanguar haor including 46 villages within the haor is about 100 square kilometres. It is the source of livelihood for more than 40,000 people.

Bangladesh declared it an Ecologically Critical Area in 1999 considering its critical condition as a result of overexploitation of its natural resources.

Every winter the haor is home to about 200 types of migratory birds. In 1999–2000, the government earned 7,073,184 takas as revenue just from fisheries of the haor. There are more than 140 species of freshwater fish in the haor. The more predominant among them are: ayirCatfishbaim, tara, gutum, gulsha, tengra, titna, garia, beti, kakia. Gulli, balua, ban tulsinalkhagra and other freshwater wetland trees are in this haor. [2]

About the photographer, via Wikimedia Commons:

Born and raised in Bangladesh, Abdul Momin has earned his name as an emerging photographer with works that are recognized by the global community. He started photography in his college days. Since then, his work has been published in The Guardian, The Times, National Geographic, The Mail, The Mirror, The Telegraph and many more platforms around the world. He has earned various awards from different parts of the globe for his photography works. He says that for him, “Photography changed my life totally. I would have been a typical office going guy, but photography made me see more, to see deeply into the lives of people. It also made me to love nature. The best part of being a photographer is having the ability, the power to show others exactly how you see the world around you.” [1]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Image: Tanguar Haor by Abdul Momin and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Tanguar haor, Bangladesh 01.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Tanguar_haor,_Bangladesh_01.jpg&oldid=675047221 (accessed July 29, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Tanguar Haor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tanguar_Haor&oldid=1095980778 (accessed July 29, 2022).

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When Good Advice Goes Bad #amwriting

The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds etc., etc. Most of us don’t have the money to embark on an MFA program in writing. Instead, we educate ourselves as well as we can.

Jack Kerouak on writing LIRF07252022Even if you have an MFA degree, you could spend a lifetime learning the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject. We join writing groups, buy books, and most importantly, read. We analyze what we have read and figure out what we liked or disliked about it. Then, we try to apply what we learned to our work.

Most writing advice is good because it reinforces what we need to know about the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations.

The same advice can be bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

  • Remove all adverbs.

This advice is silly. Without descriptors, you can’t show mood, atmosphere, or setting. Remember, not all adverbs end in “ly,” so use a little common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.

I am a wordy writer and a poet. I love words in all their many shapes and forms. I know readers like lean prose, so I work to trim it, sometimes more successfully than others. In the second draft, I use the global search (find option) to look for each instance of ‘ly’ words and rewrite those sentences to make them more active.

Margaret Atwood on writing LIRF07252022

  • Don’t use speech tags.

Well, that makes things pretty confusing. Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this nonsense?

  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

We’ve all experienced intensely painful feelings, such as fear, sadness, and anger. If you have shared your work with a writing group, you have been admonished to show these emotions rather than saying, “Joe grew angry.”

You can see their point. So, you sit down and rewrite your scene graphically: Joe snarls, cheeks going hot, brows pulling together, eyes glaring, lips curling in a sneer, and fists clenching. Edith sits hunched in on herself with drooping shoulders, downturned quivering lips, shaking hands, nausea rising, and tear-streaked cheeks.

Maybe that much detail is necessary, but maybe it’s not. Set that scene aside and come back to it later. Then look at it with fresh eyes and decide what will be enough to show their emotions and what is too much.

An avalanche of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic and sometimes cartoonish. Truthfully, that much physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?

You must either relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions or lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

Your life experiences shape your writing, but your imagination is the story’s fuel and source.

  • If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.

Flaubert on writing LORF07252022You have just spent the last year or more combing through your novel. This is another example of silly advice that doesn’t consider how complex and involved the process of getting a book written and published is. I love writing, but when you have been working on a story through five drafts, it can be hard to get excited about making one more trip through it, looking for typos.

  • Kill your darlings.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We can’t be married to our favorite prose. When a paragraph or chapter we love no longer fits the story, we must cut it, save it in a separate file, and move on.

However, cutting a passage just because you like it is stupid. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it is the best part of that paragraph.

  • Cut all exposition.

BE reasonable. Some background information is essential to making the story understandable to a reader. How, when, and where you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story. Hold the deep history back – like a magician, only produce the backstory at the time and place where the characters and the reader need to know it.

Good advice taken to an extreme has become a part of our writing culture. This is because all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Too many descriptors can ruin the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing can be tedious and is sometimes visually revolting.

Our task is to find that happy medium between too much and not enough. Our voice and writing style reflect our thought processes and the way we strive for balance.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteWhen we first embark on learning this craft, we latch onto handy, easy-to-remember mantras because we want to educate ourselves. Unless we’re fortunate enough to have a formal education in the art of writing, we who are just beginning must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides.

Something to remember: most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it expresses what you intend in the way you want it said. So, the most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022We can easily bludgeon our work to death in our effort to fit our square work into round holes. In the process of trying to obey all the rules, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners. A great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors work to learn the craft of writing and apply writing advice gently. Their work stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.

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5 thoughts for a Zen writing experience #amwriting

Every writer is different, with a unique approach to getting their work on paper. There is no one-size-fits-all method for taking a story from an idea, a “what if” moment, to a finished piece. Each of us has to find our own way. I have found a few tricks to jar things loose, organize my ideas, and make a coherent, logical arc out of a story.

But I’m like everyone else; I can’t write creatively when life is too stressful.

ICountMyself-FriendsHowever, I can always write a blog post—which is how I keep my writing muscles in “fighting form.”

When I reach a point in a manuscript where I’ve run out of ideas, I stop forcing it. As an indie, my deadlines are self-imposed, so my production timelines aren’t as finite as a writer who is under contract. I begin a different project and come back to the other one when I am inspired.

Thus, I always have several projects underway. Even if one goes unfinished, I can relax and enjoy the act of creating something from idea to completion. My goals are for me, not for anyone else. I choose to embrace a Zen writing life.

One book I began several years ago feels like it will never be finished because I’m stalled at the halfway point. I have a vague idea of how it has to end, but now that I’m halfway there, I don’t know how to arrive at the end. The original outline just doesn’t work.

So, one goal for that novel during the rest of this year (2022) is:

  • First: Get a new outline completed, with a choreographed ending.

In January, I hope to begin the next phase:

  • Second: Write and revise the manuscript.
  • Third: Self-edit the manuscript.
  • Fourth: Have the manuscript professionally edited.
  • Finally: Have the completed edits proofread.

Nowadays, I hang on to a finished manuscript, let it sit unread for a while, and go back through it a fifth time, looking for typos and cut/paste errors. Then, if I am happy with it, I will have it professionally formatted and will publish it.

Hydrangea_cropped_July_11_2017_copyright_cjjasperson_2017 copyI’m always learning. While I love to talk about writing craft, I am a far better editor than a writer. Free-lance editing is like being a hired gardener—with a bit of work, a trim here, pulling a few weeds there, you enable an author’s creative vision to become real.

Still, I need to write, so I do.

My work doesn’t appeal to readers of action adventure. My stories are internal; the characters and the arc of their personal journeys are the central elements of their stories. While I love the action and the setting, they are only the frame within which the characters live and grow.

The real action is in their heads. I write what I want to read, and I am an odd duck when it comes to literature.

So, I know my work is written for a niche reader: me. It’s not something everyone is looking for.

In the old days, I didn’t understand that. I rushed to publish my work when it wasn’t ready. Not only that, but I marketed it to the wrong audience. Readers of action and adventure aren’t interested in slower-paced work.

With each project that I complete, whether it’s poetry, blog posts, short stories, or novels, I grow in the craft of writing. Blogging about the art of writing from a reader’s and editor’s point of view offers me the chance to discuss the areas I am working on in my own writing journey. Writing craft is something I can write about when I am stalled on my other work.

cropped-cannon-beach-haystack-rock-2010.jpg

The Needles, Cannon Beach,  © Connie J. Jasperson

The first hard-earned bit of wisdom I have to share today is this: you must develop perseverance. No one will satisfy every reader, so write your stories for yourself and don’t stop trying.

The second bit is a little more challenging but is a continuation of the first point: Write something new every day, even if it is only one line. Your aptitude for writing grows in strength and skill when you exercise it daily. This is where blogging comes in for me—it’s my daily exercise. If you only have ten minutes free, use them to write whatever enters your head, stream-of-consciousness. Write a journal entry.

The third bit is a fun thing: learn the meaning of a new word every day. You don’t have to use it, but it never hurts to learn new things. Authors should have broad vocabularies.

The fourth thing: is don’t sweat the small stuff when you are just laying down the first draft. I know it’s a cliché, but it is also a truism. Let the words fall out of your head, passive phrasing and all, because the important thing is to finish the story. Don’t share that first draft with anyone you can’t unconditionally trust because it is yours and is still in its infancy stage.

The fifth thing to remember is this: every author begins as someone who wants to write but feels like an imposter. The authors who succeed in finishing a poem, a short story, or a novel are those who are brave enough to just do it. They find the time to sit down and put their ideas on paper. As time goes on, we overcome the roadblocks that life tosses at us, and we have more time for writing.

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019

Sunset Cannon Beach 2017 © Connie J. Jasperson

Every author I know has struggled in their personal life. Car wrecks, illness, divorce, fires, and floods–things come along. During the years I was raising my children, I had three failed marriages, worked three part-time jobs, and struggled to find time to write poetry. Just when life was getting better financially, two of my children developed adult-onset epilepsy.

Over time, I have learned not to “freak out” when I get the dreaded phone call letting me know something has happened. We pull through, but each episode interferes with my adult children’s ability to do many of the activities we take for granted. I keenly feel their stress, but I let them work it out for themselves.

My stress comes from forcing myself to not be an interfering mother.

For many of us, writing is a way to make sense of the twists and turns of our human experience. It helps me process the complications in a non-threatening way. I don’t write to win awards, and I don’t expect to earn a lot. I have the choice to write and not feel guilty about the goals I don’t achieve. The story is the goal; everything else is a bonus.

Oregon Sunset Taken August 12, 2016 CJJaspersonIn real life, nothing is certain. Adversity in life forges strength and understanding of other people’s challenges. Having the opportunity to make daily notes in a journal, to write poetry, blog posts, short stories, or novels is a luxury—one I am grateful for.

If I can make it a Zen experience, all the better.


Credits and Image Attributions:

The photographic images in today’s post are the work of the author, Connie J. Jasperson. The hydrangeas are from her front garden, and the ocean images were taken at various times in Cannon Beach, Oregon, USA.

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#FineArtFriday: Dunes Under the Sun by Anna Boch

Anna_Boch_006Title: “Dunes Under the Sun”

Artist:  Anna Boch

Medium:  oil on canvas

Dimensions: (62 x 95 cm) by the Belgian painter

Collection: Musée d’Ixelles (Belgium)

What I love about this painting:

Anna Boch painted the dunes on summer day along an ocean strand. The landscape she gives us looks and feels real, as if we were walking through the dunes. She captured the soft grittiness of high-piled sand, and the hardy brown grasses struggling to conquer the dunes and reach the sun. No sooner does the grass emerge from the sand than the wind and waves bury it again. Still, the grass continues its battle. Every tough blade climbing into the sunshine is a win.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Anna Rosalie Boch (10 February 1848 – 25 February 1936) was a Belgian painter, born in Saint-VaastHainaut. Anna Boch died in Ixelles in 1936 and is interred there in the Ixelles CemeteryBrussels, Belgium. She was born into the fifth generation of the Boch family, a wealthy dynasty of manufacturers of fine china and ceramics, still active today under the firm of Villeroy & Boch

Anna Boch participated in the Neo-Impressionist movement. Her early works used a Pointillist technique, but she is best known for her Impressionist style which she adopted for most of her career. A pupil of Isidore Verheyden, she was influenced by Théo van Rysselberghe whom she met in the Groupe des XX.

Besides her own paintings, Boch held one of the most important collections of Impressionist paintings of her time. She promoted many young artists, including Vincent van Gogh, whom she admired for his talent and who was a friend of her brother Eugène BochLa Vigne Rouge (The Red Vineyard), purchased by Anna Boch, was long believed to be the only painting Van Gogh sold during his lifetime. The Anna Boch collection was sold after her death. In her will, she donated the money to pay for the retirement of poor artist friends.

140 of her own paintings were left to her godchild Ida van Haelewijn, the daughter of her gardener. Many of these paintings show Ida van Haelewijn as a little girl in the garden. In 1968, these 140 paintings were purchased by her great nephew Luitwin von Boch, the CEO of Villeroy & Boch Ceramics. The paintings remained in the house of Ida van Haelewijn until her death in 1992. The Anna & Eugène Boch Expo opened 30 March 2011.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Anna Boch 006.JPG,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,  https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Anna_Boch_006.JPG&oldid=555267549(accessed July 21, 2022).

Wikipedia contributors, “Anna Boch,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Anna_Boch&oldid=1063159988 (accessed July 21, 2022).

Wikipedia contributors, “Eugène Boch,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Eug%C3%A8ne_Boch&oldid=1088797052 (accessed July 21, 2022).

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Pacing and the Function of the Action Scene #amwriting

I love writing action scenes. Even though the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture, it is fun to write because of the action and events.

ScenesHowever, (cue the danger theme music), once I have set it aside for a while, I will have to begin the revision process. That is when writing becomes work. This is the moment I discover the child of my heart isn’t perfect – my action scenes are a little … confusing.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene, we don’t worry about the details when we are in the zone and writing the first draft. We just write it as quickly as possible and get the story’s basics down before we forget the good ideas we had while we were at the store.

It’s a little terrifying how many things I find in my early drafts that must be changed to enable a reader to see the story the way I envision it.

I think of a story as being like an ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links events and transitions. Now we are going to look at how each action scene flows.

Our raw manuscript has a beginning, middle, and ending. We have linked our scenes with transitions, but our manuscript is not ready for a reader. We still need to flesh that skeleton out.

The functions of the action scene are:

  • to propel the plot forward,
  • to provide stumbling blocks to happiness,
  • to force change and growth on the characters.
2560px-Sargent,_John_Singer_(RA)_-_Gassed_-_Google_Art_Project

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, via Wikimedia Commons and Google Art Project, PD|100

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot. Scenes of conflict are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be inserted into the novel as deliberately as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.

Arguments and confrontations in real life are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read.

Readers want to see the logic behind a book’s plot. So, we must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

  • Book- onstruction-sign copyWhat motivated the action?
  • Why was the action justified in the character’s mind?
  • What could they have done differently?

Clarity is crucial. Threats can’t be nebulous. Whatever you have the characters do, their reasoning, even if it is flawed, must be made clear to the reader at the outset.

Vague threats mean nothing in real life other than causing us to worry about something that will never happen.

I look for info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words. These telling passages are codes for me, laid down in the first draft. They are signs that a section needs rewriting to make it visual rather than telling. Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.

220px-Sir_Galahad_(Watts)

Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts, 1888. PD|100

So, did the knowledge our characters and readers require emerge gradually with each action and transition sequence? Did each clue and vital piece of knowledge fall at the right point in the arc of the scene?

Once you understand the ultimate threat to our characters’ survival, you can dole out the necessary information in small increments, teasers to keep the readers reading, and the plot moving along.

Rumors and vague threats should be the harbinger of future events. But they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Once the inciting incident has occurred, hold the solution just out of reach for the rest of the narrative until the final confrontation. Every time our protagonists nearly have it fixed, they don’t, and things get worse.

I use a spreadsheet to design action sequences, which takes a little time. You can use any way that works for you, but I suggest you do it on a separate sheet and save it in your outtakes file with a name specifying what that page details. HG_Tor_vs_dragon_.docx (It signifies: High Gate scene, Torvald vs. dragon. I use MS Word, so its file extension is .docx).

When I put action into a scene, I hope the reader doesn’t say, “She wouldn’t do that.” Random gore and violence muddy the story. Nothing should be random; everything must fall into place as if the next event is inevitable based on what has gone before.

The arc of an action scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the story arc than when it started.

LIRF07172022_B

Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this scene necessary, or am I desperate? Am I trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  • What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  • Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  • What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  • Why was this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex are often featured in the most profoundly moving stories I have read. However, those scenes only worked for me because they occurred for a reason. They were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.

Action scenes are not only about violence and chaotic events. They can convey the setting and mood and offer information about relationships without bloated exposition. Scenes of quiet action can change everything and still act as transition scenes.

LIRF07172022

Here we have a character who wants no part of anything remotely hinting at romance. Yet, there is an attraction that must be shown. We have the warning that significant events will occur later, forcing them to work together. However, in the meantime, one character is standoffish.

I get the most mileage from transitions when I make them scenes of action and information, and I have less of a tendency to dump information – my personal curse.

Large, violent events demand a purpose. Scenes of nonviolent action used as transitions can provide the characters and reader with the reasons for that action.

That ebb and flow of upheaval and relative calm that occurs over the arc of the story is pacing.

storyArcLIRF10032021

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