Category Archives: Romance

#amwriting: The Garden Path

Plum Trees in Blossom, Pissaro 1894 via Wikimedia Commons

Plum Trees in Blossom, Pissaro 1894 via Wikimedia Commons

Today we are looking at the second of two creatively named structural errors that can introduce ambiguity to our work. On Monday we looked closely at “squinting modifiers” and today we are walking the “garden path sentence.”

Most of us are aware that many times a sentence is made stronger by the elimination of relative pronouns, such as that, which, and whom. Often, these words are understood and are therefore unneeded.

However, overzealous new authors recovering from a severe ego-bruising at the hands of a writing group sometimes get a little crazy and slash every instance of the “offending word” from their narrative. Such a knee-jerk reaction is ridiculous and can create the “garden-path sentence.”

Spring Hedges in Bauerngarten, Heinrich Vogeler 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

Spring Hedges in Bauerngarten, Heinrich Vogeler 1913 via Wikimedia Commons

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge:

“A garden path sentence, such as “The old man the boat,” is a grammatically correct sentence that starts in such a way that a reader’s most likely interpretation will be incorrect; the reader is lured into a parse that turns out to be a dead end or unintended.

“Garden path” refers to the saying “to be led down the garden path,” meaning to be deceived, tricked, or seduced.

After reading, the sentence seems ungrammatical and makes almost no sense, requiring rereading to fully understand its meaning after careful parsing.”

pac-man jpgIn this case, confusion arises because we read like Pac-Man eats: one word at a time, as fast as we can, following the line. We attempt to understand sentences as we are reading them. The “garden-path sentence” begins by taking you toward a particular destination, but midway through it takes a turn for the bizarre.

Disambiguation memeThere are two types of garden path sentences.  The first is “locally ambiguous,” meaning that it can be cleared up with minimal changes to the sentence. Many times the addition of a word or punctuation will resolve the issue:

  • “The raft floated down the river sank.”
  • “The raft that floated down the river sank.”
  •  “We told the man the dog bit a medic could help him.”
  • “We told the man whom the dog bit that a medic could help him.”

Wikipedia offers the sentence: “The old train the young fight.”

  • When you add a comma it reads: “The old train, the young fight.” The addition of the comma makes sense of the words.
  • One could also argue that the sentence means “The old train the young to fight.

ambiguityThe other type of garden path sentence is “globally ambiguous” because when it is taken out of context the meaning is still unclear no matter how many times you reread it . It requires a complete rewording.

A sentence should always be understandable. Context is extremely important to the meaning of an ambiguously phrased sentence. What happens to a sentence when you take it out of context? It has to stand alone, and still make sense.

Again, Wikipedia offers an example of confusion: “The cat was found by the shed by the gardener.”  This sentence is open to several interpretations. Perhaps the cat was by the shed, or the shed was by the gardener, or both the cat and the gardener were next to the shed. When this sentence is isolated from its paragraph and taken out of context, the meaning is unclear.

Consider a more active phrasing and reword the sentence to say “The gardener found the cat near the shed.”

The way to resolve the garden-path sentence is to

  • Insert a relative pronoun (such as “that”) for clarity.
  • Insert proper punctuation for clarity.
  • Reword the sentence to make the meaning clear.
 The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons


The Garden of the Author, by José Benlliure Gil via Wikimedia Commons

Readers want to read without bumps and hiccups. Anytime they have to stop and reread something you risk losing them. Sentences that are ambiguous stop the eye.

We never want to introduce haziness into our work, and because we wrote it, we sometimes don’t see that it is confusing. If you have asked a beta reader to read a section of your work, and he flags a portion as being unclear, don’t just look at it and wonder why he can’t understand what seems so clear to you.

You must “parse” it. Tear that passage down to its component parts and find out what it is that the reader doesn’t understand. When you take the offending sentences out of their context, you can see if they will stand on their own. If they don’t, a simple rewording may be all that is needed.

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#flashfictionfriday: A Little Love Story

In the long ago days, before every home had a word-processor, and even before I had my beloved secondhand typewriter, I wrote stories. My writing was for myself, or for my children, as it never occurred to me that I could ever really “be a writer,” although that was what I always answered when asked.

My handwriting was better in those days, perhaps because I wrote daily. Some of my short tales were good, some were bad, and most have vanished over time.

This little tale survived the many moves and purges, and dates back to 1984.

Duet, by David Teniers de Jonge - (1640s) via Wikimedia Commons

Duet, by David Teniers de Jonge – (1640s) via Wikimedia Commons

A LITTLE LOVE STORY

An old man and his wife of many years sit on a rough bench outside the door to their home.  It’s a rough cabin, just one large room with a large attic. The furniture is rough but sturdy and clean from daily scrubbing as is the rest of the home.  Everything in their home they built or made for themselves, right down to the small flute the old man plays as the old woman mends his rough, homespun shirt.

It’s just the two of them now; their son has long since married and moved away. Occasionally they walk the two day’s journey to see him and his family, but it’s unlikely they will ever do so again.

To look at them it would be hard – nay – impossible to believe they ever were young and beautiful or strong and handsome but once upon a time they were just that.

Once upon a time, the old woman had abundant dark hair, thick and curling to her knees when it was unbound.  Her dark eyes were full of fun and her red lips smiled often.  When she thought of what her life would be like, she knew without a doubt she would be as rich as a queen, and as happy as any woman could ever be.  To her, the future was as bright as new-minted gold; all things were possible.

Her laughter made the grumpiest person smile.  The entire village loved her, and though many a handsome, well-to-do young man wanted her for his wife, her eyes saw only the poor but hardworking son of the carpenter’s widow. Whenever she was asked, she vowed she would only marry the young man with the easy smile that charmed all who saw him.

Once upon a time, the old man was handsome, tall and strong, with a smile to melt the hardest heart. But no matter how many beautiful girls danced with him, or tried to kiss him, he only saw her – the merchant’s daughter. She filled his dreams and he vowed to all that he would wed only her.

Everyone said theirs was a story of true and eternal love.

He worked hard, and built the small house for her with his own hands, swearing it was only the beginning of the fine mansion he would build for her and vowing she would live a life of ease and luxury.  Her father was pleased and gave him her hand in marriage.

She didn’t care. She would have lived in a mud hut if it meant she would be with him.

One beautiful spring day and they were married and the entire village celebrated. They lived blissfully for the first year, and the following spring they were blessed with a child.

It is sad but true: to know what happiness is, a person must understand sorrow and pain. Their infant son didn’t live for more than a day. Heartbroken, they buried their child and tried to go on with their life.  Over the next five years, they buried three more children. Only the love she had for her husband kept her going. In his arms, she found solace and peace.  His steadfast love and support carried her through those dark days, and though she was not the merry girl she once had been, she was still a good-natured, loving wife.

The good old king died, and his son took the throne. The young king’s rule was not as kind or as benevolent as his father’s rule had been.  He taxed the people cruelly and life became hard, but still their home was their haven.

Each night they fell asleep in each other’s arms and in the morning they woke happy.

One spring the brash young king’s men came to the village and took her husband to fight the war in a land far away. Bereft and alone, she struggled to keep the home they had built, taking in sewing and laundry, working hard and praying morning and night for her husband’s safe return.

After two seasons had passed, the goddess heard her prayers. Though she feared he would be lost to her, her husband came home, wounded and with a limp which he never lost, but alive and still strong in his love for her. His smile had grown melancholy while he was away, but still melted her heart whenever he smiled at her, which he did at every opportunity.

At long last they were blessed with a healthy boy, and not only did he survive, he thrived in the sunshine of his parent’s love.

And their days passed, turning into years. The king’s taxman saw to it they never grew rich, but he could never steal their true wealth. The boy grew to be a strong, handsome lad and one day he married, leaving his parents somewhat lonely but happy for their son.  And still time passed.

In middle age the woman was still striking; strong and nice to look at, though she had grown somewhat stout. Her laugh was jolly, and her smile still as free as it had always been and she was known by all to be a good and generous woman. When good advice was needed the village sought her out, and her wisdom never failed them; she was as a mother to them all.

The man was still strong but needed a straw hat when working, as his hair was growing thinner with the years. The younger men admired his strength and heeded his wisdom.

Each night the man and woman kept each other warm and every morning they woke happy, knowing they would spend it working together in the little kingdom which was their home.

The old woman’s hair became thin and white, and her smile lacked all the teeth she once had, but the old man still saw the most beautiful girl in the world.

The old man’s pate became as bald as an egg, and his scraggly beard white as snow. He too lacked some teeth, but when she looked at him she saw the one boy in the world who made her heart skip a beat; the boy for whom she would have done anything to have for her own.

An old man and his wife of many years sit on a rough bench outside the door to their home.  When they sit there, they are rich.  Their home is finer than any castle ever known and their lives more blessed. Every promise the man ever made to his wife was kept, if not in the manner he once had planned, although he has only just recently come to understand that.

Every dream she’d ever had came true, though she too only realized it as she became an old woman.

The Goddess of Hearth and Home looks on them and smiles.  One day soon, they will be young and strong, and merry and free again. One day soon they will rise from the bench hand in hand and walk into the sunlight, together forever and always, leaving old shells behind, no longer needed.

One day, soon.


A Little Love Story, © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson

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Comfort books, second course: Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey

Michael-Whelan-Dragons-dragons-4284189-1204-827Today I am serving up the second course of our three course meal of books that are comfort food for my soul. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series directly motivated me to become a writerNo other series of books has had a more profound effect on me as both a reader, and as an author.

The artwork gracing many of her later covers was done by the same brilliant artist, Michael Whelan, whose work graces many of Tad Williams’ books.

I have read the entire series every year since I snuck my father’s Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dragonflight in the summer of 1969. Since that time I have worn out 6 hardbound copies of The Dragonriders of Pern, a collection comprised of the first three books based on the fantastic Weyrs of Pern, and the people and their dragons who live within them.   I can’t tell you how many fellow Pern fanatics tell me the same thing, “When I think of dragons, I think of Pern.”

AnneMcCaffrey_DragonflightAnne McCaffrey’s 1968 novel, Dragonflight was the first book in the original trilogy, and is the book that launched an empire that now encompasses at least 23 novels and several anthologies of short stories that are just as compelling as the novels.  In 2003 McCaffrey began writing with her son, Todd McCaffrey and in 2005 Todd took over the series, and has acquitted himself well. I am still buying and enjoying the new entries in the series!

Dragonflight began life as a short story for Analog, Weyr Search which appeared in the October 1967 issue, followed by the two-part Dragonrider, with the first part appearing in the December 1967 issue. In 1969 the two award winning short stories were combined into the book Dragon Flight, and was published by Ballantine books.

Anne McCaffrey was the grand mistress of worldbuilding. Aspiring scifi and fantasy authors should read her work for the small clues and hints that are sprinkled within her work , the little brushstrokes that create the larger picture. She gave us a real planet, in Pern–and our minds built around her framework, believing the world of Pern to be as real as our own earth.

moretaPern is a planet inhabited by humans. In the forward of the book, we find that he original colonists were reduced to a low level of technology by periodic onslaughts of deadly Thread raining down from the sky. By taming and bonding to the indigenous flying, fire-breathing dragonettes called Fire-Lizards and then making genetic alterations to make them larger and telepathic, the colonists gained the upper hand. The dragons and their riders destroyed the Thread in the skies over Pern before it was able to burrow into the land and breed. The Threads would fall for fifty or so years, and then there would be an interval of 200 to 250 years.  However, an unusually long interval between attacks, 4 centuries in duration, has caused the general population to gradually dismiss the threat and withdraw support from the Weyrs where dragons are bred and trained. At the time of this novel, only one weyr, Benden Weyr, remains (the other five having mysteriously disappeared at the same time in the last quiet interval).  The weyr is now living a precarious hand-to-mouth existence, due to a series of ever weaker leaders over the previous fifty or so turns (years).

dragon flight 2The story begins with Lessa, the true daughter of the dead Lord Holder and rightful heir of Ruatha Hold.  She was ten years old the day her family’s hold was overrun by Fax, Lord of the Seven Holds.  Out of everyone in her family, she is the only full-blooded Ruathan left alive, and that was because she hid in the watch-wher’s kennel during the massacre.  Now she is a drudge, working in the kitchens or her family’s rightful home.  However, Lessa is gifted with the ability to use her mind to make others do her will; grass grows where it should not, and nothing grows where it should.  Every day of her life since the day Fax massacred her family she has used that power in secret to undermine him.  Now the mighty Fax only visits Ruatha when he is forced to, and has left the running of the hold to a series of ever more incompetent warders. Things have become quite grim there under Lessa’s vengeful care.

whitedragonThe action is vivid, the people and the dragons are clear and distinct as characters.  The social and political climate on Pern is clearly defined.  Each of the characters is fully formed, and the reader is completely immersed into their world. The way the dragons teleport, and their telepathic conversations with their riders makes for an ingenious twist in this seductive tale. And speaking of seductive, what I love the most about the entire series is the frank sensuality that never disappoints me.  Anne McCaffrey never drops into long graphic descriptions of the sex that is frequently part of her stories, and yet she manages to convey the deeply empathic and intensely sensual connection that the riders and their dragons share.

To the right here is the colorful book cover as was published in 1970 by Corgi.  I never liked this cover nearly so much as the Michael Whelan covers, though I did have several copies of this particular book.

This book changed my life as a reader of fantasy and science fiction.  I found myself incessantly combing the book stores for new stories by Anne McCaffrey, and eagerly read anything that even remotely promised to be as good as this book.  I read many great books in the process; some were just as groundbreaking, and some were not so good, but even after all these years, this series of books stands as the benchmark beside which I measure a truly great fantasy.

white dragon 2The Dragonriders of Pern series has captivated generations of fans. It was the first adult series of books my youngest daughter ever read once she left the Beverly Cleary books behind, having simply snuck them off my shelf (I wonder where she got that notion). Even though I have read the entire series every year since 1983, I find myself fully involved in the story.  Every year new books are to add to the series, and now if I were to sit down and begin reading the series it would take me two full weeks of nothing but reading to get through it, even as fast as I read.

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Comfort books, a three-course meal: 1st course, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn

Dragonbone_ChairI’ve been reading a lot lately. I know, you’re surprised, right? Mostly I’ve been revisiting my old favorites. I have a group of what I call “comfort books.”  That is not to say these books are comfortable, because they’re quite the opposite: challenging, involving,  and at times a little horrifying. But they are books that I can go back to again and again and never be disappointed in either the writing or the tale. I always find some new thing, along with the themes and characters that enchanted me the first time I read them.

These are the books that inspired me to write, not because I thought I could write better, but because these authors were unable to keep up with my reading demand. So, in the lull between “real books” I began writing the stories I wanted to read. Today begins  the first course of this three-course meal. Two more will follow!

First up is Tad Williams’ epic masterpiece, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. This tale was so large he couldn’t fit it all into one book. Each book is quite large, and believe me, there is no fluff in any of them.

Stone_of_FarewellIn this gripping tale, Williams takes a traditional tale of a kitchen-boy turned hero, and turns it sideways, giving it depth and power. He puts his protagonist, who begins as Simon Mooncalf, though hell,forging strength of character and courage in a boy who always dreamed of adventure. Simon the dreamer is real, human; a man with flaws as well as strengths. As a boy he is afraid, but he is courageous when it counts. And as a warrior, Simon Snowlock is strong, and not always forgiving. He is a multilayered hero, as is the story in which he is set.

The quest for the swords of power, and the larger quest to save Osten Ard from the grip of Ineluki, the Storm King, are enclosed within the real dramas of human (and not-so-human) affairs.

What made this  series of books strike such a chord within me in the first place, was the way the world of Osten Ard reflects the history and folklore of our world. Several characters’ elements and experiences mirror the legends and mythology of Great Britain and other European cultures. I felt I knew these societies, and yet they were seen through a fractured mirror, similar, yet so different.

At the outset, the Erkynlanders are are the dominant society, and are ruled by King John Presbyter, also known as Prester John. He united them, but they’re still slightly clan-based and resemble the early medieval English of around the fifth to seventh centuries, with names that are  Saxon-ish and Biblical. It is a castle-based, feudal society right out of the dark ages. They have a religion that is similar to Christianity, as if they are a parallel reality.

To_Green_Angel_TowerPrester John is the man who united Osten Ard, and carved their society, but he is dying. Like the great Plantagenet kings of our history, he has two strong sons who have a deep-rooted quarrel, and this sets up the conflict that evolves and encompasses an entire world.

After his death, the dark secrets of Prester John’s own checkered history drive the plot, sweeping Simon up in events which he has no control over.  His growth over the course of this series makes a gripping, compelling story, as does the parallel story of Miriamele, Prester John’s granddaughter.

Green_Angel_Tower_P1The other people of Osten Ard who have recognizable real-world parallels in their names and cultures, and who have strong, absorbing story-lines are:

Binabik—a Qanuc (based on Inuit, or Eskimo)

Jiriki—Sithi (distinct from a branch of their culture, the Norns, who are the root antagonists.  Based on Asian, Japanese) Ineluki, the Storm King is Norn.

Maegwin—Hernystiri (Celtic, perhaps Irish or Welsh)

Sir Camaris—Nabbanai: I just fell in love with this tragic man. These people felt reminiscent of Renaissance Italy, quite Roman

Tiamak—Wrannamen: Indigenous tribal  people who live close to the earth,

Sludig—Rimmersmen: Norse and early Germanic , quite Viking

Also included is another culture, the Thrithings: Horse nomads, reminiscent of the Mongols.

This is not a series you can read in a day or even a week. It is easy to get completely caught up in this tale, to the point that you forget to eat, and don’t hear when the dog wants out. I originally bought The Dragonbone Chair for the artwork on the cover. It was created by the brilliant fantasy artist, Michael Whelan. All the covers in this series are incomparable, and to my great joy, so was the story within.

TadWilliams200And the best part is: Tad is writing another trilogy based in Osten Ard, set thirty years later. Quote from his blogpost of April 3, 2014 : “I guess the cat has been debagged. Several of you have seen and shared the news that, yes, I am returning to Osten Ard for a series of books called (collectively) “The Last King of Osten Ard”. It will feature many of the same characters a generation later (and many new ones as well). The book titles will be (as of now):

The Witchwood Crown
Empire of Grass
The Navigator’s Children

This is assuming I don’t do my normal try-to-squeeze-two-books-into-the-last-volume trick.”

I don’t care how you do it Tad. I am just glad you are still young, and still writing amazing books in a kijillion settings. I am waiting patiently for the emergence of this series. Do your crazy thing, madman! Take your time and do it right! I will have it on pre-order the minute it becomes available, and when it arrives on my doorstep I will dance all the way to my cozy sofa, where I will sit and read until I am forced to set the book down in order to feed the hubby. Then I will continue reading until the next meal must be served.

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Hunted Heart, by Alison Deluca

Most avid readers of the fantasy genre are fans of the old fairytales as told by the Brothers Grimm and I am no exception. In fact it was my love of fairytales that inspired me to write in the first place. I am always interested in reading other authors’ takes on these fairy tales. It is amazing how differently two authors will tell what began as the same story.

Today my good friend, Alison DeLuca, author of  the steampunk Crown Phoenix Series, has consented to answer a few questions for us, and allow me to share the wonderful cover of her new book, Hunted Heart. It is a standalone book, and is a true fairytale, the premise of which had really intrigued me.

CJJ: Alison, tell us a little of early life and how you began writing:

AD: I always loved reading. My early favorites were Alice in Wonderland, the Odyssey, Arabian Nights, and fairytales of all kinds.

CJJ: Tell us about your most recent book.

AD: Hunted Heart is an adult version of Snow White. Prince Kas is the one threatened by the wicked queen, and the huntress, Tali, is given the job of taking him to the forest to cut out his heart. They end up falling for each other, but not without a great deal of adventure along the way. Yes, there is a wicked queen and my version of a poisoned apple. And we mustn’t forget True Love’s Kiss…

CJJ: How did you come to write this novel?

AD: Someone I met online prompted me and begged me to write the story – she is the J.R. in my dedication. I loved her idea of making the hunter a strong female and ran with it.

CJJ: Do you have a specific ‘Creative Process’ that you follow, such as outlining or do you ‘wing it’?

AD: This book was an exercise in winging! The Snow White structure supported my story, and I was able to take off from there. Writing a fairytale redux is completely addictive – I might have to do a few others.

CJJ: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

AD: It is genderbent, and I’ve set the story in a mythical Norse country. I couldn’t resist including Freja, Iduna, and a few others from Norse tales. It’s also quite adult, with violence and some sexy scenes, and a charity project: Tali, my main character, suffers from some terrible abuse as a child, and so 100% of the royalties go to HelptheChildren.org.

CJJ: Why do you write what you do?

AD: Honestly, because I can’t help it. When I get an idea it needles me until I pin it down on paper. It’s like giving birth, to be honest.

CJJ: I so know that feeling! I know why I chose the indie route for my work, but I’m curious as to why you’ve chosen this path.

AD: I love the freedom indie publishing gives me. I’m able to write what I like and donate the proceedings when I do a charity project like this.

CJJ: What advice would you offer an author trying to decide whether to go indie or take the traditional path?

AD: Both have their merits and challenges. Being an indie does give you freedom but also relies on individual marketing. Traditional publishing gives more support but gives the author little choice on things like covers and presentation. Both are good in their way – each author must decide for herself how she would like to proceed!

 CJJ: Alison–I love the answers you gave my stock questions!  Thank you for giving me this opportunity to get the word out about your charity, HelptheChildren.org.

AD: Thank you so much for having me on your blog, Connie. This was a lot of fun!

And without further discussion, here is that amazing, most intriguing book cover:

HuntedHeart cover final

 

I confess I am blown away by this one, and I have become quite a fan of Alison’s graphic designer.

Alison DeLuca HeadshotAlison DeLuca is the author of several steampunk and urban fantasy books.  She was born in Arizona and has also lived in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Mexico, Ireland, and Spain.

Currently she wrestles words and laundry in New Jersey.

You can find Alison here:

Facebook – http://www.facebook.com/alison.deluca.author

OR http://on.fb.me/TNWEfb

Twitter – http://twitter.com/ – !/AlisonDeLuca

Google + http://bit.ly/ADGoogle

Author Central: http://amzn.to/ADeLucaAuthorCentral

Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/alisondeluca/

I have long been a fan of all of Alison’s work and have been fortunate enough to have some of my own work  included included along side of hers in a charitable anthology, Christmas O’Clock,  a book of wonderful short stories for children that is available in both paperback and for the kindle. (All proceeds for Christmas O’Clock go to Water Is Life to help children and families in an international effort.)

 

 

 

 

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Dazed and confused

my sisters grave robert dugoniI am a a bit dazed and confused right now. I have been intensely preparing to give a seminar on writing dialogue at conference next weekend, but now the convention has been cancelled. Apparently not enough people pre registered. And I was all prepped to hear an announcement from Robert Dugoni!  Now I won’t know what it is until he tweets it. And his book, My Sister’s Grave was just named one of the top five thrillers of 2014.  I love it when an Indie goes viral!

But on the positive side, I am now free to focus on editing for clients, prepping for NaNoWriMo 2014 and several other things that demand my attention. Also, I don’t have to hope and pray I can find a vegan-friendly restaurant near the hotel (which I also cancelled.)

I had planned to talk about talking–at least about how your characters might talk, if they were talking to you in real life.

So how do we convey a sense of naturalness and avoid the pitfalls of the dreaded info dump and stilted dialogue? First, we must consider how the conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

It begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, an integral part of the scene, propelling the story forward to the next scene. A good conversation is about something and builds toward something. J.R.R. Tolkien said dialogue has a premise or premises and moves toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the dialogue is a waste of the reader’s time.

First we must identify what must be conveyed in our conversation.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. And how many paragraphs do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot. Walls of conversation don’t keep the action moving and will lose readers, so make the conversations important—and intriguing.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we arrive in the minefield of the manuscript. That will be the subject of my next blogpost.

The Arc of the Conversation

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What I’ve learned from Agatha Chistie

The_Body_in_the_Library_US_First_Edition_Cover_1942I don’t know about you, but I loved Agatha Christie’s novels as much for the great characters as for the mysteries. She had a way of putting the reader right into the society of the time. Take, for instance, Miss Marple.

She’s elderly and has no visible means of support, yet she is not poor. We think she must be living on inherited wealth, but while she is not poor, she also is not conspicuously rich. She is an elderly spinster who was once engaged, is obviously from a good family, and is godmother to a number of young men and women who sometimes get into trouble and need her sharp eyes to sort out mysteries.

She has a nephew, Raymond West, who must be a sister’s child as the name is different, yet no mention is ever made of Jane’s family beyond him. Did she raise him? She is quite close to him.

The_Moving_Finger_First_Edition_Cover_1942She is well-traveled, and can afford to go to Egypt, and to the Caribbean. Miss Marple has close friends in high society. She knows people with hyphenated names and large estates. She doesn’t let wealth or social standing blind her to the true frailties of human nature–she knows that greed and sex are the root cause of nearly every crime.

She owns her own cottage in St. Mary Mead, and it’s not small or mean in any way–she has the ability to hire a young lady to come in and help with the heavy cleaning, although it is difficult to find one who respects the china.

A_Caribbean_Mystery_First_Edition_Cover_1964Miss Marple takes great interest in the life of her village, and it is through her knowledge of that life that she is able to solve complicated, well planned murders. Her ability to work out the motives for each suspect is directly related to how their actions remind her of certain people she has known over the years in her village. Be careful what you say around her, because she will know what you did by connecting the dots between what you said and what happened.

All this information about Miss Jane Marple comes out in her conversations with other characters, delivered over the course of an entire book, and yet one feels as if one knows her right away.

The_Murder_at_the_Vicarage_First_Edition_Cover_1930In the first full book in which she appears, The Murder at the Vicarage, she isn’t really as likable as she is in later books–she seems a bit of a gossip, and rather mean-spirited at that, always expecting the worst of people.

But over the course of 12 books she evolves, and so does our knowledge of her–or does it?

She is genteel, slightly nosy, very comforting and she is on to you–so don’t even think about doing it.

What I have learned from Agatha Christie is that memorable characters grow on you over the course of the book–they are not delivered fully formed on the first page. They are intriguing and we don’t always know what they will do next. There is a hint of mystery about them, and at the end of the book we want to know more.

A_Murder_is_Announced_First_Edition_Cover_1950This sense of intrigue is what we want to instill in all our characters, whether we write sci-fi, romance, fantasy, pot-boilers, or cozy mysteries. If you think about your own experience in life, once it is apparent that you know everything there is to know about a person, they cease to intrigue you. It is the complexities of your friends that keep them interesting, the little things you never knew that amaze you when they are revealed.

Developing a character, deploying just enough information at the right moments to pique the reader’s curiosity is a balancing act, and I’ve come to believe that not everyone can do it with finesse.

Revealing the character over the course of time, and allowing them grow is crucial to keeping the reader’s interest. I think this can only happen if the author has a true understanding of who their character is. This person must be fully formed in the author’s mind so that when they emerge on to the paper they have a sense of realism, as if they are someone the reader would want to know.

nemesis agatha christieMiss Jane Marple was modeled on Agatha Christie’s step grandmother, and on her Aunt (Margaret West), and her friends. Observing these sharp old ladies taught Agatha how a little life-experience can cut through the smoke and mirrors to the truth of people’s’ motivations rather quickly, and that they were often correct in their sometimes mean-spirited assumptions.

I find that doing a small biography of my characters for my own records helps me to understand my people, and while I generally write in the genre of fantasy, people are who they are regardless of the setting you place them in. Characters will react and behave a certain way depending on their history and values. Some are brave, some are lucky, some are stupid beyond belief, but the ones who keep you reading are the ones who still have more to reveal about themselves when the last page has been turned.

 

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Words

Ulysses cover 3I’ve been having a kind of rolling conversation with Professor Stephen Swartz regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses. It reminded me of what I realized when I was reading it in college–that it is a series of great one-liners strung together. It is nearly incomprehensible to folks like me when taken in a large chunk, but like all of Joyce’s work,  cut down to small bits, it’s got some hilarious, witty moments. So what is this fascination that I feel for James Joyce and his work? I’m a moderately uneducated hack-writer of genre fiction, but there is something about his way with words, a kind of addiction that keeps pulling me back.

Ulysses was never originally published as a single volume, instead it was first published as a serial in the American journal, The Little Review over the span of two years from March 1918 to December 1920, in 18 episodes, and was first published as a single volume in 1922. It’s an incredibly long book for the era, 265,000 words. Books of that length are much more common nowadays, but usually only in genre-fantasy. (Robert Jordan, Tad Williams.)

Ulysses 4Ulysses details the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Roman name of Odysseus, the hero of a classic Greek heroic tale that was Joyce’s favorite as a boy,  Homer’s epic poem Odyssey. The novel establishes a series of parallels between its characters and events and those of the poem.  Leopold Bloom corresponds to Odysseus the Wanderer, Molly Bloom to Penelope (Ulysses’s long-abandoned, ever-faithful wife), and Stephen Dedalus, Telemachus (Ulysses’s and Penelope’s son who seeks endlessly for knowledge of his father.)

265,000 words to describe one day in the life an extraordinary Irishman.

But they are great words, a series of deliciously twisted, carefully structured phrases strung together in a delirious, stream-of-consciousness that hovers on the edge of making sense while entertaining you–if you can face the wall of words that is each episode.

“History,” Stephen said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

Shakespeare is the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.

Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine. 

“Can’t bring back time. Like holding water in your hand.”

“Bury the dead. Say Robinson Crusoe was true to life. Well then Friday buried him. Every Friday buries a Thursday if you come to look at it.”

“We were always loyal to lost causes…Success for us is the death of the intellect and of the imagination.” 

 

UlyssesJames Joyce’s prose is deliberate, shocking and full of puns, parodies, and allusions. He shows us his characters clearly, and depicts them with broad humor.

All of what James Joyce put into his work is what we, as modern writers, want to inject into our own work; only perhaps in a more accessible form that a broader audience of readers will enjoy.

It takes a special kind of obsession to wade through a doorstop like Ulysses for pleasure, as most people are forced  into it (as I was originally) by the requirements of a college class in literature. It’s the sort of thing no one does without a good reason.

For me, that reason is the fabulous one-liners that pepper the nearly hallucinogenic narrative. I simply open it to any page and start reading, letting what happens on that page sink into my consciousness, cringing or laughing as may be.

800px-Night_Sky_Stars_Trees_Quote

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Autumn’s advent

Larch Forest fwp.mt.gov

Larch Forest fwp.mt.gov

I love the changing of the seasons. In the native northwest forests, the colors of the big-leaf maples,  and alders paint the landscape in shades of yellow and gold, dotted with pops of red sumac and scarlet vine-maples. The gold of the larches in the high-country is startling to those who’ve never seen a deciduous conifer. I am awed by the majesty of the autumn forest.

The sky is also changing. The days grow shorter and the rains of the monsoon months approach.

The gray overcast tends to linger unending, eternal.  I wonder if the sun will ever shine again. And just as I am feeling desperately sorry for myself  the clouds part to reveal a patch of blue so beautiful my eyes hurt, and I must wear my sunglasses to shield my weak, northwesterner’s eyes.

Irene, who is from Texas, mocks me for needing protection from the rare occurrences of sun–but we who have grown up in the long dark winters have little tolerance for it; thus the cheap sunglasses become so much more than a fashion statement.

These are the writing months, the mad dash to finish that first draft, and the build up to NaNoWriMo. These are the days when inspiration knocks me in the head and takes me far, far away. These are the days when I dive into reading for pleasure and forget to cook dinner.

Autumn glory lingers for a brief few weeks, then the rain moves in and turns unraked leaves to soggy, moldy  messes waiting for the winds of November to set them free–free to fly from yard to yard as my mind soars in other realms.

But evening and morning still bring colors as the sun turns the clouds every shade of angry that is possible–gold, red, purple and even black–occasionally juxtaposed against that poignant shade of blue that makes my heart ache, and my eyes sting with tears unshed.

 

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Achieving a Balanced Narrative

395px-Ellimans-Universal-Embrocation-Slough-1897-AdI was involved (as a horrified bystander) in an online dispute over how much description is needed in today’s genre fiction.  I walked wide of that mess, as it was clear that one author with an online pseudonym was in assassin mode. The other, whose prose had been harshly critiqued, also using a pseudonym, had called in her flying monkeys, all of whom proceeded to tear the argumentative ‘troll’ to shreds.

Ugh.  What a waste of time for all of us, bystanders included. It should have been a civilized discussion about using adjectives and achieving balance when showing and not telling your story.

Sadly, in this case the troll was right, but his attitude was so arrogant, he negated the value of his opinion, with normally sane people reduced to begging him to just ‘shut it.’

The prose in question was far too florid for my taste, forcing the reader to watch every excruciating, drawn out second as the the main character slowly curved his lush, full lips into a sexy, white smile, his pink tongue just touching his full, trembling, lower lip.

Pardon me, I must go barf now.

I prefer to read work written with in a lean style, as too much showing gets in the way of the story. It becomes a matter of the author forcing his vision onto me, as the reader, and is just as unpleasant to read as a narrative that tells you how to feel.

This is my view on the subject of description in the narrative: when you write about a room, any room, you don’t describe the details of room. You tell the character’s story as he enters the room.

What does the character see? What does he or she do in response to those things? Do they use the old wall-mounted telephone? Do they open the drapes? Perhaps he picks up the newspaper, and continues into the kitchen. Each character is different, and will see and do different things, and through those actions your room will come into focus in the mind of the observer–the reader.

Describing emotions is done the same way as describing the setting. We have all been told over and over again that in narrative, the most intimate way to show a feeling is to show the state of the protagonist’s body.

But how do we do that?  Let’s take humiliation:

Her face turned bright red in embarrassment.  

This sentence is what we call telling–the author has baldly told you how the character feels and why. This separates the reader from the sense of being the character. While the character may feel that her face had flushed, it’s unlikely that she would know the exact shade of red she had turned. To make it from the protagonist’s point of view and keep it simple, just write what happened.

Her face burned and she turned away.

Here is my  thought on this subject: we don’t need to get crazy, and give the minute details of her burning flesh heating up until she could see her nose glowing like Rudolph on steroids…we just need simple descriptions that point the reader in the right direction. If our character is really humiliated you can add one more descriptor, but still keep it simple:

Her face burned, and nauseated, she turned away.  

This is as much humiliation as I would put a reader through in one sentence. Realistically, the protagonist would feel the burning of her face, and would feel the nausea. The reader will taste the nausea if you describe the sensations with too much detail so keep the details to the bare minimum.

With that said, it is crucial that you give SOME clues as to what the character is feeling, as the reader will be completely lost without some sort of visual cues.

640px-Bicycling-ca1887-bigwheelersTake a look at what the protagonist’s body might be doing. What did it feel like when you experienced the same emotion? What did your body do? What did you feel inside? Was there a heaviness in your chest? A lump in your throat? Did you feel light-headed or weak-kneed? Did your face burn? Close your eyes and think about how you experience an emotional moment and allow your senses to take over.

With that memory in your head, write it down.

Just remember that it is crucial that you don’t over do it. Just like riding a bicycle, you must have balance in your descriptions: there must be enough description to intrigue the reader, but not so much it overpowers the story.

 

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