Category Archives: writing

#Amwriting: why authors should blog (reprise)

I’m on a much needed vacation, so this week’s posts will be rather random, and somewhat recycled! In fact, this post was originally published June 29, 2016, under the title “Why Authors should blog, take 3, the Vegan.

One of the things I love most about writing is this blog, and it was a lifesaver to me over the last few months. I have made so many friends though this little place on the internet. Blogging offers me the opportunity to riff for several hundred words on any subject I’m interested in, without interruption. Of course, I’m usually only interested in writing-craft, but this is where I come to discuss it.

Nothing improves your writing chops more than writing every day. Deadlines can be daunting but say what you will about not being able to write under pressure—I think that is when I do my best work.

However, today I don’t feel like writing. I want to discuss food! As many know, I am vegan, but my descent into veganism was (sadly) not motivated by any high moral prohibition against animal cruelty. There is a certain amount of that, but it was always there in the way I purchased food for my family. During the 1980s, much of our meat we raised ourselves, cage free, free range chickens, and sheep raised in traditional farming methods.

However, I have developed an auto-immune variety of arthritis that is triggered by meat and dairy–all forms of it. Whenever I go off my diet (and cheese is the big draw) I pay the price. So, I stay on my vegan diet and I feel good.

I have discovered a wonderful resource for amazing, healthy, vegan food: the internet.

I know! It’s not just for Facebook and online gaming.

There is information out there, and it’s all in blogs. One of the best sites for me is called The Minimalist Baker.

Oh my gosh! That website, and the recipes Dana and John have put together are just amazing. I use more of their recipes as the basis of my own cooking than from any other website or book.

Changing your diet is difficult, because you must change your habits. Sometimes you have to change the flavors you love, and learn to like new ones.

And if you are just starting out and can’t afford to buy cookbooks, the internet offers an incredible wealth of free information, and much of it in the form of blogs by people like me.

I love to eat as much as I love to read, and I could easily talk for hours on either subject. But my point is this—if you are passionate about a particular subject, a blog is a great place to talk about it. It brings together people with similar interests, and for a writer, blogging is crucial, as it gets your name out there. Blogging shows people you can write well, and blogging regularly forces you to be creative.

If you want to know more about getting your own blog up and running, see my post of December 14, 2015, Blogging is Writing TooThat post talks about how to use the default system here at WordPress.

  • Keep it down to about 1000 words more or less.
  • Use the spellchecker tool to look for obvious errors.
  • Write in draft form and don’t publish it right away–come back and read it over again, and make corrections.
  • If you use information found elsewhere, quote it and credit the author
  • Use images that are either public domain, or that you have the right to use
  • Put links to other informative sites in the text

Rule number one: be consistent. I began by blogging once a week on a now defunct site—but my actual posts were more often made only once or twice a month. I dreaded it and didn’t want to do it. My blog stats were in the tank because I wasn’t applying myself to it.

It’s a commitment, and authors are procrastinators, but we can write to deadlines when we must, and it’s good for us.  Now I am writing three posts a week on this blog, and at least one post a week for each of several other venues. I spend Sundays putting my blog posts together, which I couldn’t do if I was still raising children, but you only need to blog once a week to keep your content fresh. Writing this post took me about 45 minutes, so that is a small commitment of time.

Writing is a lonely craft, and at times, we deliberately choose to isolate ourselves for several hours a day. But just like a healthy diet and a walk in the fresh air, a change of writing scenery is good for you. This is why I blog–it keeps me connected to other writers.

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#FineArtFriday: Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak 1860

When I sit down to write, my work is usually fiction. Even so, I want my work to have authenticity, although I might never have experienced what I am writing about. Whether a piece is set in an alternate world, or in this one, or if it is in the past, present, or future, a source of visual information you can use to fire your imagination exists on the internet–Wikimedia Commons.

For example, today’s image is a landscape painting by Albert Bierstadt, an American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West.  This painting shows what tribal life after a successful hunt might be like, and if you are writing about any group of people who hunt or gather food, this particular painting contain a wealth of historically accurate visual information. He painted what he saw. In all of Bierstadt’s work, you will find a world that existed 150 years ago, complete with children playing and dogs barking.

Wikipedia has this to say about the painter:

Born in Germany, Bierstadt was brought to the United States at the age of one by his parents. He later returned to study painting for several years in Düsseldorf. He became part of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of like-minded painters who started painting along the Hudson River. Their style was based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. An important interpreter of the western landscape, Bierstadt, along with Thomas Moran, is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School.

The life of the American West of the 19th century can be directly translated into a science fiction novel, or a fantasy novel–because the elements of hunting and gathering remain the same no matter what world you set it in. A great many people were involved in taking down a few animals–two antelope, one mountain sheep, and one bear. Hunts of this nature, even with modern weapons, are difficult and fraught with danger. For this reason, the take from this hunt will supply the entire camp of perhaps 100 people for one or two weeks., so foraging for roots, berries, and greens was an important task, as was fishing.

In this painting, you see how the tribe’s homes were constructed, and how the camp was laid out–the butchering party is well away from the rest of the camp, which is on the banks of a river. Everything that was important to the lives of these people is laid out in detail, exactly how it was the day the artist set up his easel in the wilderness and began painting.

Go to history for your world building, and go to art for your history. Don’t be afraid to ‘waste time’ looking at paintings and examining them for minute details, because your imagination will run with it, and your work will have a sense of realism.


Wikipedia contributors, “Albert Bierstadt,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Albert_Bierstadt&oldid=793302910 (accessed August 11, 2017).

The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak; Albert Bierstadt 1863 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAlbert_Bierstadt_-_The_Rocky_Mountains%2C_Lander’s_Peak.jpg, accessed August-11-2017.

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#amwriting: genitives and possessives: who’s, whose, its, it’s

A casual remark in the comments on Monday’s post on two commonly misused pronouns, ‘that’ and ‘which,’ brought up this subject–the proper use of possessives and genitives. On the surface, it seems simple, but it can be complicated, so we are going to revisit a post from 2016 on this subject.

Most people understand that apostrophes can denote possession (and I’m not talking demonic here), or they can indicate a contraction.

Things to remember:

  1. Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  2. Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  3. Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  4. Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is. Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form. We will get to that later.

Quote from grammar-quizzes.com:

‘Whose’ replaces a genitive personal or inanimate noun in a relative clause. While some people may object to the usage of ‘whose’ with an inanimate noun, grammarians approve of it and cite its usage by highly esteemed writers.” (end quoted text)

What does that slightly complicated explanation really mean?

Let’s look at some definitions:

Genitive: The genitive case is the grammatically correct term predominantly used for showing possession. Nowadays, words falling into that category are more frequently referred to as possessive, which is simpler. With nouns, it is usually created by adding an apostrophe followed by an “s”: ’s to the word or by preceding it with the word: of.

  • John’s blue eyes.
  • The rim of the cup.
  • It is the cat’s possession, a possession of the cat, or a possession owned by the cat. (Universal fact: cats own everything.)

However, the genitive case is not always about possession and, for this reason, the word genitive won’t completely fall out of favor in the English language. Grammar-Monster.com says:

  • Dan’s bike (No one would argue this is the genitive case and the possessive case. It is the bike of Dan. It is about possession.)
  • Children’s songs (This is not about possession. It’s about songs for children. For this reason, some argue this is the genitive case and not the possessive case.)
  • Constable’s paintings (This is not about possession. It’s about paintings by Constable. Some would argue this is the genitive case and not the possessive case.) (end quoted text)

Grammar-Monster also says:

“Possessive adjectives and possessive personal pronouns are also forms of the genitive case.” Examples:

  • our carpet (our – a genitive form of we)
  • Can I use yours? (yours – a genitive form of you) (end quoted text)

Remember:

When referring to living beings, whose denotes possession and who’s is a contraction that refers to existencewho is.

So now we have some idea of “whose” versus “who’s.” But what about “It?”

Dealing with possession by the inanimate—we don’t need an exorcist, although a good maid service could probably help my office. But in this case, we are referencing something owned by the inanimate:

  • The texture of the wall —it’s (It is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its (The wall’s surface.)

Its… it’s… which is what and when to use it?

The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In probably 99% of English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but it also indicates a contraction. Because both it and they are frequently part of contracted words, the choice was made by linguists to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form, in the (vain) hope of ending confusion.

  1. It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  2. Its denotes possession: It owns it.

Contractions (e.g., let’s, don’t, couldn’t, it’s, she’s) have a bad reputation in educational and formal writing. Many argue that they have no place at all in formal writing. If you are writing a thesis, you should observe your publisher’s or instructor’s requirements.

However, in writing fiction, avoiding contractions makes your writing appear stilted and hyper-formal. If you are serious about the craft, you will learn the exceptions to the rules when it comes to apostrophes, and not accidentally mingle possessives in with your contractions.


credits and attributions:

The majority of this article first appeared on Life in the Realm of Fantasy under the title, genitives and possessives: when good apostrophes go bad, © April 04, 2016 by Connie J. Jasperson.

Grammar Quizzes by Julie Sevastopoulos is licensed for use under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International. GrammarQuizzes.Com, Genitive Noun Forms, http://www.grammar-quizzes.com/agr_possessives.html,  accessed August-08-2017

GrammarMonster.com, What Is the Genitive Case? http://www.grammar-monster.com/glossary/genitive_case.htm, accessed August-08-2017

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#amwriting: that and which: two commonly misused words

That and which are two commonly misused words. When it comes to eliminating the word “that,” it’s crucial you look at each instance of how it is used.  Sometimes, “that” is the only word for a given situation.

Don’t gut your prose just because some online guru tells you ‘that’ is an unnecessary pronoun. If you remove every instance of the word “that” you’ll end up with a mess on your hands.

Something you need to know: “that” and “which” are not interchangeable so you can’t just use a global search to change every instance of “that” to “which.”

“That” is a pronoun used to identify a specific person or thing observed by the speaker, a determiner, an adverb, and a conjunction.

  1. “That’s his dog on the curb.” (Identifier)
  2. “Look at that red car.” (Determiner)
  3. “I wouldn’t go that far.” (Adverb)
  4. “She claimed that she was married.” (Conjunction)

In the case of number 4, the sentence would be stronger without it. Most of the time, the prose is made stronger when the word “that” is simply cut and not replaced with anything. I say most, but not all of the time. Use common sense and if a beta reader runs amok in your manuscript telling you ax “this and that,” examine each instance of what has their undies in a twist and try to see why they are pointing it out.

There are cases where only “that” will suffice. When do we use the word “that?” We use it when we have something called a ‘Restrictive Clause’:

Quote from Grammar Girl, “A restrictive clause is just part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it specifically restricts some other part of the sentence.”  She goes on to give a specific example of a restrictive clause: “Gems that sparkle often elicit forgiveness.”  See?  Not just any gems elicit forgiveness in this sentence. Only gems that sparkle bring about clemency. In this sentence, forgiveness is restricted to one kind of gem.

“Which” is a pronoun asking for information. It specifies one or more people (or things) from a particular set, and it is also a determiner:

  1. “Which are the best diapers for newborns?” (Pronoun)
  2. “I’m looking at a house which is for sale on Black Lake.” (Determiner)

Go lightly with “which” and “that” but use them when they are required.

The same common-sense approach goes for “very.” I seldom need to use it, but I do when it’s required. However, some people employ it too frequently, and it’s rarely needed, fluffing up the word count. As with every word, there are times when it’s the only one that will convey an idea crucial to your story.

Mark Twain had a perfect comment regarding overusing “very.”

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it, and the writing will be just as it should be.”

I’d love to be that editor.

Many writers have beta readers look at their work before it is submitted. I would also suggest hiring a freelance editor. Besides having a person pointing out where you need to insert or delete a comma, hiring a freelance editor is a good way to discover many other things you don’t want to include in your manuscript, things you are unaware are in there:

  • They will point out when you use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • Places where you “tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • They will mention it when you swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • They will comment when you ruin the taste of your work with prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • They will make a comment when your characters natter on about nothing just to kill time.

Freelance editors will point out these all things. We all feel a flash of anger when certain flaws in our work are pointed out. However, when an editor corrects your lazy writing habits, they aren’t trying to change your voice. They’ve seen something good in your work, and they’re pointing out places where you can tighten it up and grow as a writer.

Remember, voice is how you use syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, and dialogue. When you receive an editor’s comments, it might sting, but in the process, you will develop better, more consistent writing habits.


Quoted Sources

Quick and Dirty Tips,  The Grammar Girl, Which vs. That, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/which-versus-that-0 © Mignon Fogarty, 2008-2017

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#amwriting: Commas

Commas and their usage have arisen in my conversations with clients again lately, so I felt it was time to dust off a piece I wrote  last year on managing them. If you have seen this post already, there is nothing new here–commas and their usage don’t evolve with our changing language.

Since the usage of commas is slow to evolve,  why are they so difficult to figure out? And conversely, why do some people get so jacked up over misplaced commas?

The rules are a little confusing at first because there are several exceptions. Remember, for the casual reader, misplaced commas are like road signs gone rogue–one minute everything is fine and the next you are going the wrong way down a one way street and don’t know how you got there.

Commas and the rules for their use exist for a reason, and if we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.

I am a decent structural editor, but I don’t claim to have any special knowledge about commas.

However, I do know some things:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the narrative differently.
  3. Do not put a comma after a conjunction. If needed, commas go before conjunctions.

Commas are the rules of the road for writing. They are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find their pauses between clauses and commas are sometimes the signifiers of those pauses.

One rule I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:

  1. Do not place a comma before ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.

What? That’s not what I was taught in school!

The Chicago Manual Online gives this example (and I quote):

He didn’t run, because he was afraid.

He didn’t run because he was afraid.

In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary. The main thing is that he didn’t run, and the reason is incidental. The second sentence, which omits the comma, is unclear. It might mean that he ran, but fear was not the reason he did so.

Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, explains this well. “You don’t automatically put a comma before the word because, but sometimes you need a comma there to make sure your meaning is clear.”

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

  1. In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.

I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package.

A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are actually standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! Mrs. Downing very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses, and she was right.”

I’m sorry, but Mrs. Downing probably explained that. It just didn’t stick in your memory.

Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and.’ Did I just contradict myself?

Sort of.

Think of it like a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea.

Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.

Oh YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion! You’ve all seen the meme: I love cooking my pets and my family. On a personal level, I do love cooking, my pets, and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas.

One of my favorite personal failings is the notorious comma splice. Apparently, it’s bad form to join two independent clauses with a simple comma. This error is called a comma splice.

I have it on good authority that a comma splice will not cause a tear in the space-time continuum. But since this breach of humanity occasionally sends commacentrics into a frothing frenzy, we will use the conjunction and give these poor wretches a break.

From Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge: “A comma splice is the use of a comma to join two independent clauses. For example: It is nearly half past five, we cannot reach town before dark. Although acceptable in some languages and compulsory in others (e.g., Bulgarian or French), comma splices are usually considered style errors in English.”

Commas and their proper use can drive you crazy when you are trying to get your work in order. And quite frankly, the rules are a little confusing.

Consistency is critical. UK usage can vary from US usage in some ways. Find a style guide that you can understand and consult it. Once you have a guide you can work with, use those suggestions consistently in all your work.

I use the Chicago Manual of Style for my work because I am a US citizen, and for creative writing, this is the most comprehensive manual and is what publishers and editors use. If you are strapped for cash, you can often buy secondhand copies of this manual through Amazon.

Commas can easily get out of control for me because I tend to hit the comma key whenever I pause in my thinking when I am in the first draft phase. At that point, I am more concerned with just getting the words down than I am form and style.

However, proper form and style must come into play when we get into the later drafts. Using established protocols for punctuation is important if you want your readers to understand what you meant when you wrote that amazing piece of literature.


Sources and Attributions:

Large portions of this post were first published by Connie J. Jasperson © 2016-2017 under the title, Commas, Morsels of madness or necessary evils? on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on January 25, 2016. It has been re-edited and recycled.

Commas, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, ©  http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Commas/faq0018.html accessed 08-02-2017 The Chicago Manual of Style 15th edition text © 1982, 1993, 2003 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style 16th edition text © 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style Online © 2006, 2007, 2010 by The University of Chicago. The Chicago Manual of Style is a registered trademark of The University of Chicago.

The Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, Commas, ©2010-2017 http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/search/site/commas accessed 08-02-2017

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#amwriting: the third quarter of the novel and the character arc

Lately, I’ve had many discussions on the hero’s journey and how we structure a story that follows that most traditional of story arcs.

Usually, the first half of the book is easy for me to write, but beginning at the midpoint of my first, very rough draft, I begin to struggle.

The rough draft is challenging because we are pulling the story out of the ether. Once the first draft is finished, we can get down to actually writing the book.

The first draft is where we take an idea, a “what if” moment and give it form on paper. When it is finished, the rough draft is basically made of sections of brilliance interspersed with a catalogue of events: who did what, where they did it, and why.  We are beginning to know our characters, but in the original version, we may not have a handle on how to portray their reactions so they are organic and true. The character arc is uneven and making the story seem real becomes a challenge.

The term character arc is used to describe the personal growth and transformation of a character/protagonist over the course of a story. Stories that interest me have a strong character arc:  the protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events he/she experiences, they are transformed, frequently changing for the better, but sometimes they change for the worse.

The third quarter section of your story begins with the midpoint crisis. From there we are barreling toward the final showdown that begins the final scenes, and from there we are racing toward the conclusion. The third quarter of the story is crucial because the seeds planted by the events of the first half must bear fruit here, forcing a visible change (usually a positive change) in the behavior and outlook of the protagonist and his/her friends. Sadly, some books fail to live up to their promise when they arrive at this point, and the reader gives up.

In a book where the storyline follows the hero’s journey, at some point in this third section, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. This is your opportunity to learn who they really are as human beings. The events leading to this place have combined to break the character down to their lowest emotional state. They must emerge from this section remade as a stronger person, ready to meet whatever awaits them at the final showdown.

And you must make it believable, done in such a way that it feels natural to the reader.

If you are stuck with a character you can’t figure out, ask yourself what personal revelations come out about the protagonist, or conversely what does he discover about himself?

As I said, for me this part of the rough draft is often difficult to write because often in the first attempt to just write the story down, the protagonist and his motives are still somewhat unformed. But if you are following the hero’s journey, by the end of this section, your main character has been put through a personal death of sorts. Their world has been shaken to the foundations, and they no longer have faith in themselves or the people they once looked up to.

  • How is he/she emotionally destroyed by the events?
  • How was her/his own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?
  • How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?
  • What makes him pull himself together and just keep on going?
  • How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This low point is a crucial part of the hero’s journey, the place during which he is taken down to his component parts emotionally, and rebuilds himself to be more than he ever believed he could be.

By the time you finish writing this part, you should have come to know your character and how they will react in any given situation.

Paying close attention to making this section emotionally powerful in your first draft will pay off when you begin the second draft. In the rewrite, the story always evolves into a greater, more polished version of the original.

Taking the rough draft and rewriting it is absolutely the most important thing you can do.  It is when you are deep into the second draft that you realize some plot twists don’t work as you devised them, and they must be reworked. Also, you begin to find and smooth out grammatical errors and awkward prose.

I write my work in four drafts. The first, rough draft rarely is seen by other eyes than mine. It is me thinking out loud through my keyboard and is not ready to be seen by anyone else but me, so if I ask you to look at a section and tell me if I have gone off the rails or not, feel honored! Few are ever offered that privilege.

The second draft is what goes to my beta readers.

The third draft is what emerges after the first readers’ comments have been taken into consideration.

The fourth draft is what goes to my editor.

While your story will have serious issues in the rough draft stage, at least by time you are finished with it you will know your characters. They and their motives will be clear, offering up the ideas you will need to shape the second draft of your manuscript, making it into the believable story of a real person’s journey through life-changing events.


Attributions:

Image: the Hero’s Journey, by scan from an unknown publication by an anonymous poster, in a thread, gave permission to use it. Re-drawn by User:Slashme [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting: give your characters agency

In literature, the word agency is used to define an active vs. a reactive character. Active characters have agency, where passive characters are pushed into predictable actions and boring outcomes.

Chuck Wendig, in his wonderful post on this subject, nails down the heart of this issue: Character agency is, to me, a demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.”

In other words, the character must drive the plot. Until you nail down just who your characters are and what they want, your plot will go nowhere. In this regard, you must give your characters permission to NOT BE PASSIVE.

I am an ‘outliner,’ but I am also a ‘pantser.’ By this I mean that I have an idea, a “What if…” moment, and that evolves into an outline, a guide that is the jumping off point. Once I begin writing, the story goes through a radical evolution, driven by the personalities who inhabit that world.

Because my work evolves drastically over the course of four drafts, the moment I set pen to paper, I start building a stylesheet, also known in the industry as a ‘bible,’ a list of names, places, and relationships, updating it as I go. This is critical so that in the editing process any subtle shifts of spellings or names (and a multitude of other horrible things) can be rectified and made consistent.

We begin with a static idea for the story. We think we know who goes where, what our characters will do, and we think we know how it will end.

You must give your plot structure. In other words, create a good story arc to begin with, but allow your characters to surprise you, taking the story indirections you didn’t originally envision.

We know that the way to avoid obviousness in a plot is to introduce a big threat. How our characters react to that threat should be unpredictable because they have agency.

When we give our characters agency, this threat removes the option of going about life as normal but leaves characters with several consequential choices, the final one of which will be made in a stressful situation.

I used the word consequential relating to the choices your characters must make. I chose that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions a character might make, what is the story about?

Why would a random trip to a convenience store interest a reader if something out of the ordinary does not occur? After all—we go out for bread every day, and it’s not too exciting. Frankly, I’m not interested in reading about Bubba buying a loaf of bread. But make him the witness to a robbery and things begin to get interesting. Better yet, give him options:

  1. Bubba can hide and wait for the intruders to leave.
  2. Bubba can decide to be a hero.
  3. What other options does Bubba have? What does he see when he looks around the store?

Whatever Bubba chooses to do, there will be consequences. If things go awry, he could become a hostage. If he goes unnoticed but tells the police what he knows, he and his family could be in danger.

Once he is in the middle of these consequences, Bubba will have more crisis points to face, and a lack of bread for toast will only be one of them. He will have many decisions to make, and each choice will drive the plot.

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story.


Quotes and Attributions:

Quote from JUST WHAT THE HUMPING HECK IS “CHARACTER AGENCY,” ANYWAY? ©2014 Chuck Wendig, posted June 03, 2014  http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2014/06/03/just-what-the-humping-heck-is-character-agency-anyway/ accessed July 25, 2017.

#amwriting: ensuring consistency: the stylesheet, © 2016 Connie J. Jasperson, posted August 3, 2016 https://conniejjasperson.com/2016/08/03/amwriting-ensuring-consistency-the-stylesheet/ accessed July 25, 2017.

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#amwriting: sit down and write

This last weekend, I attended the 2017 PNWA Conference. I had the chance to connect with friends whom I rarely get to see in person elsewhere, and met many, many new friends.

I immersed myself into four days of seminars on writing craft, with the intention of kickstarting the rough draft of the one manuscript which has stalled for the last two months.

Let’s be clear—I always have three or four projects in various stages of completion, so I always have one novel in the first, rough draft. Usually, I have no difficulty getting my idea onto the paper but, as I have mentioned before, life sometimes throws us curve balls. When that happens, I have no trouble writing blog posts or making revisions on finished manuscripts as requested by my intrepid beta readers and editor. But it is then that completing whatever story is in the rough draft form becomes a struggle for me.

So, let’s talk about getting past that mysterious thing some people call writer’s block, the horrible nightmare that is only a temporary lull in the creative process. This is when you hear those voices mocking you, “you claim to be a writer but you haven’t written a new word in days.” (Or weeks, or months.)

First, you must understand that this is not a permanent, career killing disability. It is a fleeting, dry period where the project you want to work on is not moving forward. But other writing can and should happen!

My recommendation is to sit down and write your way through it—don’t abuse yourself over whatever project you have that is stalled. Clear your mind of those little mental voices of doom and guilt because they are the carrion birds whose songs of despair lure you along the path to failure.

Focus on writing something completely unrelated instead.

In a seminar I attended this last weekend, taught by the award-winning sci fi/fantasy author and current SFWA president, Cat Rambo, she admitted that rather than beat herself up for a momentary lapse of creativity, she works her way through the rough patches with timed stream-of-consciousness writing sessions. She does this every day and shoots for 2000 new words a day, whether they are good words or not.

The way I interpreted her comments, she does this in the NaNoWriMo style, where you set a timer and write whatever nonsense comes into your head for a certain length of time and do not stop writing for any reason whatsoever until the timer goes off.

Cat’s advice? If all you can do when you sit down for that timed writing session is to write “I can’t think of anything” repeatedly, just write that. She said (and she is right) that after a few minutes of that sort of boredom, your creative mind will rebel, your subconscious mind will take over and push you in new directions. When I do this, I usually end up with some of my best ideas embedded in those long strings of rambling words.

Those nuggets of good writing and ideas are straw I can spin into gold.

My personal advice is to not set absurdly unrealistic goals for your work. Target goals are good, but in my opinion, setting too a high wordcount for new words on your rough draft each day is a good way to set yourself up to fail, as you can’t sustain it. I find that when I am involved in NaNoWriMo, which is a different kind of writing, I can put down 2000 to 4000 words each morning–but that kind of output is not sustainable over more than just the month of November. My usual output is 1000 to 2000 new words per writing session.

Consider setting your minimum goal of writing for at least one fifteen-minute increment per day, working straight with no stopping.  Repeat the fifteen-minute sessions as many times as you like each day, if you are really fired and inspired to write.

I am a fulltime author, but even when I was holding down three part-time jobs, I still managed to write every evening. When my children were still at home, I wrote when they were doing homework, or I wrote after they went to bed. I made my time to write by choosing to only watch the TV shows that meant the most to me and ditching the rest. That meant that most evenings I had at least one hour (but sometimes two or three) of good writing time after dinner was done and the kitchen was clean.

I understand if you are emotionally invested in some TV shows, but you must choose to make time to write—choose your entertainment wisely and don’t waste what could be writing time on shows you don’t absolutely love.

So, what about multiple projects? I find that having multiple projects in the works is good for me, as switching from one to another allows me to rest my writing mind. I am fortunate, in that writing is my full-time career.  Because it is my job, I always have three or four projects going, so I do have a certain, inviolable time of the day that I will work no matter what. On Sundays, I write all the blog posts I might need for that week, both for this blog and for several other websites where I have a regular column.

I need to keep regular office hours to be productive, so the morning hours of 6:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. are divided like this:

6:00 to 8:00, I work on adding new words to the current rough draft.

8:00 to 9:00, if I don’t have a writing group to attend, I handle my social media stuff—a nasty but necessary task that is part of the job if you don’t have a personal PR person but hope to connect with both readers and other writers.

I don’t have a PR person.

9:00-10:00, (again if I don’t have a writing group) I take a break from writing and make a stab at cleaning my house.

10:00 – 12:00 I do revisions on other projects as my editors ask for them or I edit for clients.

I always take a break at noon and either take a walk or sit on my back porch and just watch the world go by.

In the afternoon, I make maps or do other support work that may be required for one or another of my projects, depending which is firing my mind most intensely, or if I have a client’s manuscript to edit I will go back to that.

I’m no different than any other writer—I do have times when the well of creativity runs dry. But I have the support of other authors, and I have the mental tools I need to pull me out of those rocky spots. I hope this post offers you some idea of how to jumpstart your creativity, and remember–I am always here to talk you off the ledge.

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#amwriting: Asymmetric Information and the Arc of the Scene

 Most authors understand that there is an arc to the overall novel–the Story Arc  which  consists of:

  1. Exposition, where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications for the protagonist
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the narrative
  4. Falling Action, the regrouping, and unfolding of events that will lead to the conclusion
  5. The resolution, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved, providing closure for the reader.

Within the larger story, there are many smaller stories, “scenes” created with this same arc, that come together to create this all-encompassing drama. The way these scenes unfold is what keeps our readers interested and invested in the narrative until the end of the book.

In his seminar on the arc of the scene, author Scott Driscoll explains how the main difference in the arc of the scene vs. the overall arc of the novel is this: the end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s narrative arc than the previous scene did, driving the narrative.

In my mind, this means that novels are like Gothic Cathedrals–smaller arcs of stone support the larger arcs until you have a structure that can withstand the centuries. Each small arc of the scene builds and strengthens the overall arc of the greater novel.

These small arcs of action and reaction ensure the plot doesn’t stall and create tension that drives the story to the four cardinal points of the story arc.

Conversations are scenes that form a fundamental part of the overall arc: they begin, rise to a peak, and ebb. They inform us of something we must know to understand the forthcoming action. Conversations propel 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.”

That is true of every aspect of a scene: action, conversation, reaction. A scene that is is all action can be confusing if it has no context. If there is no silent witness (an omniscient presence if you will) a properly placed conversation can give the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

A certain amount of context can arrive through internal monologue, but it must be done in such a way that the reader is not faced with a wall of italics. There are two problems with long mental conversations:

  1. italics are daunting in large chunks.
  2. it can become a thinly veiled cover for an info dump.

Plot points are driven by the the characters who have the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension.

Consider the concept of asymmetric information–a situation in which one party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another. In business, one individual’s pursuit of pure self-interest can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market. He/she has the critical knowledge they don’t have and effectively eliminates his competition. He has a monopoly.

That monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, a conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need. Idle conversation will bore your reader to tears, so ditch the smalltalk.

We deploy info, but we don’t dump it in one large chunk though–the reader must find it out at the same time as the other characters, over the first 3/4 of the novel.

We do this in small arcs that combine to form the overall story arc. Events occur, linked by conversations, forming small arcs (scenes) that support the structure of the novel.

By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension. This is a pulse which never completely falls but is always increasing toward the high point of the book, giving the reader small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event, the grand climax.


Credits and Attributions:

This post first appeared on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as The Arc of the Scene by Connie J. Jasperson © 2015 in July of 2015. It has been re-edited and recycled.

Image: Page one of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office filing by Charles Darrow for a patent on the board game Monopoly. The original uploader was JohnDBuell at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/11/DarrowPage1.png

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#amwriting: regaining the mojo

Events in my family during May, June, and most of this month have hampered my mojo, stalling my creative mind. Many projects and plans have fallen by the way and I don’t really mind. This year I will not have my books in the bookstore at the PNWA conference (which kicks off on Thursday), as I just had no time and no way of getting them to the right people by the due date. But that isn’t a big deal, really—I will go to the signing event and visit my friends’ tables and buy their books, so all will be well.

Now, with my son on the mend and back in his own home, I am somewhat at sea. For four weeks, I spent two hours every morning doing wound care on his injured hand, and the rest of the day cooking, cleaning, and entertaining a houseguest. That became my schedule, and writing took the back seat, limited to writing blog posts on the fly—writing if and when I had the time.

Now, I have no demands on my time, no rigid schedule to adhere to. In a way, it’s like suddenly finding myself retired again, only this time I’m not killing time by painting flowerpots. (The last time, it looked like a Mexican pottery stand exploded on our front steps.)

Things have settled back to normal here, and I am struggling to get back into the habit of creative writing. While I have been inspired to write technical posts on writing craft for this blog, and do revisions on my finished novel as my editors ask for them, the rough draft of my new work in progress has languished, receiving erratic, haphazard attention.

Once again, just as I did years ago when I first challenged myself to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, I am forcing myself to sit down and write from 6:00 am until noon. For me this kind of self-discipline is critical—other people may work better with a less rigid schedule, but I need to keep office hours to be productive.

I work “back and forth” when writing, rather than writing in a linear fashion, although each manuscript starts out in linear way. Each section is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale. Like assembling a quilt, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete. This is why I make a detailed outline, so I won’t get lost. Now  am revisiting what I have already done on the first draft of this book, finding that I have written the framework for a pretty good story. My notes are all detailed, and the backstory is on file in a separate file so I can access it or update when I have questions. This ensures I will know why certain things are happening.

The maps are drawn, and cover art has been selected—all these things were done in May. The first 50,000 words are written; the book is at the ½ point. The story arc has pretty much followed the original outline with only a few major divergences. The stylesheet is up to date because each change to the originally outlined story was noted as the changes were made. This means I know exactly where I left off in May, and what must happen to these characters to complete this book.

I am itching to get back to it as I want this first draft finished before November, if possible.  I need to have it done by then because November is NaNoWriMo, a month of divine madness—each year I write a patchwork of short stories, novellas, and doggerel, all of which become fodder for the rest of the year.

As an author, I am self-employed. This means I succeed or fail by my own efforts. I choose to succeed, and for me, that means finishing each book to the best of my ability. I am inherently lazy, a self-confessed slacker who would rather read a book or play video games than work—thus I must enforce the puritan work ethic my ancestors brought to America and which somehow passed me by.

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