Category Archives: writing

Theme, Allegory, and The Matrix #amwriting

One question I hear often when I am giving seminars is “How do I identify the theme of my story?”

Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes. Theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story and supports the plot.

A question was asked in an online group for writers “How do I emphasize my theme without bludgeoning my reader with it?”

Making good use of allegory can subtly underscore your themes to drive home your point without resorting to an info dump.

Using symbolism and allegory allows an author to pack the most information into the least amount of words, but it requires intention when you first begin creating the story arc. Words, phrases, and setting must be chosen, and the narrative’s prose must be purposefully crafted.

Whenever I talk about allegory, I like to use the movie, The Matrix, as my example: In this movie, you see lean dialogue, conversations that are spare and to the point. The symbolism continues in the way the setting is so sparsely portrayed, and even the characters’ names are symbolic. Allegory is built into their androgynous costumes, and in the screenwriters/authors’ choice of words used in every conversation. All these layers offer us an incredible amount of subliminal information about that world and what is really going on.

The themes are represented with heavy symbolism in the lighting used on the movie set:

>Inside The Matrix the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens.

>In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.

In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.

>Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer. Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

In my stories, I try to picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie. This is where I consider how I could use allegory to support and underscore my theme. I’m not as adept at this as I hope to become, but I try to consider the books that really moved me as a reader. All were allegorical in some way.

When we are immersed in reading a story laden with allegory, many times we don’t notice the symbolism on a conscious level. But on closer examination it is all there, making what is imaginary into something real, solid, and concrete.

This is what I hope to achieve in my current work.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from the Matrix, screenplay written by Larry and Andy Wachowski © 1999 Warner Bros. Pictures

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Using Repetition as a Literary Device #amwriting

Sometimes authors want to emphasize a concept, and deliberate repetition is the way to do it. Some of my favorite authors use the repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or to show the scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction and in poetry. It is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.

Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in a much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.”

Repetition as a literary device can take these forms:

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • It can also be a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Some famous examples of repetition as a literary device:

“Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry.

“This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

The prose of the The Great Gatsby is powerful. Fitzgerald’s repetition of the word ashes evokes the atmosphere of the valley, a place created through industrial dumping and which was a by-product of greed. The people and the environment suffer. The rich look down upon the poor as being there solely for their use, and don’t have even a thought for the physical suffering caused by the carelessly dumped byproducts of the industries that make them wealthy. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, with their rich, empty lives, are represented as  metaphorical bodies of ashes in the valley of ashes.

The Great Gatsby, Symbols and Motifs says:

The ashes are symbols of dead, with more self-centered and arrogant people arising from them. Every generation, the ashes pile, distorting the American Dream further.

When an author writes it intentionally to drive home a point, repetition is an effective tool.

It is when words are inadvertently used with a lack of creativity that repetition ruins a narrative.

Unconsciously using the same words too often in our descriptions is one of the pitfalls of writing. It happens to all of us, and for me, it occurs most often when I am laying down the first draft, and my vocabulary can’t keep up.

Many common words (the, and, etc.) don’t really stand out when used more than a few times in a paragraph, and you couldn’t write well if not for those words. However, some words will always stand out more than others, and if you use them more than once in a paragraph, it looks like you’re unimaginative or a lazy writer. This is especially true if the word in question has a lot of common synonyms you could have used instead of repeating the same word.

Some words don’t have a lot of obvious substitutes, so you get hung up on the few you can find.  I have mentioned before that in my own work, the word sword is one of the main culprits. The type of blade my characters wield in the World of Neveyah books is a claymore, and four ensorcelled blades figure prominently in the Tower of Bones series.

The many obvious synonyms for the word sword will not work, as rapier, epee, saber, etc., are distinct blade types that are in no way like a broadsword, which is what a claymore is.

Fortunately, the spell-check function of your word processing program will find many inadvertent double-up repetitions, accidents such as “the the” or “and and.” That particular form of repetition is the devil and is one I struggle with, especially when writing blog posts.

When it comes to making revisions and checking for areas of inadvertent repetition, sometimes I need to see how the chapter looks printed out. I sit at my table with the printout and start on the last page, using a blank sheet of paper to cover all but the last paragraph.

This paragraph is my starting point. With a highlighter, I begin at the last sentence of the chapter and work my way forward, paragraph by paragraph, until I have arrived at the first sentence. The highlighter is a good way to make the places I want to correct stand out at a quick glance.

Once I have marked up my hardcopy, I open my digital files and make the revisions. This speeds things up—looking at my notes and crossing them off as they are completed saves me weeks of work when I am in the revisions stage.

There is another benefit to using this method. Working with hardcopy from the bottom up, blind to what has gone before in that chapter, allows you to see your own work through unbiased eyes. When you do this, you will find places where you have repeated an entire thought almost verbatim and places with hokey phrasing. You may decide to change some things around.

Large thesauruses are excellent resources, and I have one I use regularly. However, it’s important to remember that they are written for academic use and contain many obscure words that a casual reader would have to stop and look up, which can turn them off your work. So, we must be careful not to use words that shout, “Look! I’m educated!”

Yes, we want to have a wide vocabulary, but we don’t want our writing to sound pretentious. Great authors walk a fine line, writing prose that isn’t dumbed down, yet can be understood by most readers without their having to stop and look up the words.

I have a useful paperback book, the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. It’s full of good common alternatives to most regularly used words.

This little book has become just as important to me as my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It can be purchased used from Amazon. I do recommend purchasing this as a paper book rather than an eBook.

I know you can right click for the thesaurus in most word-processing programs, and I do that when I am in a hurry. But these thesauruses are limited in scope, and I like having a larger variety of commonly used words available to me in book form. I tend to make better use of what I read on paper than what I read in eBook form.

If you have not read The Great Gatsby, I suggest you do so. There is a reason it is an enduring classic, and you should read it if only to develop your own opinion of it.


Credits & Attributions

LiteraryDevices Editors. “Repetition” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. https://literarydevices.net/metaphor/ (accessed March 8, 2017).

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (March 8, 2017)

The Great Gatsby; Symbols and Motifs by   http://thegreatgatsbysandm.blogspot.com/2011/05/valley-of-ashes.html (accessed 19 Feb 2018).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, pub. 1925 Charles Scribner & Sons.

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Author motivation #amwriting

What motivates a writer to write? What makes an ordinary person believe they can write a book that others will want to read?

For me, I want to read certain books, and for some reason, my favorite authors refuse to churn out a book a week–go figure.

So, I try to write the kind of stories I want to read. An idea occurs, a wild moment of “what if” and I must write it.

Sometimes it’s just a scene or a drabble. Sometimes it is a poem. Other times it will be a short story or a novel.

No matter where I am, I want to talk about books. Books and the craft of writing absorbs me. The internet offers me the chance to learn new things about writing craft and gives me a hundred places to discuss them and people to “talk shop” with.

Reading books and writing obsesses me, and everything motivates me.

I’m not sure why, but I do my most creative work when I should be doing something else. My best writing gets done when I should be getting ready to leave the house for an appointment.

As writers, we talk and talk and talk about a character’s motivation, but the author’s motivation is critical. WHY are you writing?

When I am fired up, I do my best work. Life can be complicated here on the homefront, so writing is an escape from dealing with the realities of being the family caregiver and living with chronic pain. I can write anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances. Sometimes I don’t feel too creative, but at that point, my blogging skills kick in. For me, blogging is talking about writing, and that’s writing too. It keeps me thinking.

In many ways, I am a social justice warrior. I write about all kinds of people experiencing hard times and injustice, and the fallout that sometimes occurs. Sometimes the good people don’t win, and how they handle defeat is the real story.

When I have an idea for a story, it’s never with the intention of preaching a sermon—I leave that to better qualified people and more adept authors. The stories I want to write are about people who face great challenges and how those events shape their actions.

Life and all its many detours intrigues me, and as a reader, I gravitate to those kinds of novels, in all genres. 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 if the author did their job, at the end of the book we don’t want those characters to leave.

We want to instill an air of mystery in all our characters, whether we write sci-fi, romance, fantasy, pot-boilers, or cozy mysteries. People cease to intrigue you once you think you know all there is to know about them.

It is the complexities of your friends that keep them interesting, the little things you never knew that surprise 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 not everyone can do it with finesse. Thus, I read and read and read—classic literature, epic fantasy, cozy mysteries, spy novels, vampire romances, and space operas—I read in all genres, hoping to gain an idea of how it’s done right.

I also find many examples of how it’s done wrong.

My advice today? Read widely, read daily, read in all genres, even those you “don’t like”—but read. Reading widens your mind, and an open mind is creative, and a creative mind puts out great work.

Trying to master the balancing act of creating compelling characters and setting them in intriguing circumstances motivates me. I love the feeling of meeting the challenge, picking up the gauntlet tossed down by my favorite authors, the “ah hah” of having written a story I would want to read.

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Hyphens #amwriting

When creating my world of Neveyah for the Tower of Bones series, I discovered that hyphens are the gateway  to writer’s hell. I put together compound words, hyphenated to make them specific to that world.

I did this, not realizing I would be stuck writing these words consistently hyphenated for years… and years….

Take my advice and do not use a hyphen in your invented words unless the universe will dissolve without it.

In the real world, if a compound adjective cannot be misread or its meaning is firmly established, a hyphen is not necessary.

Words that are single words and don’t need a hyphen:

  • backstabbing
  • backstabber
  • (a) breakup as in (a) divorce, break up as in taking apart
  • breathtaking
  • comeback as in succeeding again, come back as in return to me
  • counterintuitive
  • counterproductive
  • downright
  • herself
  • himself
  • hobnob
  • latchkey
  • mainstream
  • midweek
  • myself
  • nevertheles
  • newfound
  • nighttime
  • nonetheless
  • nonstop
  • overdo
  • overexpose
  • overpriced
  • overrated
  • oversized
  • roundup as in a rodeo, round up as in a review or the next highest round number
  • secondhand
  • selfish
  • sidekick
  • sightseeing
  • straightforward
  • woebegone
  • yourself

A few words do require a hyphen to ensure their meaning is what you intended:

Wikipedia says: Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that jointly modify the meaning of another word. When a compound modifier other than an adverb–adjective combination appears before a term, the compound modifier is often hyphenated to prevent misunderstandings, such as in American-football player or little-celebrated paintings. Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether the writer means a “player of American football” or an “American player of football” and whether the writer means paintings that are “little celebrated” or “celebrated paintings” that are little.

Compound modifiers can extend to three or more words, as in ice-cream-flavored candy, and can be adverbial as well as adjectival (spine-tinglingly frightening). However, if the compound is a familiar one, it is usually unhyphenated. For example, at least one style guide prefers the construction high school students, to high-school students.

Words that DO need a hyphen:

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building

Some compounds are improvised to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds start out as improvised compounds but become so widely accepted that they are included in the dictionary as permanent compounds. Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are words like

  • know-it-all
  • heart-stopping
  • free-for-all (as in a rumpus)
  • down-at-the-heels

Context determines whether to hyphenate or not.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?” If your intended meaning is clear without the hyphen, leave it out.

Wikipedia offers the following examples:

  • Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)
  • Wild-goose chase (a hunt for resulting in nothing) as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a chasing a goose that is wild.
  • Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which in legalese could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)
  • Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which implies you have no liability protection).

A crucial task for you as an author is to make a stylesheet that pertains to your manuscript. Create a list detailing words that must be capitalized, which ones are hyphenated, and include the proper spellings of names for all people and places.

Some people use Scrivener for this and swear by it. For myself, I don’t need a fancy word-processing program with a difficult learning curve—my life is complicated enough as it is. You can make a simple list or go wild and make a spreadsheet. I use Excel to make storyboards that are my style guides for each novel or tale I write, and for every book I edit.

You can do this in Google Docs too, and that program is free–the perfect price for the starving author.

Regardless of how you create your stylesheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  • List invented Words and all Names spelled the way you intend them to be written forever, noting whether it is two words (De Mal), hyphenated (De-Mal), or two syllables connected with an apostrophe (D’Mal)
  • Note the page number on which the word first appears so you can check back for consistency.
  • If it is not a person’s name, list the meaning and how it is used, for example, if the word denotes a city, or an animal, or plant, etc.

Refer to this style sheet frequently and update it with every change you make to spelling in your manuscript.

I learned this the hard way. Making a stylesheet for a book after it has been written is a daunting task, and most editors will ask you for one when they accept your submission. Some editors refer to this as the ‘bible’ for that manuscript because all editorial decisions regarding consistency will be based on the spellings and style treatments you have established for your work.

I do suggest you go lightly when it comes to hyphens and apostrophes in your invented words. The reader likely won’t notice them too much, but they can become annoyances for you when you’re trying to ensure consistency in your narrative. Whether it is a handwritten list, an Excel spreadsheet, a WORD document, or in a program like Scrivener, a simple directory of compound words and phrases that are unique to the world you have created will be invaluable to you and your editor.

 


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Hyphen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hyphen&oldid=824118099 (accessed February 11, 2018).

 

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#Writerlife101 Day 7: Worst writing advice #amwriting

Writing advice is good because beginning authors need to learn the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations. The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a wider vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds, etc., etc. Authors spend a lifetime learning their craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject.

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

  • Remove all adverbs.
    This advice is complete crap. Use common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.
  • Don’t use speech tags.
    What? Who said that and why are there no speech tags in this drivel?
  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

Quote from Susan Defreitas for Lit Reactor: Sure, hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that type of showing can not only become cartoony, it doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling. In order to do that, you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

Well, that takes all the adventure out of writing. Did Tolkien actually go to Middle Earth and visit a volcano? No, but he did serve in WWI, and lived and worked in Oxford, which is not notable for abounding in elves, hobbits, or orcs. Your life experiences and interests shape your writing, but your imagination is the fuel and the source of the story.

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

Quote from Helen Scheuerer for Writer’s Edit: Your reader hasn’t spent the last year or more combing through your novel like you have, so that’s just silly. I’ve seen this advice everywhere in the last year, and it bothers me – it just doesn’t take into consideration how hard writing is. Yes, we love it, yes, we don’t want to do anything else, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s not work.

Bad writing advice goes on and on.

Kill your darlings. It’s true we shouldn’t be married to our favorite prose. Sometimes we must cut a paragraph or chapter we love because it no longer fits the story. But just because you like something you wrote doesn’t mean you should cut it. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it was the best part of that paragraph.

Cut all exposition. So, why we are in this handbasket, and where we are going? Some background is essential. How you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story.

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

  • Overuse of adverbs ruins the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing is boring and can be disgusting. Find that happy medium!
  • Know your subject . Do the research and if necessary, interview people in that profession. Readers often know more than you do about certain things.

New authors rely on handy, commonly debated mantras because they must educate themselves. Unless they are fortunate enough to be able to get a formal education in the subject, beginning authors must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides to learn the many nuances of writing craft. These guides are great, useful books, but they are written by people who assume you will use common sense as you develop your voice and style.

Hack writers bludgeon their work to death, desperately trying to fit their square work into round holes. In the process, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners, and a great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors learn the craft of writing and apply the advice of the gurus gently, producing work that stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.


Credits and Attributions:

The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have), by Susan Defreitas April 11, 2014, https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have,  © 2016 LitReactor, LLC (Accessed 05 February 2018.)

The Worst Writing Advice, by Helen Scheuerer, https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/worst-writing-advice/, Writer’s Edit Copyright © 2018. (Accessed 05 February 2018.)

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To schedule writing time or to wing it? #amwriting

I think that to be a writer, you must be obsessed with your own art, taking and making time to write. There is no other way to produce a finished book.

But to be a happy writer, you must have a balanced life. What is the point of life if you’re so busy writing about fictional lives that you aren’t present in your own?

That need to be present in my real life is why I schedule my writing time.

Some people manage to fit short bursts of writing into their daily schedule, writing at work while on break or at lunch. Others must schedule a dedicated block of time for writing, by either rising two hours before they must depart for work or by skipping TV in the evening.

I fall into both categories.

When I am gripped with a new idea, I find myself stopping off and on all day as I go about the business of daily life, making notes, quickly getting down any thoughts that occur. This is a habit I developed when I was employed outside my home. Until 2012, I was like everyone else, with a job and commitments that took precedence over any writing I might have wanted to do. I saw very little television in those days, as evenings and weekends were my only time for writing, making art, or for reading.

Now that I’m retired from working outside my home, six in the morning until noon are my best working hours. Unfortunately, being retired means you are always available when a crisis occurs. Events happen that disturb my writing schedule, but I usually forgive the perpetrators and allow them to live. At that point, I revert to writing whenever I have a free moment.

I’m a less than enthusiastic housekeeper even when not writing, but I keep things dug out. I’m like every other person. I make a stab at vacuuming and dusting, and cleaning bathrooms. I do laundry and change the beds regularly. These are the tasks everyone does, chores that keep our homes livable. I fit these chores into my writing time the way I used to fit writing into my working life.

But there is one hard, inviolable rule in my home, a rule of my own making. Whatever else happens during the day, we sit down to the table and eat dinner together. We turn off the television and turn on quiet music and enjoy the meal as a family. Then we work together to clear the table and clean the kitchen, continuing any discussions that were begun during dinner. This time of the day is dedicated to keeping the lines of communication open and maintaining the connections that bind us.

When my children were in school, I made dinner a priority. After school activities and sports sometimes interfered but for the most part, the evening meal was the one sure meeting place for my family all through “the blender years” of child-rearing.

Balance is the key to a happy life. We want to feel productive and creative, and we want to share our lives and interests with others. Creativity applies to everything from making a meal, to painting, to coming up with a business plan. Your spouse or child’s creative bent may be wildly different from yours, but if you want their support, you must be supportive of them. Therefore, we who write should set aside a specific time to write, allowing us to be creative and still be supportive of our families who all have activities and interests of their own.

In many ways, to be a writer is to be supremely selfish—about every aspect of life. It also requires discipline and the ability to set aside an hour or two just for that pursuit, a pocket of time where no one is allowed to disturb you. It might be good to encourage your family members to use that time to indulge in their interests and artistic endeavors.

Write when and where you can, and the rest of the time you must live and love with the same intensity that you write.

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Chapter length #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long should a chapter be.

A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

Some authors make each scene, no matter how short, a chapter. They will end up with 100 or more chapters in their books, and that is perfectly fine.

Other authors try to set a word-count limit. I personally have found that 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length, and most scenes seem to average that. One series of my books has  longer chapters, as it is really a collection of stories surrounding the main character. In that series, each story forms a chapter and sometime they are longer than 3,000 words.

Within the arc of the entire story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began. Once you have decided what length you are comfortable with for your chapters, longer scenes can be an entire chapter on their own, or several scenes can be chained together to make a chapter.

When you chain scenes together within one chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view, and this is my preferred choice. I don’t think that is completely necessary in every case, but you should limit point of view changes. It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, you must change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, to avoid head-hopping. (Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck.”)

So now we come to a second question: Should I just use numbers, or give the chapter a name?

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.

How do you want your book constructed? You must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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A Favorite Fantasy Monster: The Shapeshifter #amwriting

Every fantasy tale has a fantasy villain, a monster of some sort, whether it is human or a mythical creature.

First, let’s examine the word monster. What does this word actually mean? The word originated in the late middle ages, after the Norman conquest, and is of old French origin. It evolved from the word ‘monere,’ which meant ‘to warn.’ Originally, it meant any creature that was different and frightening and might have supernatural powers. In our current usage, the word monster has evolved to mean an imaginary creature that is large, ugly, and frightening.

Shapeshifters are an intriguing ‘monster,’ wonderful villains or companions to add to a cast of characters.

Shapeshifting is the ability of a person or creature to completely transform its physical form or shape. This is usually inherent ability. It can also be an ability granted by divine intervention, or it can involve using magic to alter one’s shape. The most common form of shapeshifting myths is that of therianthropy, which is the ability of human beings to metamorphose into other animals.

Other forms of shapeshifting allow the character to perfectly mimic their surroundings or assume the form of an inanimate object. Thus, they go unnoticed until it is too late.

In historical mythology, the ability to alter one’s shape was thought to enable the creature to trick, deceive, hunt, and most importantly, kill humans. In modern fantasy fiction, this ability to completely camouflage themselves makes them the perfect candidate to fill the role of the unseen assassin.

One of my favorite shapeshifters of legend is the Selkie. Selkies are creatures found in Faroese, Icelandic, Irish, and Scottish mythology, and are possessed of the ability to transform themselves from the shape of a seal to human form. Seal shapeshifters like the selkie exist in the folklore of many cultures, even among the Chinook people of North America, who have a similar tale of a boy who changes into a seal.

In legend, Selkies shapeshift by shedding their seal skin. This can be a chancy thing because they must reapply the same skin that they originally shed to return to seal form. The selkie must have a good hiding place for his seal skin, or he will be trapped in human form forever.

As you might imagine, stories surrounding these creatures are usually romantic tragedies. It’s an idea that offers a great deal of opportunity for mayhem, murder, and magic.

What makes a selkie good fodder for fantasy romance, is that they can remain in human form for only a short amount of time before they must find their seal skin and return to the sea. In many stories, humans have unknowingly fallen in love with selkies—a plot twist that creates the tension in a story.

Many famous stories tell of humans finding and hiding the skin of the selkie, thus preventing it from returning to seal form. The unhappy selkie may not regain the sealskin until years later, but when they do, the selkie returns to the sea, abandoning their human family.

Legend says that in their human form male selkies are exceedingly handsome and are possessed of great powers of seduction. They’re said to seek those who are dissatisfied with their lives, lonely women waiting for their fishermen husbands who have been away at sea for too long.

Female selkies are also possessed of seductive beauty, stealing the hearts of men. These stories tell of men finding and stealing the selkie’s seal skin, placing her under his power, forcing her to become his wife. In other tales, selkies have been known to lure humans into the sea by using the ability to create illusions.

Those kinds of stories don’t usually end well for the selkie or the human.

I haven’t written a shapeshifter into any of my work, but now the idea of the selkie is rolling around in the back of my mind. I may include one in a piece I have currently in the planning stage.

How this article came about:

The Challenge

I was challenged to write a post on a fantasy monster, by fantasy author Lindsay Schopfer. The creature could not be from my own books, which rules out minotaurs and dragons. I had to challenge another author to do the same, and I couldn’t pick the same creature as that which my predecessor had written about. Then I was to provide links forward to the other posts:

Lindsay Schopfer’s article on dragons can be found here: A Favorite Fantasy Monster: Jane Yolen’s Dragons

He was challenged by Aaron Volner, whose article on Darkhounds can be found here: A Favorite Fantasy Monster: The Darkhound

I, in turn, am challenging author Stephen Swartz, whose website can be found here: www.http://stephenswartz.blogspot.com

This is the challenge for others who choose to take up this sword and create their own chain:

The Rules:

  • You must write a blog post about the subject of a favorite fantasy creature of yours and why it’s a favorite.
  • The creature may not be from one of your own books.
  • You must challenge one other author to do the same.
  • You may not pick the same creature as the person who challenged you.
  • You must provide a link back to the post of the person who challenged you, and a link forward to the person you challenged once they publish their post, so people can follow the chain if they want.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Selkie,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Selkie&oldid=818257141 (accessed January 27, 2018).

By Edward Fuglø, Postverk Føroya (faroestamps.fo) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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#FineArtFriday: Prusik Peak from Gnome Tarn

The above picture of Gnome Tarn was found on Wikimedia Commons. This serene alpine pool is approachable only on foot, a hike that usually takes two days each way. It a long, steep, and grueling hike that is not for the inexperienced. The trail through The Enchantments (where this photograph was taken) climbs 6.5 miles (10.5 km) to Snow Lake, gaining 4,100 feet (1,200 m). The trail climbs over sloping granite rock to the Lower Enchantments. The entire hike is 9 miles (14 km) one-way, with 6,000 feet (1,800 m) of elevation gain to an end elevation of 7,800 feet (2,400 m).

But those of us no longer able to make such a grueling jaunt can still enjoy the scenery, thanks to Wikimedia Commons and the wonderful imagery of photographers like Niko Kurov. 

Quote from Wikipedia: By the 1940s climbers discovered the area and began naming the crags. Bill and Peg Stark of Leavenworth, became frequent visitors who drew upon various mythologies to name features of the landscape. When they made their first visit in the fall of 1959, they were captivated by the golden splendor of the larch trees in the fall, the numerous lakes and tarns, and jagged peaks towering above. They used fairy names such as Gnome Tarn, Troll Sink, Naiad Lake (officially Temple Lake), Sprite and King Arthur legends in the Lower Enchantment Basin because “the lower basin was not as austere as the upper basin,” according to Peg. They used Norse names and mythology for features of the upper basin, for example Brynhild Lake (officially Inspiration Lake), Lake Freya (officially Tranquil Lake), and Valhalla Cirque because, Peg said, it felt “as if the Ice Age had just gone off.”

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, not too far from where this image was taken. Pictures like this remind me of my youth, bringing back the memories of places where I have walked and the sights that produced such a profound respect for the natural world. These memories find their way into my work, hopefully with the magic still intact!


Credits and Attributions:

By Niko Kirov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors, “The Enchantments,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Enchantments&oldid=803292318 (accessed January 26, 2018).

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Hard truths about the industry #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some general advice for authors who are first starting out:

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

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

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


Sources and Attributions:

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

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

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