Category Archives: writing

#amwriting: demystifying the semicolon

Semicolons are misunderstood and misused bits of punctuation. Some people believe they are extra-long pauses, halfway between a comma and a (full stop) period. With that in mind, they litter their work with instances of typographical madness.

Semicolons are NOT extra-firm pauses. When writing genre fantasy, em dashes (or hyphens if you are British) serve that function. Semicolons have a different place in the universe. So now we’re going to examine the semicolon and discover what it is that they actually do.

The proper use of a semicolon is to join two short sentences that are directly related to each other, turning them into a compound sentence.

No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative because too many short sentences can be distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences. But frequently, that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)

SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete, stand alone sentences where the conjunction has been left out. These sentences MUST be directly related to each other.

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; if it rains. (The semicolon is not needed because “if it rains” is not a stand alone sentence. This sentence should be written: Call me tomorrow, if it rains.)

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; the car is running in the driveway. (Each clause can stand alone but they have no relation at all to each other. They are separate thoughts completely.)

Correct: Call me tomorrow; we’ll make the arrangements then. (The conjunction and has been replaced by the semicolon.)

The key to understanding semicolons is to understand what a stand alone sentence is. A stand alone sentence consists of a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought:

Vera walked carefully across the rough ground.

Dogs and their owners came from all over to play in that park.

If you have sentences that express complete thoughts but make the narrative choppy, you can connect them with a conjunction: Rain had fallen. The yard was flooded. We were trapped.

Rain had fallen, and the yard was flooded, so we were trapped.

Alternatively, we could rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy:

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard. We were trapped.

If you don’t want to use a conjunction and you absolutely must use a semicolon, or you will burst into flames, you have the legal right to do so.

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard; we were trapped.

Authors who truly believe in themselves and their work will go out of their way to learn the proper use of punctuation. Once we know the mechanics of the English language, we will use it in ways that define our vision for our work.

When we learn how punctuation functions in making our sentences flow for the reader, we begin to develop our sense of style. We begin to craft our work with intention.

As a result, our work ceases to be uneven, with occasional flashes of brilliance. It becomes engrossing, something our readers can get lost in.

However, there are some considerations for each author to ponder when it comes to the use of the infamous semicolon. For general fiction or literary fiction, semicolons are no big deal. Used properly, readers and reviewers won’t even notice them.

If you are writing in genres such as paranormal fantasy or hard science fiction, I suggest you use conjunctions or rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy, rather than resorting to using semicolons. Some reviewers in those genres seem to despise semicolons, saying they are “archaic.” These reviewers will criticize work sprinkled with semicolons as being “too literary” (whatever that means).

Maybe they are archaic, but I doubt it. When I first began writing, I used to employ semicolons far too frequently and improperly. I had the good fortune of having an editor who was patient and happy to explain how they actually function. I bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and that book is what I refer back to when I have questions about how punctuation works.

While I rarely use them myself nowadays, the semicolon is a legitimate punctuation mark, and when used correctly, it has a specific task. I suspect the many haters of this little morsel of madness are simply confused by the proper use of it, and therefore they consider it unnecessary.

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#amgaming: Review of Aveyond 2: Ean’s Quest

I play a lot of computer games, but I love RPGs more than any other. This is because the storylines and characters are given as much attention as the action and the fighting.  I’m especially fond of the Aveyond series of games, which are produced by Aveyond Studios, a small indie company formerly known as Amaranth Games or Aveyond Kingdom.

Amanda Fitch was the first developer to popularize RPG Maker as a commercial tool in 2006. It looks like she is currently heavily involved in building and promoting HeroKit, a new RPG game making program which is supposed to launch soon.

Ean’s Quest is one of their early games made with RPG Maker, but for whatever reason, I had never played it. As everyone knows, I love nothing better than a good fantasy. This little indie produced game is a great fantasy with a certain amount of snark and romance and some intriguing and difficult puzzles.

The version of Ean’s Quest I am reviewing is version 2—I never bought version 1, so I can’t say how it compares or where it differs.

But first, THE BLURB:

Snow has fallen on a magical vale where it has never snowed before. A beautiful young elf is missing, and no one remembers her existence. That is, no one except for her best friend, Ean.

To solve the mystery of his lost friend, Ean leaves the vale and travels to the dangerous Land of Man. Ean’s adventure takes him through dark forests, arid deserts, and finally to a great mountain of ice where the answers to all of his questions await. And that is just the beginning…

Solve dozens of adventure puzzles and explore an enchanting world. Aveyond 2 is packed with monsters, magic, and humor. Stop an evil queen from turning the world into ice, capture a dragon and ride the winds to ancient lands, unite the kingdoms and discover your destiny.

MY REVIEW:

First of all, this was a fun game. I played it through twice and got two different endings, which kept me entertained and out of trouble. The keyboard instructions are simple, and if you prefer, you can use the mouse for most functions. The story gets going right away, with our elf, Ean, thrown into a strange world with only the knife in his hand and his ingenuity to save him. Soon after landing in the Land of Man he finds Iya, but their escape from the Snow Queen is fraught with danger and unpleasant surprises.

The playable characters besides Ean and his missing girlfriend, Iya, are fun and have solid personalities. Rye is a ranger and a good fighter with no magic. He’s one of the better fighters and his ongoing “courtship” of Emma, the lady’s maid turned sword swinger, is hilarious.

Nicolas Pendragon is a snotty, privileged prince who is a good healer. He is Arrogant with a capitol A and even after he begins to humble up a little, still refuses to be in your party if Gavin,  the warlock, is allowed. Both Nicolas and Gavin have heavy interactions with Ava One Eye, the pirate captain. Both story lines are hilarious, but you only can do one or the other, which is why I played the game straight through twice.

Ava One Eye is surly, a pirate queen who kicks butt and takes no prisoners. Her interactions, once Ean buys the farm, are entertaining.

A holdover from Aveyond 1: Rhen’s Quest is Jack the Thief, who has been turned into a statue for two hundred years. He is absolutely necessary for opening blue chests and other locks, and has some comical quips but is pretty useless in battle, so I didn’t keep him the active party, and never wasted money on equipping him with more than minimal cast off armor.

The quests are all really fun, but my favorite was in Bogwood, where you have the opportunity to really give Nicolas a kick in the pants and also to set Ava up with Gavin. Your choices in Bogwood determine how the rest of the game will go.

The monsters are tough but doable throughout the game. In certain places, you can really build up exp and collect enough gold that you don’t have to worry about keeping enough healing elixirs and aquifoliums for replenishing magic on hand.  This means that choosing to go with Gavin rather than the spoiled prince isn’t an issue. At times, the clues about what you should do next are a little obscure, which is why I went out and found the walk through, but for the most part, you don’t have to follow it.

The graphics are really awesome, which is one reason I love the games produced by Aveyond Studios in all their incarnations. A free walkthough is available on the Aveyond Studios website at this link, so I suggest you bookmark that link if you are a person who prefers to have a guide to follow.

Aaron Walz returned to produce the soundtrack to this game. As always, the music is well orchestrated with deep themes. While the battle music can be repetitious when you get into certain areas where you are fighting enemy after enemy (a hazard in any RPG), generally speaking, the music is beautiful and lyrical, a pleasant and appropriate soundtrack to the adventure.

I give Aveyond 2: Ean’s Quest five stars. It is a highly entertaining game and is an excellent way to while away a few hours in the evening when you just want a little “getaway.” I spent about 24 hours over the course of three weeks playing it in the evenings the first time through, and 19 hours over two weeks the second time. The second time through was just as engrossing as the first because the storyline was different, and based on what I already knew, I was able to make better use of my characters individual abilities.

I play a lot of games on my PC, simply because I need to unwind and love solving puzzles, and don’t have time to get lost in a long Final Fantasy-style console game anymore.  Aveyond 2: Ean’s Quest is available from the designers’ website: Aveyond 2: Ean’s Quest. You can also find it at Big Fish Games if you want to use your tokens to lower the cost.

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#amwriting: the first draft

Children are often full of fibs and fabulous tales. They crack me up with how obvious they are about it. But little white lies happen in adult life, too.  They are usually a gut-reaction, a sometimes irrational reflex that we justify with the comforting thought that “it doesn’t really matter, and this way we’ll avoid an argument.”

We’ve all done it at one time or another, and in much the same way as our toilet habits are, it’s not a subject we like to discuss in polite company.

But it makes an interesting plot development. In real life, white lies can escalate into big, complicated messes that can end marriages.  Love and white-lies are like the two sides of the family I grew up in – they don’t really mix well. In a good marriage, there are no white lies.  White lies happen when you don’t trust the other person to accept what you have either done or plan to do.

Trust is the key word here.

In the Tower of Bones series, I have one character whose life is one long string of white lies, and that made for the most pivotal plot development in the story. It was difficult to write his tale, and yet his penchant for avoiding the truth was the snowflake that caused the landslide, and it drove the plot. The repercussions of his white-lies in book two form the tension for the next books in that series.

In my opinion, the best stories take elements of life and that are sometime uncomfortable and give them that little twist, sending the protagonist down a path where the reader would never dare to go. We just have to do it in such a way that it feels organic and not forced.

In my current work, I am writing the first draft, trying to find out who these characters are. What are their personal strengths? What are their weaknesses? I will have to exploit their weaknesses to the max, but ultimately their strengths must win out.

Trust and the bonds of brotherhood are the core of this new series. Each book will feature a different protagonist, and the final book brings them all together in the finale.

When I first conceived my new series, the Aeoven Cycle, I had a vague idea of who these characters were. The main protagonist is a legendary hero, appearing in the time of Tower of Bones in children’s books as a superhero type of character. He is the Superman character, a mythical hero who always saved the day.

In Edwin’s time, history remembers Aelfrid as a hero, a mighty mage gifted with the ability to make his sword appear as if it were made of fire. His legacy was the Temple of Aeos and the College of Warcraft and Magic. He was that man, but who was he really?

As I get deeper into this first draft, I am discovering my protagonist, and finding out what his flaws and blind spots are. His real life had little to do with the amazing legends that grew up featuring him as a great hero, but he was heroic in the ways that matter. He is loyal, which is his great weakness, and which ultimately will force him down a path he doesn’t want to travel.

At this point my first draft sits on my desk, filled with repetitiousness and flat prose.  No matter how I grasp for words, a sword remains a sword, remains a sword… since to refer to it as a blade or weapon would require stretching my vocabulary and I’m struggling enough with trying to figure out the how and why of things.

It is, I keep reminding myself, only the first draft. Once I have the entire story down it will be come a four book cycle, with all the threads of the first three books coming together in the final book.

The important thing here is to get Alf’s story onto the paper. Once I have done that, I can tweak the prose and cut the fluff. It will take three drafts, and possibly two years, but I will eventually make this into something I would like to read, and hopefully, a story others will enjoy too.

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#amwriting: How to Handle Rejection

I have received my share of rejections. It hurts every time, but now that I am further down the road as a professional, I have enough scar tissue that I don’t feel the agony the way I used to.

Sometimes we receive a standard rejection that boils down to “Sorry, but no.” It’s not personal so I don’t brood over it. In my experience, those kinds of rejections are bad only because they don’t tell us why the piece wasn’t acceptable. I can only assume that the piece I sent in was not what the editor was looking for that day, or perhaps ever.

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

Some of us handle rejection with grace and dignity, and others go ballistic and make an uncomfortable situation worse.

The best kind of rejections, in my opinion, are when we receive a little encouragement: “Try us again.” That means exactly what it says, so the next time you have something you think will fit in that anthology or magazine, send them a submission.

I know it doesn’t make sense, but the more an editor writes in a letter about why they have rejected a piece, the more likely the author will be hurt and angry. This is because it’s a rejection and may contain detailed criticism. It’s like a bad review and feels unfair.

I once got a rejection from an anthology along with a curt note that said only that the subject had been done before.

I was a bit put off by the abruptness of the note, but I realized it was just this particular editor’s way. He’s a busy man with no time to waste on fools. Yet, he took the time to send me a note instead of a form letter.

The fact he sent me a note encourages me to believe he might be more receptive to a different story, so if I have one I think he’ll like, I’ll send it to him.

I could have embarrassed myself and responded childishly, but that would have been foolish and self-defeating. The truth was that it had been done before. I still love that story, but an editor’s bluntness is valuable, so I will someday rework that tale with a different twist.

We must have a care about the way we behave. We are judged by the manner in which we act and react in every professional interaction. If you respond to a peer’s criticism without thinking it through, you risk doing irreparable damage to your career—you will be put on that editor’s “no way in hell” list.

You need to be strong, stay calm, and understand that the editor has gone to some trouble for you. DO NOT respond to the letter with a flame-mail, and DO NOT go off hurt, bad-mouthing that editor to your homies on your favorite writers’ forums. They saw something good in your work, and you need to try this editor again.

But what if you have submitted to an anthology and, while they sent you no contract, they did send a letter of interest and a request for revisions?

That is huge. You have your foot in the door, so put on your grownup pants and make whatever changes they request. Your piece still may not make it, but give it your best shot. If the editor wants changes, they will make clear what they want you to do.

This happens most often for submissions to an anthology. You must trust that the editor knows what the intended readers expect to see, and you want those readers to like your work.

Never be less than gracious to the editor when you communicate with them. Make those revisions. Do what that editor has asked and make no complaint. Be a professional and work with them.

Negative feedback is a necessary part of growth. When an author becomes too important in their own mind to tolerate the merest whiff of criticism, they can create a situation that is intolerable for all those around them. Treat all your professional contacts with courtesy, no matter how angry you are. Allow yourself some time to cool off. Don’t have a tantrum and immediately respond with an angst-riddled rant.

I keep a file of my rejection letters/emails. Many are simple “We are not interested in this piece at this time.” Some have short notes attached “Try us again in the future.” Some contain the details of why a piece was rejected, and while those are painful, they are the ones I learn from.

Never burn your bridges, even if the magazine or anthology you were rejected from is a minor player in the publishing world. You can’t say “Well, that editor’s a nobody.” That has nothing to do with it because every famous editor/author begins as a nobody, and they all receive work that must be rejected. Your submission didn’t fit their needs, and you must move on, or if they requested changes, you should do your best to make them.

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

But either way, do keep trying to crack that nut. Keep submitting work you think they will like and eventually you might succeed.

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#amwriting: Thoughts on Italics, revisited

Once again real life has interfered with my blogging life, so today, we’re revisiting a post that was originally published in May of 2016. This is a post that evolved out of a conversation with author Lee French. One of the virtues of being a part of a group of writers is that you can bounce questions and ideas off them. And, one thing the authors I hang out with all agree on is that italics are the devil.


Italics are hard on the eyes, daunting, and difficult to read in large chunks when the main character is waxing internally poetic. Also, many readers subconsciously skip them, and so they have missed important information you may have imparted there. Having not read the italicized information, they may think your book is confusing and disjointed.

Yet the standard practice in genre fantasy is to set internal dialogue off in italics. For this reason, I no longer give my characters a lot of time to think, as such. In my more recent work, only rarely do my characters think in italics. I believe thoughts occur as an organic part of the narrative as a whole and should be identified as if with a speech tag:

  • I wondered, why the red hat? Surely it meant something, as she was the second person I’d seen with a red hat. But perhaps I saw what I wanted, a conspiracy where none existed.
  • The flash of a purple stocking covering a shapely ankle, quickly hidden by her skirts, caught his attention. Was she a whore? He wondered. Some women working the streets wore red to advertise their profession, but she didn’t have the look of disillusionment the others wore beneath their masks of false desire. Why did she wear purple stockings?
  • His sword belt hung on the chair just as he’d left it the night before. But while the scabbard had been left behind, Caliburn was gone. His heart sank, and he cast his mind back, picturing his room before he’d gone down to breakfast. Nothing had seemed out of place, but had he seen the grip sticking out of sheath? He couldn’t recall.

Most thoughts don’t have to be italicized. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the reader’s interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters.

The exception to this is if the person who is thinking is also speaking with other people, and his thought could be mistaken as dialogue spoken aloud.

Other, equally insidious reasons exist as to why authors may choose to use italics, most of which I think should be formatted in a better, easier to read style that still sets them off:

  • Mental telepathy, which is technically spoken dialogue
  • Letters, which are the written thoughts of people from far away
  • Emails, which are electronic letters
  • Text messages

Let’s consider correspondence between characters: some work is written in an epistolatory style. The entire narrative is told in the form of letters exchanged between the characters, as in the case of the brilliant steampunk Dawn of Steam series by Jeffrey Cook with Sarah Symonds. In that case, with each exchange of letters, the speaking character/author is made clear.

However, correspondences inserted into the body of a narrative should be formatted to set them apart, but not to throw the reader out of the story. For that passage, add an extra space both before and after, and inset both left and right margins by one-half inch (.5).

He looked at the missive from Father Rall, wondering how his day could get any worse.

Cayne,

I understand you are too unwell to duel lately. Your students’ health is at risk if you have a contagious disease. You must go to the infirmary today. If your illness is treatable, you should be back to dueling soon. If you are suffering from the prolonged use of magic, many treatments are now available that will help you live a long and productive life. Either way, Darlen is expecting to see you today.

Rall

Cursing, he wadded the note and threw it in the wastebasket.

To inset the margin in Microsoft Word: Highlight the section you want to inset. On the ribbon, go to the home tab. On the paragraph menu, click the little grey square on the lower right-hand corner to open the menu. Then on the indentation menu set both right and left to 1”. Click okay

Emails should also be represented this way, set in 1/2″ (.5), as they are the most common form of modern correspondence, but you want to show they are emails:

To: Ima.Fool@maildelivery.com

From:M.Jones@buenavuecorps.com

We regret to inform you that your manuscript “Under the Grandstand” is not what we are looking for at this time.

Good luck in your future endeavors,

Maurice Jones

Editor, Buenavue Magazine

And what about text messages? They can be inset too.

Helen:

Hi. R U on ur way?

************************

Joe:

What? I only speak English. I’m on my way.

So that leaves us with mental telepathy. Mental telepathy is a commonly used trope in genre fantasy, and I have one series where it figures prominently. In writing groups, you will hear a variety of ways to deal with that.

Some authors will use italics.

  • I am always with you. Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her

Some authors use parentheses:

  • (I am always with you.) Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her.

Some authors will preface mental communication with a colon:

  • : I am always with you.: Zan’s smile and supportive thought warmed her.

When a story is mental-telepathy heavy, I personally will do anything to avoid throwing the reader out of the story.

  • Through their link, Zan said, “I am always with you.” His smile and supportive thought warmed her.

How you choose to portray thoughts and mental telepathy is purely your choice, and reflects what you see as your style. I was not always a purist—this lack of enthusiasm for italics has evolved along with other aspects of writing. But as an editor, when I am faced with large blocks of italics, I find them difficult to read. And frankly, some authors use internal monologues as a way to dump large amounts of background info.

When you have a thought-heavy narrative, I would suggest you find an alternative way to phrase your characters’ ruminations, making them an active part of the story. Avoiding italics will force you to write a stronger narrative, and your readers will thank you.


Thoughts on Italics by Connie J. Jasperson was originally published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on May 11, 2016.

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#amtalking: Interview with @LindsaySchopfer, Into the North #BeastHunter

One of my good friends, Lindsay Schopfer, whose work I have featured on this blog before, has a new book launching on this coming Saturday (April 15th, 2017). Into the North is the second Keltin Moore adventure, and is a fitting sequel to the first book in the series, The Beast Hunter.

I will be participating in the official online launch party on Facebook. Four other wonderful authors will also be participating, helping to boost the signal:

Into the North Online Launch Party

Log on and engage with some fantastic fantasy and steampunk authors as we celebrate the release of Lindsay Schopfer’s latest novel, “Into the North.” Our lineup of authors is as follows:

4:00 to 4:30 pm PDT – Pembroke Sinclair (7:00 EDT) (US)

4:30 to 5:00 pm PDT – Terry Persun (7:30 EDT) (US)

5:00 to 5:30 pm PDT – Katherine Perkins (8:00 EDT) (US)

5:30 to 6:00 pm PDT – Connie J. Jasperson (8:30 EDT) (US)

6:00 to 6:30 pm PDT – Nicole J. Persun (9:00 EDT) (US)

6:30 to 7:00 pm PDT – Lindsay Schopfer (9:30 EDT) (US)

All the participating authors will share tidbits about their work, and some will have games. Several are offering prizes to participating visitors. I will be talking about the genesis of the Tower of Bones series and giving away Kindle downloads of Tower of Bones to two lucky winners.

I will post the lineup and times again on Friday, along with my review of Into the North!

I had a few questions for Lindsay about his newest book:

CJJ: When did Keltin Moore first become a character you were compelled to write?

LS: I’ve told the story before in other interviews about playing a video game and getting the initial idea for the character of Keltin Moore, but it took a while for me to really get interested in writing more about the professional monster hunter. What’s now the prologue of The Beast Hunter was originally just a standalone flash fiction story. It was almost a year later before I  wrote what is now chapter one, originally the first episode of an online serial. It was while I was working on that serial that I really came to love the character of Keltin Moore along with his unique world and adventures. By the time I’d written the first three episodes, I was hooked.

CJJ: How much of you and your personal values is in Keltin? Where do you and he differ?

LS: There’s definitely a lot of me in Keltin. He has a strong sense of responsibility for those that he cares about, and he tries to take the moral high ground regardless of how much harder it will make things for him. We also both struggle with social situations, and sometimes have a tendency to bottle things up to our detriment. I guess the biggest difference between us is that I recognize my need for people and do my best to draw them to me. Keltin is still learning about the limitations that come from trying to do things alone.

CJJ: Once a new work is in progress, what are the main hurdles you have to overcome in laying down the first draft?

LS: The biggest issue I run into is the temptation to start over. I do the same thing with video games. I could be half-way through a game and realize “Oh shoot! I’m not going to be able to do that side-quest now!” And I’ll start the game over to have a ‘perfect’ run. With stories, it’s very tempting to go back and get it right from start to finish. I’ll confess that I did start over with Into the North four times (once when I was more than a hundred pages in) before I finally made it to the end of the first draft.

CJJ: Into the North, Keltin’s second adventure, has many of the fans’ favorite characters returning. What was your favorite plot twist for your returning side-characters?”

LS: Hmm… that’s a tough one. I think I’d have to say the resolution of a few subplots at the very end of the book. I won’t give any spoilers, but there were definitely some moments when I couldn’t stop smiling as I wrote about how Keltin’s friends and close associates really feel about him.

CJJ: What are you working on now?

LS: I’ve got several projects in the works, but the one that I’m the most excited for right now is a new collection of short stories. This will include a Keltin Moore short story, as well as stories that have previously appeared in anthologies printed by Writerpunk Press and Clockwork Dragon. I know that I’ve got fans that have been wanting to read them, so I’m excited that they’ll finally be able to get all of them in one place.

CJJ: What books can you recommend for new writers who are just beginning to learn the craft?

LS: Bird by Bird is a classic by Anne Lamott. Most of the other books that I’ve read on the craft are pretty obscure or out of print, so it’s hard to recommend them.

CJJ: Where can writers find your classes and seminars?

LS: I’m actually planning on making some changes in the way I offer my classes and workshops, but people that are interested can sign up for my newsletter to keep updated on that along with other news about my books and appearances.

CJJ: Finally, where will you be making live appearances this spring and summer?

LS: I’ve got a book tour this month for the release of Into the North that will include stops in Washington, Utah, and Wyoming. You can find all of the dates and locations below:

Dates and Locations for my Book Tour

I’m also planning on teaching at the PNWA summer conference this year, and will also be making an appearance at the Brass Screw Confederacy in Port Townsend.


If you would like to know more about author Lindsay Schopfer and his work, he can be found online at these places::

Lindsay Schopfer’s Author Central page at Amazon

Lindsay’s Website

Lindsay Schopfer on Facebook

Lindsay’s Blog

Follow Lindsay on Twitter: @LindsaySchopfer

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#amwriting: getting lost in translation

The question about using foreign languages in dialogue recently arose again, so it seemed appropriate to revisit a situation from one of last year’s posts.

The quote that started it all was posted in a writers forum: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

The answer to both options is a resounding no. We write in our native language for people who read in that language.

We can add a slightly foreign flair, but translations should not be necessary at all. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

The writer whose question had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the em dash or ellipsis has the function of setting portions of the narrative aside or giving it emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way. It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

My next thought when I was told about this particular conversation was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate?

If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands and her readers aren’t likely to finish her book.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

Note the slight change in the translation—one word has been shifted, “may” becomes “can.” While these words are sometimes interchangeable in English, they don’t always mean the same thing:

  • May sometimes means might or perhaps; or sometimes may gives permission.
  • Can gives permission or enables.

That slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation to French assumes the word “may” is permission and gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.  So, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. Basically, we speakers of English speak a version of Dutch.

I hear you now: “But I don’t understand Dutch!”

This is because even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax.  English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Imagine this situation: Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

English: “Oh no. My bicycle has a bent spoke. How can I fix it?”

1st Dutch translation: “Oh nee. Mijn fiets heeft een gebogen sprak. Hoe kan ik dat op?”

2nd English translation: “Oh no. My bike needs an bent. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: When we retranslate it back to  English, the second translation makes no sense.

Google Translate is an extremely useful tool, but it is not intended to be used to translate an entire book into a foreign language. You need to hire a translator for that.

So, now we know that texts translated via Google Translate often emerge slightly twisted and make no sense, which is not what we want. If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable to readers who don’t speak that language. It lends a certain realism when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just don’t rely on Google Translate to help you write your Russian spy novel’s love scene.

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#amwriting: action and introspection

All works of fiction, no matter what their genre have several commonalities. Protagonists and side characters begin in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray. This is the inciting incident.

Once they recover from the first stumbling block, our protagonist realizes they want or need something: an object or person that will resolve the situation they are in. This is a moment of truth, a point where the protagonist realizes they could lose everything.

To resolve their situation and acquire what they need,  the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances. They will flounder and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation.

In my own work there have been times where I was so busy setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost.

For a particular event to have a place in the narrative, it must fulfil several requirements:

  • It must entertain the reader.
  • It must enable new circumstances.
  • It must force growth on the character, for good or for ill.

We do not insert random incidents simply for the sake of action. The events the protagonist experiences must be there to facilitate change. The action must force personal growth or otherwise affect the characters involved in it.

When we are deep in the creative process, it’s easy to forget that characters must evolve. Morality, love, coming of age—these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.

Perhaps you are experiencing writer’s block. Inspiration has abandoned you, and you become desperate to get your narrative moving again.

It may be that you have lost track of what you originally imagined your story was about, and your characters no longer know what they are fighting for. Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it hope?

When you first imagined you had a story to write, you had an idea of what the characters would be like. Did you picture them fully formed? At the beginning, we must leave room for growth and change, for us to show the character evolving, growing to that finished state. This is how we involve the reader in the hero’s journey.

When an author becomes desperate and inserts outlandish events or conversations “just to show they are human” it disrupts the story arc. At that point, the author frequently loses interest in the story and believes they are suffering writer’s block.

Think about novels you may have read where the author became too focused on the action and neglected to devote a few sentences detailing the character’s introspection. Their protagonist went from one death defying incident to another, without a pause or a moment to catch their breath. The protagonist may as well have been a crash test dummy, ricocheting from one event to the next with no thought or feeling.

The constant onslaught of random action became a loud noise that didn’t make any sense because there was no chance to link the events together and put them in perspective. Events inserted for shock value  and with no pause for reflection don’t show personal growth. This can make an otherwise good character two-dimensional.

This need for pauses between the action has been referred to (by better educated people than me) as: writing the way a skater skates: “push  – glide – push – glide.” Action – reflection – action – reflection. These small pauses give the reader a chance to breathe and process what just happened.

What will the protagonist gain from the experience? Action, deeds, and accomplishments are necessary to force change and growth on the characters. When you write a scene, ask yourself, “How will their fundamental ethics and ideals be challenged by this event?” If there is no personal cost, the scene is a side trip to nowhere and should be removed.

Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. Remember, just because that idea doesn’t work for this book, doesn’t mean it won’t work in another book.

I label that file “outtakes,” and believe me, it has come in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.

In the greatest, most memorable novels, the reader experiences the characters’ lives as they react to the events and setbacks.

This is what we want to achieve in our own work. The genre and the setting in which these characters react to the wider concepts are just a backdrop. The world they are set in is the picture-frame, a stage upon which the themes of the story play out, and characters are shaped by a force beyond their control—the author.

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#FlashFictionFriday: Silence and Love

Silence and Love

There was a time when we talked,

A time when words connected us the way kisses join lovers.

You mind amazed me as much as your body did

And I knew them both better than I knew my own.

You still amaze me but years have wedged silence between us.

Not the stony silence of anger or hurt—thank god, not that.

 

It is the silence of comfortableness,

The soundless speech of two old people

who sometimes read each other’s minds.

The quiet sharing of a back porch in the summer.

Side-by-side on a second-hand settee with a blue cushion,

You reach for my hand, and I am swept away.

 

Now when we speak, it is a more cerebral sharing,

Mind to mind, heart to heart,

Two old people still in love, but with little to say.

Did we say it all in the young wild days?

Did we spend our words the way we spent our kisses?

If so, then many more remain, waiting to pass between us.

 

No. We were learning each other, discovering truths

and facing our self-deceptions.

Now it is a calm sharing.

I still know your mind and your body

and love them better than my own.

I still love it when you hold my hand.

 

And when we speak it means something.

And when we kiss it means something.

And when we hold hands in the silence

Of an evening on a back porch,

Side-by-side on a second-hand settee with a blue cushion,

It means everything.


Credits and Attributions:

Silence and Love © Connie J. Jasperson 2015–2017, All Rights Reserved (First Published Nov. 13, 2015 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy)

Sun in May, Józef Mehoffer 1911 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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#Amwriting: The Coordinating Conjunction

In grammar, a conjunction is a connection: a part of speech that connects words, phrases, or clauses.

What are coordinating conjunctions and why should you care? For one thing, conjunctions are like any other essential part of English grammar. They have a particular use, and when they are used correctly, they blend into the background.

The Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, says:

Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance. In English, the mnemonic acronym FANBOYS can be used to remember the coordinators for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are not the only coordinating conjunctions; various others are used, including “and nor” (British), “but nor” (British), “or nor” (British), “neither” (“They don’t gamble; neither do they smoke”), “no more” (“They don’t gamble; no more do they smoke”), and “only” (“I would go, only I don’t have time”). Types of coordinating conjunctions include cumulative conjunctions, adversative conjunctions, alternative conjunctions, and illative conjunctions.

Here are some examples of coordinating conjunctions in English and what they do:

For – presents rationale (“They do not gamble or smoke, for they are ascetics.”)

And – presents non-contrasting item(s) or idea(s) (“They gamble, and they smoke.”)

Nor – presents a non-contrasting negative idea (“They do not gamble, nor do they smoke.”)

But – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, but they don’t smoke.”)

Or – presents an alternative item or idea (“Every day they gamble, or they smoke.”)

Yet – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, yet they don’t smoke.”)

So – presents a consequence (“He gambled well last night, so he smoked a cigar to celebrate.”)

We use and, or, and but as connectors of words, phrases, clauses, or sentences of equal rank.

  • apples and oranges
  • apples or oranges
  • apples, but not oranges

In a sentence, we can use “and” and “or” to join strings of nouns or strings of verbs:

  • Apples and oranges and bananas (are tasty).
  • Wash and dry (the dishes).
  • Apples or bananas or oranges
  • Apples and oranges, but not bananas
  • I love cooking and my pets and my family.

I would prefer to use serial commas to connect my string rather than conjunctions:

  • Apples, bananas, or oranges
  • Apples, bananas, and oranges
  • I love cooking, my pets, and my family.

Yes, I said I would use a serial comma. I’ve seen people launch into rants against serial commas, claiming it’s too many and looks awful.

That argument is hogwash.

For whom are you writing? Are you writing only yourself or are you writing for an unknown reader who may one day buy your book? If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like. But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader. Using serial commas will make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying. Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.

But enough about the commas–let’s get back to conjunctions.

The word “but” is a little different from “and” or “or.”  It is a coordinating conjunction, and we use “but” to join two words:”

  • (I want you to) sing, but loudly.

“But” is also a connector that indicates contrast.

  • I like black but not white.

“But” can connect just about any kind of word or phrase that “and” and “or” can connect, with one difference: it can’t connect nouns in phrases.

  • Consider Betty and Judy (went shopping). We wouldn’t say Betty but Judy (went shopping).

However, “but” can connect noun phrases to other phrases:

  • Betty and Judy (went shopping) but I don’t know who drove.

When I speak, I have a habit of beginning my sentences with the conjunctions “and,” “but,” “because,” and “so.” Because these words are conjunctions, connector words, some people will say this is wrong.  I disagree with them, for this reason: in this case, these conjunctions are connecting ideas.

On page 257, The Chicago Manual of Style says this rule has “no historical or grammatical foundation.” The CMOS further points out that William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence freely began sentences with those four conjunctions.

These people were well educated, and we can assume they understood grammar as well as anyone. Consider the following sentence, written by Abraham Lincoln:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

As he was a lawyer as well as a respected public speaker, we know Abe was a well-educated man.

Get It Write Online says:

“Most likely, many people believe they should not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction because their grammar teachers in grade school discouraged them from doing so. Yet such a rule is completely unjustifiable. When grammar teachers teach youngsters the essentials of sentence structure, they most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, they may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like this one:

She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

In this example, using “and” after the period is wrong because the second “sentence” is not really a sentence at all: it has neither a subject nor a verb.

So, just like the ubiquitous (but often unnecessary) “comma before the word because” and the silly debate over the incredibly important serial comma, we will likely have this disagreement for many generations to come.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Conjunction (grammar),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conjunction_(grammar)&oldid=771179901  (accessed March 28, 2017).

Weird Coordinating Conjunctions: Yet, For, and So, © Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, July 10, 2014, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/weird-coordinating-conjunctions-yet-for-and-so, (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).

University of Chicago (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.

Starting Sentences with “And” or “But,” © 03/26/2001 Nancy Tuten,  Get It Write, http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/032601startsentandbut.htm  (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).

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