Category Archives: writing

Writing Around the Distractions #amwriting #writerlife

Life has hit one of those inevitable snags, where writing has become more of a refuge than ever. My amateur nursing skills have been called into battle once again, as hubby has undergone a total hip replacement.

Four hours after the surgery, he was in the car, and we were going home. The minute the anesthesia wears off, they check the patient to make sure they’re alive and able to urinate, then send them home.

To be cared for by enthusiastic, panicking amateurs.

Two days in the hospital would have been better for him, but this is life in the USA. Even before COVID19, they sent patients home before they were able to care for themselves.

Thanks to having two children with seizure disorders and other family members with debilitating illnesses, I have acquired some of the skills necessary to handle this. My only problem is that he is 6’ 3” tall, and suffers from severe arthritis, so he has limited strength. I am just glad my brother is here to help when I need it.

We are 3 days into it, and hopefully, things will become easier as this next week progresses.

Everyone has family, jobs, external demands that limit the amount of time you can devote to writing. For me, the most important thing is to care for my family first. That means I do whatever housework is on for that day, make sure everyone is clean and fed, and if one of them is ill, I make sure they are comfortable and can rest.

I’m not a superwoman, so I do what I can around the house and don’t worry about what I didn’t get done. Some days that means just keeping a path cleared to the front door. Other days, the place is “fit for company,” as my grandma would say.

After surgery, blood clots can be a problem, so modern technology has devised an $80.00 solution, the PlasmaFlow Sequential Compression System. They are prescribed by a physician for use in the home to help prevent the onset of DVT (deep vein thrombosis) in post-surgical patients by stimulating blood flow in the extremities. They do this by stimulating muscle contractions. These are battery-operated, rechargeable cuffs that go around the patient’s calves.

The surgery was on Friday, so of course, they failed at about noon Saturday. This didn’t seem to surprise the on-call physician at the other end of the telephone. They quit charging, and we can’t get replacements until Monday. So, I am making sure he does some extra exercises and helping him do the ones he can’t yet do independently. Regular massage and exercise should do the trick.

Sleep the first night was like the first night you bring the newborn baby home. Sleep for an hour, get up to resolve something, sleep for an hour, get up to resolve something—not a lot of rest. But the second night, he was able to sleep straight through, so that was good.

I have plenty of downtime between things, though. That is when I write or work on whatever revisions are needed. You would be amazed at what you can get done in ten-minute bursts.

The fact is, I rarely watch television. While I do play a little Stardew Valley (see my game review here), my real interests are reading and attempting to write the stories I wish I could read.

This week I have been trying to think up decent titles for two of my works in progress. So far, nothing has risen to the top. “Accidental Novel” is a fair enough working title but probably won’t sell the book.

Before hubby went in for surgery, I sent my Accidental Novel to my structural editor for a beta read. I have a gut feeling that the ending is weak, so I asked her to give me any thoughts on reworking it. All the rough spots will be resolved once I get Irene’s revision notes back. The external eye is crucial at this stage. Having a trusted reader who is also an excellent editor is a gift from heaven.

So, all in all, life is good. Once we get through this week, my husband should be on the road to better health, and we will be able to settle into a routine.

Life can be a bumpy road. The key is to focus on the good things and laugh at the annoyances. Make a little time to do what you love, and always make time for the people you love.


Credits and Attributions:

We Can Do It, by J. Howard Miller, Restored by Adam Cuerden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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#FineArtFriday: The Straw Ride – Russley Park Remount Dep’t, Wiltshire by Lucy Kemp-Welch

About this painting, via Wikipedia:

Three women exercising horses in a remount depot. They take their charges through their paces in an indoor straw ride. Each woman rides one horse and leads another.

During World War One women were employed at Army Remount Depots in training and preparing horses for military service. Kemp-Welch was commissioned by the Women’s Work Section of the Imperial War Museum to paint a scene at the largest such depot, one staffed entirely by women, at Russley Park in Wiltshire. The Museum authorities were unhappy with the painting, The Ladies Army Remount Depot, Russley Park, Wiltshire which Kemp-Welch first submitted but were aware of a larger and much better composition on the same subject that she had painted and intended to sell to a private client for £1,000. Kemp-Welch agreed that the second painting, The Straw-Ride- Russley Park, Remount Dep’t Wiltshire was the better of the two and agreed to sell it to the IWM to fulfill her commission. However, she was unable to agree a fee with the Women’s Work Section and after protracted discussions, donated it free of charge to the Museum.

 

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Lucy Elizabeth Kemp-Welch (20 June 1869 – 27 November 1958) was a British painter and teacher who specialized in painting working horses. She is best known for the paintings of horses in military service she produced during World War One and for her illustrations to the 1915 edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty.

In 1924, for the Royal Exchange, Kemp-Welch designed and completed a large panel commemorating the work of women during World War One. From 1926 onwards she focussed on depicting scenes of gypsy and circus life and spent several summers following Sanger’s Circus, recording the horses.

She resided in Bushey, Hertfordshire for most of her life and a major collection of her works is in Bushey Museum. They include very large paintings of wild ponies on Exmoor, galloping polo ponies, the last horse-launched lifeboat being pulled into a boiling sea, heavy working horses pulling felled timber and hard-working farm horses trudging home at the end of the day.


Credits and Attributions:

Lucy Kemp-Welch, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The Straw Ride- Russley Park Remount Dep’t, Wiltshire Art.IWMART3160.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_Straw_Ride-_Russley_Park_Remount_Dep%27t,_Wiltshire_Art.IWMART3160.jpg&oldid=262266456 (accessed March 18, 2021).

Wikipedia contributors, “Lucy Kemp-Welch,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Lucy_Kemp-Welch&oldid=996250015 (accessed March 18, 2021).

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Choosing a publishing path: Traditional vs. Indie #amwriting

The publishing industry is in a state of flux, as is the rest of the world.

According to the December 2020 Statshot of participating publishers, the Association of American Publishers, published February 25, 2021, total revenues across all categories for December 2020 were down 8.5% compared to December 2019, coming in at $1.1 billion.

In terms of physical paper format revenues during the month of December, in the Trade (Consumer Books) category, Hardback revenues were up 14.2%, coming in at $312.5 million; Paperbacks were up 2.4%, with $248.1 million in revenue; Mass Market was down 1.6% to $25.9 million; and Board Books were up 6.2%, with $16.7 million in revenue.

eBook revenues were up 18.4% for the month as compared to December of 2019 for a total of $89.7 million.  The Downloaded Audio format jumped 30.0% for December, coming in at $66.0 million in revenue. Physical Audio declined 6.7% coming in at $1.9 million. [1]

In this publishing world, what share of the market is claimed by Indie book sales? For Indie books, those published without ISBNs, the Amazon market share accounts for roughly 83% of US purchases.

What do these numbers mean when trying to decide whether to self-publish or attempt to go the traditional route?

In recent months, the traditional publishing industry has undergone a shrinkage. Where they once were the Big Five, they are now the Big Four: HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, and Penguin Random House.

Literative.Com says: Authors who publish with them may still not have boatloads of money (depending on how many books they publish in a year), but they certainly have prestige. [2]

The fact is authors, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough in royalties to support their families. This is because publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors. They spend their money on the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.

So, why should an author consider going traditional? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher?

The fact is, the traditional publishing industry offers many legitimate perks to those who get their foot in the door.

  1. Once you are signed with a reputable publisher, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time, you can forge a good working relationship with this editor. If you go Indie, you must hire a copy editor, which is not cheap. (And should not be.)
  2. While they may not treat a new author the way they do Stephen King, traditional publishers will dedicate a small budget to marketing your work for its launch. It will be more money than you might be able to pony up as an Indie.
  3. Once you have proven yourself, traditional publishers can get your work into markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery stores.

That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part. Their confidence will have to be earned. You must expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work is received at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

  1. Once you have proven yourself, you will have a wider distribution, make far more sales. With those sales, your work will meet the criteria to be considered for industry honors and awards, which will help sell your books.
  2. There is an air of respectability, the cachet of being able to claim you’re traditionally published.

These are valid reasons for attempting to sell your work to the traditional publishing industry.

However, if you seek a legacy book contract, you must go through a gauntlet of gatekeepers. You must pass the assessments of literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs.

These people all must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own the majority of American publishing companies.

This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter. It’s not the quality of your work; it’s the publisher’s perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their shareholders.

As an Indie, you may not become a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell. In most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, especially for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon.

For the traditionally published author, if a publisher prices their eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out (and remember, Amazon is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond):

  • Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
  • The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
  • The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
  • The author then must pay their agent a 15% commission—or 26 cents.
  • The author nets just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale.

This is assuming the publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties. In my personal experience, while most small presses are honest, some small presses fail to pay royalties and can have an author’s work tied up in legal limbo for years. Investigate small presses before you sign with them. This is where knowing your legal rights and having a lawyer read your contract before you sign is a good idea.

If you self-publish your eBook at $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.

If you self-publish, you’ll get paid quickly. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. Advancements are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.

Conversely, most eBook distributors like Kindle Direct Publishing and Draft2Digital report your sales virtually in real-time. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the time sales began.

Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly, you retain all rights to your work. Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author.

Most of us are not lawyers. The complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating.

You must hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your own work forever.

Quote from the Authors Guild post of July 28, 2015:

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades. [3]

Regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not, you must do the work and absorb the initial costs of getting your name out there. You must find bookstores willing to host you for a signing, and you must get yourself to conventions and conferences.

You must still work your day job to feed your family either way.

Both paths are valid, and both have positive reasons for choosing that direction, as well as negatives.

How you go forward in publishing your first book is a serious decision. Choosing your publishing path deserves deep consideration of all the many pros and cons.


CREDITS & ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] AAP December 2020 Statshot Report © 2021Association of American Publishers https://publishers.org/news/aap-december-2020-statshot-report-publishing-industry-down-8-5-for-month-up-0-1-for-calendar-2020/  (Accessed March 16,2021)

[2] Literative.com Popular Books Published by the Big Four, by Jennifer Mendez © https://literative.com/writers-resources/popular-books-published-big-four/#:~:text=HarperCollins,%20Simon%20&%20Schuster,%20Hachette%20and%20Penguin%20Random,in%20a%20year),%20but%20they%20certainly%20have%20prestige. (Accessed March 16, 2021)

[3] A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, The Authors Guild, © 2021 https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/a-publishing-contract-should-not-be-forever/, (Accessed March 16, 2021)

Image: Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

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Speculative Fiction: the Liberation of Ideas #amwriting

The overarching genre of speculative fiction can be broken into two main categories: science fiction and fantasy. Each of them is subdivided into many smaller sub-genres.

Consider what the words “speculative fiction” mean for our purposes.

Speculative = conjectural, suppositional, theoretical, hypothetical, academic, abstract, risky, hazardous, unsafe.

Fiction = novels, stories, creative writing, prose literature, narration, storytelling, romance, fable, imaginative writing, works of the imagination.

Put together, speculative fiction takes risky abstract ideas and expresses them through prose.

Those words give an author permission to leave the boundaries of our known world and go off to explore profound and meaningful concepts through a fictional environment.

Neil Gaiman’s Stardust qualifies as a speculative fiction novel that is a “literary fantasy.” This is because it is a fairytale told with beautiful prose in an unhurried fashion. Lean prose can be leisurely, poetic, and still pack a punch.

That is what true writing is all about, conveying a story in a crafted style with a voice that is uniquely that of the author.

Fairytales always offer us morals, and in Stardust, Gaiman shows us truth. He lays bare the lies we tell ourselves through the simple fairytale motif that real love is not gained through prodigious deeds. All through the narrative, we see the difference between desiring a person and loving them. By the end, we know that love requires truth if it is to survive.

Neil Gaiman trusts his readers. That is something we all need to do. Sometimes a story needs to emerge slowly and be told with beautiful, immersive prose, and we need to trust that our readers will enjoy it if we craft it well.

There is room in the bookstore for books with a less urgent story to tell, as well as those that ambush the reader and beat them bloody with non-stop action.

In 1953’s Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov took us into the future, a time when humanity had divided into two factions—spacers and earthmen. The Blurb:

Like most people left behind on an over-populated Earth, New York City police detective Elijah Baley had little love for either the arrogant Spacers or their robotic companions. But when a prominent Spacer is murdered under mysterious circumstances, Baley is ordered to the Outer Worlds to help track down the killer. 

The relationship between Baley and his Spacer superiors, who distrusted all Earthmen, was strained from the start. Then he learned that they had assigned him a partner: R. Daneel Olivaw.  Worst of all was that the “R” stood for robot—and his positronic partner was made in the image and likeness of the murder victim!

In 1953, racism was endemic, institutionalized. When Asimov wrote this novel, he took on bigotry and equality in a palatable way by showing us a civilization where androids are denied equality. To murder a human is a crime, but in this society, many otherwise good people doubt that robots are sentient beings with a right to life. Yet, in R. Daneel Olivaw, we meet a sentient being and feel compassion for him.

Isaac Asimov trusted his readers too.

We write because we have a story to tell and concepts to convey. To that end, every word we put to the final product must count if every idea is to be expressed.

Asimov showed us that tight, straightforward prose works.

Gaiman shows us that sometimes you can just have a little fun with it.

The genre of speculative fiction grew out of the the repression of the 1940s and 1950s, and has always been the literary field in which ideas that challenge the norm were sown. Radical concepts could be conveyed when couched fantasy and set in fictional worlds.

Dedicated authors are driven to learn the craft of writing, and it is a quest that can take a lifetime. It is a journey that involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Those are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture. The rest of the education is within each of us, an amalgamation of our life experiences.

Whenever I come across an author whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes me out of my comfort zone, I go back and reread it. The second time, I take notes. I study how they crafted their work, look at their word choices. I ask myself why it moved me.

I do the same with those whose work left me feeling robbed—where did they go wrong? What can I do to avoid this in my work?

I always learn something new from looking at how other authors combine and use words to form the moods and emotions that drive the plot. For me, writing is a journey with no finite destination other than the satisfaction of making small steps toward improvement.

Sometimes my work is good, other times not so much. But when I look back at my early work, I see improvement over time, which is all we can ever hope for.

Don’t lose heart, and don’t give up just because you think you can’t write like your favorite author. Write for yourself and write because you have something to say.

And don’t quit until you arrive at the place where you write “the end” on the last page.

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The Role of the Trickster #amwriting

My lead characters always have companions, and one of them is usually the trickster. In his famous book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, philosopher Joseph Campbell discusses his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero found in world mythologies.

Christopher Vogler takes Campbell’s concept of the monomyth and applies it to modern storytelling.  His 2007 book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, offers insights into character development and takes the mythical aspects of the hero’s journey and places it into pop culture, from movies to television, to books.

I am on my third copy of this book.

In my last post, I mentioned that tricksters:

  • Cross Boundaries
  • Break rules
  • Disrupt ordinary life
  • Charm us with their wit and charisma

Wikipedia tells us:

All cultures have tales of the trickster, a crafty creature who uses cunning to get food, steal precious possessions, or simply cause mischief. In some Greek myths, Hermes plays the trickster. He is the patron of thieves and the inventor of lying, a gift he passed on to Autolycus, who in turn passed it on to Odysseus. In Slavic folktales, the trickster and the culture hero are often combined. [1]

Often in mythology, the bending/breaking of rules takes the form of tricks or thievery.  When I need a thief, I automatically think of Loki—the consummate trickster of Norse mythology. Loki sometimes helps the gods and other times he is the villain. Loki is the god you love to hate.

Who is a good example of the trickster in modern mythology? Let’s look at the first three Star Wars movies, and the character of Han Solo.

This is a man who is slightly older than the rest of the cast and has been around long enough to become jaded. He’s contradictory, in that he doesn’t believe in the force but relies on his luck.

Always courageous but not stupid, Han Solo takes incredible chances, and usually comes out on top. He rarely learns anything from his failures.

Han Solo’s primary role is keep everyone grounded. No one gets to be a princess around him, not even an actual princess. He points out to our hero that a blaster is more reliable than the force, and has no problem cold-bloodedly murdering a bounty hunter in a crowded bar.

What I love about the character of Han Solo is the way he livens things up. He is the ray of sunshine in what is actually a dark tale.

Vogler describes the trickster as: someone who embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change. [2]

I think the word energy is key. The rogue’s job is to inject energy into the story.

The loveable rascal is an important component of any epic tale. In the book versions of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Pippin and Merry tend to go their own way sometimes and by doing so, they serve in the role of tricksters.

Quote from Wikipedia: The critic Tom Shippey notes that Tolkien uses the two hobbits and their low simple humour as foils for the much higher romance to which he was aspiring with the more heroic and kingly figures of Theoden, Denethor, and Aragorn: an unfamiliar and old-fashioned writing style that might otherwise have lost his readers entirely.

He notes that Pippin and Merry serve, too, as guides to introduce the reader to seeing the various non-human characters, letting the reader know that an ent looks an old tree stump or “almost like the figure of some gnarled old man”. The two apparently minor hobbits have another role, too, Shippey writes: it is to remain of good courage when even strong men start to doubt whether victory is possible, as when Pippin comforts the soldier of Gondor, Beregond, as the hordes of Mordor approach Minas Tirith. [3]

The trickster brings the essence of fallible humanity to a group of characters that can be otherwise too perfect. Their influence on the hero also offers us moments of hilarity and pathos.

The character who plays the trickster guides us through the darker aspects of a story with their wit and ironic humor. Thanks to them, the story is not quite so frightening, even when things are really bad.

The trickster sometimes emerges in my work, but I don’t always recognize them until my reading posse gets my manuscript. They will point out areas where I could use this character to better show certain aspects of the action.

I highly recommend The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. It is one of the foundation books in my reference library, and I refer back to it often, especially in the early stages of a manuscript.

Hero, villain, mentor, or trickster—knowing what archetype a character embodies helps me identify their potential role within the story.


Credits and Attributions:

Star Wars movie poster © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd., via Wikimedia Commons. Production company: Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox Release date May 25, 1977 (United States) Fair Use.

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Trickster,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trickster&oldid=811022016 (accessed December 5, 2017).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Writer%27s_Journey:_Mythic_Structure_for_Writers&oldid=804454608  (accessed December 5, 2017).

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “Pippin Took,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pippin_Took&oldid=1010711687 (accessed March 9, 2021).

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Dramatic Irony and the Trickster – Part 1 #amwriting

Creating depth in our writing is an involved process, one we get better at as time goes on. “Depth” consists of a multitude of layers we add to a scene, usually as part of the revision process.

Good writers take a one-dimensional idea and create a real, three-dimensional world. They do this magic layer by layer. Some layers are more abstract than others, but they add life to a story.

Two important layers of depth are dramatic irony and wry humor. They are fraternal twins who play well together. When done well, both add an element of the unexpected into the mix.

One of my favorite characters to write is the archetype known as “the trickster.” This wise friend can sometimes work against you, but their presence can add an essential layer of sardonic humor to the narrative.

Tricksters cross boundaries. They break rules and disrupt everyday life, but we love them for their wit and charisma. They are the wise-cracking rogue who lends a touch of fallible humanity to the cast that can be otherwise too perfect. Their interactions with the hero provide moments of both hilarity and grief.

The trickster often employs a literary device called dramatic irony. Their sarcasm adds a moment of “ah-hah!” to a scene. The ordinary becomes extraordinary.

One of my favorite examples of where an author made good use of both dramatic irony and ironic wit is the play, Romeo and Juliet. The way William Shakespeare wrote the play, we see layer after layer of both irony and wit applied heavily.

First, the prologue announces that the  Capulets are at war with the Montagues and tells us that what happens to the star-crossed lovers at the end will bring about peace between the warring families.

That the audience is aware of the situation from the outset, but the characters aren’t, is one layer of irony. That “we know, but you don’t” factor might not fly today with modern audiences, but Elizabethans loved it. Their daily lives were fraught with danger, so knowing what lay around the corner was good.  

The next layer resonates with modern audiences. The second layer of irony is applied when Romeo falls in love with his nemesis—the daughter of his family’s arch-enemy.

Again, the audience sees the irony there, but (third layer) Romeo pushes onward, trying to convince Juliet that her family won’t harm him, that her love will protect him.

Alas, the ironic blindness of teenaged infatuation.

Nevertheless, at this point, despite the blatant warning that the prologue gives us at the outset, we are all hoping for a happy ending, even though we’ve had 400 years of “we know this will end badly.”

Mercutio and Benvolio discuss Romeo’s love-stricken behavior, as friends usually do. They assume he is still pining for Rosalind (fourth layer of irony). The audience says, “We know something you don’t.”

Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;

stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;

shot through the ear with a love-song; [1]

“Shot through the ear with a love-song” is brilliant, ironic humor in any era and is one of my all-time favorite turns of phrase.

All through the play, from Tybalt’s murder to the suicides, the audience knows what is going on, but the characters don’t. That is dramatic irony taken to an extreme and contributed to the play’s success back in 1594-1595 when it first opened.

I know that tastes have changed over the 400-plus years since that play was written. We don’t want to be as blatant as William Shakespeare, but readers still like us to inject dramatic irony into our work as foreshadowing.

Imagine a movie involving a neighborhood planning committee’s meeting about what to do with a plot of land. Should they let it be developed commercially or make it a playground? In itself, the topic would make a dull movie.

Dramatic irony is introduced in the opening scene when an ordinary-looking woman enters the empty conference room ahead of the meeting, wearing gloves. She kneels and places a backpack under the table, makes an adjustment to its contents, sets the timer to 14:25 (2:25 pm), and then exits the room.

With just that one scene taking less than two minutes, the audience’s nerves are on edge. Every second that the mindless bickering over technicalities and political correctness drags on ratchets up the tension.

A committee member gets up to get a glass of water. Another member steps out to make a phone call. Someone else gets agitated, pacing back and forth as they press their opinions.

With each of the committee members’ mundane movements, one leaving the table and another returning, the clock on the wall ticks toward 2:25.

You wonder, “Will this person be the one to escape the massacre?”

Dramatic irony as foreshadowing is the backpack lurking under the table.

Modern science fiction made good use of both dramatic irony and the trickster. In the 20th century science fiction novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury used irony to convey information.

Bradbury introduced “firemen,” not as those brave people who put out house fires. Instead, they are charged with starting fires and burning all books.

The naming of that job title was subtle, as Bradbury never resorted to explaining the irony. Even today, it packs a punch when you first read it.

Ray Bradbury employed “situational irony” to give his readers the information they needed. This was handled in a way that impacted the reader and promised more to come.

We can also use ironic humor to convey information the reader needs. Both the trickster as an archetypal character and the inclusion of dramatic irony adds depth to a story. The reader understands what is being conveyed but hasn’t been told what to think.

Readers like to think for themselves.

The Machine that Won the War, a short story by Isaac Asimov, is one long scene filled with dramatic irony that becomes humorous as the story progresses.

That story might be hard to find, but it first appeared in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was reprinted in the collections Nightfall and Other Stories (1969) and Robot Dreams (1986).

We will take a closer look at the role of the trickster in our next post.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1594 – 1595 PD|100.

Romeo and Juliet, by Ford Madox Brown, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Romeo and juliet brown.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Romeo_and_juliet_brown.jpg&oldid=531347482 (accessed March 8, 2021).

Cover of Nightfall and other Stories by Isaac Asimov, © 1969 Doubleday, cover art by Amelia S. Edwards. Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors, “Nightfall and Other Stories,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nightfall_and_Other_Stories&oldid=885885790 (accessed March 8, 2021).

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#FineArtFriday: View to a Clearing by Albert Bierstadt

Title: View to a Clearing by Albert Bierstadt

Medium: oil on paper mounted on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 14 in (35.5 cm); Width: 19 in (48.2 cm)

Inscriptions: Signature bottom left: ABierstadt

What I love about this painting:

I love the serenity of this scene, one of Bierstadt’s quieter paintings.  The muted colors, the rising mist, the filtered light, and the cattle grazing show us a hazy afternoon. It was perfect for a picnic, for mind-wandering, and a good day for painting.

Bierstadt is one of my favorite artists because he was often over the top, a little fantastic, and usually epic. He saw drama in nature and painted it, and like every good storyteller, his imagination filled in the blanks with with powerful imagery.

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Despite his popular success, Bierstadt was criticized by some contemporaries for the romanticism evident in his choices of subject and his use of light was felt to be excessive. Some critics objected to Bierstadt’s paintings of Native Americans on the grounds that Indians “marred” the “impression of solitary grandeur.”

Interest in Bierstadt’s work was renewed in the 1960s with the exhibition of his small oil studies.  Modern opinions of Bierstadt have been divided. Some critics have regarded his work as gaudy, oversized, extravagant champions of Manifest Destiny. Others have noted that his landscapes helped create support for the conservation movement and the establishment of Yellowstone National Park. Subsequent reassessment of his work has placed it in a favorable context, as stated in 1987:

The temptation (to criticize him) should be steadfastly resisted. Bierstadt’s theatrical art, fervent sociability, international outlook, and unquenchable personal energy reflected the epic expansion in every facet of western civilization during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Bierstadt was a prolific artist, having completed over 500 paintings during his lifetime.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Albert Bierstadt – View to a Clearing.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Albert_Bierstadt_-_View_to_a_Clearing.jpg&oldid=343092014 (accessed March 5, 2021).

Wikipedia contributors, “Albert Bierstadt,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Albert_Bierstadt&oldid=1009967730 (accessed March 5, 2021).

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Three books ruined by sins of repetition #amwriting

Last week I read three books, which is about my usual average. When I read, I like to see how other authors construct different aspects of their novels.

Two of the books I read were recent publications, both highly recommended by numerous reader-reviewers at the Big Bookstore in the Sky. The first one was a 2018 mystery published by Thomas & Mercer. This Amazon company publishes mysteries and thrillers, and the novel was written by a well-known British author.

The second book was published in 2020 by Tor Books and was a fantasy novel by a high-profile American author.

The final book I read was published by Doubleday and written in the 1980s by another well-known British author.

I’m not going to name these books or their authors because while they were good enough books, I wish to focus on the negatives I found in the diverse works I read.

Before I do that, I must say that I did enjoy the books, but in my view, they were three-star books, average and acceptable. The flaws I’m going to discuss didn’t detract from the overall story arcs. The main characters, for the most part, were engaging. I just didn’t like them enough to review them on my blog because I only review books I think are worth four or more stars.

I say the characters were engaging for the most part. Book Number One’s title proclaims it to be “an absolutely gripping whodunit full of twists.” No, that is not a tagline or review quote. The publisher has the gall to put that in the book’s title, something no indie would ever get away with.

If nothing else, it’s a shining example of what not to put in your book’s title.

Despite the glowing title, I was disappointed, but it did offer me an education on what I don’t want to do in my own work. This is actually a “2.75 star” book, in my opinion. It only gets three stars because of rounding up to the next higher number.

It began well. The protagonist was given to making snarky comments, which I thought livened things up. I would have connected with her if not for one fatal flaw. She was made less engaging by the author’s continual reference to her size and amazing sexual desirability.

The protagonist is a caterer who solves mysteries. She is continuously described as Junoesque, ample, vast, chubby, size eighteen, fat, large…and on and on. In every chapter, at least once and usually twice, we are given a visual description of her, along with indications of how she affects the males around her.

These mentions were meant to emphasize the author’s perception of her protagonist as plump but irresistible to the males. However, as the book wore on, it became jarring and unnecessary. Those distractions made it difficult to remain engaged in the book. For me, lesson one was that I had a visual picture of the caterer in the first chapter, and one or two mentions further on down the road would have been fine.

The overall arc of the mystery was good and carried the story enough to keep me reading. However, I will probably avoid buying any more books written by that author.

Book Number Two, the Fantasy book, had a 2020 publishing date. It had a good story arc, but it was clearly a novella that had been stretched to novel length. Of the three, this book had the most engaging protagonist.

Unfortunately, the way the author and publisher stretched this book’s length was to have the main character recap previous events whenever a new character entered the story. I should have expected it because an earlier book in the series had the same flaw.

Book Number Three was a police procedural, written and published in the 1980s, and was the best one of the lot. The one flaw was the continual reference to the protagonist’s pipe. Every scene involved fumbling with the tobacco, the ashes, etc. It was a distraction that jarred me out of the book.

Books One and Three bring up the question: when we are trying to convey our protagonists’ personalities, how do we go about it? Frankly, we walk the knife’s edge, balanced between too much and not enough.

Protagonist A is a larger woman, and she has sex appeal. After the first three references, we knew that.

Protagonist C is a sharp, personable detective with a dirty habit. After the first three references, we knew that.

In books One and Three, I felt that the authors did their protagonists a disservice by pointing out these character traits too often, from the external omniscient God-like view. Once I can visualize how the other characters see the protagonist, I want to see what the protagonist sees from that point on.

Reading those two books, I realized that an occasional observation of the main character from another character’s POV would have been a better way to show how the other characters saw them.

I would think this especially works if there is a blossoming love interest.

Book Number Two raised a different specter: padding the narrative with repetition to stretch the book.

What would you rather be known for writing? Would you want to be known as having written a brilliant novella or an average novel? Book Number Two could have been a brilliant novella had the padding been removed in the editing process.

These flaws, harping on character traits and fluff-dumping, are “sins of repetition.”  In all three of these books, the bulk of the story was told from the close third-person point of view which worked well.

This week, I am working on characterization in my own work. I am in the revision stage and strengthening how my protagonists are represented and shown.

In my current writing, I hope to portray my protagonists as I see them without bashing my readers with their magnificence.

We authors can see our characters so clearly. We love them and can wax poetic about specific characteristics each person has. The great difficulty is to convey those traits naturally and in such a way that the reader isn’t beaten over the head with them.

At 70,000 words, my current novel may be a little short when compared to other fantasy novels. Fantasy tends to be longer than some different genres, but I refuse to introduce padding to get the word count I want. 70,000 words is novel-length.

So, no one new will die, and no dramatic elements will be introduced just to fluff up the book-length.

If the finished product is a little short for a fantasy novel, that’s fine. If I can get my characters clearly drawn and balanced within that length, I will have achieved my goal.

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Revisions part 5: Near-Homophones or Cursed Words #amwriting

One thing that I notice when reading is the improper use of near-homophones, or words that sound closely alike, are spelled differently, and have different meanings. When we read widely, we’re more likely to notice the difference between words like accept and except when they are written.

The different meanings of seldom-used sound-alike words become blurred among people who have little time to read, and little encouragement. Wrong usages become part of everyday speech.

For this reason, new and beginning writers are often unaware they habitually misuse common words until they begin to see the differences in written words.

Let’s look at two of the most commonly confused words, accept and except. People, even those with some higher education, frequently mix these two words up in their casual conversation.

Accept (definition) to take or receive (something offered); receive with approval or favor.

  • to accept a present.
  • to accept a proposal.

Except (definition) not including, other than, leave out, exclude.

  • present company excepted.
  • with the exclusion of.

We accept that our employees work every day except Sunday.

English, being a mash-up language, has a long list of what I think of as cursed words to watch for in our writing.

Farther vs. Further: (Grammar Tips from a Thirty-Eight-Year-Old with an English Degree | The New Yorker by Reuven Perlman, posted February 25, 2021:

Farther describes literal distance; further describes abstract distance. Let’s look at some examples:

  • I’ve tried the whole “new city” thing, each time moving farther away from my hometown, but I can’t move away from . . . myself (if that makes sense?).

  • How is it possible that I’m further from accomplishing my goals now than I was five years ago? Maybe it’s time to change goals? [1]

When we use these words, we want to ensure we are using them correctly.

Ensure: make certain something happens

Insure:  arrange for compensation in the event of damage to (or loss of) property, or injury to (or the death of) someone, in exchange for regular advance payments to a company or government agency.

Assure: tell someone something positively or confidently to dispel any doubts they may have.

What follows is a looooooooong list of cursed words to double-check the meanings of.

If you need to use one of these words in your work, I suggest you look them up in the online dictionary to be sure your words say what you think they do.

For the moment, ignore the grandiose words and learn how to use all your words correctly. The majority are good words and using them correctly when they’re the only word that works is not pretentious.

However, if you pepper your narrative with obscure words, your readers might put the book down out of frustration, so go lightly. Still, it never hurts to know the meaning and uses of words.

178 Homophone and near-homophone comparisons and other often misused words:

  • abhorrent vs. aberrant
  • accept vs. except
  • ado vs. adieu
  • adopt vs. adapt
  • adverse vs. averse
  • affect vs. effect
  • afflict vs. inflict
  • aggravate vs. irritate
  • allude vs. elude
  • allusion vs. illusion vs. delusion
  • alternate vs. alternative
  • ambiguous vs. ambivalent
  • amicable vs. amiable
  • amoral vs. immoral
  • amuse vs. bemuse
  • anecdote vs. antidote
  • appraise vs. apprise
  • ascent vs. assent
  • assume vs. presume
  • assure vs. ensure vs. insure
  • aural vs. oral vs. verbal
  • aver vs. avow
  • bare vs. bear
  • bazaar vs. bizarre
  • breach vs. breech
  • bridal vs. bridle
  • broach vs. brooch
  • callus vs. callous
  • capital vs. capitol
  • censor vs. censure
  • chord vs. cord
  • cite vs. site vs. sight
  • climactic vs. climatic
  • complement vs. compliment
  • compose vs. comprise
  • concurrent vs. consecutive
  • confident vs. confidant(e)
  • connotation vs. denotation
  • connote vs. denote
  • conscious vs. conscience
  • contemptible vs. contemptuous
  • continual vs. continuous
  • correlation vs. corollary
  • council vs. counsel
  • decent vs. descent vs. dissent
  • definitely vs. definitively
  • demur vs. demure
  • desert vs. dessert
  • didactic vs. pedantic
  • disassemble vs. dissemble
  • discomfit vs. discomfort
  • discreet vs. discrete
  • disillusion vs. dissolution
  • disinterested vs. uninterested
  • disperse vs. disburse
  • dual vs. duel
  • economic vs. economical
  • elusive vs. illusive
  • emigrate vs. immigrate vs. migrate
  • eminent vs. imminent
  • eminent vs. imminent vs. immanent
  • empathy vs. sympathy
  • endemic vs. epidemic
  • entitle vs. title
  • entomology vs. etymology
  • envelop vs. envelope
  • envy vs. jealousy
  • epidemic vs. pandemic
  • epigram vs. epigraph
  • epitaph vs. epithet
  • especially vs. specially
  • exalt vs. exult
  • exercise vs. exorcise
  • expedient vs. expeditious
  • extant vs. extent
  • facetious vs. factious vs. fatuous
  • faint vs. feint
  • farther vs. further
  • faze vs. phase
  • ferment vs. foment
  • fictional vs. fictitious vs. fictive
  • figuratively vs. literally
  • flair vs. flare
  • flaunt vs. flout
  • flounder vs. founder
  • formerly vs. formally
  • formidable vs. formative
  • fortunate vs. fortuitous
  • gambit vs. gamut
  • gibe vs. jibe
  • gig vs. jig
  • gorilla vs. guerrilla
  • grisly vs. gristly vs. grizzly
  • hale vs. hail
  • healthful vs. healthy
  • hero vs. protagonist
  • historic vs. historical
  • hoard vs. horde
  • homonym vs. homophone vs. homograph
  • hone vs. home
  • imply vs. infer
  • incredible vs. incredulous
  • indeterminate vs. indeterminable
  • indict vs. indite
  • inflammable vs. inflammatory
  • ingenious vs. ingenuous
  • insidious vs. invidious
  • instant vs. instance
  • intense vs. intensive vs. intent
  • introvert vs. extrovert
  • irony vs. satire vs. sarcasm
  • it’s vs. its
  • laudable vs. laudatory
  • lay vs. lie
  • loath vs. loathe
  • lose vs. loose
  • luxuriant vs. luxurious
  • marital vs. martial
  • mean vs. median vs. average
  • medal vs. meddle vs. mettle
  • metaphor vs. simile
  • moral vs. morale
  • morbid vs. moribund
  • nauseated vs. nauseous
  • naval vs. navel
  • objective vs. subjective
  • optimistic vs. pessimistic
  • overdue vs. overdo
  • palate vs. palette vs. pallet
  • paradox vs. oxymoron
  • parameter vs. perimeter
  • parody vs. parity
  • peak vs. peek vs. pique
  • peddle vs. pedal vs. petal
  • persecute vs. prosecute
  • personal vs. personnel
  • pitiable vs. pitiful vs. piteous vs. pitiless
  • pore vs. pour
  • practical vs. practicable
  • pragmatic vs. dogmatic
  • precede vs. proceed
  • precedent vs. president
  • predominate vs. predominant
  • premier vs. premiere
  • prescribe vs. proscribe
  • pretentious vs. portentous
  • principal vs. principle
  • prophecy vs. prophesy
  • prostate vs. prostrate
  • quote vs. quotation
  • rebut vs. refute
  • regrettably vs. regretfully
  • reluctant vs. reticent
  • respectfully vs. respectively
  • sac vs. sack
  • scrimp vs. skimp
  • sensual vs. sensuous
  • simple vs. simplistic
  • slight vs. sleight
  • stationary vs. stationery
  • statue vs. statute
  • than vs. then
  • that vs. which
  • their vs. there vs. they’re
  • tortuous vs. torturous
  • troop vs. troupe
  • turbid vs. turgid
  • unconscionable vs. unconscious
  • undo vs. undue
  • unexceptional vs. unexceptionable
  • venal vs. venial
  • veracious vs. voracious
  • wave vs. waive
  • weather vs. whether
  • who vs. whom
  • who’s vs. whose
  • wreck vs. wreak vs. reek
  • your vs. you’re

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Farther vs. Further: (Grammar Tips from a Thirty-Eight-Year-Old with an English Degree | The New Yorker by Reuven Perlman, posted February 25, 2021 (accessed 28 Feb 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Collegiate Dictionary.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Collegiate_Dictionary.jpg&oldid=497770186 (accessed February 28, 2021).

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Revisions part 4: the Beta Read, #amwriting

There comes a point in every manuscript where we have done all the revising and self-editing we can do. You may think that after one round of revisions you’re done.

I suggest you don’t rush to publish just yet. If you are smart, the external eye comes into play before you get to the final round of revisions.

It’s best if you can afford an editor. However, as I said last week in my post, Revisions part 2: Efficient self-editing, there are ways to make a decent stab at self-editing.

Regardless, you should consider having your manuscript looked at by a trusted member of your writing group or consider paying for what is known as a beta read. Beta reads by professionals are far more affordable than professional editing. A good beta read will point out the areas in a so-so story where it bogs down or gets confusing.

An unfortunate truth is that some indie published works are clear examples of work by authors who don’t realize the importance of working with an external eye. Those who have had assistance from readers in their writing group are more likely to turn out an enjoyable novel.

What is quite disappointing to me is the many traditionally published works that seem to fall into the same lack-of-good-editing category. I’m at a loss as to why this is so.

So, what is the difference between a beta reader and an editor?

Beta Reading is done by a reader. One hopes the reader is a person who reads and enjoys novels in that genre. Strict attention is paid to the overall story arc.

Beta reading is meant to give the author a general view of its overall strengths and weaknesses. The beta reader must ask himself:

  1. Were the characters likable and did the reader empathize with them? If not, why not?
  2. Where did the plot bog down and get boring? They should note the places where they wanted to skip forward.
  3. Were there any confusing places? These places should also be noted.
  4. What did the reader like? What did they dislike?
  5. Did the ending satisfy them?

Beta Reading is not editing. Editing is a stage of the writing process. A writer and editor work together to improve a draft by correcting grammar errors and making words and sentences clearer and more effective. Weak sentences are made stronger, nonessential information is weeded out, and important points are clarified.

Sometimes, major structural issues will emerge in an edit that must be addressed. If your work was read by a conscientious and kind reader, you will have addressed those areas first.

Editing is expensive because it is complex and time-consuming.

Therefore, whether you choose to self-edit or hire an editor, you should consider having your work beta-read after your first round of revisions. That way, you will be aware of the larger areas of concern and can address them first. The second round of revisions will go more smoothly.

No one writes flawless work without going through some sort of editing and revising process. Even with all that effort, when I get to the proofing stage, my sister, a retired educator, finds errors in my work.

I’m fortunate to have a good writing group and am friends with fellow authors who will beta read for me before I send a manuscript to my editor for line editing. I do the same for them.

Don’t ask a fellow member of a professional writers’ forum to read your work unless you want honest advice.

They will be kind, but they will point out areas that need work. And something for you to remember is that even if they don’t “get” your work, they spent their precious time reading it, taking time from their own writing.

Choose your readers carefully. Sometimes, no matter how close your friendship is, some people are not cut out to be beta readers. Perhaps they are not cut out to be readers at all.

Some people are like one of my aunts was. She found fault with everything, was proud that she shot from the hip, and her blunt comments took no prisoners. I got on with her only because I never asked her opinion of anything.

Be warned! If you offer your work to a person like Aunt Jo, don’t be surprised if she eviscerates you as well as your work.

If you have offered your work to a reader and then discovered they had nothing good to say, don’t feel guilty for not asking them to read for you again.

As difficult as it is to experience, negative feedback is a necessary part of growth. This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional.

Never be less than gracious to a person who reads and critiques your work when you communicate with them.  Remember, they have taken time out of their life to read your work, and you did ask for their opinion.

Sit back and cool down. Consider the areas they find problematic and find ways to revise and work out those problems. You might find that your second round of revisions goes quickly because you have targeted and resolved the larger areas of concern.

Above all, keep the finished goal in mind and keep writing.

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