Subjunctives: The Hamlet Paradox #amwriting

Writers often find the words and rules we use to describe existence convoluted and hard to understand.

The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts.

In other words, subjunctives describe unknown intangible possibilities.

William Shakespeare said it best in his tragedy, Hamlet: “To be or not to be… that is the question.”

Should he exist, or should he not exist—for the deeply depressed Dane, suicide or not suicide is the question. In his soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates death and suicide. He regrets the pain and unfairness of life but ultimately acknowledges that the alternative might be worse.

Be–a simple word, a verb that is a subjunctive. But sometimes the many forms of this word are overused in the narrative. The whole subjunctive thing looks quite complicated on the surface, but it doesn’t have to be. As writers of genre fiction, we have to identify the habitual overuse of subjunctives in our writing.

We must make our prose stronger by not using them except where nothing else will do. Most of the time, dialogue is the place for subjunctives, as in Hamlet’s monologue.

In writing fiction, subjunctives work well when used in conversations but create a passive voice when used in the narrative. They separate us from the story, remove the sense of immediacy that we as readers hope to experience.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean? defines “Subjunctive” as:


  1. (in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

  2. the subjunctive mood or mode.

  3. a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider existence and what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were,’ which are forms of the verb ‘be.’

English Club says: The English subjunctive is a special, relatively rare verb form that expresses something desired or imagined.

We use the subjunctive mainly when talking about events that are not certain to happen. For example, we use the subjunctive when talking about events that somebody:

  • wants to happen

  • anticipates will happen

  • imagines happening [1]

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I am only wishing that I were a penguin, were is correct.

However, if I could actually be a penguin, was would be correct, and I would have to rewrite my sentence by changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.” [2]

There are times when we use a form of the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened or may not happen at all:  the past subjunctive verb form. It is unreal and may remain that way. “If I were.”

When you suppose about something that might be true, you use a form of the verb “was” and don’t sweat it.

If it’s likely real: Was (possibly is): I heard he was training his dog to fetch.

If it’s likely unreal: Were (possibly isn’t): If I were a penguin, I wouldn’t need to rent a tuxedo.

The past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition that may exist in a present, past, or future time:

  • What if I was…
  • I wish I were…
  • If this be treason…
  • To be or not to be…

Perhaps you are writing a technical manual, a dissertation, or an email to a client or coworker.

Despite the misguided efforts of many critique groups and Microsoft Word to erase all forms of ‘to be’ from the English language and replace it with ‘is,’ there are times when only a subjunctive will do the job.

When your intent is formal, subjunctives may abound, often in the form of commonly used phrases:

  • Be that as it may.
  • So be it.
  • Suffice it to say.
  • Come what may.

Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor whose discussions on the connections between language and what we see as humanity are eye-opening. He writes at a college level, but in his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he raises a point that is important to this blogpost:

Subjunctives are hard to spot. Forms of “to be” can be found in subordinate clauses where something is mandated or required:

  • I demand the prisoner be fed the same as anyone else.

A verb like “see” also has a subjunctive form when something is mandated or required:

  • It’s essential that I see your report before you send it.

In ordinary writing, we rarely need to use subjunctives in clauses with mandates except perhaps in conversation.

Feel free to copy and save the above graphic for your personal use: right click>copy>save as: .jpeg or.png.

We often “think aloud” in writing the first draft. We insert many passive phrasings into the raw narrative, words that I think of as traffic signals. These words are a shorthand that helped us get the story down, a guide that now shows us how we intend the story to go.

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence, but just like adverbs, they are telling words. In the rewrite, we look for these telling words, places where they have crept out of conversations and into the narrative.

We look at each instance and rewrite the paragraph to show the event, rather than tell about it.

  • They were hot and thirsty could be shown as: They trudged on with dry, cracked lips, yearning for a drop of water.

That’s not a perfect example, but hopefully, you can see what I am trying to say.

Credits and Attributions:

EnglishClub contributors, Subjunctives © 1997-2021 All Rights Reserved [1]

Subjunctive Verbs, by Mignon Fogarty,, Copyright © 2021 Macmillan Holdings, LLC. Quick & Dirty Tips™ [2]

“File:Penguin Front.png.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 12 Sep 2020, 08:35 UTC. 6 Feb 2021, 17:14 <>.


Filed under writing

#FineArtFriday: While reading the newspaper by H. A. Brendekilde 1912

Artist: H. A. Brendekilde  (1857–1942)

Title: While reading the newspaper news

Date: 1912

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 61 cm (24 in); Width: 85 cm (33.4 in)

Inscriptions: Signature and date bottom right: H. A. Brendekilde / 1912

What I love about this painting:

There is a story in this well-executed painting. I particularly like the details: the patched trousers of the gardener, the mud on his clogs, the other man’s wooden leg— I like the way they are juxtaposed against the lush spring garden and prosperous village life of Denmark in 1912.

Their hands and clothes indicate they have stopped work to read the newspaper. Both men seem stunned. Are they perhaps reading of the death of King Frederick VIII, who died on 14 May 1912?

Whatever they are reading, the cat remains undisturbed by the news.

H. A. Brendekilde was a forerunner of the social realist style, embraced by Diego Rivera. His early work often depicted the daily lives of the rural working class.

Credits and Attributions

While reading the newspaper  by H. A. Brendekilde 1912 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Mens du læser avisen nyheder (1912).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, (accessed February 5, 2021).

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

Genre and Tropes #amwriting

When we first begin writing, we know what genre of book we usually like to read, and our work will probably fall into that category.

So, what exactly are genres? Author Lee French puts it this way, “Literary genres are each a collection of tropes that create expectations about the media you consume.”

Genres are categories the publishing industry developed so that shoppers in bookstores can easily find what they are looking for. They’re like a display of apples at the grocery store – many baskets, each filled with a different variety of apple. I always head straight to the Cosmic Crisps.

On the display of each overarching genre, such as sci-fi, romance, mystery, etc., are baskets. Each contains a subgenre. Each subgenre is a different variety of that particular genre and features tropes that readers expect to see as fundamental aspects of the story.

But what are tropes?

Wikipedia defines literary tropes this way: The word trope has come to be used for describing commonly recurring literary and rhetorical devices motifs or clichés in creative works. [1]

Let’s look at the big display of sci-fi. On those shelves are many subgenres, so many that I don’t have the time or patience to list them all here.

Each subgenre includes tropes that are not usually found in other sci-fi subgenres. However, some features are common to the overarching genre, which is why they fall in the sci-fi category.

For instance, describes the subgenre of CyberPunk this way: Fiction relating to the science of cybernetics, which views nature as a series of interconnecting mechanical systems. Specifically, cyberpunk deals with the link between biology and computer technology, and explores humanity’s changing relationship with computer systems. Virtual reality, prosthetics, cyborgs and internet fraud are all part of the cyberpunk niche, and usually go hand-in-hand with social decline. [2]

For more of their article on the many different subgenres of sci-fi and the expected tropes therein, go to A Guide to Science Fiction Subgenres (

What about other genres? Fantasy is another set of shelves full of subgenres. Just as in sci-fi, each has a particular set of tropes their readers expect to see.

Let’s look at the subgenre of Portal Fantasy.

Nicola Alter at Thoughts on Fantasy has this to say about Portal Fantasy: A fantasy where characters travel from the real world into a fictional fantasy world, often through a portal or gateway. They are usually swept up in the problems and politics of the fantasy world and become important to the course of history there, then return to the real world greatly changed by their experience.

Typical Elements: Magical portals, magical objects, evil kings or queens, problematic family relationships in the real world, time discrepancy between the two worlds. [3]

For more of what Nicola has to say about the tropes unique to the many subgenres of fantasy, go to 17 Common Fantasy Sub-Genres | Thoughts on Fantasy.

Sometimes, we hear the comment that “certain tropes are overused.” This blanket statement is incorrect because a literary trope is a fundamental aspect of subgenre.

Therefore, one can’t say a trope is overused.

However, readers can and do eventually become bored with the books available in their favorite genres and no longer find those tropes attractive. Maybe you’re tired of Epic Fantasy’s central trope, tired of the Hero’s Journey.

In that case, it’s time to widen your reading horizons and move on to a different subgenre. Maybe you’d like a space opera.

I hear a wailing on the wind, the pathetic cries of the ghosts of bad books past. “But what if I don’t like it?”

No one says you have to finish a book you hate just because a friend said they loved it. If you’re tired of the commonalities in the books you are reading, be bold.

If you don’t try reading outside your favorite genre, you’ll never know what you are missing.

It’s like trying to get a child to eat guacamole for the first time. It’s a green paste and different looking. They don’t want to try it. But once they do taste it, they may love it. Then, keeping them out of the guacamole bowl will be a challenge.

Go out and research the many different tropes that make up the subgenres of each of the main literary genres. I have written several portal fantasies, but I also write medieval fantasy and Arthurian fantasy (two different subgenres).

If you want to know what reader to market your novel to, you need to know what the tropes are that you have written into your work. Each subgenre has a niche of avid readers, so make sure you understand what you have written.

Readers of vampire romances won’t like a story with no happy ending, so if that is what you write, you’d better have both vampires AND a traditional Romance ending.

The genre of Romance always ends with a happily ever after.

For me as a reader, if a novel is character-driven and the plot is believable, I don’t really notice the tropes. If I like a book, the labels don’t matter.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Trope (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed 02 February, 2021).

[2] Quote from A Guide to Science Fiction Subgenres (, ©2021 ScifiIdeas contributors,, accessed 02 February 2021.

[3] Quote from  17 Common Fantasy Sub-Genres | Thoughts on Fantasy, © 2015/2021Nicola Alter,, accessed 02 February 2021.

“File:Cosmic Crisp.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 24 Oct 2020, 15:25 UTC. 3 Feb 2021, 13:08 <>.


Filed under writing

#BookReview: A Cold and Quiet Place by @AlisonDeLuca #amreading

I read many books, and while most novels have some redeeming qualities, a few stand out as stellar. A Cold and Quiet Place by Alison DeLuca is one of those.

While I no longer have the time to put out a weekly book review blog, I do still review the books I love, and when I come across one that is worth sharing, I will gladly share it here.

Everyone who was ever a teenager knows the years between childhood and adulthood are fraught with danger, as the social skills we form either help or handicap us, and the traumas we suffer haunt us forever after.

The novel opens with a girl on the edge of adulthood and takes us through a powerful coming-of-age story.

But first, THE BLURB:

A Cold and Quiet Place by Alison DeLuca

Publisher : Myrddin Publishing Group (December 27, 2020)

Publication date : December 27, 2020

Language : English

Print length : 183 pages

The deepest scars can be invisible. Lily’s swimming career is jeopardized when she dates Tyler, her attractive teammate. At first he seems like the perfect boyfriend. But Tyler’s insults and demands increase, and Lily has to decide if her relationship is worth the emotional torture. Between Tyler, the pressure of competition, and an anonymous online bully, Lily risks losing everything she has fought for as a 15-year old swimmer. A Cold and Quiet Place is a YA novel about competitive swimming and the dark world of emotional abuse.


This book is an emotional rollercoaster, powerful and deeply moving. DeLuca’s prose is lean and evocative, and her narrative transitions smoothly from scene to scene. The story is so compelling I was halfway through the book before I knew it.

This is a novel of achievement and despair. It details the chaotic mystery of Lily’s situation and the cold calculation of her abuser, laying bare the toxic high school relationships that are a terrible rite of passage many young people go through in their teen years.

High School in the US generally encompasses grades 9 through 12, and ages 14 to 18, with some variations depending on the school district.

When I began reading this novel, I knew nothing about competitive swimming other than as an Olympic level sport, one I watch every four years when the world meets to compete. I knew nothing of the athletes’ personal journey to get to that place.

Now, I see the humanity of each competitor, the person who has a life apart from their sport. Yet with each event, they challenge themselves to be better than their previous best.

Lilly’s story as an athlete and young woman is both heartbreaking and empowering. When I finished the last page, I felt as wrung as if I had lived that story, and in many ways, I had.

There is no blunting of the trauma, no dancing around the issues. DeLuca takes us into Lily’s world and tells a gripping story that has to be read to the last page. This is a powerful story of a girl growing into womanhood.

I give A Cold and Quiet Place by Alison DeLuca 5 stars.

Comments Off on #BookReview: A Cold and Quiet Place by @AlisonDeLuca #amreading

Filed under Book Reviews, writing

#FineArtFriday: Bringing down marble from the quarries to Carrara, Sargent 1911

Artist: John Singer Sargent  (1856–1925)

Title: Bringing down marble from the quarries to Carrara

Date: 1911

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 71.4 cm (28.1 in); Width: 91.8 cm (36.1 in)

Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Inscriptions: Signature bottom left: John S. Sargent

What I love about this painting:

This picture details the relentless heat of the day, the back-breaking labor of men cutting marble. This is how quarrying was done prior to World War I, with steam-donkeys and great physical peril. The ropes are huge and heavy, and these men secure the dangerous load with practiced ease.

Carrara Italy is an important center for the extraction and processing of marble. The famous stone is white and exceedingly valuable.

One of Sargent’s great skills was the ability to convey the sensory impressions of an environment, depicting his characters outdoors in all the seasons.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

John Singer Sargent, January 12, 1856 – April 14, 1925) was an American expatriate artist, considered the “leading portrait painter of his generation” for his evocations of Edwardian-era luxury. He created roughly 900 oil paintings and more than 2,000 watercolors, as well as countless sketches and charcoal drawings. His oeuvre documents worldwide travel, from Venice to the Tyrol, Corfu, the Middle East, Montana, Maine, and Florida.

Born in Florence to American parents, he was trained in Paris before moving to London, living most of his life in Europe. He enjoyed international acclaim as a portrait painter. An early submission to the Paris Salon in the 1880s, his Portrait of Madame X, was intended to consolidate his position as a society painter in Paris, but instead resulted in scandal. During the next year following the scandal, Sargent departed for England where he continued a successful career as a portrait artist.

From the beginning, Sargent’s work is characterized by remarkable technical facility, particularly in his ability to draw with a brush, which in later years inspired admiration as well as criticism for a supposed superficiality. His commissioned works were consistent with the grand manner of portraiture, while his informal studies and landscape paintings displayed a familiarity with Impressionism. In later life Sargent expressed ambivalence about the restrictions of formal portrait work, and devoted much of his energy to mural painting and working en plein air. Art historians generally ignored artists who painted Royalty and “Society” – such as Sargent – until the late 20th century.

Credits and Attributions

John Singer Sargent, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Carrara.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16, 2021, 12:36 utc. 29 Jan 2021, 03:23 <//>.

“File:John Singer Sargent – Bringing Down Marble from the Quarries to Carrara (1911).jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 15 Jun 2019, 13:13 UTC. 29 Jan 2021, 03:24 <>.

Comments Off on #FineArtFriday: Bringing down marble from the quarries to Carrara, Sargent 1911

Filed under #FineArtFriday

Conveying Mood part 2: adverbs #amwriting

Today is the second installment of a series on modifiers, words we use to describe nouns and verbs. I’m on a quest to find ways to use fewer of them and make the most of the ones I do use.

In the previous post, I  mentioned going to an online thesaurus and looking up your overall mood word. This is where you will find synonyms for your mood words and also the opposites.

In the root form, adverbs are adjectives, words that modify nouns. Add the suffix ‘ly’ to them, and they become words that modify verbs.

Adverbs tend to be fluffy. Most readers don’t like fluffy prose. I suggest you don’t muck up your modifiers by adding ‘ly’ at the end of them unless it is the only thing that works.

With that said, my rule is don’t write clumsy prose just to avoid using ‘ly.’

In the first draft, modifiers are brain-storming words. They show us what we intended to convey when we first wrote the narrative.

For that reason, they are essential parts of English and can’t be completely discarded as some deluded authors loudly swear they have done.

I suppose one could write a novel without using any modifiers whatsoever, but I wouldn’t want to read it. However, modifiers can weaken verbs by telling the story rather than showing it.

I don’t self-edit my first drafts as I write, so my prose is always a mess when I begin revisions.

This year’s NaNoWriMo novel was written with no outline, so it’s an example of my worst “thinking habits.” It is a sea of adverbs and adjectives, but these words are the roadmap that tells me what prose need reshaping to show the story.

At the time, I was imagining the scenes and plotting as I wrote. When I look back, the early drafts for all my work are littered with adverbs.

When you imagine your adverbs as signals from your creative mind, you see them a guide leading you to the story you really wanted to write.

In the second draft, I want to inject impact into the opening paragraphs and all the sentences that follow right to the grand finale. But I also want them to show what I envision.

That requires rewording the sentences to make them active. Look at your sentence structure.

Sentence structure matters.

Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are modifying affects how a reader perceives it. Noun-verb is a strong lead in. Nouns work best when one strong, well-chosen adjective shows us what the point-of-view characters sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes, rather than fluffing the verbs and hindering the action.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

The example sentence contains four nouns, one modifier (an adjective), and three verbs. The sentence is structured this way: noun-verb (sunlight glared) adjective-noun (cold fire), verb-adjective-noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes).

Verb followed by noun shows us what the noun did. Verb-adjective-noun shows us how the noun looked (smelled, tasted, or felt) during the action.

To search for unnecessary adverbs, look for ‘ly’ words in MS Word:

1: Click replace in the upper right corner of the Home tab.

2: Type ly into the “Find What” box.

3: Leave the “Replace With” box blank.

4: Look at each instance individually and decide to keep the ly or delete it. Many words, such as early or easily, have ly as their suffix, so look at each instance and decide if it stays or goes.

5: Once you have decided, click find next and repeat the process.

The above instructions are for MS Word, but Google Docs and Open Office both have some kind of search and replace function. Go to the internet and find the instructions!

In the first draft, the important thing is to get the idea down without self-editing. For this reason, we don’t publish our first drafts.

If you are like me in your first drafts, cleaning up and strengthening the prose could take a while, especially in a large manuscript. However, it is part of the revision process and is well worth the time you put into it.

The English language has evolved over the last century. The word very has become a ‘fluff word’ that sticks out when we see it written too freely in a narrative. It has a purpose but is easy to overuse. In that case, it adds nothing of value to the prose, so editors will suggest you remove it to make your sentences stronger.

Below is a list of modifiers, words that paint an image of the world our characters inhabit. Some will change the voice from active to passive, so be wary of how you use them.

When you do use a modifier, be creative. Sometimes, using an unexpected adjective lends life to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Nouns like a well-placed modifier, but most of the time, verbs are stronger when they work alone.

313 Modifiers for Nouns

  • Abnormal
  • Absentminded
  • Accidental
  • Adventurous
  • Afterward
  • Almost
  • Always
  • Annual
  • Anxious
  • Arrogant
  • Awkward
  • Bashful
  • Beautiful
  • Bitter
  • Bleak
  • Blind
  • Blissful
  • Boastful
  • Bold
  • Brave
  • Brief
  • Bright
  • Brisk
  • Broad
  • Busy
  • Calm
  • Careful
  • Careless
  • Cautious
  • Certain
  • Cheerful
  • Clear
  • Clever
  • Close
  • Coaxing
  • Colorful
  • Common
  • Continual
  • Cool
  • Correct
  • Courageous
  • Cross
  • Cruel
  • Curious
  • Dainty
  • Dear
  • Deceiving
  • Deep
  • Defiant
  • Deliberate
  • Delightful
  • Diligent
  • Dim
  • Doubtful
  • Dreamy
  • Easy
  • Elegant
  • Energetic
  • Enormous
  • Enthusiastic
  • Equal
  • Especial
  • Even
  • Even
  • Eventual
  • Exact
  • Excited
  • Extreme
  • Fair
  • Faithful
  • Famous
  • Far
  • Fast
  • Fatal
  • Ferocious
  • Fervent
  • Fierce
  • Fond
  • Foolish
  • Fortunate
  • Frank
  • Frantic
  • Free
  • Frenetic
  • Frightful
  • Full
  • Furious
  • General
  • Generous
  • Gentle
  • Glad
  • Gleeful
  • Graceful
  • Grateful
  • Great
  • Greedy
  • Happy
  • Hasty
  • Healthy
  • Heavy
  • Helpful
  • Helpless
  • High
  • Honest
  • Hopeless
  • Hungry
  • Immediate
  • Innocent
  • Inquisitive
  • Instant
  • Intense
  • Intent
  • Interesting
  • Inward
  • Irritable
  • Jagged
  • Jealous
  • Jovial
  • Joyful
  • Joyous
  • Jubilant
  • Judgmental
  • Just
  • Keen
  • Kidding
  • Kind
  • Kindhearted
  • Knavish
  • Knowing
  • Knowledgeable
  • Kooky
  • Lazy
  • Less
  • Light
  • Like
  • Limp
  • Live
  • Lofty
  • Longing
  • Loose
  • Loud
  • Loving
  • Loyal
  • Mad
  • Majestic
  • Meaningful
  • Mechanical
  • Merry
  • Miserable
  • Mocking
  • Month
  • More
  • Mortal
  • Most
  • Mysterious
  • Natural
  • Near
  • Neat
  • Nervous
  • Never
  • Nice
  • Noisy
  • Not
  • Obedient
  • Obnoxious
  • Odd
  • Offensive
  • Official
  • Often
  • Open
  • Optimistic
  • Overconfident
  • Painful
  • Partial
  • Patient
  • Perfect
  • Physical
  • Playful
  • Polite
  • Poor
  • Positive
  • Potential
  • Powerful
  • Prompt
  • Proper
  • Punctual
  • Quaint
  • Queasy
  • Queer
  • Questionable
  • Quick
  • Quicker
  • Quiet
  • Quirky
  • Quizzical
  • Random
  • Rapid
  • Rare
  • Ready
  • Real
  • Reassuring
  • Reckless
  • Regular
  • Reluctant
  • Repeated
  • Reproachful
  • Restful
  • Righteous
  • Rightful
  • Rigid
  • Rough
  • Rude
  • Safe
  • Scarce
  • Scary
  • Searching
  • Sedate
  • Seldom
  • Selfish
  • Separate
  • Serious
  • Shaky
  • Sharp
  • Sheepish
  • Shrill
  • Shy
  • Silent
  • Sleepy
  • Slow
  • Smooth
  • Soft
  • Solemn
  • Solid
  • Sometimes
  • Soon
  • Speedy
  • Stealthy
  • Stern
  • Strict
  • Successful
  • Sudden
  • Supposed
  • Surprising
  • Suspicious
  • Sweet
  • Swift
  • Sympathetic
  • Tender
  • Tense
  • Terrible
  • Thankful
  • Thorough
  • Thoughtful
  • Tight
  • Tomorrow
  • Too
  • Tremendous
  • Triumphant
  • True
  • Truthful
  • Ultimate
  • Unabashed
  • Unaccountable
  • Unbearable
  • Unethical
  • Unexpected
  • Unfortunate
  • Unimpressive
  • Unnatural
  • Unnecessary
  • Upbeat
  • Upright
  • Upside-down
  • Upward
  • Urgent
  • Useful
  • Useless
  • Usual
  • Utter
  • Vacant
  • Vague
  • Vain
  • Valiant
  • Vast
  • Verbal
  • Very
  • Vicious
  • Victorious
  • Violent
  • Vivacious
  • Voluntary
  • Warm
  • Weak
  • Weary
  • Well
  • Wet
  • Whole
  • Wild
  • Willful
  • Wise
  • Woeful
  • Wonderful
  • Worried
  • Wrong
  • Yawning
  • Year
  • Yearning
  • Yesterday
  • Yielding
  • Youthful
  • Zealous
  • Zest
  • Zestful

Previous in this series:

Conveying Mood Part 1: Adjectives

Short Story part 1: word choice

The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere 

Theme part 1

Theme part 2


Filed under writing

Conveying Mood part 1: adjectives #amwriting

This week we are continuing our exploration of words. I’m on a quest to find ways to use fewer of them and make the most of the ones I do use.

I’ve said many times that words are the colors we use to show entire worlds. Today, I’m exploring the many ways we use words for better impact.

I like to find my information easily, so I make a new file for every story I write. Once I know what the mood for the story I intend to write is, I go out and look for the mood words I want to have on hand. I list them in a document that I will save in that file with a proper file name, such as: mood_words_Rainbows_End.

This takes very little time, and I have a supply of mood descriptors to draw on to build my world without having to stop and look things up. Having this list helps me avoid crutch-words.

Because I am currently writing several pieces with a Gothic mood, my example word last week was ominous. It is an adjective that conveys the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen.

But first, what is an adjective? For those of us who can’t remember what we ate for dinner last night, much less what we learned in grade school, adjectives are words or phrases that modify a noun, which is a person, place, or thing. They add to (or grammatically relate to) a noun and act to modify or describe it.

We don’t want to get crazy with adjectives, because they’re like salt–too much and you’ve ruined your food.

However, they are a fundamental part of English grammar, and while we can be sparing with them, we can’t eliminate them because (again) they are like salt: some are essential.

I use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. But if you don’t own a good thesaurus, the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus is your best friend.

You will find many words, some of which are obscure.

Do yourself a favor and choose words that are fairly common, ones most readers with an average education won’t have to stop and look up.

Synonyms for ominous I can use: baleful, dire, direful, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words to subtly reinforce the mood: black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray/grey, lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber/sombre, sullen, sunless, threatening, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonyms for ominous, opposites I can use to provide contrast, so my mood is made more explicit: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous. [1]

Toward the end of my work, I will want things to feel hopeful. So, I have researched the word auspicious the same way as I did ominous.

Definition of auspicious: having qualities that inspire hope or pointing toward a happy outcome.

Synonyms for auspicious: bright, encouraging, fair, golden, heartening, hopeful, likely, optimistic, promising, propitious, rose-colored, roseate, rosy, upbeat.

Words related to auspicious:

cheering, comforting, reassuring, soothing, assured, confident, decisive, doubtless, positive, sure, unhesitating, favorable, good.

Antonyms for auspicious: bleak, dark, depressing, desperate, discouraging, disheartening, dismal, downbeat, dreary, gloomy, hopeless, inauspicious, pessimistic, unencouraging, unlikely, unpromising.

Near Antonyms for auspicious: cheerless, comfortless, doubtful, dubious, uncertain, grim, negative, unfavorable, funereal, glum, gray/grey, miserable, wretched. [2]

If you are writing any kind of genre work, the best way to deploy your descriptors is to find the word that conveys the atmosphere you want with the most force.

Sentence structure matters. Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are modifying affects a reader’s perception. They work best when showing us what the point-of-view characters sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

In the above sentence, the essential parts are structured this way: noun-verb (sunlight glared) adjective-noun (cold fire), verb-adjective-noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes).

The scene could be shown in a multitude of ways, but a paragraph’s worth of world-building is pared down to 19 words, three of which are action words (verbs).

In my next post, we will go deeper into the uses and abuses of modifiers.

Credits and Attributions:

[1] “Ominous.” Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.

[2] “Auspicious.” Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.


Filed under writing

#FineArtFriday: The Art of Joos van Craesbeeck revisited

Joos van Craesbeeck (c. 1605/06 – c. 1660) was an interesting character, one who stood out among the many interesting characters of the seventeenth century Flemish art community. He was a baker and an artist, a friend and contemporary of  Adriaen Brouwer. They most likely met while Brouwer was jailed in the citadel of Antwerp, although why he was imprisoned is unknown. But the bakery in the Antwerp citadel was operated at that time by Joos van Craesbeeck.

Van Craesbeeck was fascinated with the portrayal of violence and the senses of taste and smell. He painted the dissolute side of life, shocking in its intensity and honesty. Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, is an excellent example of his almost brutish depiction of peasants brawling. Blood flows, one man lies dead, and in the lower right hand corner, Death smiles, pleased with that night’s work.

He often painted himself, as is seen in The Smoker, a self-portrait that was at one time attributed to Adriaen Brouwer, depicting the senses of smell and taste. He shows himself clutching both a bottle of hard liquor and a pipe, as if they are the dearest things to him. He exhales a stream of smoke, savoring it.

He also painted his own self-portrait as the central nightmare from which other nightmares spawn in the Temptation of St. Anthony. Note the way his mouth is full of little demons entering and leaving, and his head is open to reveal an artist painting beneath wild dark hair in which geese nest. St. Anthony himself is small, placed to the right, almost unnoticed in the onslaught of demons and temptations, both physical and moral. A cacophony of violence and evil rages as Anthony clings to the scriptures. This is a revealing portrait of how the artist viewed himself and the demons he battled, in my opinion.

The work of Joos van Craesbeeck is not comforting or warm. It is always allegorical, showing us something we don’t like about the world we live in. Violence and vice were as much a part of life in his time as they are today, and perhaps will always be.

Quote from Wikipedia: Van Craesbeeck painted at least five portraits which are presumed to be self-portraits and in which he depicts himself in a ‘dissolute’ manner. The dissolute self-portrait was a genre that had taken root in Dutch and Flemish genre painting in the 17th century. It was an inversion of the Renaissance ideal of the ‘pictor doctus’: the artist as an intellectual and gentleman. This ideal was replaced by the new model of the prodigal artist who is characterized by his creative inspiration and talents. These self-portraits emphasized the artists’ dissolute nature by creating associations with traditional moral themes such as the Five Senses and the Prodigal Son in the tavern. Van Craesbeeck painted himself four times in low-life guises depicting the sense of Taste.

Credits and Attributions:

The Art of Joos van Craesbeeck first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy 20 July 2018.

Wikipedia contributors, “Joos van Craesbeeck,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed July 20, 2018).

Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, painting by Joos van Craesbeeck, ca. 1630 – 1635 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Smoker, Joos van Craesbeeck ca.1635 – 1636 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Temptation of St Anthony, Joos van Craesbeeck ca. 1650 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Comments Off on #FineArtFriday: The Art of Joos van Craesbeeck revisited

Filed under #FineArtFriday

The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere #amwriting

When I begin writing a short story, I want my first paragraphs to surprise an editor in a good way, to make them suspend their disbelief long enough to finish reading the story.

Especially in a short story, we must use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, a mood that will hint at what is to come. Atmosphere is the part of a world created by your inclusion of colors, scents, and ambient sounds. The words you choose determine how the visuals are shown.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. So, in a short story those first paragraphs must give the reader a sense of familiarity even though it’s a place they’ve never been.

We give the reader something they can understand without being bluntly told.

Do you want to convey a sense of danger? Imagine a woodland pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it. When a storm rolls in, things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, reflecting the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Use the colors of the sky, the chill of the wet earth. Allow the scent of rotten leaves to linger in the air.

In the previous installment of this series, we talked about how important word choice is when attempting to communicate a feeling of action.

This is also true when you want to show the atmosphere of a setting. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere. This will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

“Weighted words” are those with strong descriptive power. Choose words that are intense and bold in their own right. This is crucial when writing a short story because you have a word count limit to consider.

Lighter words, such as those that begin with softer consonants, will create an atmosphere that feels gentler.

We have mentioned this before: while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to an individual’s internal feelings and emotions as often as it does the piece’s overall atmosphere. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

The characteristics we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference. We offer the reader a word-picture that is hinted at and suggested rather than bluntly stated. Writers give the reader something to infer, something they can interpret.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to use inference so that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, a reader can effortlessly understand what the author was attempting to convey.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Think about the word” Gothic.” Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it, even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me. The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment. We know it will include some supernatural elements.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the story’s emotional experience specific. It is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

For me, as an author, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood. The right mood can help you articulate specific emotions.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood.

In a short story, you have only the first few paragraphs to set the scene and establish the mood. If you can do it in one sentence, even better.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

And so, to wind this up, setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined. Getting those three aspects right and establishing them at the outset means making good word choices. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

To do that, go to the thesaurus and look up synonyms and antonyms for your mood word. Are you writing a dark story? Is the mood ominous?

Synonyms & Antonyms of ominous

Definition: being or showing a sign of evil or calamity to come.

Synonyms: baleful, dire, direful, doomy, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words:

black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray (also grey), lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber (or sombre), sullen, sunless, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonym for ominous: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

Short Story part 1 word choice

Credits and Attributions:

“Ominous.” Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.


Filed under writing

The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2


Filed under writing