Random Thoughts on Writing #amwriting

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t review books I don’t like. So, without naming names, let’s talk about why some books are not on my review list.

WritingCraft_lazyWritersPassive phrasing: If you watch them in real life, people don’t “begin” to pick up that knife. They don’t “start” to walk away.

They reach for the knife. They take the knife from the drawer.

They walk away.

We’re thinking and writing the story as it falls from our heads. Because we get into storytelling mode, the dog begins to bark, and the neighbors start to complain. In real life, the dog barks, and the neighbors complain.

When you write with a passive voice, it’s easy to use too many quantifiers, such as “it was really big” or “it was incredibly awesome.” It becomes easy to “tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bob was mad.”

Then there is the opposite extreme, showing far too much.

Some authors have been told their prose is passive and are desperate to avoid that. But they have a lot of detail they want to convey, so they resort to clumsy lead-ins and awkward descriptions. This only announces that a lengthy exposition is forthcoming. 

Please, don’t use a phrase like: “She felt her eyes roll over her host’s attire” and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host in microscopic detail. That unfortunately phrased sentence is one of the less obnoxious lines from a book I was unable to finish reading several years back. It stuck with me because the paragraph that followed it was so awful.

Nothing gives me the creeps more than a 250-word description of eyeballs independently rolling up and down and all over a purple velvet suit of dubious origin. I could see what the author was trying to say, but the host’s suit was the least of the travesties in that train wreck: most people’s eyeballs do not leap from their head and roll over anything.

Instead, they could have written the entire 250-word encounter this way: Vincent wore a suit of purple velvet, threadbare, and looking as if it came from his grandfather’s closet.

It’s a struggle sometimes, but we must try to slip descriptions into the narrative in less obvious ways.

Some authors swamp the reader with minute details: “Marge’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple. Hate glared from her eyes.”

Some authors ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words.

Others may want to show their characters as human, so they have them natter on about nothing: “Remember when….” If the memory doesn’t pertain to the story or explain something about a character that has been a mystery, it doesn’t advance the plot. Rather than showing them as human, it pads the word count, stalls the momentum, and the reader stops reading.

ClicheDefinitionBingLIRF06282021Use of clichés. Speaking as a reader, please don’t use the word alabaster to describe a woman’s skin. Make an effort to find a different way to describe her appearance. It’s an easy word that says smooth and pale, but it’s an overused word that has become cliché.

As a matter of reference, it’s not usually necessary to describe a character’s skin other than with broad generalizations because you want the reader to imagine them for themselves, and we all have different ideas of beauty.

Clichés and catchphrases will appear in the first drafts of our work, but they are signposts for the second draft. They tell us to spend some time finding a creative way to show a person or event.

Events that occur for no reason and take the story nowhere: I loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books written by the late Douglas Adams.

The books detail the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman traveling the galaxy in his pajamas. He and his friend are transported off the earth just in time to miss the destruction of the planet by the Vogons, a race of unpleasant and bureaucratic aliens, to make way for an intergalactic bypass.

Douglas Adams’ work is a little bit “out there,” but he understood that there must be a reason for the protagonist to leave his home wearing his pajamas and a robe. He used that opportunity to show the cozy, comfortable environment Arthur was about to be thrust out of.

Adams understood he first had to show Arthur in his happy home, and then his protagonist had to be quickly yanked out there and placed on that Vogon Constructor Ship.

For me as an author, the easiest part of writing is inadvertently slipping some clumsy bit of phrasing into my narrative, having an action scene go hilariously (and impossibly) wrong. I don’t usually notice the awkwardness until my editor points it out.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingAs a reader, things will pull me out of the narrative, and I will probably stop reading at that point. Most of these issues are the result of lazy writing habits.

Research: Using real science requires research, which is time-consuming. Writing true history, writing medical dramas, and using police and military procedures involves effort. You must glean research from more sources than Wikipedia and old CSI episodes.

If you are writing historical fiction, you must read many books on your subject. Make notes as you read each, noting the book title, the author, and the page number where you found the info—you may need to know those things later. It’s work, but this is a job where you can’t skimp.

If you are writing speculative fiction, you will accumulate science or other background information in your world-building process. You will want to keep it organized, and this is where the style sheet or storyboard comes in handy.

What the style sheet/storyboard should cover:

  • All names, created or not: Aeos, Aeolyn, Beryl, Carl, Edwin, etc.
  • Real and created animal names: alligator, stinkbear, thunder-cow, waterdemon
  • Created words that are hyphenated: fire-mage, thunder-cow
  • All place names, real or created: Seattle, Chicago, Ragat, Wister, Sevya, Arlen, Neveyah
  • Any research note you have accumulated.

See my post, Designing the story for more on how to make a storyboard or style sheet.

good_stories_LIRFmemeKeep your notes/stylesheet in a clearly labeled file, and back them up on a thumb drive or file them in the cloud via Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Docs. I use and work out of a file-saving service, so my files won’t be lost no matter what happens to my computer.

Turning those notes into your story is an integral part of the writing process.

Plagiarism – this is most important: never copy lines from another person’s work and pass them off as your own. That is plagiarism, and you never want to be accused of that. If you must quote someone verbatim in your book, contact their publisher and get their legal permission to do so, and credit them by using proper footnotes. If you do not receive written consent, do not use their work.

Keep this written permission on file with any other legal papers that pertain to that book.

An excellent article on this can be found here: Cite Unseen: 3 Bits for a Better Bibliography

 

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Designing the story #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo month. If you are interested, join Camp NaNoWriMo to take on any writing project, novel or not, and set a word-count goal of your own. Yes, any goal, any project.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemI think of stories as if they were ponds filled with words. A pond has layers, and so do good stories. I see the three layers of a story as:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. We change the look of the surface layer by choosing either realism or surrealism or a blend of the two.

Realism is a common form of storytelling. It is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of story. The setting can be anywhere and told using the tropes of any genre. The reality of that world is solid and never changes.

Surrealism takes the feeling of a real world and gives it a slightly hallucinogenic twist. Everything feels real, but on the surface, it makes no sense. One must find understanding in each small increment rather than the larger chunks we are used to absorbing.

Beneath the story’s surface lies the middle: This is the area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: events and reactions. We see why these characters’ lives are important enough to be portrayed and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters. It is a layer where inference and implication come into play.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Voice/style
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only. The same is true for a novel.

If you want to write anything, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting a novel, but if you don’t get the original ideas and entire story down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

Many people say they intend to write a book. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

I draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points, destinations where each section of the story will end. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts. Acts two and three are really one long extension of each other.

short-story-arcAct 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

Act 4: Resolution: Let’s end this misery in a way that feels good.

Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

PostItNotePadI have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

If it’s an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the important characters by name and list the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

On page two of the workbook, I create a page that outlines the projected story arc chapter by chapter.

Page three of the workbook is most important—it is the list of made-up words, names, and places. The way they appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I plow along, laying down prose.

Update the glossary page anytime a name is added or changed, or new place or made-up word is added.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central piece that keeps the events happening in a logical way.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

screenshotStyleSheetLIRF06262021We never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters you need to devote to that section.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

Creating a project for Camp NaNoWriMo is a good way to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.


Credits and Attributions:

DangApricot (Erik Breedon), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, ‘File:PostItNotePad.JPG’, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, 26 August 2020, 17:42 UTC, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:PostItNotePad.JPG&oldid=443715836> [accessed 26 June 2021]

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#FineArtFriday: Saint George and the Dragon by Paolo Uccello

paolo_uccello_stgeorge_and_dragonArtist:  Paolo Uccello (1397–1475)

Title: Saint George and the Dragon

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 57 cm (22.4 in); Width: 73 cm (28.7 in)

The above painting by Paolo Uccello, from around 1470, is a surreal, stylized retelling of the legend of Saint George and the Dragon. The legend tells of the knight slaying a dragon that demanded human sacrifices. With the slaying of the dragon, the hero has saved the princess who was chosen to be the next offering.

Nothing looks real except the dragon which is nightmare come to life. I love the hyper-heroic way Uccello portrayed horses. The people are pallid, with no personality to their features. The dragon and the horse are alive, as if the scene is about them only. All the passion of the moment converges in the dragon and the horse.

Done in oil on canvas, the painting was one of the last of Uccello’s creations.

According to Wikipedia, the Fount of All Knowledge: The narrative (of Saint George) has pre-Christian origins (Jason and MedeaPerseus and AndromedaTyphon, etc.), and is recorded in various saints’ lives prior to its attribution to St George specifically. It was particularly attributed to Saint Theodore Tiro in the 9th and 10th centuries, and was first transferred to Saint George in the 11th century. The earliest narrative record of Saint George slaying a dragon is found in a Georgian text of the 11th century. [1]

About the Artist (via Wikipedia)

Born Paolo di Dono, his nickname, Uccello (of the birds), came from his fondness for painting birds. He worked in the Late Gothic tradition, emphasizing colour and pageantry rather than the classical realism that other artists were pioneering. His style is best described as idiosyncratic (eccentric or unique), and he left no school of followers.

With his precise and analytical mind, Paolo Uccello tried to apply a scientific method to depict objects in three-dimensional space. In particular, some of his studies of the perspective foreshortening of the torus are preserved, and one standard display of drawing skill was his depiction of the mazzocchio.

In the words of G. C. Argan: “Paolo’s rigour is similar to the rigour of Cubists in the early 20th century, whose images were more true when they were less true to life. Paolo constructs space through perspective, and historic event through the structure of space; if the resulting image is unnatural and unrealistic, so much the worse for nature and history.”

The perspective in his paintings has influenced many famous painters, such as Piero della FrancescaAlbrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci, to name a few. [2]


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Paolo Uccello 047.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Paolo_Uccello_047.jpg&oldid=308602797  (accessed January 18, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Saint George,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Saint_George&oldid=1029544183 (accessed June 23, 2021). [1]

Wikipedia contributors, “Paolo Uccello,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Paolo_Uccello&oldid=873078862  (accessed January 18, 2019). [2]

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Fundamentals of Writing: delivering the backstory #amwriting

Every story has a past, a present, and hopefully, a future. The past is what forms what we see as the here-and-now and shapes the characters. Because they have a history, they are fully developed the moment they step onto the first page.

bloatedExpositionLIRF06202021New writers know the backstory is important. They sometimes feel it’s necessary to inform the reader by placing a wall of history at the novel’s beginning. It seems like logical thinking: “Before you can understand this, you need to know this.”

Don’t drop the history in the first five pages. Those are the pages that acquisition editors look at and decide whether or not to continue reading the submission. For those of us planning to go the indie route, those first five pages are what the prospective buyer sees in the “look inside” option when buying an eBook.

While the backstory is necessary for character and plot building, too much outright “telling” halts the momentum, freezes the real-time story in its tracks.

And most importantly, beginnings must be active. The first lines must step onto the stage in such a way that they are original, informative, and engaging.

The passages that follow must reflect and build upon the tone and cadence of the opening pages.

Walls of fictional history muck up the transitions and negate your hooks. They block the doors from one scene to the next.

So how do the professionals deliver the backstory and still sell books? First, they consider what must be accomplished in each scene and allow the backstory to inform the reader only when and if needed to advance the plot.

Look at the first scene of your manuscript. Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

Dialogue is the easiest way to dole out information, and it is also a great way to fall into an info dump.

strange thoughtsDon’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue or internal monologues. We don’t want our conversations to deteriorate into bloated exposition.

We’re all familiar with the term ‘flatlined’ as a medical expression indicating the patient has died. When the story arc is imbalanced, it can flatline in two ways:

  • The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.
  • The pauses become halts, long passages of random info dumps that have little to do with the action.

A good way to avoid a flatlined story arc is through character interaction. Your characters briefly discuss what is on their minds and bravely muck on to the next event.

Short moments of introspection offer opportunities for doling out new information essential to the story. If you go on for too long, your reader will either skip forward or close the book.

These moments open a window for the reader to see who the characters think they are. Their introspection shows how they really react and illuminates their fears and strengths.

It shows that our characters are self-aware.

Timing and pacing are essential. The moment to mention information in passing is when the character needs to know it in order to go forward. That way, you avoid the dreaded info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the needed backstory.

In the most gripping narratives I have read, character introspection is brief. Internal monologues are featured but are kept minimal, addressing only what is essential. They serve to illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in time.

So, conversation and introspection are where we only deliver information not previously discussed. Repetition is boring and pads the word count with fluff.

Consider the most popular genre: Romance novels. These things fly off the shelves. Why?

Because the path to love is never straightforward. It speeds up (a small reward), and then it is slowed (dangling the carrot). Then, it goes a little ahead (slightly larger reward) but is slowed (enticement) until finally, the two overcome the circumstances and things that have barred the way to their true happiness.

Romance novels average 50,000 to 70,000 words. In shorter novels, there is no room for backstory. Instead, information and backstory are meted out only as needed through conversations and internal dialogue/introspection.

All obstacles to the budding romance are followed by small rewards that keep the reader involved and make them determined to see the happy ending even more.

As a reader, I can say that a longwinded rant is not a reward.

This holds true in every book and story, no matter the genre: enticement, reward, enticement, reward. In all stories, complications create tension, and information is a reward.

The combination of those elements keeps the reader reading.

Right now, I am working on whittling info dumps out of my current manuscript. It’s difficult to see them in my own work, but one trick I have found is this: word count.

strange thoughts 2I look at each conversation and assess how many words are devoted to each character’s statement and response. Then, when I come to a passage that is inching toward a monologue, I ask what can be cut that won’t affect the flow of the story or gut the logic of the plot?

Even with all the effort I apply to it, my editor will find places to shave off the unnecessary length.

Sometimes we write brilliantly, other times not so much. Sorting the diamonds from the fluff is hard, but your readers will be glad you made the effort.

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Fundamentals of Writing: Power Words #amwriting

When we put the first words of a story on paper, the images and events we imagine as we write have the power to move us. Because we see each scene fully formed in our minds, we are under the illusion that what we have written conveys to a reader the same power that moved us. Once we’ve written “the end” it requires no further effort, right?

I don’t know about your work, but usually, at that stage my manuscript reads like a laundry list.  

usingpowerwordsLIRF06192021The trick is to understand that, while the first draft has many passages that shine, more of what we have written is only promising. The first draft contains the seeds of what we believe we have written. Like a sculptor, we must work to shave away the detritus and reveal the truth of the narrative.

One way we do this is by injecting subtly descriptive prose into our narrative. Properly deployed, power words can be subtle and serve as descriptors, yet don’t tell the reader what to feel.

Think of them like falling leaves in autumn. On their own, they weigh nothing, feel like nothing. Put those leaves in a pile, and they have weight. When we incorporate subtle descriptors into the narrative, they come together to convey a sense of depth.

These are words that convey an emotional barrage in a succinct packet.

Let’s consider a story where we want to convey a sense of danger, without saying “it was dangerous.” What we must do is find words that shade the atmosphere toward fear.

Power words can be found beginning with every letter of the alphabet. What are some “B” words that convey a hint of danger, but aren’t “telling” words?

Backlash

Blinded

Blood

Blunder

When you incorporate any of the above “B” words into your prose, you are posting a road sign for the reader, a notice that “ahead lies danger.” Mingle them with other power words, and you have an air of danger.

As authors, it is our job to convey a picture of events.

But words sometimes fail us.

oxford_synonym_antonymThe best resource you can have in your personal library is a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms. Your word processing program may offer you some synonyms when you right click on a word. However, to develop a wide vocabulary of commonly understood words, you should try to find a book like the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms.

It’s important to keep your word choices recognizable, not too obscure. When a reader must stop and look up words too frequently, they will feel like you are talking over their head.

Even so, readers like it when you assume they are intelligent and aren’t afraid to use a variety of words. Yes, sometimes one must use technical terms, but I appreciate authors who assume the reader is new to the terminology and offer us a meaning.

Sprinkling your prose with obscure, technical, or pretentious words is not a good idea. As a reader, I find it frustrating to have to stop and look up big words too frequently.

Let’s look at the emotion of discontent. How can it affect the mood of a piece? What words can we incorporate to shape the mood of the narrative to reinforce a character’s growing dissatisfaction? A few words that most people know might be:

Aggression

Awkward

Corrupt

Denigrate

Disparage

Disgust

Irritate

Obnoxious

Pollute

Pompous

Pretentious

Revile

How we incorporate words of all varieties into our prose is up to each of us. We all sound different when we speak aloud, and the same is true for our writing voice. We can tell the story using any mode we choose but the first line of any piece must let the reader know what they are in for.

I meant to run away today.

If that were the opening line of a short story, I would continue reading. Two words, run away, hit hard in this context, feeling a little shocking as an opener. The protagonist is the narrator and is speaking directly to us, which is a bold choice. Right away, you hope you are in for something out of the ordinary.

That line shows intention, implies a situation that is unbearable, and offers us a hint of the personality of the narrator. Who are they, and what is so unbearable?

Here are lines from a different type of story, one told from a third person point of view:

The battered chair creaked as Aengus sat back. “So, what’s your plan then? Are we going to walk up to his front door and say, ‘Hello. We’re here to kill you’?”

This is a conversation, but it shows intention, environment, and personality. Battered is a power word, and so is creaked.

And here is one final scene, one told from a close third person point of view and showing yet another way to incorporate subtle power words into the prose:

Sera saw the vine-covered ruins of Barlow as an allegory of her past. A part of her past had been burned away. She’d been destroyed but was coming back to life in ways she’d never foreseen.

The power words are: ruins, burned away, destroyed. The stories we write come from deep within us. Words sometimes fail us and we lean too heavily on one word that says what we mean. This is hard for us to spot in our own work, but if you set it aside, you may notice repetitious prose.

A friend of mine uses word clouds to show her crutch words. In a word cloud, the larger the word, the more often it appears in the text. Since I am notoriously short on words, let’s see how this post looks as a word cloud.

It came out surprisingly colorful!

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021

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#FineArtFriday: The Spirit of War by Jasper Francis Cropsey 1851

The spirit of war

Title: The Spirit of War by Jasper Francis Cropsey  (1823–1900)

Genre: landscape

Date: 1851

Medium: painting

Dimensions: Height: 110.8 cm (43.6 in); Width: 171.6 cm (67.5 in)

Collection: National Gallery of Art

Place of creation: United States of America [1]

What I love about this painting:

The Spirit of War by Jasper Francis Cropsey is one of a two-part fantasy that Cropsey painted in 1851; the other is the Spirit of Peace. During Cropsey’s lifetime, these two paintings were his most celebrated, but now he is known more for his ethereal paintings depicting autumn scenes, several of which I have featured here.

This painting was inspired both by the aftermath of the Mexican-American War and the looming threat of the American Civil War. It shows the young artist’s love of Arthurian tales and demonstrates his ability to deliver a story. His signature luminism is still in its infancy here, yet one can see the seeds of what would become a mastery of light and illumination.

Cropsey contrasts light and shadow as if they were good and evil. He paints godlike mountains that reign over deep valleys and strongholds. In the foreground, a strong fortress represents prosperity, her richly attired knights riding out to do battle. In the distance, a citadel burns, the smoke of raging fires billowing toward the darkening sky.

This is a powerful painting, one that tells a story and shows an entire novel.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Jasper Francis Cropsey (February 18, 1823 – June 22, 1900) was an important American landscape artist of the Hudson River School.

Trained as an architect, he set up his own office in 1843. Cropsey studied watercolor and life drawing at the National Academy of Design under the instruction of Edward Maury and first exhibited there in 1844. A year later he was elected an associate member and turned exclusively to landscape painting; shortly after he was featured in an exhibition entitled “Italian Compositions”.

Cropsy traveled in Europe from 1847–1849, visiting England, France, Switzerland, and Italy. He was elected a full member of the Academy in 1851. Cropsey was a personal friend of Henry Tappan, the president of the University of Michigan from 1852 to 1863. At Tappan’s invitation, he traveled to Ann Arbor in 1855 and produced two paintings, one of the Detroit Observatory, and a landscape of the campus. He went abroad again in 1856, and resided seven years in London, sending his pictures to the Royal Academy and to the International exhibition of 1862.

Returning home, he opened a studio in New York and specialized in autumnal landscape paintings of the northeastern United States, often idealized and with vivid colors. Cropsey co-founded, with ten fellow artists, the American Society of Painters in Water Colors in 1866.

Cropsey’s interest in architecture continued throughout his life and was a strong influence in his painting, most evident in his precise arrangement and outline of forms. But Cropsey was best known for his lavish use of color and, as a first-generation member from the Hudson River School, painted autumn landscapes that startled viewers with their boldness and brilliance. As an artist, he believed landscapes were the highest art form and that nature was a direct manifestation of God. He also felt a patriotic affiliation with nature and saw his paintings as depicting the rugged and unspoiled qualities of America. [2]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The-spirit-of-war.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The-spirit-of-war.jpg&oldid=565046310 (accessed June 17, 2021).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Jasper Francis Cropsey,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jasper_Francis_Cropsey&oldid=1018920537 (accessed June 17, 2021).

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Review of The Slime Mold Murder by Ellen King Rice #amreading

I did receive an advance copy of The Slime Mold Murder. I usually decline to do advance reviews as my blogging and writing schedule means I just don’t have time to write a proper review anymore.

magicAlso, if you have been a reader of mine for a while, you know I rarely write reviews for books I don’t like, no matter how much I like the author because I hate hurting peoples’ feelings.

However, when I was approached about drawing the map that is featured in the front, what I was told about the book intrigued me. I had read and loved other work by this author, most especially Larry’s Post-Rapture Pet Sitting Service.

But first, The Blurb for The Slime Mold Murder :

A Winner of the 2020 IPPY Gold Medal for best regional fiction, Ellen King Rice is back with a fourth biological adventure set in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, this time exploring the fascinating world of the Myxogastria slime molds.

At nineteen, Dylan’s brilliant mind is an asset as he struggles with severe ADHD and deteriorating living conditions. He’s one semester away from completing his college degree in ecology, but he’s out of cash, out of soap, and about to be evicted.

A post-pandemic opportunity to survey a rural property sounds like a lifeline. The owner of a creepy faux-chateau is ready to pay a handsome wage for a list of species found on the property. Dylan can’t believe his good luck. He’s about to be paid to wander in the woods. Sure, there’s some bookkeeping, but how hard can it be to make a plant list?

The neighborhood, however, has other residents, including a metal sculpture artist, nudists, two homeless men, and a conservative county commissioner, each with their own definition of freedom and their own ways of interacting with the land.

When a body is found in the woods Dylan’s work opportunity is threatened. He needs to uncover the reason for the death, but Dylan’s lightning-fast mind is constantly undermined by his poor executive functioning. He can discourse eloquently on the significance of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but he can’t find his wallet. He longs to adopt an orphaned West Highland terrier, but he’s not sure he’d remember to feed a dog. He certainly can’t afford a bag of dog kibble, much less the repairs needed on his vintage Honda.

How can Dylan’s intuitive grasp of ecology and the complex life cycles of the Myxogastria help to expose a killer? And how does he protect his employer, his professor, his friends and a small, confused dog from those who eagerly embrace violence?


My Review:

51v0Z1IolxSDylan Kushner is a 19-year-old genius coping with absentee parents, financial insecurity, looming homelessness, and worry about paying for his last semester of school. He also lives with ADHD and dysgraphia, which impairs his ability to translate his thoughts into handwritten words. Through his college classes, he is befriended by good people who give him the tools to be independent.

Mari is a fellow student, bumbling her way to adulthood. Alyson is the precocious twelve-year-old daughter of Wade Witecki. All the many characters in this mystery are engaging and either likable or unlikeable as they would be in real life. One even empathizes with the characters who fall into the gray area between good and evil.

I enjoyed how Rice framed opening chapters, introducing us to the players. She uses action and interaction to show the lengths some powerful people are willing to go to when their cherished beliefs are threatened. Once we have met everyone, it’s clear that a clash of epic proportions looms.

While the narrative is a little science-heavy at times, it moves along well, with the events occurring as they might in real life. Each character’s reactions and subsequent actions are logical, yet just when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.

The world Rice presents to us is solidly formed. I found it easy to be immersed in the dampness and subtle smells of the forest as the characters worked their way through the mystery. In the process, we see the general unpleasantness some people have a knack for, the kindnesses people are capable of, and the evil that lurks in the soul of others.

If you love learning about the natural world and also love a good mystery that is strong on science, the Slime Mold Murder is the book is for you.


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Ellen King Rice is a wildlife biologist who explores the woods while wearing leg braces. Her slow pace has provided opportunities to learn about the Northwest’s small and cryptic species. Her vivid adventures shine a spotlight on the richness found on the forest floor, augmented by crisp illustrations from Olympia artist, Duncan Sheffels. This award-winning pair have been charming woodland lovers since 2016.

You can find Ellen and her books at www.ellenkingrice.com

Please join her on Instagram at:

https://www.instagram.com/mushroom_thrillers.

And on Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/mushroomthriller/

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Submitting to Contests vs. Submitting to Magazines and Anthologies #amwriting

One question I frequently see in various writers’ forums, is “how can an indie get their name out there and gain fans for their work?”

WritingCraft_short-storyMy answer is simple. We write short stories and submit them to magazines, anthologies, and contests.

Every time your short work is published or places well in a contest, you stand the chance of getting your name out there and it’s nice to have a little extra cash in your pocket.

Despite the changes in the publishing industry as a whole, writing short stories is still the way to get your foot in the door and increase your visibility. Anthology calls from traditional large publishing houses and reputable small and mid-size publishers that are willing to pay for your work are sometimes open to new authors.

Also, magazines that are SFWA approved regularly post open calls for submission, so it pays to check each magazine and publisher’s website for opportunities.

Submitting to contests is good too.theRealStoryLIRF01102021 If you have a story that was a contest winner, you may be able to sell it to the right publication.

Writing for anthologies and contests have similar requirements. You must learn how to write to a specific length. Often, you must make use of a specific theme, one that may not be of your choosing.

So, what do editors of anthologies and magazines look for versus how contests are judged? Trust me, editors work hard, and more than anything, they love to read.

And all publisher and editors want to discover brilliant work written by new authors.

I have worked on both sides of the publishing industry. I know the frustrations of the author who waits to hear back regarding their submission, and I’ve seen the publisher’s inbox. I’ve read for many contests and edited several anthologies.

First, your work will receive a far closer inspection from a contest than from a publisher. Contests have readers who are either editors or authors, and who do their best to judge each entry on their merits. This means two people will have read the submission and each reader will have looked at the technical aspects of the piece as well as the overall story and characters.

Contest readers must judge:

  1. Plot: the sequence of events and the overall story arc.
  2. Setting: did the world building include a location, time, hints of the weather, and hints of the environment? Was the world solid to the reader?
  3. Viewpoint/narrative mode: how was the story told? Was the POV consistent or did it inadvertently drift, say between present tense to a few paragraphs in past tense, and then back to present. Was it consistently first-person, (or second, or third, or omniscient, etc.)?
  4. Characters: Were the characters believable, and did they have an arc?
  5. Did the dialogue, both spoken and internal, advance the story? Did each speaker have their own voice and style?
  6. Transitions and hooks: Did the opening lines hook the reader? Did the narrative move from scene to scene smoothly, without jarring the reader out of the story? Did each transition hook the reader, enticing them to keep reading?
  7. Showing versus telling: did the author understand how to show the action?
  8. Mechanics: Did the author have a good grasp of grammar, punctuation, and industry standards? Did they follow word count and length requirements, and obey formatting directions as listed in submission guidelines?

Editors for anthologies will look at each submission with the above guidelines in mind, but they will have two more caveats:

  1. Theme: did the author understand and incorporate the theme into their story?
  2. Appeal: did that story strike a chord, make them want to read more of that author’s work?

Contest readers/judges read every word in each submission and base their opinions on how well the first eight conditions were met.

Anthologies and magazines have a slightly different style of judging what they will accept.

The main difference between publishers of anthologies and those of magazines is the sheer volume of work that is submitted, and the number of people/editors available to read it.

51AvRGmiMQLAnthologies will close on a specific date, or after a certain number of submissions have been received.

The inbox of a large publisher fills up every day. Larger publishers may have a gatekeeper reading submissions, but most editors do their own work. For this reason, the editor will look at the first page of the story and based on what she sees there, she will decide whether to continue reading or reject it.

If all ten of the above criteria are clearly shown in the first paragraphs, the editor will read further. If the work continues to be engaging and professional, they will read it to the end.

At that point, criteria number ten is most important condition to be met—your story must have wowed the editor.

Once you have written a short story  with the intention of submitting it to a specific publisher or contest, you must edit it. Then you must format the manuscript to make it submission-ready, by reading and following the guidelines published on their website.

I’ve said this before, but it bears mentioning again: if you don’t follow your prospective contest or publisher’s submission guidelines, you have wasted your time submitting it.

AFF_MarApr2018_400x570These steps demonstrate your level of professionalism. Editors at magazines, contests, and publishing houses have no time to deal with unedited, poorly formatted manuscripts. Their inboxes are full of well-written and properly formatted work, so they will reject the amateurs without further consideration.

I hope knowing the requirements your work will be judged by will help you find good homes for your work.

If you have any doubts about the quality of your work, consider running it past your critique group to hear their opinions on characterization, story arc, and other features of your work.

It’s hard to hear a bad verdict, but sometimes you should completely rethink certain aspects of a piece before you submit it, and this is where the external eye can help you.

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#FineArtFriday: Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris by Frits Thaulow ca 1897

Frits_Thaulow_-_Boulevard_de_la_Madeleine_à_Paris_(1890s)Title: Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris by Frits Thaulow

Date: circa 1896-1897

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: Height: 88.2 cm (34.7 in); Width: 66.3 cm (26.1 in)

Collection: Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts

Inscriptions: Signature and date bottom right: Frits Thaulow (date is unclear)

What I like about this painting:

This is a street scene viewed from an angle we rarely see in paintings. The people and vehicles are small, insignificant in comparison with the size and grandeur of the buildings.

While Thaulow didn’t enjoy painting cityscapes, I think Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris is one of the best of that era.

The soot from the chimneys in the distance, the wet street, the muted, watery colors of a rainy spring day, and the God’s-eye view of the busy street—it all comes together to present a powerful statement.

About the Artist, Via Wikipedia:

Thaulow was one of the earliest artists to paint in Skagen in the north of Jutland, soon to become famous for its Skagen Painters. He arrived there in 1879 with his friend Christian Krohg, who persuaded him to spend the summer and autumn there. They arrived from Norway in Thaulow’s little boat. Thaulow, who had specialized in marine painting, turned to Skagen’s favourite subjects, the fishermen and the boats on the shore.

Thaulow moved to France in 1892, living there until his death in 1906. He soon discovered that the cityscapes of Paris did not suit him. His best paintings were made in small towns such as Montreuil-sur-Mer (1892–94), Dieppe and surrounding villages (1894–98), Quimperle in Brittany (1901) and Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne in the Corrèze département (1903). One of his most famous works once he moved to france was A village street in France. In Dieppe Thaulow and his wife Alexandra made themselves popular: they were friends with artist Charles Conder, and they met Aubrey Beardsley. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Frits Thaulow,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Frits_Thaulow&oldid=1026282924 (accessed June 10, 2021).

Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris, ca 1896-97 by  Frits Thaulow, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Frits Thaulow – Boulevard de la Madeleine à Paris (1890s).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Frits_Thaulow_-_Boulevard_de_la_Madeleine_%C3%A0_Paris_(1890s).jpg&oldid=566337323 (accessed June 10, 2021).

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Fundamentals of Writing: The Strong Antagonist #amwriting

I gravitate to narratives featuring a strong antagonist, someone who could have been a brilliant hero if only they had made different choices.

depth-of-characterAuthors work hard to create a strong, credible hero. In genre fiction, the hero’s story evolves in a setting of our devising and is defined by their struggle against an antagonist.

Strong emotions characterize what and who we perceive as good or evil. Emotion is a constant force in our lives. When we write, the emotions we show must be credible, shown as real, or they will fail to move the reader.

Consider the forces of antagonism in the story. The antagonist can take many forms. In some stories, it will be a person or people who stand in the way. In other stories, an internal conflict and self-deceptions thwart the hero. When you think about it, we are usually our own worst enemy, constantly telling ourselves negative things that undermine our self-confidence.

When we create an antagonist, we take what is negative about a character and take it one step further: we hide it behind a lie.

First, we assign them a noun that says who the antagonist thinks they are. Good.

Then we assign them the noun that says who the protagonist believes they are. Evil.

So, in an overly simplistic example, the antagonist gets two nouns: Good/Evil. We hide that perception of evil behind a lie, a falsehood. This lie is the antagonist’s belief that they are the hero.

One of my antagonists in a current work in progress is Kellan. He and his younger sister were born into an abusive family. When their parents were murdered, they were adopted by a family who raised them with kindness and understanding. At the age of ten, Kellan’s basic character and gut reactions were already formed.

protagonist-antagonist-06082021LIRFKellan is a complicated character who believes he is the hero. His story begins as a member of the protagonist’s inner circle and ends tragically.

The people who love him describe him this way: Ivan saw Kellan as two people. One lashed out at the people he trusted and loved most, was filled with jealous anger, and the other was sweet, gentle, and mesmerizing. Rage sometimes owned him, a flaw the earth-mage might never overcome.

Life is complicated, and the relationships in a good novel should also be complex. Often, a protagonist faces a second antagonist: themselves. In real life, who is usually our worst enemy?

We are.

It is us, our own fears, the little voice whispering doubt, indecision, and impulsiveness into our subconsciousness.

So, to further complicate life for our hero, we can go two routes when creating the antagonist. One way is to allow one of the characters to make choices that ultimately harm them, which is how I went with Kellan, turning him into the visible antagonist.

Another way is to take the negative that is directed outward and turn it into self-hate, which I have done with Ivan. He has two enemies to fight, one is someone he loves but must reject, and the other is himself.

nebulousIn other stories, there is the nebulous antagonist—the faceless giant of corporate greed, characterized by one or two representatives, who may be portrayed as caricatures. In some cyberpunk tales, the antagonists tend to be thugs-in-suits, and in hard sci-fi, they might be members of the military or scientists. In fantasy, the nebulous antagonist might be a powerful queen/king or sorcerer, or both.

In that case, how the protagonist reacts internally to the threat these formless antagonists pose is the story. Emotion makes the risk feel genuine to the reader, gives it life.

To show great evil in genre fiction, we take the negative to the limit of human experience. And while I do write some dark scenes, I don’t write horror, so I can’t speak to that, exactly.

What I can speak to is the perception of corruption, which sometimes horrifies us.

Perception and imagination are everything. As children, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark room after mother and father have turned out the lights can be terrifying.

We are frightened of the formless monster that we perceive as lurking in the corner until we discover the truth—it is only something that was piled there and was never put away.

As adults, what we infer from the visible evidence in a dark story can be equally terrifying. Thus, you can write dark scenes but don’t have to be utterly graphic.

War is an evil that is difficult to make sympathetic, and shouldn’t be. Sometimes a faceless blob of evil is the right villain.

However, I seek out stories that delve into the characters as people and show their motivations. Word choices are the key to success in showing the darkness a character embodies without going over the top. Think about the word perversion, a word with many meanings and uses. Its synonyms are: corruption, corruptness, debasement, debauchery, decadence, decadency, degeneracy, distortion.

Coloring an antagonist with a perception of perversion (distortion, corruption) drives home the evil they represent.

Someone—and I don’t remember who—said in a seminar a few years ago that the author is the character’s attorney, not their judge.

approval-f-scott-fitzgerald-quote-LIRF05312021This is an important distinction. Credible villains become evil for sympathetic reasons. They care intensely, obsessively about something, or someone. It is our job to make those deeply held justifications the driving force behind their story.

Therefore, a true villain is motivated, logical in their reasoning. They are creatures of emotion and have a backstory. You as the author and their lawyer, must know what that narrative is if you want to increase the risk for the protagonist. The reader doesn’t need to wade through an info dump, but you, the author, need to know those details.

You need to know why they feel justified in doing the sometimes-heinous things they do.

The greater the risk for the hero, the more interesting the story is. A strong protagonist requires a stronger antagonist if the risk is to be believable.

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