Tag Archives: #amwriting

Thoughts on the evolution of prose #amwriting

Our prose and the way we shape it is a fingerprint. It is our recognizable voice.

I follow the careers of several favorite writers, reading everything they publish. I have done so since finding their first novels in the sci-fi section at my local bookstore in my early twenties.

Their debut novels had a kind of shine that captivated me, despite not being technically well written. That spark of genius accompanied their earliest works and carried me, the reader, through the rough patches of their narratives. These authors had a passion for their stories and an innate ability to convey a world and create memorable characters with moving stories. That gift of fire more than made up for the less than stellar moments that sometimes were sprinkled into a piece.

Early 20th Century fantasy was written by people like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who were educated in classical literature at Oxford and Cambridge. Tolkien was a Professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, and Lewis was chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. They remained working in their chosen fields all through their lives, writing their greatest works while working as academics in the fields of literature and theology.

These two literary authors influenced my generation of genre fantasy writers, who emerged in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In their earliest published works, these (now not so young) authors of speculative fiction were allowed to write literary works filled with thought-provoking plots and characters, featuring strong social and political themes.

However, these authors were frequently journalism majors, instead of literature and fine arts. Their voices and writing styles reflected that journalistic influence, getting rid of the leisurely prose and replacing it with active, verb-centric prose.

And readers wanted that.

So, in spec fic, literary prose evolved away from using descriptors, to show an active style. Journalism shaped genre writing, moving it away from the sometimes passive, heavily descriptive prose of literary fiction and into the action-based prose that is popular now.

However, journalism met and collided with poetic literary writing, resulting in a writer like Patrick Rothfuss. This shows that literary influences continue to shape genre writing, and educated readers want good prose with their action.

Several authors who  first published in those early years of my reading life  turned those early works into popular, long-running series. By reading those books in the order they were published, one can see an evolution toward active prose.

Or in the case of one of my earliest influences, a stagnation. Beloved though her early works remain, I can’t read her work anymore.

I look at my own work and see evolution. Am I growing in the right direction?

I don’t know, but I’m having fun.

I love the ins and outs of the writing process, and I love literature in all its forms. I love the challenge of trying to wrangle my words in such a way that my readers will stick with me, and maybe an editor for a magazine will like something I have produced.

I don’t always succeed, but sometimes I do. Every modest success in finding a home for a short story keeps me writing, keeps me focused on the goal of “selling one more story” or “finishing just one more book.”

The reading public is fickle. Their taste evolves and changes as “new” and different styles of prose capture their imagination. Readers are heavily influenced by what their peers are reading.

Authors don’t always know how to evolve, and their work can become dated. We have to be agile to walk the line between our personal choice of prose style and what we can sell.

But the truth is, if the subject is just past the peak of popularity, it “has been done” and will be rejected. If the subject is too far ahead of the wave or too original, it may be deemed “too out there,” and brilliant prose won’t sell your work.

Readers may discover it after we’re dead, although success after death is a small consolation to look forward to.

I don’t sell as many short stories in an average year as some other members of my writing group do. I tend to write work that is a little bit “out there” and finding the right editor is a crap shoot.

But my writing friends’ successes give me hope and they encourage me to stay in the fight.

I will keep writing short pieces and submitting them and hope my work lands on the editor’s desk on the day he/she was in the mood for something different. With each short piece that is rejected, I get a little bit of feedback that helps me know where to send the next story.

Writing has been my passion and my life. Every day I wake up, glad to go to work. Writing this blog is a joy because here I can talk about the nuts and bolts of writing craft, a subject no one finds interesting unless they are writers.

I’m on a quest to obtain that elusive magic my favorite authors seem to have. In the process, I am reading a lot of great books, many old as well as new. I’m discovering just what works for me as a reader and what fails.

In the process, I’m dismantling some passages of their work, tearing it down sentence by sentence to see what makes it tick.

I hope you will stay with me on this journey. We may not always see eye-to-eye with our companions when it comes to what we consider good literature, but hearing differing viewpoints gives us a more rounded view.

In many ways, I do my “mind wandering” here, and I thank you for the feedback you give me.

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Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel Part 2 Word Choices #amwriting

No one writes perfect prose every time. Occasionally, even award-winning authors write an awkward description in the middle of an otherwise gripping passage. Consider this pearl, a quote from one of my favorite books dropped in the middle of an otherwise powerful, well-conceived battle scene:

A screaming black arrow knocks down yet another attacker. [1]

The narrative is written in an unusual mode, one this particular author, L.E. Modesitt Jr., uses in many of his books: Third person present tense. I have read this book several times, and there are several proofing errors, but that line in the final battle has always tripped my eye.

It’s a “first draft” telling line, a signal to the author indicating an intensity of emotion he wanted to convey in a ship-to-ship battle. I suspect he was in the zone and writing as quickly as he could. The many proofing errors in this book, much as I love it, told me that editors, even those working for a publishing giant like Tor, are fallible human beings. When an author is pushed to become a book producing machine, proofing and editing can suffer.

So how could we write a scene about a hazardous inanimate object and convey a sense of imminent danger without resorting to words that don’t quite fit? First, we must understand that these are the places where getting the prose right takes time, and sometimes, many attempts.

In a conversation, it’s easy to convey a sense of fear and peril. Danger seen through a character’s eyes is easily done—describe the shock and gut reactions and move on.

Danger described from an outside view (third person) is more difficult. In a fight or battle, sounds, visuals, and smells must be employed.

And this is where it gets tricky: for me as a reader, the best fight or battle scenes have both personal witness and third person narrative.

Hollywood has been quite good at portraying battle scenes with some degree of accuracy, although not always. In the movies, arrows arc, rain down and sometimes flash. They whiz past, and sometimes they appear in the victim’s back, seemingly out of nowhere. In the movies, they travel slowly.

But, in real life the arrow strikes the target nearly immediately after leaving the bow, even at a longer distance. An arrow is not as fast as a bullet, but they are fast.

My friend Michael, who is an archer, tells me that arrows, both ancient and modern, do make a sound, depending on how they are fletched (the feathers). The hissing sound as it passes the human ear varies from nearly inaudible to soft, depending on who fletched them and what style of fletching they used.

What you will hear is the snapping sound the bow makes when the archer lets the arrow fly, followed closely by the sound the arrow makes when striking a hard target. An arrow striking a soft target like a human or animal would make a sickening sound, but one that is not loud.

In my opinion, screaming is the wrong sound for arrows.

But it is an appropriate sound for the victim that was shot by the arrow.

There must be a certain amount of telling. What is the balance between telling and showing?

In describing, we must choose our words carefully. Examine the logic of your descriptions. How do we both show and tell in a balanced way?

In War and Peace, Tolstoy conveyed the feeling of each cannon ball hitting the ground and exploding, without resorting to clichés and awkward descriptors. Andrew Kaufman is the author of Understanding Tolstoy and Give War And Peace A Chance says:

“You see, hear, and feel everything in Tolstoy’s world: glistening sunrises, whining cannonballs, exhilarating troika races, glorious births, brutal deaths, and everything in between.” [2]

Good, immersive prose requires showing in such a way that the reader isn’t blown out of the scene. This means a small amount of telling is required. For that, we’ll go to Tolstoy’s War and Peace again. This quote, written in the same third person present tense as Modesitt’s quote, is an observation, a way of both telling and showing the reader what is goes on in the subconscious mind.

“When a man sees a dying animal, horror comes over him: that which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes — is ceasing to be.” [3]

In that one sentence, Tolstoy shows us that in Napoleon’s time, soldiers weren’t the only casualties of war. A cavalry is made up of soldiers on horses. This means that living animals went to battle and were killed too.

Tolstoy gives us the visceral experience of witnessing a horse’s death but allows us to contemplate what death means on a human level. He uses powerful words that evoke deep emotion: dying, horror, essence, annihilated.

Witnessing the death of a horse brings us closer to understanding how frail a soldier’s grasp on life is when in the midst of a battle.

Modern writers would cut the words obviously being, but despite having been written 160 years ago, the sentence has power.

Word choices are especially important in action adventures. Strong, powerful words can make or break a sentence. To revise properly, we must step back from the manuscript for several days or even weeks.

Then we come back to the manuscript and consider the visual logic of our descriptions.

We move verbs to the front of sentences, placing them before the nouns so that most sentences lead off with action words.

In the second draft, we eliminate the many insidious forms of was and to be. They’re insidious because they’re signals to the author, saying that something needs to be made active. But they can slide under the radar in the editing process and end up in the final product.

It takes work and perseverance, to find the words that correctly evoke the emotions we want to convey.

But that is what good writing is about.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from The Magic Engineer, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., 1994; A Tor Book, Published by Tom Doherty and Associates, LLC. Fair Use.

[2] Quote from Andrew Kaufman, The Only Classic Needed for Modern Times © 2014 Off the Shelf, Simon and Schuster, Inc. Fair Use.

[3] Quote from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, PD|100. First published by The Russian Messenger (serial).

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Creating Depth: Subtext #amwriting

NaNoWriMo is in full swing and sliding toward the finish. We have slightly less than two weeks left. My manuscript is inching toward completion. I have crossed the 50,000 word line, but the book is less than half finished. Many scenes that currently exist will likely be cut, and new scenes written that better show the story.

A lot of new authors are discovering words like “subtext” and wondering what that means. Subtext is a complicated aspect of the story, existing in the depths of the inferential layer of the Word-Pond that is Story.

Since nothing has changed since I last wrote on this subject, here is the reprise of the post Subtext, first posted here in March of 2018.


A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear—as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play.

The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations, the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events experienced by the characters.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, the subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes—subtext can be conveyed in dialogue, but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present, so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in the past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive that experience brings home the emotion and power of the event. It shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters, as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The clothes, the sleek sports car she drove—these were things that could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That, too, will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind, or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description.

Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees exactly what needs to be there. We aren’t distracted by unimportant things. When you mention a detail it becomes important, so only add elements the reader needs to know about.

Subtext, metaphor, and allegory: impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.


Credits and Attributions:

Subtext by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on 05 Mar 2018.

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017)

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Choosing a Writing Group #amwriting

Last week at a write in, a new writer asked me about writing groups and how a person goes about finding one. It seemed as if it was time to revisit this subject here. Nothing has changed since I originally wrote this post, and it’s NaNoWriMo—I can plow the extra time into my NaNo novel. (Insert happy face here!)


Every writer needs honest, constructive feedback to grow in their craft. Many will join critique or beta reading groups. These groups come in all sorts and sizes, some specializing in general fiction and some in genres like mystery, science fiction, fantasy, or romance.

Most communities have clusters of authors. You will find groups for beginning writers and some that cater to more advanced crowds. I guarantee there will be one to fit your needs.

You may stumble upon a group who seems cliquish, unwelcoming, and daunting to new arrivals.

You are not required to return to a group if you were given the cold-shoulder the first time.

The seas are rough out there, but most writing groups are really good, supportive gatherings of authors who stay for years and welcome new authors into their group with open arms.

There is a difference in types of writing groups. Some are traditional critique groups, people who usually read a few pages aloud at their sessions and the others discuss it in detail in a round-table fashion, while the author listens.

Often, these groups are large and because they are pressed for time, they don’t allow the author to ask questions or clarify points of confusion. Despite that flaw, this sort of focus on your work can be just right for some authors.

A group like that can tell you if you have made editing errors. They will point out errors within the few pages they have sampled, which gives you a jumping off point for the rest of your novel.

For authors strapped for cash and unable to afford to hire an editor, this sort of group is an invaluable resource. What you learn about your writing habits in those pages will carry over into the larger manuscript.

However, because traditional critique groups focus only on 3 or 4 pages at a time, they lack the context to be able to discern inconsistencies and flaws in the overall story arc. They don’t see enough of the work to tell if your protagonist is developed sufficiently by the first 1/4 of the tale, or if you have flattened your arc by placing your inciting incident too far from the beginning.

Unless you have submitted your entire novel over a period of time, formal critique groups usually can’t see subtle problems with

  • pacing
  • the overall story arc
  • worldbuilding
  • character development

They can’t see these things because these larger elements can only be judged by sampling more than three or four pages of a novel.

One way around that is to seek input privately from one of the members if you have found someone who reads the genre in which you write. It must be someone you feel comfortable enough to share that much with.

If you are looking for input on large structural issues, my advice is to find a beta reading group.

But how do you select a group? Before you join a critique or beta reading group, you have the right to know what that group focuses on. Attend one of their meetings as an observer and take notes.

When you get home, ask yourself these questions:

  • Did they address places where the submitted chapter bogged down?
  • What did the group think about the characters?
  • Did they address places where they became confused?
  • Did the group point out spots they had to read twice?
  • How did the group address areas where the story became unbelievable or too convenient?
  • Did the readers care enough to wonder what would happen to the characters next?
  • How did the group phrase their comments? Was it supportive as well as instructional?
  • Did they encourage conversation about the chosen work?
  • Is discussion discouraged? If the author was not allowed to discuss their work or ask questions because of time constraints, it may be the wrong group for you.

Ask yourself, “What vibes did I get from this group of people? Will I benefit from sharing my work with this group? Did the comments they made to each other sound helpful?” Hopefully, the answer to those questions will be a resounding “yes.”

If not, run now. Run far, far away.

If you are considering joining the group, ask the leader/chairperson these questions:

  • If the group is a beta reading group focused on first drafts, what do they consider a first draft? Do you have to hire an editor and have it thoroughly edited before you submit it to this group? Because that is not a first draft, and that group would be a waste of your time.
  • Will you receive insights into your manuscript on points you hadn’t considered, or will the focus of the discussion center on minor editing issues that you are already aware of?
  • Ask the leader to define for you the specific areas that readers will be looking at: Character development, the arc of the scene, conversation arcs, pacing, and worldbuilding.

When you have found a group that you feel comfortable sharing your work with, and you trust them enough to submit your first piece to them, take notes on the experience. When you are home, ask yourself:

  • Do I still feel positive about my work or do I feel like my work was treated as being less than important?
  • Did I gain anything from the experience that would advance the plot, or did I just hear a rehash of armchair editing from a wannabe guru?
  • When I was discussing the direction I wanted to take the tale in, did I sense that they were interested in my story?

If the answers are anything other than a resounding “yes” you have the right to leave the group.

The answers to these questions have to be that you feel good about your work, that you saw through their eyes the weaknesses, and you now know what you need to do to make your story great. You must be filled with the conviction that you know what needs to be done, and you must still have passion for the story.

Authors attend their first meeting with hope and trepidation. We are filled with uncertainty and fear the first time we meet these people.

At the end of the day, you have to feel as if you have gained something from the experience.

Hopefully, you will be as fortunate as I have been, and find a group of authors who will support and nurture you in the craft of writing. The way to repay them for their help is to support them and their efforts wholeheartedly.


Credits and Attributions:

Choosing a Writing Group by Connie J. Jasperson first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on 28 June 2017. It has been dusted off and refurbished for your reading pleasure.

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Update on Work in Progress #amwriting

My works in progress are coming along as I hoped they would. The outline and character studies are finished for my November novel, so I should have no trouble getting that off the ground on November 1st.

I am doing a major structural rewrite on Heaven’s Altar, a new novel set in Neveyah, and that is going well.

Julian Lackland is in the formatting stage at last. His story completes the 3-book Billy’s Revenge collection of stand-alone medieval fantasy novels.

I am looking forward to the great month of November, as I can hardly wait to get started on my project.

The short story mill in my head still seems to produce something every month or so. I like to think of them as “palate cleansers” since they are completely different from the main area of focus and sort of clear the cobwebs from my head.

I have a list of resources for beginners to bookmark that will make writing their NaNoWriMo novels easier. In my mind, any resource that is free is good.

  • Fantasy/Real Name Generator (some are unpronounceable, but all are fun)
  • Thesaurus.Com (quickly find words that mean the same as “sword” etc., so you don’t have too many “crutch” words.
  • Oxford Dictionary (Spell it right and use in the proper context!)
  • Wikipedia (research is a time sink to beat all time sinks, but if you’re in a hurry for quick info, you might find it here.)

Three websites a beginner should go to if they want instant answers about grammar in plain English:

Instant gratification is good when you are in the zone and short on time.

The rules I follow to both get my wordcount and enjoy NaNoWriMo:

    1. Write at least 1,670 words every day (three more than is required) This takes me about 2 hours – I’m not fast at this.
    2. Write every day, no matter if you have an idea worth writing about or not. If you are stuck, write about how your day went and how you are feeling about things that are happening in your life, or write that grocery list. Just write, and think about where you want to take your real story. Write about what you would like to see happen in that story.
    3. Check in at www.nanowrimo.org to see what’s happening in your region. Someone there will be able to answer any questions you may have, and the local threads will keep you in contact with other writers.
    4. Attend a write-in if your region is having any, or join a virtual write-in at NaNoWriMo on Facebook. This will keep you enthused about your project.
    5. Delete nothing. Passages you want to delete later can be highlighted, and the font turned to red or blue, so you can easily separate them out later.
    6. Remember, not every story is a novel. If your story comes to an end, draw a line at the bottom of the page and start a new story, in the same manuscript. You can always separate the stories later, and that way you won’t lose your word count.
    7. Validate your word count at www.nanowrimo.org every day. Your word processing program will sometimes count the words differently than the official validator. Validating daily will let you know if you are officially on track.

Why should you write in November?

Write because you have an idea that could make a good story. Write the book you want to read but no one else is writing.

Write fan-fiction.

Above all, have fun writing.

If you can’t write 1,667 words a day, write as much as you can and don’t feel guilty. The novel is the important thing and if you can’t get 50,000 words in 30 days, all is not lost. There are 320 more days in the year to come, so keep the habit of writing daily.

Stay in love with your characters and have fun writing your story.

In the end, the story is what counts.

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The outline for pantsers #NaNoWriMo2019 amwriting

NaNoWriMo is prime “pantsing it” time. For those who don’t know that term, “pantsing” is writer-speak for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I always begin with an outline, but my story always goes in directions I never planned for.

Sill, the outline helps me stay on track.

I outline in advance because (when writing in any genre) if you are pantsing your way through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

Making an outline helps you keep your story arc moving forward.

Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that epic quest for the unobtainable something.

By the end of the book, the internal growth of the characters may have caused them to change their personal goals, but something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters.

As I said above, I’ve never yet written a story that stuck strictly to the original outline.

Characters develop lives and personalities of their own, and stuff happens that wasn’t planned for.

Screen writers have it right, so the layout of my outline is divided into acts and beats, with a brief description. So, how do we approach this little task? First, NaNoWriMo says 50,000 words is a novel. How long do you think yours might be? Divide it into manageable chunks.

Act One – not more than 25% of total words: Where does the inciting incident occur?

  • Opening scene–characters in “normal” environment–/ Hook
  1. Introduce the characters. In your outline, ask, “What does each desire?” List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.
  2. Foreshadow the incident that takes them out of their normal environment.
  • Inciting Incidentthe event that changes everything.
  1. characters are thrown out of “normal” and into new circumstances.
  • Things start to get crazy.
  1. Characters react to the inciting incident.
  2. Characters try to get control of the situation and fail.
  3. Characters regroup. They must continue, but what are they willing to risk?

Act Two takes up 50% of the novel—it is the second quarter and third quarter combined.

  • Pinch Point #1—a dangerous situation orchestrated by the antagonist.
  1. The antagonist applies pressure to your character. This demonstrates the threat presented by the antagonist and forces your character into action.
  • Midpoint
  1. Regroup, process what just happened, plan to achieve the goal. What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
  2. Move toward the next encounter.
  • Pinch Point #2—Calamity. When and where does this occur?
  1. The protagonist is thwarted and may not win the goal after all.
  2. How are their attempts to achieve the goal frustrated?
  3. Someone dear may die.
  • Crisis of faith
  1. The costs of the battle are weighed against what is gained.
  2. Faith is restored, plans are laid for next encounter

Act Three, the final 25% of the novel:

  • Climax
  1. The protagonist faces the antagonist, and the battle is on.
  • Final resolution
  1. The protagonist wins, but at what cost?
  2. Do they achieve the original goal in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?
  3. All threads are wound up, and the book has a finite ending (NOT a cliff hanger if you are an unknown author, even if a book two is planned).

Sit down with a notebook (or if you’re like me, and Excel spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen in each “act.” In my outline, each chapter has a brief description of what I think will occur in each scene, such as:

Chapters 15 – 22

15 Aeddie sick – Mendric can’t heal his heart-take him to Hemsteck
16 Three days into the journey Elgar and Raj battle Thunder lizard
17 Star stone falls outside Waterston
18 Aeddie sick, nearly dies, Mendric nearly burns out gift keeping him alive
19 South of Kyran, water wraith
20 North of Kyran, a mob attack
21 Nola – inn
22 Maldon, highwaymen, and William

>>><<<

If I take the time to note all of my changes to the story line, I have a guide showing me what those changes were. I can make sure the events are foreshadowed logically and don’t appear to be a clumsy Deus Ex Machina. (Pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah.) (God from the Machine.)

That means a plot twist that is pulled seemingly out of nowhere and used to miraculously resolve an issue. Miraculous is the key word. If you rely on this, your plot will be unbelievable.

What is the underlying theme? How does this theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story? (See my post: The interpretive layer of the word-pond: Theme.)

When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:

  • What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
  • What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it, and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

I always feel it’s necessary to have an outline of the story arc even if my novel has multiple possibilities for endings. Winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating, but my years of experience with NaNoWriMo have taught me that winging it for extended lengths of time means I might run out of fresh ideas of what to do next.

If you begin with a simple outline, you won’t become desperate at the halfway point and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up. Many times, someone must die to advance the plot or fire up the protagonist, but readers get angry with authors who kill off too many characters they have grown to like.

Besides, you might need that character later. Bringing them back from the dead is a whole different Deus Ex Machina.

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Devising a Plot in 8 Questions #NaNoWriMo2019 #amwriting

Sometimes I have these random ideas and think, “Wow! What a great idea for a story – if I had the time to write it.” I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on.

Good news! November is National Novel Writing Month, and that’s the time to pick one of those ideas and build the first draft of a novel.

Let’s say one of the plot ideas is for a pair of characters who are thieves-for-hire, set in an alternate renaissance reality.

I will list eight questions: the basic premise of the story will be answered in these eight questions.

Each answer is simply one or two lines, guideposts for when I draft the outline (next post).

1. Who are the players? Pip and Scuttle. Two orphaned brothers who grew up on the streets of Venetta, a medieval city, but who have a strong moral code. Now adults, they have become what is known as “Discreet Thieves,” professional retrievers-for-hire who reunite their clients with their lost or stolen valuables.

2. Who is the POV character? Scuttle, the older brother.

3. Where does the story open? In a pawn shop.

4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story? Scuttle swears they aren’t thieves. They are believers in God and the laws of the Church. They only retrieve items belonging to noble clients with impeccable reputations and do it with no fuss or drama.

5. How did they arrive at the point of no return? A highly placed Cardinal has hired them to retrieve an item, neglecting to tell them:

  • It is equipped with a curse that affects all who would steal it from the rightful owner. (Haven’t figured out what the curse is yet.)
  • It didn’t belong to him in the first place.
  • He intends to use it to depose the true Pope, and become the ruler of both the Church and Venetta.

6. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it? They will do anything to get the curse removed from themselves and prevent the evil Cardinal from using the object against the Good Pope.

7. What hinders them? The Cardinal has kidnapped Mari, Scuttle’s lady, and holds her in his dungeon, forcing Scuttle to do his bidding.

8. How does the story end? Not sure. Is there more than one way this could go? Yes, so I’ll list them as they occur to me.

Even if I choose not to outline, the answers to those questions make writing a novel go faster because I know what happened, what the goal is, and why the goal is difficult to achieve. I may not know how the story ends exactly, but I will by the time I get there.

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it, and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately. In this case, Scuttle wants his lady released from the Cardinal’s dungeon. He’s terrified that she’s being abused, and fears she’ll die before he can rescue her.

Question number six is an important question to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective? Will Scuttle be forced to become a spy for the cardinal? Will he be pushed to sell out Pip? I don’t know yet, exactly. This is a spot where I can write the outcome in several different ways.

Many final objectives don’t concern issues of morality. However, if you are writing genre fiction, all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they, and why are they the villain of the piece?

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to have a complete novel with a beginning, middle and end by the 30th of November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. In the NANoWriMo manuscript, I simply head that section (in bolded font) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

In the next blog post, we will take these eight questions and draft a loose outline for our novel. I say loose because nothing I write ever follows the original outline.

Writing is like the art of the sculptor; we sculpt and reshape the story as we go.

The finished piece looks nothing like the block of stone we carved it from.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

 

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Prepping for November #amwriting #NaNoWriMo2019

November is National Novel Writing Month. Every year starting on November 1st, several hundred thousand people sit down and attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

Most will do this while holding down jobs and raising kids.

I began participating in NaNoWriMo in 2010. For the first four years, 2010 – 2014, I used the month of November to lay down the rough draft of an intended novel. However, in 2015, I already had two novels in the final stages and one simmering on the back burner.

What I lacked that year were short stories. I decided to write a short story collection because I knew I had to build my backlog of submittable work. As a result, and despite suffering a respiratory virus during the entire month of November, I wrote 42 short stories for a total of 105,000 words.

That’s not counting the blog posts I also wrote. NaNoWriMo 2015 was a prolific year despite the plague!

That was such a boost to my short story collection that I did the same in 2016 and 2017. I worked on a novel in 2018 and also wrote short stories, so that was a “blender” year.

My first year, 2010, was difficult in many ways. My story arc wandered all over the place, my main character sometimes disappeared for several chapters, and my hokey prose got away from me.

But that year was a great experience. I learned how to prep for the month of madness so that it can be a productive 30 days. I learned that October is an important month, even though you aren’t writing for official word count.

October, cold and dark, is your NaNo Prep Month.

I have a number of tricks I will share with you each Monday during the month of October, all aimed toward helping you succeed at your writing goal during National Novel Writing Month.

My goal is that on November 1st, you will be able to hit the ground running.

Once I have the foundations laid, I can write off the cuff. That is how three of my books came into existence.

For many participants, the challenge of sitting down and using the “seat of your pants” style of creative writing is what draws them to sign up.

Many authors are unwilling to commit to NaNoWriMo because it takes discipline to write 1667 words a day.

Also, they fear having to recoup any perceived losses should they find themselves in the middle of NaNoWriMo when they suddenly realize they’ve gone terribly astray. Or they fear writers’ block.

It happens.

Not to me usually, because I know the secret: If you can’t write on the subject you intended, write about what you are experiencing and what interests you at that moment.

I know; ranting on paper about your life is not writing that fabulous fantasy novel you began but don’t know how to finish.

But you are writing!

The answers will come, sometimes in the middle of a rant about your evil mother-in-law.

The key here is you will be writing, and that is what is important.

Rule 1 of NaNoWriMo: SIT DOWN AND WRITE.

Rule 2: WRITE AT LEAST 1667 WORDS EVERY DAY.

Rule 3: NEVER DELETE WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN, NO MATTER HOW GARBLED OR AWFUL OR OFF TOPIC.

There are 2 ways to create the official manuscript that you use to upload to the national site every day.

  1. Type it all in one document. When you don’t like something, just change the font color to red in that section and begin rewriting the scene the way it SHOULD have been written in the first place, using the usual black font. Every time you rewrite the scene with a slightly different outcome, it counts toward your word count. Your official wordcount manuscript will be a lo-o-o-ong, multicolored thing of beauty for a few weeks.
  2. OR, you can write each new section in a new file but paste all of them into the official manuscript at the end of your writing session. I make notes as I go for my later rewrite because if I don’t leave a message for myself, I will forget until my beta reader (who is a structural genius) points it out.

December is “Read-‘em-and-Weep” month. That is when we go over the ramblings of November and doubt our sanity.

In December, save what you want to discard in a ‘Background File’ in the same folder as the main manuscript. By doing that, you don’t lose prose you may need later.

During National Novel Writing Month, every word we write over and above 50,000 counts toward the region’s total word count. Once I hit that mark, I keep plowing ahead right to the bitter end.

Other people stop when they make the official winning word count. It’s a stressful month, so how you handle it is your choice.

If you want to sign up for this year’s month of madness and mayhem, get on the internet and go to:

www.nanowrimo.org

Sign up, pick a NaNo name – mine is Dragon_Fangirl, and you are in business. Look me up and make me one of your writing buddies. Spend the rest of October organizing what you think you will need to begin your story on November first. Then, on the first day of November you begin writing. If you apply yourself, and write (AT the minimum) 1667 words every day, on the 30th of November you should have a novel…or something.

In reality, if you set aside one or two hours a day, and pound out the words as fast as you can during that time, you will get your word count. Never delete, and do not self-edit as you go along. Just spew words, misspelled and awkward as they may be. They all count, readable or not, and it is the discipline of writing that we are working on here, not the nuts and bolts of the good manuscript.

Revising and correcting gross mistakes will come after November 30th. The second draft is when you have time to look at it with a critical eye. What you are doing now is getting the raw ideas down before you forget them.

Never discard your work no matter how much your first reader says it stinks. Even if what you wrote is the worst crap she ever read, some of it will be worth saving and reusing later. (And don’t ask “Sharp Tongue Sally” to read your work again because if she can’t find at least one good thing, she’s not a good beta reader.)

Spending a month immersed in stream-of-consciousness writing is not a waste of time. You will definitely have something to show for your efforts, and you will have developed the most important skill a writer must have: self-discipline.

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Transitions #amwriting

We love reading dramatic stories. However, in order for the events of the drama to be meaningful, we need to see it in context to understand what is going on. We need just enough artfully inserted exposition to show us what is really going on.

Within the narrative, moments of transition are critical, yet they are often done clumsily. These linking scenes can be too long, conveying far too much unneeded information. Conversely, they can be nearly omitted.

Neither of  those well-meaning faux pas serves the story.

Good transitions establish many things. The opening paragraphs are a critical transition. They show us

  • the general location (Alternate world, London, Seattle, a space station, etc.)
  • the setting (the immediate environment),
  • the era (past, present, future) in which the narrative takes place.

These first paragraphs are the doors through which the reader takes the first tentative steps from their real world and enters our invented world.

When a reader opens the book, they are a visitor, but they’re searching for something, questing for a good story. They hope you have supplied whatever it is they are looking for in the pages of that book.

Good opening paragraphs sink the hook and suck your reader into your world.

As the narrative moves beyond the opening scene, more transitions come along. These are the places where we must end one dramatic scene and open another—and do it gracefully. Sometimes it’s a moment where we must show the passage of time between events. Whatever the case, with each transition, we want the reader to remain engaged.

Transitions are more doors for the reader, portals that open at the end of the dramatic scene. By moving through them, we arrive at the next event.

Transitions are critical. Without good transitions, dramatic scenes have no context. Instead of progressing in an arc, the narrative leaps and falls along to a conclusion that may make no sense.

But transitions can be fraught with danger for me as a writer because this is where the necessary information, the exposition, is offered to the reader. This is the “how much is too much” moment.

In my first draft, the narrative is sometimes almost entirely exposition. This is because I am telling myself the story, trying to get the events down before I forget them.

In the second draft, I look at words like “went.” In my personal writing habits, “went” is a code word for the transition. In fact, all passive phrasing is code for the author. It is the code laid down in the first draft that indicates to the author that the characters are in the process of transition. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. Is this change something the reader must know?

For example, when I see the word “went,” I immediately know someone goes somewhere.

I ask myself, “How did they go?” Went can be changed to

  • they walked (to the next room, or down the street, or to Mordor.)
  • they drove (a car, a wagon, a space ship.)
  • they rode (a horse, donkey, motorcycle, or dragon.)
  • they took a plane (bus, ferry, space shuttle, or sleeping pill.)
  • they teleported (vanished into the ether)

You get the idea. I have to find the “telling” paragraphs that connect my dramatic scenes together and decide what will stay and what should be cut. If the necessary information requires a paragraph, I have to consider how to rewrite it so that it is interesting and not a mind-numbing wall of words.

Many times, a transition can be cut to only a sentence or two because the necessary information it imparts can be consolidated.

This is where being a part of a writing group is most beneficial. Within the writing group, you will find a person you can bounce ideas off, someone you can trust and who will say, “This is not needed as it doesn’t advance the story” or “this scene seems to come out of nowhere. It needs more foreshadowing.”

Consolidating the transition into a sentence or two is optimal but isn’t always possible.

If it takes more than a paragraph to make the transition, I must be vigilant in my revision, and if I must give information, I must find and change all the passive code words to active prose. To that end, I look for these codes:

  • All forms of To be (see my post on subjunctives)
  • basically
  • Too many emdashes
  • Exclamation points (usually not needed)
  • Finally
  • I think
  • -ing
  • Its / it’s
  • –ize –ization (global search)
  • just
  • Like
  • -ly (global search)
  • now
  • Okay
  • Only
  • Really
  • Said (decide if speech tags can be eliminated and shown by actions)
  • Seem
  • Still
  • Suddenly
  • That (often not needed)
  • The
  • Then (often not needed)
  • There was (a subjunctive)
  • –tion (global search)
  • Very (usually not needed)
  • Which (not a substitute for ‘that’)

We know that each scene can be a chapter, or a chapter can consist of several scenes. In this regard, each author constructs the layout of the story the way they feel works best. The reader gets into the swing of it and rarely notices the overall structure. Whether a chapter or a series of scenes, dramatic passages have universal commonalities:

  • All scenes have an arc to them: rising action, climax, reaction.
  • These arcs of action and reaction begin at transition point A and end at transition point B.
  • Each scene will end at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc.
  • Each scene must blend so smoothly to the one that follows that the reader doesn’t notice the transition.
  • Pacing is the rise and fall of the action, drama and transition, the ebb and flow of conversations.

Conversations make great transitions. Inserting the necessary information into conversations and then fading to black and beginning a new chapter/scene can be the key to making the transition unobtrusively.

When we rewrite something, we are making revisions. Think about that word, revision.

re vision = to envision again.

Transitions are small connections that are woven into the larger narrative. When we begin revising them, we are looking at small passages of our work with new eyes and seeing how they might be changed to better fit the story—usually condensed, but sometimes expanded.

On the surface, it’s a daunting task, but it’s one of the most important parts of the writing process.


Credits and Attributions

Tavern of the Crescent Moon by Jan Miense Molenaer [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Miense Molenaer 003.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Miense_Molenaer_003.jpg&oldid=302686494 (accessed November 9, 2018

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:David Teniers de Jonge – Peasant Wedding (1650).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:David_Teniers_de_Jonge_-_Peasant_Wedding_(1650).jpg&oldid=225700063 (accessed November 2, 2018).

Autumn on Greenwood Lake, ca. 1861, by Jasper Francis Cropsey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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The Inferential Layer: Drama #amwriting

Whether you are writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel, you are writing something that you hope will resonate with the reader and move them. A lesson that screenwriters learn early on is that each scene must be viewed as a mini-story; a complete story within the larger story. They learn this early because they don’t have the luxury of space that we who write novels have. The entire story of a screenplay must be told within a finite framework of time, so the writer must wring the most emotional impact out of the least amount of words.

I’m still working on this, myself. But I’m getting there.

So, where do we start? We begin with the most fundamental reason people purchase books or go to plays and movies—drama. The inferential layer of the Word-Pond we call Story is all about the drama, and I’m not talking over-the-top hysterics here. We combine emotional highs and lows with action and reaction in each passage to create dramatic scenes that leave a mark on the reader.

Of course, we understand large, emotionally charged, outwardly noisy dramatic scenes. They impact us and leave us reeling. But the only way those events have power is if they have context. They must be balanced by quieter, more introspective moments.

Drama can happen in the mildest of scenes, places where it looks as if nothing important is happening. The follow-up/regrouping scenes are places where you have the opportunity to waylay the reader with something unexpected. This is where you show the reader what is happening beneath the surface, the inner demons and fears the characters now face.

Consider  The Two Towers by J.R.R.Tolkien. Let’s look at the emotional impact of the scene that takes place in Shelob’s Lair. Frodo and Sam have survived incredible hardships and have made it to Cirith Ungol.  The passage is an excellent example of the dramatic story within a story that advances the overall plot.

Drama is the hope we feel in the moment when Frodo faces Shelob with the Phial of Light. Drama is the moment Frodo fails, the moment he is stung.

It is the shock, the horror, the moment where Sam reluctantly takes up Frodo’s sword, Sting.

It is triumph when Shelob impales herself on Sting, a weapon made of Mithril and a sword in the hands of a hobbit. But really, Sting is only a long-knife, and despite its mythic properties, it is not long enough to kill the giant arachnid, Shelob.

Still, she is wounded and scuttles away.

Drama is in the despair, the quiet moment afterward, where Samwise realizes that everything they have just endured was for nothing.

Drama is the moment of sharp introspection, the internal conversation when Sam fears his own weakness; the moment when his faith is not just shaken—it is lost. It is that moment of profound despondency in Shelob’s Lair, the dark night of the soul where Sam believes the spider has killed Frodo.

What about love? Few emotions have as much dramatic potential as that of love. It has many shades, from friendship to affection, to desire, to passion, to obsession, to jealousy, to hate.

Let’s look at the Pulitzer Prize winning short story, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx (synopsis via Wikipedia):

In 1963, two young men, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, are hired for the summer to look after sheep at a seasonal grazing range on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. Unexpectedly, they form an intense emotional and sexual attachment, but have to part ways at the end of the summer. Over the next twenty years, as their separate lives play out with marriages, children, and jobs, they continue reuniting for brief liaisons on camping trips in remote settings.

Ennis and Jack are tied to each other, but they love their wives and children. They are products of their society, and their personal reactions to the intensity of their relationship are both hurtful and understandable in the context of their time and situation. People have love affairs in books all the time, and we often find them forgettable. It is the complexity of external societal pressure and deep, confusing emotion that makes Ennis and Jack’s attachment memorable.

Then there is the novel, Possession, by A.S. Byatt, winner of the 1990 Booker prize. This is a complex relationship that begins in a rather boring manner – it opens in a library when Roland Michell, a scholar and professional man of high morals commits a crime: he steals the original drafts of letters he has come across in his research. This act has the potential of becoming his professional suicide. The synopsis via Wikipedia:

(Roland Mitchell) begins to investigate. The trail leads him to Christabel LaMotte, a minor poet and contemporary of Ash, and to Dr. Maud Bailey, an established modern LaMotte scholar and distant relative of LaMotte. Protective of LaMotte, Bailey is drawn into helping Michell with the unfolding mystery. The two scholars find more letters and evidence of a love affair between the poets (with evidence of a holiday together during which – they suspect – the relationship may have been consummated); they become obsessed with discovering the truth. At the same time, their own personal romantic lives – neither of which is satisfactory – develop, and they become entwined in an echo of Ash and LaMotte. The stories of the two couples are told in parallel, with Byatt providing letters and poetry by both of the fictional poets.

Love, whether unacknowledged or returned, physical or platonic, is complicated. The sections of movies, books, and short stories where the arc of the scene showcases true emotional complexity stick with me. I find myself contemplating them long after the story has ended.

In all three literary examples, The Lord of the Rings, Brokeback Mountain, and Possession, it is the interpersonal relationships entwined with the action that illuminates the drama. Action scenes require some sort of emotion to give them context, to shape them into an arc:

  1. Opening, the linking point where we introduce our characters and their situation.
  2. Rising Action, where we introduce complications and emotional responses.
  3. Climax, the high point of the action, the turning point of the scene.
  4. Falling Action, the “what the hell just happened” moment where we regroup.
  5. Closing, in which the problems encountered by the protagonist are resolved as best as can be expected, and we move on to the next scene.

The resolution of one scene is the linking point to the next, the door that takes us further into the story. The dramatic arc of each scene ends at a higher point in the overall story arc.

The emotions surrounding the drama in our literature attracts us, captivates us, keeps us interested. In every story, drama is the moment you, the reader, realize you must take up the hero’s task; you must carry the evil One Ring to Mount Doom.

Drama done well can take the reader from joy to despair to resignation and back to hope within the arc of the scene. This is good pacing and urges the reader to keep turning the page to see what is coming next.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Brokeback Mountain (short story),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Brokeback_Mountain_(short_story)&oldid=902058091 (accessed August 24, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Possession (Byatt novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Possession_(Byatt_novel)&oldid=909067002 (accessed August 24, 2019).

The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, first edition cover, Publisher George Allen & Unwin, © 11 November 1954, Fair Use.

Possession by A.S. Byatt, first edition cover, Publisher Chatto and Windus, © 1990, Fair Use.

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