Tag Archives: #amwriting

Characters: the Legalities Rant #amwriting

Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.

Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes  into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.

Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.

We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.[3]

Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.

That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).

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How contrasts drive the story #amwriting

The Buddha offered a morsel of wisdom that authors should consider, “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly.

Written in a style that was popular one-hundred years ago, the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a large reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. Yet, compared to Robert Jordan or Tad Williams’ epic fantasy series, it is short, totaling only 455,175 words over the course of three books.

The story is sprawling, showing a world of plenty, ignorant of the disaster lurking at the edge of their border. Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything. In the final confrontation with Sauron’s evil influence, Tolkien forces Frodo to face the fact he isn’t quite strong enough to destroy the ring. Frodo can’t give it up—he is willing to risk everything to retain possession of it when Gollum amputates his finger and takes the ring.

Frodo and Sam hunting down a case of genuine Canadian beer and spending spring break in Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t make much of a story, although it could have made an awesome straight-to-DVD movie.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil was no threat?

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams epic fantasy Osten Ard series, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fiction. Both feature an epic quest where through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built. It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. The works of these authors inspired a generation of writers: George R.R. Martin and  Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

My favorite books convey the beauty of life by contrasting joy, companionship, and love with drama, heartache, and violence. No matter the setting, Paris or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to each reader. They have experienced pain and loss, joy and love. When the author does it right, the reader empathizes, feels the emotions written into the story as if they were the protagonist.

Hunger is a fundamental agony that can linger for years. People can survive on very little, and unfortunately, many do. To have only enough food to keep you alive, but never enough to allow you to grow and thrive forms a person in a singular way. Acquiring food becomes your first priority. Having a surplus of food becomes a reason to celebrate. To go without adequate food for any length of time changes you, makes you more determined than ever to never go hungry again.

Thirst is a more immediate pain than hunger. The human animal can survive for up to three weeks without food, but only three to four days without water. Rarely, one can survive up to a week. When one has gone without water for any length of time, even brackish water must taste sweet. And when one is without food, even food they would never normally eat will fill their belly.

War happens because of famine and deprivation. Wars are fought over water. We forget this when we have plenty to eat and never worry if we will have water or not as long as we can pay the bills.

Need drives the human story, which is why we love tales of heroism and great achievements. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast provides the story with texture, turning a bland wall of words into something worth reading.  First comes the calm, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. War, famine, and flood are followed by a time of peace and plenty. This is our history, and our future, and is how good tales are played out.

Employing contrast gives texture to the fabric of a narrative. When an author makes good use of contrasts to draw the reader in, readers will think about the story and those characters long after it has ended.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We must learn the basics of grammar, and we must learn how to build a story. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We can’t limit our reading to the classics. Those books may be the basis for the way fiction is written today, but the prose and style don’t resonate with the majority of modern readers.

I have a piece of homework for you. You can copy and use the following list of questions as part of your assignment.

We may not love the novels on the NY Times bestseller list, and we may find them hard going, but stay with it. Go to the library or to the bookstore and see what they have from that list that you would be willing to examine. Your local second hand bookstore might have quite a few recent bestsellers in their stock of general fiction. Buy or borrow it and give it a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—the piece resonate with you? Why would a book that you dislike be so successful?

As I said at the beginning, the plot is driven by the events and emotions that give it texture. How did they unfold? Did the book have a  distinct plot arc? Did it have:

  • A strong opening to hook you?

  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?

  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?

  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?

  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?

  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?

  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?

  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing. Answering these questions will make you think about your own work, and how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.


Credits and Attributions:

Struggle for Survival by Christian Krohg, 1889, oil on canvas.  Now hanging in the National Gallery of Norway.

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Christian Krohg-Kampen for tilværelsen 1889.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Christian_Krohg-Kampen_for_tilv%C3%A6relsen_1889.jpg&oldid=301415583 (accessed February 10, 2019)

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The Em Dash— #amwriting

Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t they the same thing?

Not at all. Hyphens are used to join two words to create a compound word. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

  • Time-saving
  • Twenty-one

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is perfectly clear when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not necessary. If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again, a hyphen is not necessary.

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash that is frequently used is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage frequently employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

In US usage, En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

The dash we are discussing today is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash can serve as a comma. It does the same task as parentheses and serves the same purpose as a colon when used in the narrative.

Misty Barnett—my dog walker—loves to tango.

Tonight’s featured dances—the foxtrot, the waltz, and the Basque Sword Dance.

Used in these situations, the em dash feels less formal than a colon. This shift in usage is all about economics. The reading public drives our written language. Their preference for books with narratives light on formality is why colons are no longer used in narrative prose.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

The em dash can be more emphatic than a comma, yet not as firm a stop as the period. It sets apart any clause bracketed by them—such as this clause—which can easily be overdone.

Their main use in my work is in dialogue. Most editors will agree that current accepted practice for fiction is to not use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, we use the em dash to join short related independent clauses. Used wisely, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding. A good writer will not pepper their manuscript with them.

In the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, we use certain words and symbols as a kind of shorthand to ourselves for later, and the emdash can be one of them. When we are making revisions, we need to be alert and reword as much as we can to do without them. Used too exuberantly, they can create a mish-mash of run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

So, what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause? Be creative with your word choices, phrase things carefully, and see if one of these will work as well or better:

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) As I said, the semicolon has fallen out of favor with many editors for dialogue. Also, many people don’t understand how to use them. However, I have nothing against them when they are used properly.
  • COMMA:  We purchased apples, oranges, and bananas.

Authors and editors become habituated to using emdashes without thinking. After a while, the little finger just hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses.

I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.”  The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

Write the way you want to, use em dashes where you think they work best, and rely on proper punctuation for the rest of your narrative.

Happy writing!


Credits and Attributions:

“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash”  by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).

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Sound-alike words #amwriting

The large number of common homonyms, or sound-alike words, in our everyday usage are what makes English so tricky to learn as a second language. But even those of us who claim it as our native language get confused. Authors must learn how to recognize and use them properly.

Consider whether or not you want to use the word “ensure.” This word is so commonly abused that many native speakers don’t know which word to use in what context.

Three words could work, and they are quite similar to each other. Even worse, they have similar but different meanings.  This is when we go to the dictionary for a little research. All you have to do is use the dictionary that comes with your word processing program. (In Word, you type the word, right click on it, and when the menu opens, click on ‘look up.’)

Assure: promise, as in I assure you the house is clean.

Ensure: confirm, as in Ensure that you have set the burglar alarm before going on a long trip.

Insure: protect with an insurance policy, as in Insure your home for your peace of mind.

One of the worst failings for new authors is the word “it.” If problems appear in a manuscript, this word will likely be a major culprit. In my own work, I try to do a global search for every instance, and make sure the word is correctly used:

  • The texture of the wall—it’s rough. (It is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (The wall’s surface.)

Its… it’s… which is what and when to use it?

The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but once in a while, it indicates a contraction.

  1. It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  2. Its denotes possession: It owns it

Some words jump right out at you as a reader:

  • they’re,
  • their,
  • there.

But others are more sneaky:

  • accept
  • except

Accept and except are so frequently confused and misused in our modern dialect that, if you doubt yourself, it is best to simply look it up. If you search for these now, you will save your editor having to do this for you, and your edit will be much more productive.

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The Pitch #amwriting

On Monday we talked about the synopsis, which you would send to lure a prospective agent. Today we’re talking about the pitch and how it differs from a synopsis.

The front cover of your book is important, but great covers alone don’t sell books. The back of a paper book is critical because it contains the all-important pitch—also known as a blurb.

For an eBook, the pitch is on the seller’s product page. Either way, the shopper will read your pitch and decide if they want to know more. If they open the book or use the “look inside” option, you have a good chance of selling that book.

But how do we write a pitch?

First, you want to identify the key elements of your book (or series of books).

Consider a fantasy that features themes of friendship, family, romantic love, honor, and duty. In this story, the obvious theme might be the successful resolution of a quest. Identifying the core plot device around which your story revolves is important.

  1. Who or what is your book about?

You can emphasize either the idea of the book or the main character. Once you choose what you want to sell, main character or idea, stick to that. If you choose the character, use only the main character in your description, and forget the others, because it is that character’s story that you are trying to sell.

  1. Keep it short. It’s easy to be long-winded about our work but not here. You only have about 60 seconds to sell that book.

Since length is bad in a pitch, we must learn to write concisely. I learned to write drabbles—100 word flash fictions. I wrote one every day for nearly a year. I did this because you really have to choose your words wisely if you want to tell your story in such a short space.

Besides helping me learn how to write concisely, writing drabbles was a great way to build a backlog of ideas that became short stories later.

  1. Use power words. Don’t use “telling” words—make every word in that pitch count.
  2. Be visual. Use words that create a visual image in your reader’s mind.

Give us just enough intriguing insight into the main character and the story to make us want to know more about them. Make us curious.

Consider the 69-word pitch for Wool,’ by Hugh Howey. Howey was an indie when he published Wool in 2012.

This is the story of mankind clawing for survival, of mankind on the edge. The world outside has grown unkind, the view of it limited, talk of it forbidden. But there are always those who hope, who dream. These are the dangerous people, the residents who infect others with their optimism. Their punishment is simple. They are given the very thing they profess to want: They are allowed outside.

Howey opted for powerful and visual right out of the gate: clawing for survival. He packed his blurb with persuasive, graphic words that spark curiosity and make you feel that you are holding a powerful story in your hand (or your eReader). He chose not to go with a tagline, but the final sentence is so powerful, it doesn’t need one.

Next, let’s look at the pitch for Roadmarks,’ a classic sci-fi fantasy written by the late Roger Zelazny. It was published in 1979 by Del Rey Science Fiction, so the publisher wrote the blurb. I was in the grocery store when I first saw this book, and the cover art caught my eye. I picked the book up and turned it over to read the pitch.

The pitch made me curious and was what sold me the novel:

The Last Exit to Babylon

“The Road runs from the unimaginable past to the far future, and those who travel it have access to the turnoffs leading to all times and places—even to the alternate time-streams of histories that never happened. Why the Dragons of Bel’kwinith  made the Road—or who they are—no one knows. But the Road has always been there and for those who know how to find it, it always will be!”

Zelazny’s publisher, Del Rey, opted for a mysterious pitch, but they also used powerful words in the first sentence:  “The road runs,” “unimaginable,”— words that pique curiosity. They began the pitch with a great tag line. When I bought that book, I ignored the glowing reviews the publisher plastered beneath the pitch because I don’t care what reviewers think–I make up my own mind.

A word of caution: Indies should never put glowing reviews on their covers unless they are reviews by big-name reviewers or authors.

Del Rey got away with it because the book had been a bestseller in hard cover for a year before the paperback came out, and Zelazny was brilliant and sold books as fast as they could print them.

We don’t put a synopsis on the back of the book. A synopsis is a bald recounting of the novel’s bare bones—why should the reader buy it if they already know the story?

What sort of pitches lure you into buying a book? We write what we want to read, so chances are, you are writing a book along those lines. Go back and read those blurbs and start creating your pitch.

Pitches give away no secrets but hint at the mysteries within. For this reason, you want to ask your friends and your writing group to look at your blurb. If they tell you it’s too long-winded and doesn’t sell the book well, don’t be angry. Be glad they were honest.

Rewrite it, pare it down again, and rewrite it until your pitch is a concise enticement that sells the mystery of what lies within your book. Make the prospective reader open the book or click on the look inside option to see more.

Once they have sampled what’s inside the book, you are halfway there. At that point, your writing and your voice is what will clinch the sale.

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Honesty in Writing #amwriting

As writers, we are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter what the subject or genre is, we write escapes, windows into other lives, other places, other realities. When we offer the book to the public, we hope the reader will stay with us to the end, hope they find the same life in the narrative that we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.

This can only happen if we are honest. When I first started out, I wrote poetry, lyrics for a heavy metal band. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook—my poems weren’t honest. I wasn’t honest with myself, and when I looked back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived, formed too artfully. They shouted, “Look at me! I’m young and full of angst, but I’m talented and artsy!”

When I began writing stories for my children, I still wrote crap, but it was honest crap. I no longer had anyone to impress—children are never impressed by parents who write. They are also quite honest about where a story fails to impress them, and why. I began to write fairy tales that were honest, but not written by an educated author.

With that as my training ground, learning how to make my writing enjoyable became a goal. It was there that I discovered that, besides writing honestly, an author needs to be consistent with punctuation. I had no idea I was uneducated—after all, I had done well in school.  Even so, I had to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar because my first real editor pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.

As Ursula K. LeGuin said in her wonderful book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.”

My rule is to embrace what I fear, so I embraced grammar. I’m not perfect, but I make an effort.

I have always been a reader, enjoying books in every genre and style.  While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation. Sure, they break other rules of grammar with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.

This is because punctuation is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, slow, pause, yield, go again, or stop. Punctuation at most of the right places allows the reader to forget they are reading and encourages them to suspend their disbelief.

Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours a day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. (He also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.)

In my quest to understand the art of story I have come across some pretty awful books. I don’t consider “hard to read because it is written in an old-fashioned style” awful. However, I do consider “hard to read because the author wasted my time” awful.

Contrived prose is not poetic. Hokey and forced situations are not exciting. Perfectly beautiful people bore me. Long passages about clothing and furnishings bore me.

Write me an honest story about “real” people with real problems, one that comes from your deepest soul. Set it in outer space, or the Amazon Jungle—I don’t care. I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive imperfect grammar and punctuation for a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart.

Let me sink into your story. Let me forget the world—let me become so into the book I forget to cook dinner.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.

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Naming Characters #amwriting

I have mentioned (several times) one of my mistakes in naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name. My mind was in a rut when I thought that one up because I named her Marta.

You can see why this is bad—the two names are nearly identical.

To really confuse things, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a major storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

In my family, “Robert” is a name with a great deal of repetition. My father was named Robert, my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names), and my mother’s younger brother is named Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, every third boy is named William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury. In that novel, “Williams” generally go by their last names.

Other than Billy Ninefingers where it was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store? Is it someone the reader should remember? Even if this character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest or show us something about the protagonist. Their comments could offer us a clue into the protagonist’s personality or past. Other random people are in the scene purely for the ambiance, part of the world-building. A woman smoking in an alley outside the back door to an office needs no name, but she serves as a visible clue about the world the main character is walking in.

Even if they do speak a few lines, if they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The desire to make every character a memorable person must be ignored. When we begin revising second draft of our manuscript, we must find and resolve the distractions we inadvertently introduced in our first draft.

My current work in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my two protagonists and their sidekicks. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in that scene for only one purpose. They are to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my main characters are named in the full transcript of this scene.

Finding that we have too many named characters is an easy one to fix, once we decide how important that character is to the story. If they don’t appear again, the reader will move on and forget about them. The information they imparted will remain.

I have found that a great use for my extra walk-on characters is the short story. The world is already built, and they have a story, albeit a short one. Use them to your advantage.

I now keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling, so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is.

My advice is to keep it simple. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names. Be vigilant when choosing names—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do make your spellings of names and places easily pronounceable. You may decide to have your book made into an audio book, and the process will go more smoothly if you’ve considered this in advance. I only have one book that is an Audio book and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.


Credits and Attributions:

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.

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The Proofreader #amwriting

I see the process of getting a manuscript ready for publication as a four-part process.

  1. Writing the first draft.
  2. Beta Reading and revising the manuscript to your satisfaction.
  3. Sending it to the editor and making suggested revisions.
  4. Having the edited manuscript proofread.

Proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made. Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there will be places where the reader’s eye will stop.

It is best if this task is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things hiding in your otherwise-perfect manuscript will stand out.

Some things your proofreader must understand:

  • The proofreader should not try to hijack the process and derail an author’s launch date by nitpicking his/her genrestyle, and phrasing.
  • The proofreader must understand that the author has been through the process with a professional line editor. At this point, they are satisfied that the story arc is what they envisioned, and the characters are believable with unique personalities. The author worked with an editor to ensure the overall tone, voice, and mood of the piece is what the author envisioned.

You will note that I have used the word envisioned twice in the above list. If a proofreader can’t restrain their unasked-for editorial comments, you should find a different reader.

The edited manuscript is the author’s creation, a product of his/her vision, and by the time we arrive at the proofing stage, it is intentional in the form it is in.

This is why a professional proofreader is a good investment. The proofreader must realize that the author and his/her editor have considered the age level of the intended audience. A proofreader does not go through a manuscript with a red pen and mark it up with editorial comments. They do not critique the author’s voice or content because that is not their job.

A proofreader does highlight places where typos and other proofing errors exist and ruin the narrative.

A proofreader understands that every typo and error is different. These little landmines are insidious and may not leap out at first glance, which is why they aren’t always caught during the editorial process. Any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur during the process of making even minor revisions.

In case you didn’t see it when I mentioned it above, I will say it again: proofreading is not editingEditing is a process that I have discussed at length elsewhere.

At the outset, the proofreader must understand that no matter how tempting it may be, they have not been invited to edit the manuscript for content. If they cannot refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content, find another proofreader.

The proofreader should look for misspelled words, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Spell-checker may or may not catch these words, so a human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong:  Cissy wint out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Right:  Cissy went out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Wrong: There dog escaped, and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their dog escaped, and he had to chase it.

The proofreader must also look for repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are the kind of error frequently introduced into a manuscript when a tired author is making revisions. When we are pushing ourselves, even the most meticulous of authors unknowingly introduce errors when cutting and moving entire sections, rearranging portions of the narrative for a more logical flow.

You must rememberthe editor won’t see any errors you introduce when you implement their editorial suggestions. Once an editor has made their recommendations and returned your manuscript to you, they are done and won’t see the book again until it is published. You will have to make those revisions, and that is where many typos and errors occur.

Cut and paste errors are insidious and difficult to spot, and spell-checker won’t always find them. But a proofreader will notice them because the prose will contain unusually garbled sentences, and sometimes, two periods (full stops) at the end of a sentence.

  • Wrong: It is is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: Itis accepted practice to thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot thoughts..
  • Right: It is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Dialogue that is missing quotes can be a problem for many authors. When they are in a hurry, they sometimes don’t hit the quote key at the end of a sentence. Also, for US authors, they must be closed (double) quotes rather than single quotes.

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area,’ said Officer Shultz. “What do you know about the dead man?
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area,” said Officer Shultz. “What do you know about the dead man?”

Numbers that are digits are acceptable to use when writing notes and emails. They can also be used if you are writing a blogpost, but ask any bookkeeper – digits are as easy to accidentally mess up as words.

  • Wrong: There will be 3000 guests at the reception.
  • Wrong: There will be 003 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be 300 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be three hundred guests at the reception. (In literature, we write it out.)

Dropped and missing words will make the prose seem garbled and hard to follow.

  • Wrong: Officer Shultz sat at my table, me gently.
  • Right: Officer Shultz sat at my table, grilling me gently.

Something you must be aware of if you have paid for someone to proofread for you—each time you tweak the phrasing or create a new passage in your edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error. Never make revisions when you are tired or not fully on your toes.

If you are happy with the way your manuscript was edited, I suggest you do not ask a different editor to proofread your manuscript, as they may be unable to resist suggesting larger changes. Each editor sees things differently and editing is their nature and their job.

The problem is that this can go on forever, and you run the risk of ironing the life out of your manuscript and losing the feeling of spontaneity, making it feel contrived. You also risk publishing a manuscript that looks unedited because of the flaws that were introduced in the proofing process.

Before you publish your book, do yourself a favor and have it proofread by an intelligent reader. Find someone who understands what you are asking them to do and who is willing to do only that. If you are a member of a writing group, you have a good resource of readers there.

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What we can learn from midlist books #amwriting

As part of my ongoing quest to improve my writing skills, I have been reading a series of novels written by a midlist author (whom I am not going to name), trying to decipher what it that I like about her work and what I don’t like.

Midlist is a term used by the traditional publishing industry referring to books that aren’t bestsellers, but which sell enough to justify their publication. If these authors can build a consistent sales record, the big publishers will probably want future books from that author.

Most books published today are midlist titles. Bestsellers earn the largest portion of overall royalties, but midlist novels are steady earners over a long period, and many of these authors have devoted fans.

So, I have been binge-reading this series of mystery novels, trying to decide why she sells enough to keep her publisher buying her books, and in the process,  I have figured out why she’s not a bestseller. I have come up with a list of strengths and shortcomings, things I can look for in my own work.

The positives:

  • Her plots tend to be intriguing. She is creative with her murders and doesn’t rely on cliché situations.
  • She knows how to sink a hook. The details of how and why each of the murders are discovered is interesting, and at the beginning, logical, so you keep reading.
  • She has good skills in world building. The ethnicity of the immigrant Armenian neighborhood feels solid, as if you know it well.
  • The main characters reveal themselves slowly. They have an air of mystery around them. You never feel like you know all there is to know about them.

The negatives:

  • Her books tend to follow a formula that is recognizably hers, which is why she can put out four novels a year. In that regard, they are like romance novels. Once you’ve read the first three in the series, you know the basic story line.
  • They’re not memorable in any way. The one thing that keeps you reading is curiosity to discover who out of the many possibilities actually did it.
  • Toward the middle and the second half, the story arc becomes jerky, at times almost flatlining. The eye wants to skip pages.
  • Then suddenly, it’s so chaotic it’s impossible to follow what just happened, and no matter how many times you go back and re-read it, you can’t understand what is going on.
  • References to habits, such as obsessive chain smoking, start out doing the intended job, conveying a personality. But these references soon become repetitive, over-used, inadvertent crutches.
  • Her political and technological references place these books firmly in a certain period – a double-edged sword. The political references are the biggest Achilles heel. She began writing the series in in the early nineties. Publishing schedules being as slow as they are, these references immediately made the books feel slightly out of date, rather than set in an era.
  • By book three, the Main Character hasn’t grown or evolved. They’re still locked firmly in their own time-warp.
  • Her publisher misses a lot of proofing errors. This is every indie’s nightmare, so it’s annoying to find so many flaws in a book by a reputable publisher.

In retrospect, I like this author’s work, but certain of her writing habits annoy me as a reader. So, why have I subjected myself to reading so many of her books if I’m so ambivalent about them?

Education.

We all know what we love when we see it. But unless we out-and-out hate something, being able to identify what we don’t love is sometimes difficult.

And this concept is especially true about our own work. Those of us whose vocation is writing fiction must work to ensure our voice and writing style is current and fresh. It is a quest that can take a lifetime and involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Books on craft are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. This is why I study how books in all genres, both good and bad, are constructed.

When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study them. What did you love? What did they do right and how can you incorporate those techniques into your work?

When you don’t like a novel, ask yourself why it failed to move you. What did the author do wrong and how could you write it better?

Read widely, dissect what you read, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

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Update and Resolutions for 2019 #amwriting

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the year of 2018 is enjoying its last hurrah. People are getting ready for parties and counting both their successes and failures. It has been an eventful year for both my family and my writing life, so I am looking forward to what 2019 will bring.

My quest to complete the three-book literary fantasy series, Billy’s Revenge, will finally come to an end. Julian Lackland is on the home stretch and will go to the editor on February 1st. Depending on how quickly that goes, he will be published in June. Julian began life as my first NaNoWriMo Novel in 2010 and was picked up by a small press. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well.

It has taken me eight years to undo the damage they did and get this manuscript into proper shape. Julian Lackland is why I have been on this quest to educate myself about the craft of writing. I wanted to give Julian the kind of book he deserves, and judging by my beta readers’ comments, the effort has been worth it.

I am also closing in on finishing the first draft of a new duology set in Neveyah, the Tower of Bones world. One of the things I learned when I was trying to finish Valley of Sorrows, is that readers who begin a series want the next book in a timely fashion. They might wait a year, but after that, they will forget about it. It takes me four years to get a book from concept to publication, which can be a problem.

What I am doing differently with Alf’s story is this: I’m writing the first draft of the entire story arc before I begin revisions on the first book. So, this means I am writing a 250,000 word manuscript. Only when the entire first draft is finished will I begin the editing process. The manuscript will be broken in half and published as a duology, hopefully six months apart, assuming that editing goes smoothly when we get to that stage.

I am also finishing the stand-alone book that was begun as a serial in 2015, Bleakbourne on Heath. I have approximately 20,000 words left to write before it goes to the editor. Leryn’s story was so much fun to write. I had never done a serial, and unfortunately, I soon discovered I couldn’t keep up the daunting schedule I had set for getting my installments published. It was like “live television.” Whenever I sat down to write a chapter, I had no idea what was going to happen next.

One day I realized I had reached a creative plateau and had no idea how to finish the damned thing. Some people consider that writer’s block, but not me. When I can’t think of a way to advance a particular story, it’s time to rein it in and put it aside for a while to work on something else. So, I wrote a wedding scene, and ended the serial on a happy note, winding up most of the threads, but with the main quest still unfinished.

Last year was a good year for short stories, some of which found good homes in forthcoming anthologies. Also, two of my poems were selected for publication in the I Hear Olympia Singing poetry anthology and were chosen as the opening verses. I survived my first live poetry reading and met some amazing people in the process. Yay for that!

Despite cutting back on my professional editing schedule, I was privileged to edit several wonderful books for my clients—what a joy that aspect of my life is. I can’t completely drop out of that part of this business, as I love working with my clients, helping them to realize the vision they originally had for their book.

My resolutions for 2019 are to publish at least one novel, have a second one either published by the end of the year or ready to go in 2020, finish the first draft of my duology, and continue to write short stories and poetry, and continue to edit for my private clients.

I will keep writing new words every day, and I will remain involved in the local writing community. That connection with other writers feeds my creativity, offers me a sounding board, and keeps me working with good people who will read for me and show me what needs to be rewritten.

Thank you for being a part of my writing life. May the new year bring you good fortune, good food, and good friends. May the new year bring us all inspiration and determination—the two most important gifts a writer could have.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dirck Hals – Musicians – WGA11043.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dirck_Hals_-_Musicians_-_WGA11043.jpg&oldid=253948561 (accessed December 31, 2018).

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