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Virtual Conferences #amwriting

We are now entering the virtual convention season. PNWA (the Pacific Northwest Writers’  Association Conference) kicks off on Thursday the 24th. This will be the first year they’ve been virtual.

I will miss the people I usually see there and hope that next year we can meet in person.

However, while the in-person conference was a lot of fun, this is much gentler on the budget. I don’t have to rent a room for three nights, and I can prepare my own food as I normally do, which is not an easy thing for a vegan on the road.

I’m really looking forward to the awards night, as my good friend, author Johanna Flynn is up for the prestigious Nancy Pearl Award for her book, Hidden Pictures—and that is a big deal.

I was a reader in the short story category, and one of the stories I read is up for an award—this makes me happy. I love it when I come across a brilliant piece of writing, and some of the entries I read this year just shone.

The Nebulas were a virtual conference this last May, and I enjoyed how easy it was to navigate the whole thing. I wouldn’t have attended the Nebulas had it not been virtual, as the total cost for air-fare and rooms and dining would have been prohibitive. It was a real joy to be involved, even if only on a virtual level.

The reason I love conferences is simple. You meet people and make connections, and sometimes you forge friendships. If anything is missing from a virtual conference, it is that little touch of humanity.

However, much can be gained, even in these challenging times. This year, Brit Bennett, New York Times best-selling author of The Vanishing Half and The Mothers,  will be giving the keynote speech. I’m looking forward to an inspiring evening.

The master’s classes are included in the basic fee this year since it is a virtual conference. I’ve always enjoyed these classes when I had the extra money, but there were years when I couldn’t afford them. Many people have wanted to attend master’s classes but couldn’t find the extra money, so this year they will have that chance.

I am interested in writing craft seminars (of course). Still, I will be attending workshops on negotiating the rough waters of the business side of writing. Sunday will focus on screenwriting.

PNWA is offering both 20 minute and 1-hour seminars, which allows folks the chance to walk around and stretch their legs. I think a shorter meeting will encourage people to remain at their computers and engaged.

I hope to have a lot of new ideas for posts on craft and the business of writing in general. Some years I come home fired up about specific topics that were covered, in both craft and business. I hope to end this conference with new viewpoints on what sometimes feels like old dogmas.

I love learning. Discovering fresh ideas, seeing new ways of looking at things we take for granted—these are the reasons I attend writers’ conferences.

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Julian Lackland #new #amwriting

Tomorrow, September 22, 2020, would be my father’s 96th birthday. In honor of the man whose library of speculative fiction and classics inspired me to write, I chose that day for my new novel, Julian Lackland, to leave the nest.

Lackland began life in November of 2010, as my NaNoWriMo novel. Since then, he has been through many changes.

This is the original novel from which both Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers grew, and it was both my greatest joy and my worst mistake.

In 2010 I made my word count and became a firm believer in the principals behind NaNoWriMo—that if you sit down and write at least 1667 words every day, you will complete your novel.

What I didn’t know was that while that novel might be complete, it isn’t finished. The year that followed was filled with mistakes and struggles. There were some low points, a devastating falling out with my first publisher, and the grim realization that the book should be left in a drawer to rot.

When we formed Myrddin Publishing Group, our lead editor, Alison DeLuca, gave me great advice. Rather than abandon it, I should completely dismantle it and start over. It was a low point and seemed like a mountain. Alison’s courage in the face of disaster gave me the strength to put the publishing nightmare behind me and rebuild the novel from the ground up, writing it the way it should have been done in the first place.

I’ve been fortunate to have a village of brilliant editors along the way. My dear friend, sci-fi author Dave Cantrell, gave so much of himself to this project. Dave was the structural editor for Billy Ninefingers and The Wayward Son, and his eye for flow and logic influenced the first two drafts of this new manuscript.

Unfortunately, Dave was ill for most of 2019 and died this last summer. But a part of him lives on in the shape of this novel.

Once the new manuscript was in the final stages, Johanna Flynn was a kind but firm beta reader. I was fortunate to have Irene Roth Luvaul’s eye on the final draft, as the Texas Tornado is a brilliant line editor.

The support and advice from my writing posse has been and always will be invaluable. The international group of authors and editors at Myrddin Publishing are a well of knowledge, support, and advice.

Here in my local community, I am a member of a professional writer’s group, The Tuesday Morning Rebel Writers. The group is comprised of about nine novelists. Several are successful and award-winning authors, like Lee French, Ellen King Rice, and Johanna Flynn. The rest of us are in various stages of our writing careers.

I can’t thank these authors enough. Between them, Myrddin Publishing and the Rebel Writers dragged me gently to the finish line.

Julian’s story was born on November 1st, 2010. Two days before the start of the month, I had accepted a challenge to “do” something called “NaNoWriMo,” a.k.a. National Novel Writing Month. I’d never heard of it, but a challenge is a challenge.

I had written the storyline for an RPG and many short stories. A proto novel was rambling along at 250,000 words, so I thought, “How hard can it be to write 1667 words a day?”

I had the vague notion of writing a story about a rollicking band of mercenaries, so I began with no outline and no plot. In the way that NaNoWriMo novels often go, I got caught up in the character of Julian “Lackland” De Portiers, but also in several others.

I soon discovered that writing 1667 words a day is easy.

I also discovered that writing a coherent novel with no plot, no outline, and no maps is not my strong suit.

But there was a good story there, buried beneath the crap. I began by dividing out the stories that didn’t pertain to Julian, and that was how Billy Ninefingers came into existence.

Then I focused on the core of the story, and gradually I came to realize that the true adversary in this tale is Lackland’s naïve belief that good will always triumph.

Julian is the landless second son of a minor baron and relegated to the sidelines at court because he has no land. His own brother, jealous of his knightly skill and charisma, named him “Lackland” as a way to keep him in his place.

Lackland embraced the name, realizing that it meant he had the freedom to do as he wished and owed nothing to anyone but the king. King Henri just happens to be his second cousin on his mother’s side.

Julian leaves the court and joins the mercenary crew known as the Rowdies. He intends to do a little good in the world, and Billy Ninefingers wants more knights like him in his Rowdies. They have an arrangement where Julian will be available whenever his royal cousin needs him.

Highly skilled at arms and cursed with the ability to plan a war better than anyone, the king pulls Julian Lackland out of his toolkit whenever the job is impossible or too dirty for an ordinary knight to accomplish.

Lackland has a remarkable knack for finding trouble, but he meets good people along the way. Love is always a problem, but Julian Lackland just lives as well as he can.

Julian is and always will be my favorite character because he is so complicated, so conflicted, and so ethical. His story is that of perseverance in the face of catastrophe, but it is also the story of human frailty and resilience.

Originally, I wanted to write a epic fantasy novel that my father would read, one that I might have stolen from his nightstand.

I believe I have succeeded.


Julian Lackland by Connie J. Jasperson

Julian “Lackland” De Portiers is the last good knight in Waldeyn. Everyone knows he’s brilliant…

…Everyone knows he’s mad.

How does a Hero gracefully retire from the business of saving the world?

Once upon a time, Julian “Lackland” De Portiers had the strength to save what mattered most. Once he had companions and twice, he fell passionately in love.

One terrible night in the forest, everything changed.

Who will rescue the rescuer when darkness falls, and the voices begin?

Julian Lackland is an enduring tale of confusion, sorrow, and triumph set in an alternate medieval world.

Purchase Julian Lackland in eBook for $4.99 or paper for $12.99 at Amazon

Not a fan of Amazon? Purchase Julian Lackland from these fine eBook sellers for $4.99

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Character Building: Writing Subtly Positive Emotions #amwriting

Most writers find it easy to connect with the flamboyant emotions, such as hate, anger, desire, and adoration. However, emotions have “volume” ranging from soft to loud. Today we are looking at generally positive emotions, but at low volume.

The volume control is a crucial part of the overall pacing of your story. “Loud” deafens us and loses it’s power when it’s the only sound. However, like the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the entire range of volume can be effectively used to create a masterpiece.

These subtle emotions convey the mood of the piece.

As we said in the previous post, Writing Subtly  Negative Emotions, low-key shades of emotion can go almost unnoticed, but they lend solidity to the world. Under the surface, vibes, positive or negative, give us a rounded view of a character, making them less of a cardboard-Barbie and more of a real person.

We’re all aware of one positive emotion that can go bad—love. When love is reciprocated, it’s a positive feeling, and we all enjoy a good love story.

However, when love starts out with promise and then goes terribly wrong, you have the makings of a deep, dark story filled with possibilities.

But none of that—we’re focusing on the less intense, but still good, vibes today.

Another positive emotion with many nuances is Joy. The way we feel joy ranges from mild to overwhelming, from a slight smile to an experience so profound that tears spring to one’s eyes.

Subtle emotions don’t stand out and grab the reader.

They are there under the surface, tinting the reader’s opinions about the story and the characters. Small, quiet emotions linger, and if they are positive, they leave an impression we can’t describe, but we are happier for having experienced them.

These feelings are difficult for a writer to articulate. However, if you want to forge a connection between your reader and the characters in your narrative, you must include small indicators that individuals in the cast sometimes experience a sense of:

  • Competence
  • Confidence in their friends
  • Cooperation
  • Courage
  • Decisiveness
  • Discovery
  • Group ethics
  • Happiness
  • Individual moral courage
  • Purposefulness
  • Revelation
  • Satisfaction
  • Self-confidence
  • Serenity
  • Strength
  • Success
  • Sufficiency
  • Trust

These are good vibes that are rarely articulated, but they suffuse the scene and color the way in which the characters interact with each other.

Some positive emotions can be more intense, yet still not overpowering. Those moments can be shown by an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations. We  use the same 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing a mild experience as we do with louder emotions.

  1. Start with the visceral response. There will be an instant reaction. Good emotions are felt first in the chest, in varying degrees, from a feeling of warmth to the stronger, heart-pounding sensation. But we’re keeping it subdued, here.
  2. Follow up with a thought response. If it is a mild reaction, give it a moderate thought response. “Ah hah!” Whatever your style and word choices are, showing small moments of relatable happiness or pleasure makes our protagonist more sympathetic.
  3. Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where one of the antagonists will eventually become part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small positive thoughts early on in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may turn out to be the ally that turns the tide.

I’ve pointed out many times that conflict is what keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Large emotions are easy to write. But frequently, in real life, our smaller joys have a longer-lasting impact, and the memory of these can be the impetus that keeps the soldier fighting during the darkest hours.

Allowing ourselves and our characters to feel joy over small things, to experience a sense of accomplishment is a gift to the reader. The reader will experience those emotions as if they are theirs, and the book will be that much more meaningful to them.

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Character Building: Writing Subtly Negative Emotions #amwriting

Most writers find it easy to connect with the “loud” emotions, such as anger and hate. However, negative emotions have nuances the same way that positive emotions do.

Subtle shades of emotion give us a rounded view of a character, making them less of a cardboard-Barbie and more of a real person.

One negative aspect of our human character is a tendency for us to experience an uncharitable emotion known as schadenfreude. We are all familiar with it, as we experience it on a personal level every now and then. Some people take great joy in this, gaining a sense of superiority.

About schadenfreude, Via Wikipedia:

Schadenfreude is a complex emotion, where rather than feeling sympathy towards someone’s misfortune, schadenfreude evokes joyful feelings that take pleasure from watching someone fail. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults; however, adults also experience schadenfreude, though generally concealed.

In other words, we know it’s an unkind emotion, and we don’t like it in others. Like theft and lying, it is a fundamental aspect of our survival mechanisms that was hardwired into us before we came down from the trees. Primates in the wild have been observed exhibiting our most negative behaviors. 10 Facts About Chimpanzees That Hold A Dark Mirror To Humanity

For most of human history, popular humor has had an aspect of schadenfreude to it. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis were all popular comedy acts of the 20th century who employed physical comedy that evoked a feeling of schadenfreude in the audience.

We don’t like admitting it, and we try to rise above it. This is one easily relatable emotion you can use to show that your protagonist or others in the cast are real.

Another negative emotion with many nuances is envy. Envy can take the form of wishing one had that lovely thing. Allowed to rage out of control, jealousy becomes the propellant fueling a violent takeover.

Subtle emotions are the kind that prey on you. These feelings are difficult for a writer to articulate. However, if you want to keep raising the tension in your narrative, you must include small indicators of:

  • Anguish
  • Anxiety
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Depression
  • Indecision
  • Jealousy
  • Ethical Quandaries
  • Inadequacy
  • Paranoia
  • Powerlessness
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions that can be shown by an immediate physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

As with louder emotions, we want to create a sympathetic response in the reader. So, we use a simple 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut-punch, butterflies…how do you respond to internal surprises?
  2. Follow up with a thought response. If it is a mild reaction, it might be on the order of “Heck!” or “Oh dear….” Whatever your style and word choices are, showing their dismay makes them human.
  3. Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where the antagonist begins as part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small negatives like envy and schadenfreude in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may turn out to be the skunk in the laundry hamper.

Conflict is what keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Large conflicts and emotions are easy to write. But frequently, in real life, our smaller, more internal conflicts create greater roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

These tiny inner voices of self-destruction that hold us back are crucial to creating relatable characters.

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The Author Blog #amwriting

Sometimes, I find it difficult to pull my creative mind together long enough to write a coherent sentence. This is not an unusual thing. Actually, I do battle with it daily. However, I can always talk about writing craft here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy.

The “looming deadline” of my self-imposed  schedule keeps me focused. Blogging is an affordable way to connect with readers. It’s a platform where you can advertise your books and discuss your interests. See my 3-part series that posted on 30 May 2018, Creating Your Author Blog.

Today’s image is a picture  my husband, Greg, shot of me reeling in my little kite in 2018, during a time when we could still walk freely on the beach. I always suggest finding good photographs for your blog post, as images break up the wall of words and keep things interesting. However, it’s essential to keep it legal, so see my post of 08 January 2020, Using Pictures and Quotes.

Author Johanna Flynn is just building her website. She has an affinity for benches and their diverse settings, featuring various images of them on her website.

Ellen King Rice features mushrooms and other fungi on hers.

Both of these authors’ websites are eye candy.

I write two essays a week on the craft of writing. These articles help me clarify my thoughts on those points.

Friday is art day, my favorite day of the week. Exploring the brilliant art that emerged from the Netherlands in the early-to-late renaissance is something I can do despite not having a formal education, thanks to the internet and Wikimedia Commons.

At first, I was torn because whenever I do research in either field, I learn something new and I want to talk about it.

One day, I realized I could do both. After all, art and literature are inseparable, and where you find one you will find the other, along with music and dancing.

Regularly writing blogposts has made me a “planning” author, as well as a “pantser.” A good length for a blog post ranges from about 500 words to around 1,100, give or take. Limits require me to keep my area of discussion narrow, and not get sidetracked.

Blogging never fails to keep me humble. I use several tools to proofread my own work before I schedule it to publish. I make use of spellcheck, Grammarly, and rely heavily on the Read-Aloud function that MS WORD comes with.

Nothing bursts your bubble of self-importance like discovering gross errors and bloopers several days after you published the post.

Yet, it happens to me all too regularly.

For me, writing blog posts isn’t that difficult. I can knock one out in an hour if I’m fired up about the subject.

During the week, I make a note of any interesting topic that might make a good blog post. If there is a lot of research involved, I make footnotes with citations and sources as I come across the information. When that is the case, getting the week’s articles ready could take the whole day. Usually, writing the posts for the week only involves the morning.

If you are a blogger who only posts once a week to give potential fans an update of what you are doing, writing your essay should take less than an hour.

I always pre-schedule my posts. By using the tools each platform offers (be it WordPress or Blogger) to schedule in advance, they will post without my having to babysit them. Having that ability allows me the rest of the week to work on my real job, which is writing fiction.

Many of you have blogs that are languishing in limbo. You’ve lost interest because it’s challenging to gain readers when your website is new. It can be discouraging, but you must keep at it.

When we have a limited audience, we feel a little defeated in our efforts to gain readers. In the world of blogging, as in everything else, we start out small and gain readers as we go along. I began with four hits a day and celebrated the day I reached twenty.

The algorithms are such that those who keep the content updated regularly gain more views and readers. New content shows up at the top of the WordPress reader, so publishing regularly keeps your site in front of readers.

I use the WordPress Publicize options to automatically post my blog to Twitter, LinkedIn, and Tumblr.

On the left of your Blog title, under the words “My Sites,” click the dropdown menu. Scroll all the way to the bottom and open the WP ADMIN menu. This is the menu I use for posting everything on this website because it never changes and I don’t have to get used to a new dashboard every time the bored geniuses at WordPress decide to liven things up.

Step One: In that menu, scroll down to “Settings” and open that menu.

Step Two: In the Settings menu, open “sharing” and click on it. That will take you to the “Sharing Settings” page. Click on the button that says, “Publicize Settings.”

That opens a list of what I think of as blog warehouses, places that collect blogs and offer them to their regular readers. You want to activate as many of them as you can.

Because authors want to gain readers, we need to use every platform available to get the word out. Updating our website blogs twice a month offers us many opportunities to do just that and keeps us in touch with the people who count—our readers.

But most importantly, writing a 500-word blog post means that you wrote 500 words. For some of us, that is a huge accomplishment in these trying times.

If you are an author, you really should be blogging too, but you don’t have to post as frequently as I do.

Think about this: your website is your store, your voice, and your discoverable public presence. Readers will find you and your books there.

So, offer people a reason to stop by. Be nice, and don’t give your work the hard sell.


Credits and Attributions

The Pink Angelfish Kite, image by Greg Jasperson ©2018, All Rights Reserved

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Challenges in writing and selling short stories #amwriting

If you have been writing for any length of time, you have probably discovered that there is an art to both writing and selling short stories.

It is only when we begin reading widely, and in many different genres, that we discover a painful truth: great writing is not merely a matter of following rules.

As an editor and a voracious reader, I often find a special kind of life in a manuscript that has broken some of the rules.

However, poorly constructed work will be rejected by all publishers, and no reason will be given.

Grammar rules exist for a purpose, and haphazard breaking of them can destroy a reader’s enjoyment of a story. I guarantee you won’t find a publisher for that story.

If you want to sell your work, you must know the rules of grammar and have a basic understanding of mechanics. These rules exist for the comfort and convenience of the reader, so don’t think that they don’t matter.

The four fundamental laws of comma use are not open to interpretation, but are simple and easy to learn. Be consistent in their use.

1) Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.

2) Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the pauses differently.

3) Use commas to join two independent clauses when they are joined by a conjunction. The independent clause is a complete stand-alone sentence.

  • Edgar worships the ground I walk on, but his adoration bores me.

4) Don’t use a comma to join a dependent clause to an independent clause.

  • Edgar worships the ground I walk on and brings me my coffee.

If you understand those four concepts, you are probably ahead of the competition.

Unfortunately, it is easy to murder what began as a beautiful story. Consider those writers who spend years carefully combing every spark of accidental passion out of their work, creating textbook-perfect sentences that are flat, toneless.

Other authors randomly have characters swear, not consistently, but off and on, apparently for the shock value. Others might inject a little graphic violence or sex into the spots where they couldn’t think of what to do next.

When you do anything that breaks a rule, you must do it consistently and with purpose.

“Shock” for the sake of shock has no value to offer. However, a well-written manuscript may shock and challenge you.

When you understand how a story is constructed, you’re able to find creative ways to phrase things and still keep the story interesting.

When the way you write prose goes against the accepted practice, do it intentionally.

Be sure to tell your editor what rules you are choosing to ignore and why, and she will make sure you are consistent.

We all begin at the same place as writers, all of us mortals with flaws and our own way of doing things.

So now that we understand we all begin as novices, I must ask you this question:

Are you writing because you’re burning to tell a story? If you are not writing for the joy of writing, quit now. You’ll never sell a story you don’t believe in.

Otherwise, keep writing. Only by continued practice and attention to learning the craft will you develop the balance you know you need. Purchase the Chicago Guide to Grammar Usage and Punctuation, and learn how sentences and paragraphs are constructed. Then learn how to fit those sentences and paragraphs into a story arc.

That way, when you break a rule, you will be knowledgeable and do it with style.

The best way to gain a handle on all aspects of writing fiction is by writing short stories and essays.

With each short-story you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition and intentional prose. This is especially true if you limit yourself to writing the occasional practice story, telling the whole story in 1000 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

  • You have a finite amount of time to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.
  • You have a limited amount of space, so your characters will be restricted to just the important ones.
  • There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or influence the outcome.
  • You will build a backlog of short stories and characters to draw on when you need a good story to submit to a contest.

For me, the most difficult challenge is to write flash fiction, where I have less than 1,000 words to tell a story. This means we only include the most essential elements of a story. All my stories are either shorter or longer than 1,000 words and require weeks of effort to get them to fit that parameter.

As a poet, I find it far easier to tell a story in 100 words than in 1,000. That 100-word story is called a drabble and is an art form in itself.

Many people have asked how to find places that are accepting submissions. That can be a challenge, but these are links to two groups on Facebook where publishers post open calls for short stories.

Open Submission Calls for Short Story Writers (All genres, including poetry)

Open Call: Science Fiction, Fantasy & Pulp Market (speculative fiction only)

You do have to apply to be accepted into these groups and answer specific questions to prove you are legitimately seeking places to submit your work. Once you are approved, certain rules must be followed for a happy coexistence.

Some open calls are for anthologies that are not paid, others pay royalties. I would carefully check out the unpaid ones to make sure there is a good reason why it is unpaid, and that the publisher is reputable.

Be sure any contracts limit the use to that volume only, and you retain all other rights.

Also, you should retain the right to republish that story after a finite amount of time has passed, usually 90 days after the anthology publication date.

SFWA has a wonderful list of predatory publishers that you should avoid doing business with. They also have useful information on things that might be found in predatory contracts. You don’t need to be a member to access these. https://www.sfwa.org/

You can find publications with open calls at Submittable. Unfortunately, that has lately become not as useful regarding speculative fiction as it was several years ago. Still, many poetry collections, literary anthologies, and contests use Submittable, so that is an option. https://www.submittable.com/

All in all, you have to kiss a lot of frogs, so to speak, before you find that prince of a publisher that is looking for your work. Don’t let one rejection stop you. Keep that submission mill running, and for the love of Isaac Asimov, keep track of who you sent what to, what day you sent it, and whether or not it was accepted.

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The Inferential Layer Revisited: Drama #amwriting

Today I am flying a kite on a beach somewhere south of here. In honor of that, we are revisiting my post on DRAMA, something I try to avoid in real life! This post originally appeared here on August 26, 2019.



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:

The Inferential Layer: Drama, © 2019  Connie J. Jasperson  https://conniejjasperson.com/2019/08/26/the-inferential-layer-drama-amwriting/ (accessed August 16, 2020)

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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Plotting the End #amwriting

Maybe you’re a “pantser,” not a “plotter.” Unlike me, you like to wing it when you write, just let the ideas flow freely. I have “pantsed it” on occasion, and it can be liberating.

For me there comes a point where I realize my manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write. This is when I must go back and find the point where the story stopped working.

Perhaps you are working on a manuscript you began writing during last year’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Maybe you’re 80,000 words in and need to write the final 20,000 words to finish the book. You have a vague idea of how it ends but can’t figure out how to get there.

This is what I am dealing with in regard to two novels right now. One began as a serial published in 2015 – 2016 on Edgewise Words Inn, which was how I discovered that writing and publishing a chapter a week is not my forte. This book has been on hold for several years because of other writing commitments.

The other unfinished business is book one of a duology. I’ve committed to writing the second book in this set before publishing the first. This will ensure the wait time for the second book’s release will be reasonable. Even though the entire story will span two books, this first half must have a finite ending.

It’s at what would be considered the midpoint of the 2-book story arc. The problem has been deciding where in the overall story arc of the duology the ending of book 1 occurs, and how it leads into the action of the opening chapters in the second half.

I have stopped floundering and (literally) cut my losses with both unfinished books. I trimmed both back to the place where they dissolved into chaos. After a lot of writing and rewriting, I have the first three-quarters of both books in good shape. But now I’m suffering from “pandemic brain.” I don’t know what to do or how to bring either story to its intended conclusion.

This isn’t unusual. Fortunately, my years of doing NaNoWriMo have given me some tools for just such an emergency.

The first tool is a sense of balance. Every published novel has entire sections that had to be rewritten at least once before it got to the editing stage.

Much of what you cut out can be recycled, reshaped, and reused, so never just delete weeks of work.

  1. Save everything you cut to a new document, labeled, and dated: “Outtakes_Bleakbourne_rewrite1_08-08-2020.” (that stands for Outtakes, Bleakbourne on Heath, rewrite 1, Aug-08-2020)

Now, we must consider what will be the most logical way to end this mess.

What is the core conflict? For me, a good way to pull the ending out of my subconscious is to revisit the outline I made of the story arc. Fortunately, I have been on top of things in both worlds, so deviations from the original plans have been noted. I’m looking at the current blueprint of both works-in-progress to this point.

The problem I am experiencing now is that I didn’t know exactly where either of these books were going to end when I began writing them, so that part never got plotted. Now I can see how the internal growth of the characters has caused two of them to fundamentally change from what was originally planned. Their personal goals have radically deviated from what I had initially thought.

By seeing the whole picture of the story to this point, I usually find the inspiration to put together the final scenes that I know must happen. Something big and important must be achieved in the final chapters, so for me, pausing to do some more plotting and loose outlining is crucial to writing a logical sequence of events.

I sit down with a notebook (or in my case a spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must occur between the place where the plot was derailed and the end. This is just a list of chapters with the keywords for each scene noted.

Once I have refreshed my memory with what has gone before and made a few notes as ideas occur to me, I start a new document and save it with a name that clearly denotes that it’s a worksheet for that novel.

HA_Final_Chpts_Worksheet_08-08-2020 (Heaven’s Altar, final chapters worksheet, and the date)

At first, the page is only a list of  headings that detail the events I must write for each chapter. I know what end I have to arrive at, but the chapter headings are pulled out of the ether, accompanied by the howling of demons as I force my plot to take shape:

  • Chapter – Sunhammer revealed/swearing the vows of protection
  • (and so on until the last event)

You’ll note that while the word chapter is there, and a rudimentary title, there are no numbers. I don’t number my chapters until the third draft is complete, although I do head each section with the word “chapter” written out, so it is easy to find with a global search. The titles will disappear, or be changed, depending on which series it is.

This is because in my world, first drafts are not written linearly. For me, things change structurally with each rewrite. It’s less confusing if the numbers are only put in when the manuscript is finalized.

I begin writing details that pertain to the section beneath each chapter heading as they occur to me. Once that list is complete, those sketchy details get expanded on and grow into complete chapters, which I then copy and paste into the manuscript.

When I begin designing the ending, it’s as challenging and yet easy as plotting the opening scenes. I go back to the basics and ask the same questions I asked in the beginning.

It’s a good idea to have a separate worksheet that lists each character and contains notes detailing what they wanted at the beginning. That way you can see how that has changed by the events they have experienced.

  1. What do the characters want now that they have achieved a significant milestone?
  2. What will they have to sacrifice next?
  3. What stands in the way of their achieving the goal?
  4. Do they get what they wanted in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal when new information is presented?

When I’m forced to do a lot of rewriting, I never delete anything. Everything we write should be kept in a file labeled “outtakes.”

Don’t be afraid to rewrite what isn’t working. Save everything you cut, because I guarantee you will want to reuse some of that prose later, at a place where it makes more sense.

Not having to reinvent those useful sections will significantly speed things up, which is why I urge you to save them with a file name that clearly labels them as background or outtakes.

Something we all suffer from is the irrational notion that if we wrote it, we have to keep it, even though it no longer fits.

Let’s be honest. No amount of rewriting and adjusting will make a scene or chapter work if it’s no longer needed to advance the story. If the story is stronger without that great episode, cut it.

What you have written but not used in the finished novel is a form of world-building. It contributes to the established canon of that world and makes it more real in your mind.

Use it as fodder for a short story or novella set in that world. This is how prolific authors end up with so many short stories to make into compilations. It’s useful to know that every side-quest not used in the final manuscript can quickly be made into a short story.

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Plot, Politics, Religion, and the Science of Magic #worldbuilding #amwriting

It takes me about four years to take a novel from concept to completion, which is why I always have several works in progress at varying stages of development.

Much of that time is devoted to world-building, although for the first few drafts of writing, I don’t realize that is what I am doing.

The layers of plot, politics, religion, and magic/science must be interwoven with bits of history, and the images and odors of the physical environment. Together, these layers help create the setting of any world.

I began one of my current projects with an idea for a character. I knew what the ultimate end of this story is because it is a prequel and is already canon in the Tower of Bones series.

This is the plot, the core conflict: Politics and religion shape three cultures. Two of the societies are strong enough to absorb the third, and one of them will do just that.

In that regard, neither the protagonist nor the antagonist is on the high ground morally—both consider it their right to impose their rule on the weaker society.

The first hurdle arose in the area of world-building. Because it is the origin story, I had to devise a post-apocalyptic culture. Religion was the first layer I worked on.

In the time of the Tower of Bones series, the Temple of Aeos is a finely-tuned machine that serves to distribute food and medical care to the poor, provides education to everyone, provides military protection when needed, and maintains the roads that connect the communities.

The Temple’s primary function is to find mage-gifted children before their untrained gift wreaks havoc in their communities. Untrained mages have a high chance of becoming the tool of the Bull God, Tauron.

This is bad because Tauron is the Mad God, the one who demands excessive sacrifices, often human. The word sacrifice means to surrender something of value, and the Mad God’s reign over his people is twisted. His religion is a reflection of his madness.

Thus, the Goddess Aeos’s mages are sworn to serve and protect the people of Neveyah from the depredations of Tauron, no matter the personal cost.

In the current work-in-progress, the Temple, as an institution, doesn’t exist. It is born out of the struggle between the two larger-than-life characters and the events of this book.

Both characters believe their deity has the right to rule Neveyah, and both know the Barbarian Tribes are the key to winning. At times, the line between what is moral and immoral is blurred.

Just as in real life, both men and the societies they lead are fundamentally flawed.

Both the antagonist and protagonist in this novel will do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. However, of the two, only my protagonist is burdened with regrets for the choices he makes.

Every society, fantasy, sci-fi, or real-world, must have an overarching political structure—a government of some sort. Humans are tribal. We are comfortable when we have a hierarchy of decision-makers to guide the tribe.

The politics of any society are an invisible aspect of world-building that affects the story, even when not directly addressed. This is because our characters have a place within that structure.

When you know what that place is, you write their story accordingly. In writing fiction, if you know your characters’ social caste, you know if they are rich or poor, hungry or well-fed. This will shape them throughout the story.

We know that hunger drives conflict in our modern world, so a segment of society that lives on the edge of starvation will be swayed to the side of whoever offers food first. This is a key part of the plot for my work-in-progress.

Another aspect of world-building that was crucial at the start of this series was the choice to use magic rather than science as the primary technology.

First of all, let me get this out there: Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writers of true science fiction know the difference between reality and fantasy.

However, magic should be believable. The science of magic is an underlying, invisible layer that is part of my world-building process. In my stories, magic is only possible if certain conditions have been met:

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every type of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

This layer of world-building is where writers of science and writers of magic come together.

  • Magic and the ability to wield it confers power.
  • Superior technology does the same.

This means the enemy must have access to equal or better Science/Magic. So, if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school,” you now have two systems to design for that story.

Authors must create the rules of magic or the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist.

Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either science or magic, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it. It must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

Having said all that, the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is at the moment it affects the characters and their actions.

The best background information comes out naturally in conversations or in other subtle ways. By not baldly dropping it on the reader in paragraph form, the knowledge becomes a normal part of the environment rather than an info dump.

Limitations are the key to a good character arc. Roadblocks to success force ordinary people to become more than they believe they are.

That is when an ordinary person becomes a hero.

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The literal layer #amwriting

McLane Pond, taken in July 2018

Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.

If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.

If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.

The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.

This surface is comprised of

  • Setting
  • Action and Interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.

Setting and props – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment
  4. Objects the characters interact with
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.

Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.

Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019

An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.

I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.

What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.

A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.

Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.

Depth changes observers into participants.

Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.

Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.

Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.

Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.

Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.

With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).

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