Tag Archives: #amwriting

Formatting the Final Manuscript #amwriting

I’m in the process of formatting a manuscript for publication, both for the paper version and the book version. While there are significant differences between the layout of the two types of documents, some fundamental things remain the same.

I create three manuscripts. Before I embark on making mobi files for Kindle or designing the interior of my paper book, I create a base manuscript, one which has been thoroughly combed by my writing posse. At this point, it is as well-edited as we can get it.

Name it as the BookTitle_Final_.doc

I strongly suggest you save it as a Word 97 – 2003 compatible document (NOT a template) rather than as a .docx. Saving as a compatible document ensures fewer problems in the upload.

I have made several screenshots with the following steps highlighted for you, so if my instructions aren’t clear, my garbled artwork can confuse you even more.

I open my final base manuscript, and using select all, I highlight the entire thing. I have a list of things to check for.

First up is the Font. Go to the font group, on the left-hand end of the ribbon. Unless you write with a particular font, the default font, or pre-designed value or setting, will probably say ‘Calibri (Body),’ and the size will be .11.

You can change this on the home tab by clicking on the little grey square in the right-hand corner of the font menu and accessing the drop-down menu. Scroll down to Times New Roman or Garamond and set it to .12. A standard serif font is easiest on the eyes. Clicking on that will change the font for the whole thing (if you used select all to highlight the entire ms).

Next on the list is eliminating the random extra spaces that somehow find their way into my work as I go. Extra spaces interfere with formatting for eBooks and other electronically uploaded applications. Other than at a few specialty printers, ALL books and magazines are uploaded electronically nowadays, even printed books.

Extra spaces are most frequently found at the end of sentences, or where you have cut and pasted a passage. For older authors, there may be two spaces at the end of every sentence. When I was learning to type in school, they taught us to hit the space bar twice (two spaces) between sentences, for the sake of readability.

That was a difficult habit to break, but it must be done.

The simple way to hunt for extra spaces is to use the “find function” in the upper right corner of your toolbar:

  1. Open Find, click on “advanced find.”
  2. In the “Find what” box, hit the space bar twice.
  3. Then click on the replace tab.
  4. In the replace with box, hit the space bar once.
  5. Click “replace all.”
  6. Click that twice, to make sure there were no places where three spaces had been inadvertently inserted.

That will eliminate all the extra spaces.

I use “control-F” to open the Navigation Pane because it highlights the spaces in yellow, making them easy to see. The instructions are the same as when opening Find by using the toolbar. But for people who are new to word processing programs or who don’t use MS Word, using the toolbar on the ribbon is the simplest method.

Next, I make sure my paragraphs all look the way I want them to.

Some authors still use tabs to indent their paragraphs.

Don’t do it.

If you used the tab key to indent your paragraphs, the indents fail when the ms is uploaded. This creates a wall of words with no way to tell where one paragraph ends, and another begins.

Publishers hate it when that happens.

If you have done that, you can fix it by using one of the two following ways. The first set of instructions only work if you have a ten-key pad on your keyboard.

To remove tabs from a manuscript in Word or most other word-processing programs, open the “Find” box (right side of the ribbon on the home tab). In the “Find” field, type in ^t. (press the alt key 94 to make ^ and key the t) This only works if you have a ten-key (number pad) at the right side of your keyboard. ^t.

Then click “Replace.” In this field, type nothing. One click on “Replace all” will remove every tab.

That will leave you with no indents whatsoever.

If you don’t have a ten-key pad on your keyboard, you will have to remove each one by hand, which is a daunting task no publisher or editor has time for. Beginning with the first paragraph on the first page, scroll down and use the backspace key to remove the tab indenting every paragraph.

This will temporarily make your ms look like a wall of words, but you are going to resolve that the right way.

Once the tabs are all removed, use the following instructions to format paragraphs.

There are two ways to do this.

The easiest way is to open the “home” tab, click on “select all,” and with the manuscript highlighted, choose “normal” from the “styles” tab on the ribbon.

If your word processing program doesn’t have that option, you can format the paragraphs by using the simple formatting tool:

Step 1: On the Home tab, look in the group labeled ‘Paragraph.’ On the lower right-hand side of that group is a small grey square. Click on it. A pop-out menu will appear, and this is where you format your paragraphs.

Step 2: Justify the text. In justified text, the spaces between words and letters (known as “tracking”) are stretched or compressed. Justified text aligns with both the left and right margins. It gives you straight margins on both sides, but remember, this type of alignment only comes into play when a manuscript is being made ready for publication.

Step 3: Indentation: leave that alone or reset both numbers to ‘0’ if you have inadvertently altered it.

Step 4: Where it says ‘Special’: on the drop-down menu select ‘first line.’ On the ‘By’ menu, select ‘0.5.’ (You can specify a different number, 0.3 or 0.2, but 0.5 is standard.)

Step 5: ‘Spacing’: set both before and after to ‘0.’

Step 6: ‘Line Spacing’: set to ‘single.’This kind of formatting is not for work you are submitting to an agent, editor, or publisher. This is for a finished product that you intend to publish yourself.

You can get fancy with your layout, but remember, when it comes to eBooks, simple is better because it’s less distracting and less likely to fail in the upload.

I take this finished base manuscript to Draft2Digital and create my eBook and Mobi files there. As a member of Myrddin Publishing Group, I have all the ISBNs I need, but you can use theirs at no cost if you choose.

I use an old CreateSpace template to make my paper books, and even with that premade template, it’s a bit of a hassle. But that is part of the fun of publishing your work.

Next up, on Wednesday, I’ll begin a 6 part series that will post on Thursdays, featuring five guest authors and publishers who will discuss various aspects of Indie Publishing and how they negotiate the sometimes rough waters. I’m really looking forward to hearing what they have to say!

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Revisions and Self-editing: repetition and inconsistency #amwriting

I just finished reading book two of a three-part sub-series, set within a larger 21-book series. I enjoyed it but would have liked it more had the protagonist not repeated his back story aloud every time he was asked. That was a flaw that ran deep into book three. All that repetition just padded the word count.

All through this 21-book series, numerous proofing errors and random cut-and-paste-mistakes make it clear to me that few people other than the author see these manuscripts, and they aren’t professional editors. Yet, his work sells because he has marvelous characters and compelling storylines. He is now putting out four or more books a year and is published by TOR.

The Big 5 publishing giants are just as tempted to rush a manuscript to publication as we indies are, and editing sometimes falls by the way. However, if an indie publishes work as badly edited as that, the entire indie community suffers abuse.

Since the large publishing houses aren’t doing editing the way we always thought they did, it’s up to us to find the flaws before we submit our work to them or publish it ourselves.

When we lay down the first draft, the story emerges from our imagination and falls onto the paper (or keyboard). Even with an outline, the story is forming in our heads as we are writing it. While we think it is perfect as is, it probably isn’t.

The revision process is about far more than merely grammar and word placement. It is about making sure the story arc doesn’t flat-line.

Those who regularly read my blog know that I frequently repeat an idea, phrased just a bit differently further down the post. My elderly brain seems determined to make that point, no matter what. We all do this in our first drafts, and very few things are more “first draft” than a blog post.

Inadvertent repetition causes the story arc to dip. It takes us backwards rather than forward.  What I have discovered in my own work is that the second version of that idea is usually better than the first.

Last week, in my post called Revisions: Self-Editing, I talked about the way I do my revisions, how I try to get an unbiased view of my work. Basically, I print out each chapter. Beginning with the last paragraph on the last page, I work my way forward with a yellow highlighter.

Then I put the corrected copy on a recipe stand beside my computer and make the revisions in a new file. (I never delete the old files, because we never know when we might need something we have already written.)

Here are a few things that stand out when I do this:

  • Repetition of entire ideas, each instance worded slightly differently.
  • Inadvertent shifts in the spelling of names for people and places, such as Dyljan becomes Dyjan. (Keeping a style sheet of how names and created words are spelled and doing a global search for each before publishing resolves that.)
  • Places where I have contradicted myself, such as a town being north of the main character’s location, but they travel south to get there. Making a simple hand drawn map resolves the location problem if you remember to look at it.
  • Punctuation errors and missing quotation marks also stand out when printed.

The style sheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or keep minimized on my desktop until it’s needed. I copy and paste every invented word, hyphenated word, or name the first time they appear in my manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

My editor is grateful that I make this list so that she doesn’t have to.

All the lists of words and things to look for, all my knowledge comes from having worked with editors who are passionate about writing. Many years ago, Maria gave me the list of weak words to watch for.

Carlie trained me out of using “that” as a crutch word.

Irene trained me to notice my inadvertent shifts in spelling and to love how grammar works. She kindled my desire to learn more about the craft.

Alison trained me not to be so thin-skinned and self-important.

If you have the resource of a good writing group, you are a bit ahead of the game. I suggest that you run each revised chapter by your group and hear what they have to say. Some of what you hear won’t be useful, but much will be.

And yes, you will have to make more revisions. I have discovered that the real work of writing comes after you have written the story.

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The Author’s Voice: Word Choice and Placement #amwriting

We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice. An author’s voice is the unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences.

With practice, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation) but our natural speech habits shine through. Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint.

When we begin the editing process with a professional editor, most will ignore the liberties we take with dialogue but will point out our habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

Many times, what we want to say is not technically correct, but we want that visual pause in that place, in that sentence. Casual readers who leave reviews will have gained some understanding of grammar but if your voice is consistent, they will accept your choice. However, they will notice inconsistencies and illiterate writing.

This is why the process of editing is so important. Knowledge of the mechanics of writing is crucial. If you don’t understand the rules, you can’t break them with authority. (For the first part of this series, see my post Revisions: Self-Editing.)

Consider Raymond Chandler’s dismay when he discovered his grammar had been heavily edited by a line editor and then published without his input in the corrections:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”  – Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Edward Weeks, Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, dated 18 January 1947. (Read the letter in its entirety here.)

When we self-edit, we don’t have to wrestle for control of our work, true. But I have to be honest—I have worked with many editors over the past ten years, and only one tried to hijack my manuscript.

What is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence greatly affects the mood. Active prose is Noun-Verb centric. Compare these sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All say the same thing, and none are “wrong.”

I run toward danger, never away.

I never run away from danger.

Danger approaches, and I run to meet it.

If it’s dangerous, I run to it.

Can you tell which are passive and which are active? Which phrasing resonates with you? Could you write that idea in a different way?

Where we choose to place the core words, I run to danger, changes their voice but not their meaning. The words we choose to surround them with changes the mood but not their meaning.

Other ways to use the core concept of I run to danger:

Danger draws me. I race to embrace it, to make it mine.

If it’s dangerous or stupid, I will find it.

Danger—who cares. Running away is stupid; it always finds you. Meet it, grab it, and make it yours.

I saw him, and in that moment, I knew I’d met my destiny. He was the embodiment of danger, and I wanted him.

We could riff for half an hour on just four words, I run to danger. Each of us will write that idea with our own brand of brilliance, and none of us will sound exactly alike.

One of the things we must look at in our work is consistency. Is our narrative comprised of a smooth pattern? We don’t want our work to be jarring, so we want to think push, glide, push, glide.

Once you have established the mood you are trying to convey, look at how you have placed your verbs in the majority of your sentences.

Some are: noun – verb – modifier – noun. I run to danger when I see it. (Active)

Some are: infinitive – noun – verb –  modifier – noun. When I see danger, I run toward it. (Passive)

NOTE: PASSIVE VOICE DOES NOT MEAN WRONG!

Good writing is about balance. How we combine active and passive phrasing is part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose where we direct the reader’s attention.

Some work you want to feel highly charged, action-packed. Genres such as scifi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers need to be verb forward in the way the words are presented. These books seek to immerse the reader so more sentences should lead off with Noun – Verb, followed by modifiers.

If you clicked on the link and read Raymond Chandler’s letter in full, you will see it is aggressive and verb-forward, just the way his prose was.

In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to create a sense of comfort and familiarity of place with the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer. You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with the objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. To do that, you balance the active and passive sentence construction, so it is leaning slightly more toward the passive than a thriller.

Weak prose makes free with all the many forms of to be (is, are, was, were).

  • He was happy.
  • They were mad.

Bald writing tells only part of the story. For the reader to see and believe the entire story, we must choose words that show the emotions that underpin the story.

To grow in the craft, we learn to convey what we see through words.

Passive voice balances Active voice. It is not weak, as weak prose holds the reader away from the immediacy of the experience, and when active prose is interspersed with passive, it does not.

Voice is defined by word choice, and Passive or Active prose is defined by word placement, not how many words are used.

Weak prose usually uses too many words to convey an idea. So, we want to avoid wordiness no matter what mood we are trying to convey.

  • One clue to look for is the overuse of forms of to be, which can lead to writing long, convoluted passages.

How many compound sentences do you use? How many words are in each sentence? Can you see ways to divide long sentences to make them more palatable?

A wall of words turns away most readers. Look at your style, as you work your way through your revisions, and see what positive changes you can make in how you consistently phrase things.

Take a short paragraph from a work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

The following is a  list of words I habitually use in a first draft and then must look for in my own work. I look at each instance and decide if they work as they should or weaken the sentence. If they weaken the prose, I change or remove them.

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The Quantum Mechanics of Conversation #amwriting

The supermassive black hole known as Sagittarius A Star gives the spiral shape to our galaxy and keeps it together. Gravity keeps what goes into it from flying out.

All around us, gravity works in less massive, unobtrusive ways. Here on Earth, gravity on a small scale keeps everything securely stuck to the surface.

In writing, punctuation serves the same function as gravity, keeping our sentences from flying apart.

Even if you aren’t writing science fiction, your work must obey certain fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable. But in this case, the physics that constrain the chaos are the laws of grammar and punctuation, the quantum mechanics of writing.

The one place where the fundamental laws of grammar are allowed to deviate from the norm is in conversation.

Creating memorable characters is the goal of all authors. After all, who would read a book if the characters are bland or uninteresting? But what is it that makes a character interesting? Is it only witty conversation and great scenery?

When you envision your characters in conversation, you must think about what the word natural means. People don’t only use their words to communicate. Bodies and faces tell us a great deal about a person’s mood and what they feel.

You want to convey those visual cues in small, unobtrusive ways by picturing your conversations and the characters who are having them.

Beats or actions serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description.

These small actions can show the mood of a character and are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue. When done unobtrusively, beats allow the reader to experience the same pauses as the characters, without stopping the action. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it.

Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Don’t make the mistake of getting rid of speech tags and attributions entirely. Even with only two characters in a scene, the verbal exchanges can become confusing. Use speech tags every third exchange or so to keep things clear for your reader. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out which character said what.

Even worse, the action takes over. The dialogue fades into the background, obscured by the visual noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling. For this reason, we don’t want to inject an excess of flushing, smirking, eye-rolling, or shrugging into the story. Each of those actions has a specific use in conveying the mood, but anything used too frequently becomes a crutch. We must be creative, the hardest part of being an author.

What about exclamations and verbal tics? We frequently speak this way  in real life, but we don’t want it in our work, so I recommend you avoid using them.

When an author employs exclamations and verbal tics to excess, it is exhausting for the reader to wade through. Paragraphs peppered with instance after instance of “Ahhhh…” “Ugh!” “Yuck!” and  “Blech!” are too distracting.

Have you ever met a person who habitually holds conversations hostage, not allowing others to speak? They open with a meaningless syllable, such as “Aaahhh…” and continue droning on that syllable while they gather their thoughts.

These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is what is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be such an ingrained habit that the speaker is unaware of it. The guilty party may suffer hurt feelings if you try to hurry them along.

These are difficult speech behaviors to convey. They are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read in a book. Therefore, we don’t want to read them in a story or novel. I recommend you don’t begin your sentences with thinking syllables like  “Ahh…” or “Hmmm….”

As a reader, I’ve come to feel your best bet when dealing with verbal tics is to give a brief instance of their speech pattern. After that, if it is important, occasionally mention the way their habits annoy other characters.

I don’t enjoy reading heavy accents and am leaning away from writing them into my dialogue.

More and more, I try to limit the use of misspellings, bad grammar, and vulgar accents, especially when trying to point out that the character is uneducated or from a rural background.

Writing their dialogue by using common words and employing a few vernaculars conveys the sense of who they are, where they are from, and allows the character dignity.

It’s far too easy to go over the top, and turn the character into a parody, a cartoon of a person, instead of someone who feels real.

Use only a few well-chosen words to convey the idea of the accent. Use those words in a consistent manner for that character in such a way that it isn’t incomprehensible.

I have discussed conversations at length before, so I won’t bore you with repeating myself. Instead, I will list the peeves I have with the work of even the most famous authors:

  1. The exposition dump: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  2. Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  3. Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
  4. Internal dialogues that are a wall of italics going on forever.
  5. Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
  6. Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
  7. Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

The word-pond of Story is like a supermassive black hole.

Grammar and punctuation serve the same purpose as gravity, giving shape to the Story, forming it into a familiar, identifiable structure.

Conversations, both spoken and internal, light up and illuminate the individual corners of the story, bringing the immensity of the overall story arc down to a personal level.

Good conversations and mental dialogues bring characters to life and turn them into our  closest friends. The laws of grammar sometimes break down on the quantum level when our friends are speaking naturally.

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The Indie Cooperative #amwriting

In May of 2012, the indie publishing cooperative that I am a part of, Myrddin Publishing Group, was formed. As a group, we originally met through a now-defunct literary contest. We have members all across the US, the UK, and Australia.

The way we communicate is through a private group page on Facebook. We numbered twenty-five when we first began, and while we have lost a few members to traditional publishers, we have also gained a few.

Membership in our group is closed at this time. We don’t seek new authors, and as a company, we do not control any author’s royalties.

Each of us is an indie, in that all funds earned by our books go directly to the author from the point of sale.

That storefront could be Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, Books2Read (Draft2Digital’s storefront), or Ingram Sparks. The individual author uploads their books to the sales outlet of their choice.

I publish through both Amazon KDP and Draft2Digital. Amazon is the big kid on the block, and so far, I’m satisfied with their print book services. Some in my group use Amazon KDP for print, and others use Ingram Sparks for their print books.

Draft2Digital partners with a wide variety of digital storefronts, including Bibliotheca, which gets my books into libraries around the world.

Each member author has sole responsibility for their book. They must pay any local or federal taxes owed on their royalties and are responsible for marketing their own work.

The publishing co-op model we use is quite simple. We pay $25.00 a year to be a member.

One of our members lives in Wales, and her husband is employed in internet security. She manages the website and he is our IT man.

  • Each member author is each responsible for creating their own author page on the website, listing their books, and keeping their author page updated.

We have a nominal leader since every group needs a person in charge. She manages our tiny bank account and makes a full report of how the money was spent every year. Usually, our funds are spent on services the group can use and benefit from.

For us, the main benefit is low cost ISBNs that are not provided by Amazon KDP. Some people don’t mind using Amazon’s ISBNs, but we like having our own.

When we first started in 2012, we bought 1000 ISBNs. A member who is a retired bookkeeper in Essex, England, manages those for us.

In 2012 those ISBNs cost us $1000.00, and we divided up the costs ($40.00 for each of us). I believe the cost for ISBNs has doubled since then, but don’t quote me on that.

All our financial transactions are through the Myrddin PayPal account to our leader, and each Myrddin member can ransom back the  requisite number of ISBNs (Kindle, Draft2Digital, and Print, etc.) for $1.00 each.

We have enough ISBN’s for all of us to create books for many years to come.

  • We trade services within the group.

Several of us will edit or beta-read as needed. I and several other members do book covers, digital maps, banners, bookmarks, and logos as needed.

There are some things to consider before you start your own publishing cooperative:

  • Member participation is what makes the group functional.

Not every member will be an active participant. As time goes on, you may find yourself doing more work than you want and getting little in return from some.

  • At the outset, the group should develop and vote on a list of member responsibilities ( a group charter).

This list should detail what sort of behavior is expected or discouraged in online interactions.

That charter should also explain clearly what the group will do for its member authors, and how membership is obtained.

You will need two Facebook pages. One should be private for group discussions. The other should be public for posting entertainment pieces, such as memes that relate to writing and books.

  • The public page is where book launches can be advertised.
  • Also, the public FB page is where you publicize information about events individual member authors will be at or forthcoming book releases.

I suggest that you have two or three people in charge of posting things on the Public Facebook page and several other people in charge of your group’s Twitter and or Instagram account.

  • Someone with good bookkeeping skills should act as a financial officer.

This person manages any funds generated by member dues or anthologies and pays for the group’s website hosting.

  • The financial officer should have two assistants to review the financial records and ensure transparency.

Financial reports should be posted regularly, so the member authors know how the group is doing. The assistants should be authorized to step in if the financial officer is unable to fulfill their duties for any reason.

  • All decisions should be voted on by the group.

When things need to be discussed that affect the group as a whole, my co-op will hold a “meeting thread” over the course of a week on our private FB group page. That is where we decide what we want to do with the fee-money.

  • Google any publishing names you might want to use before you settle on one.

Don’t choose a name that is already in use as it may be trademarked. Be unique and be clever, but be careful.

Editing, beta reading, proofreading—these services are why a co-op is a good thing and should be traded freely.

Some members may have skills in graphic design and will design book covers, or logos.

  • You must be able to politely express that you can’t use a service, such as a cover design you don’t like. At that point, be prepared to quietly seek and pay for professional services outside the group.

Remember, all of these are time-consuming services. When you trade services, those who provide them for you are not earning money. Be gentle with those who are helping you.

I can’t stress this enough: Even if you don’t use a service that a fellow member offers to you, be a good friend. Give back to the group and help them when it’s their turn to seek services and help.

There will sometimes be rough patches in the group’s overall Zen.

I mentioned that each member of our co-op is responsible for listing their own books on the website and keeping their author page updated.

Sometimes we have problems with people who are less website savvy not being able to figure out how to update their books on the website.

Also, people get sidetracked by life and forget what they’re supposed to do for the group.

Those are minor irritations.

Overall, I have found this publishing model to be the best fit for me. I write short stories and submit to traditional publications, but I prefer to go indie for my novels.

As group, Myrddin certainly doesn’t have all the answers. We have evolved more independently than from where we began, but we are all still good friends. This is not a one-size-fits all kind of thing.

Use the internet and research other small press models.

If you are considering forming an indie publishing cooperative, I hope this has answered some questions you might have had.

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The path to becoming an author #amwriting

People often say they want to write a book. I used to say that too.

In 1985 I came across my first stumbling block on my path to becoming a writer. I didn’t know it, but to go from dreamer to storyteller is easy. Anyone can do it.

But if we choose to become an author, we’re taking a walk through an unknown landscape.

And the place where we go from dreamer to storyteller to author is the hardest part.

At first the path is gentle and easy to walk. As children, we invent stories and tell them to ourselves. As adults, we daydream about the stories we want to read, and we tell them to ourselves.

That part of the walk is easy. At some point, we become brave enough to sit down and put the story on paper.

The blank screen or paper is like an empty pond. All we have to do is add words, and the story will tell itself.

The first impedance that would-be authors come to on their way to filling the word-pond with words is a wide, deep river. It’s running high and fast with a flood of “what ifs” and partially visualized ideas.

If you truly want to become a writer, you must cross this river. If you don’t, the path ends here. While this river flows into the word-pond, the real path that takes us to a finished story is on the other side of this stream.

Fortunately, the river has several widely spaced steppingstones. Landing squarely on each one requires effort and a leap of faith, but the determined writer can do it.

The last thing you do before you step off the bank and begin crossing that river is this: visualize what your story is about.

The first stone you must leap to is the most difficult to reach. It is the one most writers who remain only dreamers falter at:

  • You must give yourself permission to write.

We have this perception that it is selfish to spend a portion of our free time writing. It is not self-indulgent. We all must earn a living because very few writers are able to live on their royalties. If writing is your true craft, you must carve the time around your day job to do it. All you need is one undisturbed hour a day.

The second stone is an easy leap:

  • Become literate. Educate yourself.

Buy books on the craft of writing. Buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style. You can usually find used copies on Amazon for around $10 – $15, passed on by those who couldn’t quite make the first leap.

I freely admit to using the internet for research, often on a daily basis, and I buy eBooks. However, my office bookshelves are filled with reference books on the craft of writing. I buy them as paper books because I am always looking things up. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the most well-worn there.

Most professional editors rely on the CMOS because it’s the most comprehensive style guide—it has the answer for whatever your grammar question is. Best of all, it’s geared for writers of all streaks: essays, novels, all varieties of fiction, and nonfiction.

The third stone is the reason we decided to write in the first place:

  • Good writers never stop reading for pleasure.

We begin as avid readers. A book resonates with us, makes us buy the whole series, and we never want to leave that world.

We soon learn that books like that are few and far between.

The fourth stone is an easy leap from that:

  • We realize that we must write the book we want to read.

As we reach the far bank, we climb up and across the final hurdle:

  • We finish the work, whether it’s a novel or short story.

Over the years since I first began writing, I’ve labored under many misconceptions. It was a shock to me when I discovered that we who write aren’t really special.

Who knew?

We’re extremely common, as ordinary as programmers and software engineers. Everyone either wants to be a writer, is a writer, has a writer in the the family, or knows one.

Even my literary idols aren’t superhuman.

Because there are so many of us, it’s difficult to stand out. We must be highly professional, easy to work with, and literate.

Filling the pond with words and creating a story that hooks a reader is as easy as daydreaming and as difficult as giving birth.

Because writers are so numerous, every idea has been done. Popular tropes soon become stale and fall out of fashion.

A study by the University of Vermont says there are “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives.” These are:

  1. Rags to riches (protagonist starts low and rises in happiness)
  2. Tragedy, or riches to rags (protagonist starts high and falls in happiness)
  3. Man in a hole (fall–rise)
  4. Icarus (rise–fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise–fall–rise)
  6. Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall)

No stale idea has ever been done your way.

We give that idea some thought. We apply a thick layer of our own brand of “what if.”

It’s our different approaches to these stories that make us each unique.

Sure, we’re writing an old story. But with a fresh angle, perseverance, and sheer hard work, we might be able to sell it.

And that is what makes the effort and agony of getting that book published and into the hands of prospective readers worthwhile.

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Transitions and Point of View #amwriting

I had to quit reading a book published by a Big Six publisher last week, as the narrative was a little too confusing. The head-hopping was too much and I didn’t want to waste time trying to sort it out.

Head-hopping: an author switches point of view characters within a single scene or even a paragraph. This can be quite confusing, like watching an unbalanced tennis match.

The problem could have been resolved in the revision process if the author had an editor’s eye on their work prior to publication, which I doubt they did.

Point of view must be consistent throughout the narrative but doesn’t have to be solely that of one character. However, it should only be shown from one character at a time.

In my own work, each of the major players has a story. Sometimes they have something to say that advances the story, so yes, the narrative switches to a different character. I give them a separate chapter so there is no doubt about who is speaking.

Also, I limit the number of characters who are allowed to speak to the reader.

In many of my favorite novels, the aftermath of an action scene becomes an opportunity to show the antagonist’s story line through their eyes. That’s a good strategy, as we need to show why the enemy is the enemy.

When shifting point of view from one character to another, the points where you change from one scene to the next are crucial to the story.

These are transitions.

Good transitions make a well-paced narrative, a piece that has a kind of rhythm.

  1. processing the action,
  2. action again,
  3. another connecting/regrouping scene

Regrouping scenes make logical transition scenes. These are opportunities to move the plot forward through conversation or introspection.

These transitions allow the reader to process what just happened at the same time as the characters do. This is where we justify the events that just occurred, making them believable.

Transitions are also opportunities to ratchet up the tension.

Unfortunately, these are also places where it is easy to accidentally jump into the headspace of a  different point of view character.

For this reason, in the revision process, it’s important to pay attention to who is talking and make sure we are only in their head for the entire scene.

One useful kind of transition is introspection. It offers an opportunity, a brief segue in which new information important to the story can emerge.

  1. Introspection also allows the reader to see who the characters think they are. This is critical if you want the reader to bond with them.
  2. Introspection shows that the characters are self-aware.

I do suggest you keep the scenes of introspection brief. If you use italics to set thoughts off, I would consider not having your characters do too much “thinking.” A wall of italics is hard to read, and we want the reader to stay with the story.

Characters’ thoughts are like conversations. They must be purposeful and serve to illuminate motives at a particular moment in time. Idle thoughts waste time and bore readers.

So, in a conversation between two characters, introspection must offer information not previously discussed.

Something else to consider—internal monologues should not make our characters seem too wise and all knowing. If you show them as a bit clueless about their flaws, strengths, or even their deepest fears and goals, you make them seem more approachable, real, and human.

I do recommend that each character should speak uniquely. Small habits and things make them individuals. I’ve seen books were the author dumped the conversations into a blender and poured out a string of commentary that made everyone sound alike.

Without speech tags, it was impossible to tell who was talking.

In regard to speech tags—please don’t get fancy. It’s best for me as a reader when the author avoids obscure words that take me out of the narrative. You want them to blend in and go unnoticed because the information imparted in the conversation is the important thing.

We want to create a sense of intimacy, of being in the character’s head. One way to do that is to use stream of consciousness, a narrative mode that offers a first-person perspective by showing the thought processes of the narrative character, along with their actions and conversations.

Wikipedia says: Stream of consciousness is a narrative device that attempts to give the written equivalent of the character’s thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue or in connection to his or her actions. Stream-of-consciousness writing is usually regarded as a special form of interior monologue and is characterized by associative leaps in thought and lack of some or all punctuation.

This is a difficult device to do well. It is why James Joyce’s work is a difficult read for most people. The only time I have used it was in a writing class.

I sometimes use the first-person point of view to convey intimacy. With the first-person point of view, a story is revealed through the thoughts and actions of the protagonist within his or her own story.

I use this point of view most often in short stories and find it easy to write.

I usually write my longer work in a third person omniscient voice. In that mode, the  story is told from an outside, overarching point of view. The narrator sees and knows everything that happens within the world of the story, including what each of the characters is thinking and feeling.

A way to convey intimacy when writing in third person omniscient is to use the third-person subjective. This mode is also referred to as close 3rd person.

I like this mode and frequently use it. At its narrowest and most subjective, the story reads as though the viewpoint character were narrating it. This is comparable to the first person in that it allows an in-depth revelation of the protagonist’s personality but differs as it always uses third-person grammar.

It is easy for me as a reader to form a deep attachment to the protagonist when a story is written in this mode. This is also a good way to avoid the first draft curse of “head hopping.”

In the revision process, we work to ensure consistency in our narrative mode, especially in regard to point of view. Making good revisions can actually take longer to complete than writing the first draft did.

But the reward is a smooth narrative, which is worth putting out extra effort.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Stream of consciousness,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stream_of_consciousness&oldid=934342441 (accessed January 28, 2020).

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The creative process #amwriting

My writing projects all begin with an idea, a flash of “what if….” Sometimes, that “what if” is inspired by an idea for a character, or perhaps a setting. Maybe it was the idea for the plot that had my wheels turning.

When I have that flash of brilliance, I don’t want to lose that thought. I carry a notebook and several pens at all times because the batteries never fail. I can write myself a note anywhere, anytime.

I developed the habit of keeping a small pocket notebook on hand when I worked at a daytime job. No one knew I was writing a book, but all day long, little ideas would pop into my head and I would jot them on a notepad.

Fortunately, bookkeepers keep a lot of notes, so my writing things down was not out of place. If a boss had looked at my notes, they would have seen something like “Put the bodies in the trunk of the Jaguar,” which might have raised an eyebrow or two.

A lot of people nowadays use a note-taking app on their cellphone to take notes. However, doing that at work might be frowned on, as some places limit the time you spend on your cell phone.

Note-taking by hand is old-school but will enable you to discreetly write your ideas down, and you won’t appear to be distracted or off-task.

In my last post, I mentioned that for me, a broad outline of my intended story arc keeps me on track toward arriving at a good ending. Experience has shown that I work best when I have a specific goal to write to. That way, the story flows smoothly to the best conclusion.

It’s okay to have several possible endings in mind, as long as each fits logically when viewed with the events that led up to them.

The list of ideas is important as it keeps me focused on connecting the beginning of the story to a proper ending. Even with the outline, I’ve been known to write several different endings before I find the one that works best.

When I try to “wing it” all the way through writing a book, I usually end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story I can’t sell.

That’s why I make outlines even for short stories. I ask myself

  • What is the inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want that pushes them to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly do they want it, and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • Why are they the enemy?
  • What ethical choices will the protagonist have to make in their attempt to gain their objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what circumstances do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • What is their health like?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the midpoint to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, the protagonist should have gathered plenty of resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. Do I have the story set up correctly to this point so I can choreograph that meeting?

All stories must have a logical arc, but each character should too. It’s my job to make sure that the characters evolve and grow over the course of the story. For me and my style of writing, the character arcs benefit most from the outline, even more than the overall story arc does.

When you are winging it through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere when you begin fleshing out your characters.

With the loose outline, I’m more likely to avoid getting sidetracked by interesting but nonessential stuff.

I would suggest you don’t go into too much detail in that little framework because you might feel like you have written the story, and there’s nothing left for you to say. You might lose interest in it. But if you give yourself a general outline that has the highpoints listed, you can wing it to connect the dots and you won’t lose your way.

I’ve said this before, but when you have a simple outline, you’re less likely to become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up once the real work of writing starts.

And you won’t have to kill off random characters and hide their bodies in the Jaguar’s trunk.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Notebooks.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Notebooks.jpg&oldid=366931573 (accessed January 22, 2020).

 

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Chapter Length and Point of View #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long a chapter should be. A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but it worked for me when I was reading it.

I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length. One keeps them at 1,500. One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character’s storyline separate and flows well. I personally have found that for my style of storytelling, 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length.

In a book, each chapter should detail the events of one scene or several related scenes. Chapters are like paragraphs, in that cramming too many disparate ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected.

One of my forthcoming books has longer chapters, as it is really a collection of short stories that take place over forty years of one character’s life. It follows the chronological order of his life and the chapters are vignettes detailing large events that changed him profoundly. These long chapters do contain hard breaks.

Conversations make good transitions to propel the story forward to the next scene, and they also offer ways to end a chapter with a tidbit of information that will compel the reader to turn the page. Information is crucial but should be offered only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something the characters are only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. They reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown.

Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black at the end of a scene can make the story feel mushy if there is no finite transition.

When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to wind it up with a firm finish and a hook and start a new chapter.

Having said that, if you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. I agree, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult. Sometimes more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown but readers will thank you if you limit point of view changes.

One of the problems some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is the way he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was. Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime story lines.

I’m a dedicated WoT fan, but even I found that exceedingly annoying long about book eight, Path of Daggers. I was halfway through reading that book when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do.

At that point, I kept reading because the world and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs or end the chapter.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers, or give each chapter a name?

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If snappy titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book. One series of my books has numbered chapters, the other has titled chapters.

Whichever style of chapter heading you choose, numbered or titled, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

To wind this up: Limit your point of view characters to one per scene. Limit each chapter to show events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated events.

When it comes to chapter length, you must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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Writing Violence #amwriting

I don’t write horror, but some of my novels contain certain elements of that genre. These shocking, violent scenes were moments that changed my characters’ lives.

Violence is an aspect of depth that is difficult for some authors to write well.

I dislike graphic violence that is there for the shock value. If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

Understanding how to design certain action scenes and where they fit into a narrative is a critical skill we must develop if we want our readers to love our work. When you raise the specter of failure, you also raise the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.

Random carnage has no place in the well-crafted novel, no matter the genre. The key word here is random.

When it comes to writing scenes that involve violence, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Will this event profoundly change my protagonist’s life?
  2. What does this event accomplish that advances my plot?
  3. Why is this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives. Those passages were difficult to read but were the events that changed everything.

When you read Stephen King’s work, you find shocking events and horror. But more importantly, you see a narrative that was carefully thought out. Every event pushes the protagonist’s story to its conclusion.

They were the moments that changed the protagonists for good or ill. These scenes were crafted seamlessly into the narrative.

Violence in the horror novel is all the more frightening when it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. It is not random, not inserted for shock value or just to liven things up.

This means you must plan your horror novel with an eye to ratcheting up the fear and tension in every scene. The threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution held just out of reach.

At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, and often the protagonist believes he can resolve the situation if he can just achieve one thing.

In the process of experiencing these events, the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now.

Within the overall story arc, you must insert scenes that illuminate the motives of all the characters, including those of the antagonist. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

These scenes allow the reader to learn things as the protagonist does. They offer clues that the characters don’t know, information that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.

  1. The first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. Because the best stories are about good people solving terrible problems, this incident has a domino effect: more actions ensue that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety.
  2. At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act, and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
  3. Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act. This final event is where someone who was previously safe may die.
  4. Each violent event should be worse than the previous. They begin relatively minor as compared to the final event and grow progressively more difficult. As the narrative moves on, the reader must fear the protagonist will fail.

What are the consequences of failure? Fear is powerful motivator, so raise the stakes and the tension as the story progresses.

Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. What will their long term reaction be?

Also, you must remember to give both the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping and planning.

Action, aftermath, action, aftermath—often compared to the way a skater crosses the ice: push, glide, push, glide.

Writing violence well requires planning on the part of the author. It requires us to sit back and consider what events will be unavoidable and will change the characters for good or ill.

Then we must insert them into the narrative in the right order, subtly foreshadowed, and all consequences must be both logical and advance the story.

THAT is where writing becomes work, but when done well, you can end up with a great novel.

A novel that I wish I had written is Dean Frank Lappi’s Black Numbers, the first novel in his Aleph Null series. This a deep, violent novel with great characters and intentional plotting, and kicks off a brilliant series. Nothing that happens in that novel is random. Every event serves a purpose, that of pushing the protagonist to his destiny.

We learn from the masters. If you must write violence into your work, you must study the works of other writers. Stephen King’s early work is an excellent place to start and is available in the public library.


Credits and Attributions:

Portions of this post were previously published on the Northwest Independent Writers Association blog as Crafting Violence, © Connie J. Jasperson, October 15, 2017.

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