Tag Archives: #amwriting

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).

 

Leave a comment

Filed under writing

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.

5 Comments

Filed under writing

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.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

The pros and cons of using editing programs #amwriting

A number of people have asked me about editing programs, and if I use them in my own work. I do–but also, I don’t.

I rely on my knowledge of grammar and what I intend to convey more than I do editing programs, which are not as useful as we wish they were.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Spellcheck doesn’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it may not alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s

Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, in tandem with Pro Writing Aid. I pay a monthly fee for the professional versions of these two programs. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

For me, especially in my first draft, some words are like tics—they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

I want to write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them.

Often removing an adjective or adverb strengthens the prose. They’re easy to find because these words frequently end with the letters ‘ly.’

You could do a global search for the letters ‘ly,’ and a list will pop up in the left margin of your manuscript.

It’s ridiculous to tell someone to remove all adverbs from a narrative. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

That sort of wrong-headed advice survives because it is based on a writing truth: unnecessary adverbs and adjectives fluff up the prose. Worse, they sometimes fail to tell us something that we need to know.

In other words, use adverbs and adjectives when they are necessary and cut them when they aren’t.

In my own work, I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and “weed words.” I look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence and decide if they will stay or go. Many will go, but some must stay.

A good program to help point out when certain passages are passive and need to be “made active” is Pro Writing Aid. I use the professional version for my own work, but they do have a free version that will show you some limited problems in your prose.

The BIG problem for those who don’t understand the basics of grammar is, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing:

“The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.”

Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched.

Pro Writing Aid made the same suggestion.

I have no idea why they make that suggestion, but you can see how a person blindly following mechanical advice could go wildly astray.

Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.

A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.

This is because these programs operate on algorithms defined by finite rules and will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation.

New writers should invest in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and learn how grammar works. If you don’t understand grammar or how to construct a sentence, a paragraph, or write dialogue, editing programs will just confuse and mislead you.

To get the best out of editing software, you must know the basics of how to write.

Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function.

Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

You might not agree with the program’s suggestions. You, the author, have control and can disregard suggested changes if, as illustrated above, they make no sense. I regularly reject weird suggestions.

However, when the editing program highlights something, I look at the problem sentence carefully. Just knowing that the way I phrased a sentence tripped the program’s algorithms encourages me to look at that passage with a critical eye.

I may not use the program’s suggestion, but something triggered the algorithm. That means my phrasing might need work. I may need to find a better way to get my idea across.

Even editors must have their work seen by other eyes—my blog posts are proof of this. I am the only one who sees them, and even though I write them in advance and go over them with two editing programs, and then look at them again before each post goes live, I still find silly errors two or three days later.

A good editing program is not cheap, but I feel it is a worthwhile investment. If you don’t have an editing program, you can find these words on your own.

If you are hasty or impatient, a global search can be dangerous and can mess up an otherwise good manuscript. I warn you, this is a boring, time-consuming task, but it is a crucial part of the job.

You can’t take shortcuts. If you are too impatient and choose to “Replace All” without carefully thinking things through, you run the risk of making a gigantic mess of your work. Some weed words are parts of other words, for example:

  • very—every
  • has—hasten, chasten

If you have decided something is a “crutch word,” examine the context. Inadvertent repetitions of certain words are easy to eliminate once we see them with a fresh eye.

Context is everything.

I can’t stress this enough: take the time to look at each example of the offending words individually.

It’s unfortunate, but there is no speedy way to do this. Every aspect of getting your book ready for the reading public must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

11 Comments

Filed under writing

Thoughts on the evolution of prose #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

And readers wanted that.

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know, but I’m having fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off on Thoughts on the evolution of prose #amwriting

Filed under writing

Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel Part 2 Word Choices #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that is what good writing is about.


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Creating Depth: Subtext #amwriting

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Choosing a Writing Group #amwriting

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you get home, ask yourself these questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

3 Comments

Filed under writing

Update on Work in Progress #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should you write in November?

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

Write fan-fiction.

Above all, have fun writing.

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

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

In the end, the story is what counts.

2 Comments

Filed under writing

The outline for pantsers #NaNoWriMo2019 amwriting

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

Sill, the outline helps me stay on track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act Three, the final 25% of the novel:

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

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

Chapters 15 – 22

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

>>><<<

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

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

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

When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:

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

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

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

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

3 Comments

Filed under writing