Tag Archives: #amwriting

Crisis and the point of no return #amwriting

In literature what is the “point of no return?” Scott Driscoll, on his blog, says, “This event or act represents the point of maximum risk and exposure for the main character (and precedes the crisis moment and climax).”

Crises, even small ones on the most personal of levels, are the fertile ground from which adventure springs. Most disasters are preceded by one or more points of no return; places where the protagonist could have made a different choice and trouble could have been avoided.

Our task as authors is to identify this plot point and make it subtly clear to the reader, even if only in hindsight.

In life we often find ourselves boxed into a corner, frantically dealing with things we could have avoided if only we had paid attention and not ignored the metaphoric “turn back now” signs.

I’ve used this prompt before, but it’s a good one, so here it is again:

Imagine a road trip where you are sent off on a detour in a city you’re unfamiliar with. What would happen if some of the signs were missing, detour signs telling you the correct way to go? Also missing is a one-way street warning sign.

At some point, before you realized the signs had been removed, there was a place you could have turned back. Unaware of the danger, you passed that stopping point and turned left when you should have turned right. Now you find yourself driving into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

That place where you could have turned around before you entered the danger zone was the point of no return for your adventure. Fortunately, in our hypothetical road-trip, no one was harmed, although you were honked at and verbally abused by the people who were endangered by your wrong turn. You made it safely out of danger, but you’ll never take a detour again without fearing the worst.

In contemporary fiction, literary fiction, romance—no matter what genre you are writing in, “arcs of action” drive the plot. A point of no return comes into play in every novel to some degree. The protagonists are in danger of losing everything because they didn’t recognize the warning signs, and they are pushed to the final confrontation whether they are ready for it or not.

Speculative fiction generally features a plot driven by a chain of events, small points of no return, each one progressively forcing the protagonist and his/her companions to their meeting with destiny.

Contemporary and literary fiction is also driven by a chain of small events. In some novels, this takes the protagonist to a confrontation with himself, or a family is forced to deal with long-simmering problems. Many times in literary fiction the point of no return looks like a non-event on the surface. But nevertheless, these events are the impetus of change.

In most literature, these scenes of action form arcs that rise to the Third Plot Point: the event that is either an actual death or a symbolic death. This event forces the protagonist to be greater than they believed they could be, OR it breaks them down to their component parts. Either way, the protagonist is changed by this crisis.

The struggle may have been fraught with hardship, but the final point of no return is the ultimate event that forces the showdown and face-to-face confrontation with the enemy—the climactic event.

No matter the genre, the story arc has certain commonalities—in literary fiction, they will be more subtle and internal than in an action adventure or space opera, but in all novels the characters experience growth/change forced on them by events.

During the build-up to the final point of no return, you must develop your characters’ strengths. You must identify the protagonist’s goals early on and clarify why he/she must struggle to achieve them.

  1. How does the protagonist react to being thwarted in his efforts?
  2. How does the antagonist currently control the situation?
  3. How does the protagonist react to pressure from the antagonist?
  4. How does the struggle deepen the relationships between the protagonist and his cohorts/romantic interest?
  5. What complications arise from a lack of information regarding the conflict?
  6. How will the characters acquire that necessary information?

Misfortune and struggle create opportunities for your character to grow as a person or to change for the worse. We must place obstacles in our protagonists’ path that will stretch their abilities, and which are believable, so that by the end of the book they are strong enough to face the final event and denouement.

Remember, each time the characters in a book overcome an obstruction, the reader is rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction. That reward keeps the reader turning pages.

It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing in: you could be writing romances, thrillers, paranormal fantasy, or contemporary chick lit—obstacles in the protagonist’s path to happiness make for satisfying conclusions.

The books I love to read are crafted in such a way that we get to know the characters, see them in their environment, and then an incident happens, thrusting the hero down the road to divorce court, or trying to head off a nuclear melt-down.

After all, sometimes a dinner party happens, and the next day our Hobbit finds himself walking to the Misty Mountains with a group of Dwarves he only just met, leaving home with nothing but the clothes on his back. In chasing after them, Bilbo has passed the first point of no return. I say this because after having heard the stories and listened to their song, and after having seen the map, even if he were to turn back and stay home, Bilbo would have been forever changed by regret for what he didn’t have the courage to do.

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Conflict, the core of the story #amwriting

cuckoo_definition_thefreedictionary_lirfI began my current project with an idea for a character, and I knew what the ultimate end of the story is because it is already canon in the Tower of Bones series. The difficulty I have had was devising a completely different culture, the pre-culture if you will.

In the time of the Tower of Bones series, the Temple of Aeos is a finely-tuned machine that serves to distribute food and medical care to the poorer communities, provides education to everyone, provides military protection when needed, and maintains the roads that connect the communities. Mages are sworn to serve the goddess Aeos, and the people of Neveyah, even at the cost of their lives. Although it’s not bandied about, the Temple’s primary function is to find mage-gifted children before their untrained gift wreaks havoc in their communities. Untrained mages have a high chance of becoming the tool of the Bull God, Tauron.

In the current work-in-progress the Temple doesn’t exist. It is born into existence because of the struggles of two larger-than-life characters and the events of these two books.

When I decided to write this story, I had to ask myself three questions. The answers to these questions are what shapes the story arc.

1: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

My protagonist and antagonist are each chosen as champions of their deities. The one who wins decides which deity rules Neveyah, the usurper or the rightful goddess. There is more than simply a world at stake here—the balance of the worlds is threatened as there must be one world for each living god, and even though he is imprisoned, Ariend still lives.

One deity, the mad god Tauron, is the cuckoo in their nest. He was not born a child of the Mother of All as were the others, but simply appeared one day and was taken in, which upset the balance of the universe.  When no new goddess appeared to be his mate, Tauron’s loneliness caused his descent into madness.

Angry at being denied a wife, Tauron desires to rule the universe and began his quest by assaulting his brother Ariend to claim Aeos as his wife. This was the apocalyptic “Sundering of the Worlds” and nearly destroyed the societies of three worlds.

He has claimed half of Ariend’s world and intends to have the rest. He will take Aeos and her world, believing it is his due.

However, with the imprisonment of Ariend, the gods can no longer interact directly with each other, but must instead act through their champions, who have free will. Religion features strongly in this series, and the concepts of good and evil, moral right and wrong.

2: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Each man desires to unite Neveyah under the banner of his deity. Alf follows Aeos, Goddess of Hearth and Home, who created the world of Neveyah.

Daryk follows Tauron, the Bull God, who created the world of Serende and who imprisoned Aeos’s husband, Ariend the Mountain God, in his effort to force Aeos to become his wife.

Map of the North and the Barbarian Towns, in the time of AelfridAlf’s best friend has triggered a mage trap and fallen to the Dark God. His wife has left him and dumped their sick child on him, and he has been chosen for a task he doesn’t want—that of Shaman. He believes that the Barbarian Tribes are the key to defeating Tauron because their culture is strongly rooted in the concept of community. Each member of the community can defend themselves against raiders, something the people living in the citadels of the south have forgotten.

With the triggering of the trap, Daryk has shed the weakness that was his life as a follower of Aeos. He now understands that only the strong deserve to survive and rule Neveyah, and he believes the Barbarian Tribes are the key to defeating Aeos, as they are trained in war craft.

 

3: What will they do to get it? How far will each go to achieve their desire?

At times, the line between what is moral and immoral is blurred, as both societies are fundamentally flawed. Both men will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, although of the two, only Alf is burdened with regrets for the choices he makes.

This is the core conflict. How my characters deal with it is the story.


Credits and Attributions:

Cuckoo in the nest definition, The Free Dictionary,

https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+cuckoo+in+the+nest, accessed June 12, 2018.

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Thoughts on the craft #amwriting

We who write all begin this journey with a story we think would make a great book, and a certain amount of natural talent for storytelling. However, unless we have an exceptional memory for the obscure and boring lectures we endured in grade-school grammar, authors who are serious about the craft must learn how to write.

This means they must learn how to construct a sentence using accepted rules of grammar. They must also learn how to construct a story, so it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The core features of a great story are:

  • Originality
  • Plausibility
  • Plot arc
  • Character arc
  • A satisfying end

Within those pages, we want to see:

  • Unique characters
  • Well visualized settings
  • Compelling dialogue
  • Tension and pacing
  • Hooks and transitions that make a reader want to turn the page

Knowledge of grammar and writing craft is crucial if you want a reader to stay with your story. As I’ve mentioned before, commas are to clauses what traffic signals are to streets—they govern the flow of traffic, although, in the case of sentences, the traffic is comprised of words, not cars.

The opportunity to learn writing craft is out there on the internet, and it costs nothing.

Education in America is under fire at all levels. The determined learner can still get that education simply by going to the library and asking questions. Start there and use the information you glean there to lead you to other places to learn writing craft via the internet.

This is why it is crucial for us to support the libraries in our towns, both financially if possible, and with our patronage. In places where the education system is broken, libraries are the last bastion of opportunity for both children and adults with limited funds and unlimited curiosity.

If you are fortunate enough to have a secondhand bookstore in your town, purchase secondhand books on writing craft, and invest in technical manuals detailing different aspects of writing.

For the financially strapped author wanting to increase their knowledge, an amazing resource is the website Writers’ Digest. They are also for profit, but they offer an incredible amount of information and assistance for free.

So here are several sources of online information about the craft of writing (and I’ve listed them before):

I’ve also mentioned before that Harlequin has one of the best websites for teaching authors how to develop professional work habits, which is critical to being productive. I highly recommend you go to websites that specialize in writing romance novels regardless of what genre you write in.

I say this because the romance publishers have it right: they want to sell books, and they want you to succeed:

  • They get down to the technical aspects of novel construction and offer many excellent tools for getting your work out the door in a timely fashion–something I need to work on.
  • They also offer tips on marketing your work.

Many authors are able to get a degree in creative writing. But many talented authors don’t have the money or education to get into a program like that. They are working day jobs to support their families and money is tight.

However, an education can be obtained at little or no cost–but it takes effort and determination. Though we may not have the money or time to get an official degree, many of us will become knowledgeable the craft of writing by obtaining information in bits and pieces over time. This is the method I have used–a combination of some college classes, writers’ workshops, and many hours of reading books on the craft of writing.

If you only have two books on your desk, one should be the Chicago Manual of Style, and the other should be the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus. Besides those two books, these are a few of the books I keep in hard-copy and refer to regularly:

Story, by Robert McKee

Dialogue, by Robert McKee

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda

Rhetorical Grammar, by Martha Kolin and Loretta Gray

You may not be able to afford to take writing classes or have the time to go to college and get that degree. But you may be able to afford to buy a few books on the craft, and it’s to your advantage to try to build your reference library with books that speak to you and your style. You will gravitate to books that may be different than mine, and that is good. But some aspects of our craft are absolute, nearly engraved in stone, and these are the basic concepts you will find explained in these manuals.

Reading is the key. Read widely, and you will begin to understand many different forms of literature. We all know that reading widens your horizons and opens your mind to possibilities in your own work that you otherwise wouldn’t consider.

Most importantly, you must lose the fear of being stuck reading works you don’t enjoy.

An essential skill for you to gain as a writer is the ability to clearly identify what you don’t like about a given work.

By reading widely, you will become less inclined to make broad statements, such as “I don’t like sci-fi.” You will be able to identify what it is that you don’t like about a given novel rather than dismissing an entire genre.

So much can be done at no cost financially, but it does require a desire to learn and the willingness to try.

If you have some funds to dedicate to learning the craft of writing, you can take online classes or attend seminars in your local area.

Look at the calendar of your local library and see if they are offering any FREE seminars on writing craft. If you check in your local area, you will be surprised just how many opportunities there are to learn about the craft of creative writing.


Credits/Attributions

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis (Self-photographed) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons, accessed Feb 26, 2017

The Chicago Manual of Style, University of Chicago Press; Seventeenth edition (September 5, 2017) Fair Use

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When your Sequel Makes a 90 Degree Turn, by @StephenSwartz1

My good friend, author Stephen Swartz, had a brilliant post this weekend on plot and the three-act structure. I couldn’t explain it better, so here is his post. Please, do click on the link at the bottom of the excerpt and go out to his post and read it to the end!


A week ago, SUNRISE, the sequel to my 2014 vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN launched and let me tell you it has been anything but a roller-coaster ride. In fact, when my personal copies arrives I was so excited I did not open the box for a day. Then I picked one up and routinely flipped through it to be sure there were no ink splotches on any page. You see, I’ve read it already – about 15 times!

But I cannot let it be. There is a third book to write if this is going to be a trilogy. I kinda expected to give it the trilogy treatment when I started Book II. Of course, it’s been three years since Book I came out. I thought that would be it, the end, one and done in the genre of literary horror. I am not even a horror author. I just needed to prove something to my teenage daughter: the truth about vampires! But I digress…

It was easy to set up Stefan Szekely’s departure from his family castle, leaving his vampire parents behind. I simply replicated my own history with my parents. I extrapolated a vampire version and recited similar scripts. How does the adult child relate to the elderly parents?


Stephen goes on to show us how he employs the three-act structure for plotting the story arc, with excellent graphics to illustrate it. You can find the rest of Stephen’s article here at his website, Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire.  Please click on the link to find the best parts of this informative post.

When your Sequel Makes a 90 Degree Turn

 

Stephen Swartz is the author of literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, romance, and contemporary horror novels. While growing up in Kansas City, he dreamed of traveling the world. His novels feature exotic locations, foreign characters, and smatterings of other languages–strangers in strange lands. You get the idea: life imitating art.

After studying music and even composing a symphony, Stephen planned to be a music teacher before turning to fiction writing. Today Stephen teaches writing at a university in Oklahoma. Stephen Swartz has published poetry, stories, essays, and articles for scholarly journals in the U.S. and Japan.

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Style and Voice #amwriting

The literary voice is the way a story is told. Literary voice has been compared to  music. We’ve all noticed how a well-known song can sound so different, depending on who is performing it. The words are the same, the basic melody is there, but some performances shine while others miss the mark.

The distinctive style of each writer forms when we engage personally with a topic and impart our personality to that piece of literature. We are each islands in a vast sea of writers, and the view from our place in the universe is slightly different from that of our fellows.

Therefore, how we convey what we see and imagine has an identifiable sound that is ours alone. Phrasing, word choices, these are the recognizable sounds of our literary style. Our habitual writing style is our unique fingerprint, the author’s voice.

However, voice is often what we love or hate about a certain author’s work. Editors for publications are readers who are looking for the best work to publish in their magazine or anthology. If a story has great characters and a good story arc, voice is what will attract or repel them.

These are the holy trinity that combines to make a classic tale:

  • great characters
  • unique voice
  • gripping plot

You may have noticed plot is listed last—and it is last for a reason. If the characters are not engaging and the writer’s style isn’t to my taste, the plot alone won’t sell me that book.

What is the writer’s voice? Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, says:  The writer’s voice is the individual writing style of an author, a combination of their common usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).

Don’t confuse lazy writing with style. Lazy writers

  • Use too many quantifiers “It was really big.” “It was incredibly awesome.”
  • “Tell” the story instead of showing it: “Bert was mad.”
  • Swamp the reader with minute details: “Mary’s eyebrows drew together, her lips turned down, and her cheeks popped a dimple.”
  • Ruin the taste of their work with an avalanche of prettily written descriptors: “-ly” words
  • Have their characters natter on about nothing just to kill time. It doesn’t show them as human, it shows them as boring.

Lazy writers don’t realize how smart their readers are. We don’t have to offer up every minute detail of breakfast. Broad strokes will paint the picture.

In contrast, some enthusiastic writers go overboard in trying to create beautiful, literary prose. They’re confusing contrived writing with literary style.

Literary agent, Noah Lukeman, in his book The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, says, “All of these writers think they add a distinctive flavor, a ‘richness’ to the text, but more often than not they are just indulging themselves—thus the term ‘self-indulgent’—a common symptom of the over-styled manuscript.”

As we grow in the craft, our style becomes more cohesive, less self-indulgent, and more able to reflect our ideas. Certain habits will remain, the core of who we are and how we express ourselves. This is our voice.

It gets a little confusing when voice can also mean the tense in which the narrative is presented. English is a language where one word can have a multitude of meanings and context is critical. Some writers incorrectly use the terms voice and point of view interchangeably, so when they are talking about third voice, they mean Third Person Point of View. In this case, they are speaking of the main character’s voice, how she tells her story.

In this aspect, there are two voices to every narrative: the author’s voice, and the character’s voice.

Narration is the use of a written or spoken commentary to convey a story to an audience. Perspective and voice are components of the narrative.

Wikipedia says “Narrative point of view or narrative perspective describes the position of the narrator, that is, the character of the storyteller, in relation to the story being told. It can be thought of as a camera mounted on the narrator’s shoulder that can also look back inside the narrator’s mind.” It also explains that a narrative consists of three components:

  • Narrative point of view: the perspective (or type of personal or non-personal “lens”) through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative voice: the format (or type presentational form) through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative time: the grammatical placement  of the story’s time-frame in the past, the present, or the future.

Anyone who is a member of a critique group is regularly beaten over the head with certain basically good, but occasionally clichéd, rules. Improperly applied, this mindless interpretation of proper grammatical style can inhibit an author’s growth.

These rules are fundamentally sound but cannot be rigidly applied across the board to every sentence. For editing and also for writing, when I have questions about grammar I rely on The Chicago Manual of Style, but I also understand common sense.

Again it’s all about context. Sometimes a sentence that is grammatically incorrect sounds better, especially in dialogue. The bold writer sometimes breaks grammatical laws to write great books. How they habitually break those laws is their fingerprint, their style.

English is a living language. As such it is in a continual state of evolution and phrasing that made sense one-hundred years ago may not work well in today’s English. We may be writing a period piece, but we are writing it for modern readers. Nevertheless,

  • You can split an infinitive: it is acceptable to boldly go where you will.
  • You can begin a sentence with a conjunction if you so choose. And no one will die if you do.

How you apply grammar, the words you gravitate to, the point of view you work best in—these are the identifiable aspects of your voice as an author. Your writing style is a combination of how you speak through your pen or keyboard, how you craft your prose—your voice.

As Noah Lukeman’s book tells us, your author’s voice should not be so distinct and loud that it makes your prose obnoxious. Sharing your work in the early stages with an interested reader who will be honest with you can help you avoid some of the pitfalls in developing your style and voice. Find a good editor you can work with, one who will understand your stylistic choices, but who will guide you away from bad writing. This is money that is well spent.

Write something new every day, even if it is only a paragraph. Of all the advice I have to offer, this is the most important because if you don’t write, you have no voice, no style, no story.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, by Noah Lukeman, published by Simon and Shuster, © 2000.

Wikipedia contributors, “Narration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Narration&oldid=777375141 (accessed Mar 18, 2018).

 

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Semicolon; Comma Splice, Comma #amwriting

My previous post on the em dash brought up some interesting comments, so I thought we should review the rules for the punctuation that we use and abuse so regularly. I have covered all of these before, so if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!

First up, the semicolon. This joining punctuation is not complicated, once you know the one rule about when to use semicolons:

  1. If you join two clauses with a semicolon, each clause must be a complete sentence, and they must relate to each other. In other words, they must be two short sentences expanding on ONE idea.

If your two short sentences don’t relate to each other, use a period at the end of each clause and make them separate sentences. You’re an author, for the love of Tolstoy. Use your creativity and reword those little sentences, so they aren’t choppy.

Two separate ideas done wrong: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.

The first sentence is one whole idea: they want to go somewhere. The second sentence is a completely different idea: it’s telling you the time.

Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of time is important: We should go to the Dairy Queen soon. They close at eight, and it’s nearly half past five.

If time is the issue in both clauses and you want it to be once sentence, use a semicolon, reword it to say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”

Alternatively you can join them with the em dash. My personal inclination is to find alternatives to both semicolons and em dashes, as they can easily create run-on sentences. I don’t dislike them, as some editors do, but I think they are too easily abused and misused. My rule for you is this: Semicolons should not be used if you are in doubt.

Some authors will do anything to avoid using a semicolon, which is ridiculous. However, they see their work is a little choppy, so they join the independent clauses with commas. That is a grammar no-no. You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuumthe Dreaded Comma Splice. If you join independent clauses with commas and we all die, you’ll only have yourself to blame because I did warn you.

Comma Splice: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu and I like it, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

Same two thoughts, written correctly: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu, and I like it. The dog likes to ride shotgun.

But what do we join with commas? Commas are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find commas separating certain clauses. Some simple rules to remember:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause because every reader sees the narrative differently.

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

  1. In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.

I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package. A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! My English teacher very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses.”

I’m sorry, but she probably did explain that exception. It just didn’t stick in your memory.

Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and’ and you don’t need a comma.

Think of it as a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma.  I am buying apples and then going to the car wash.

If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea. This is called the Oxford comma, or the serial comma.

I must buy apples, go to the car wash, and then go to the library.

Oh yes, Grasshopper. We do use serial commas to prevent confusion. In March of 2017, the New York Times reported that the omission of a comma between words in a list in a lawsuit cost a Maine company millions of dollars.

One habit I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:

  1. Do not place a comma before the word ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.

Grammar doesn’t have to be a mystery. If we want to write narratives that all speakers of English from Houston to Brisbane can read, we must learn the simple common rules of the road. To this end, I recommend investing in The Chicago Guide to Grammar and Punctuation. It is based on The Chicago Manual of Style but it’s smaller and the contents are easier to navigate.

If your prose feels wonky to you, and you know the punctuation is weird but think a reader won’t notice, you are wrong. Take the plunge and open the grammar book, and look up the rules. You will become more confident in your writing, and your work will go faster. Editing will certainly go faster!

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em dash, en dash #amwriting

Over the years, as I’ve become a professional writer, I have learned what I know about my craft by not only experiencing the editing process but by availing myself of the Chicago Manual of Style. I regularly attend seminars on writing craft and have invested in many books written by editors and famous authors.

I do write reviews for books I enjoyed, and in the course of reading for two review blogs, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes instead of proper punctuation when they are trying to emphasize a particular thought.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and that habit bleeds over into my first drafts.  It’s incredibly easy to rely on them too heavily. However, I find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph or even on every page. If we think about it, the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. It is useful to emphasize certain ideas but should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So how DO we use them?

Hyphens join certain compound words. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash. See my blogpost of February 12, 2018, on the subject of how to use Hyphens.

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways.

One is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ Another is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

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

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

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash serves as a comma, does the same task as parentheses, and also does the work of the colon. Used in these situations, the em dash creates a slightly less formal effect and is a useful tool in the author’s arsenal.

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

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

They can be more emphatic than a comma and will really set apart any clause bracketed by them. In dialogue, we don’t use semicolons to join short related independent clauses. Instead, we use em dashes. Used sparingly, and not in every paragraph, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding.

Unfortunately, in the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, I tend to use them far too frequently, and in my hands, they lose their effectiveness.

I regularly find them sprinkled through my work, maniacally creating run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

Properly, an author should use a comma, a semi colon, or a period to create that dramatic break, because too many em dashes are like too many curse words: they lose their power when used too freely.  Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, has been quoted as saying “People use the em dash because they know you can’t use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”  

So what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause?

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON = Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete sentences where the conjunction has been left out. Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) The sentences must be directly related to each other. If they are not related, use a period and make them stand alone.
  • COLON = Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words(such as namelyfor example, or that is) do not appear. Here is the list of fruits: apples, oranges, and bananas.

Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are like any other drug. Authors and editors become addicted to using them. Perhaps this plague of dashes has occurred because they don’t understand the basic rules of the road regarding periods, colons, and semicolons. Get a copy of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and crack it open; you will be amazed at what you find. The wise author will make use of this excellent tool.

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

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

That wonderful paragraph says it all. Em dashes have their place, but any easy crutch is to be avoided when it comes to writing a good narrative. As in all things, common sense is the rule of the day.

My personal writing goal is to find ways to set important phrases off within the framework of a sentence without relying so heavily on the em dash. This means I must write as creatively as possible, with intention and deliberate phrasing and I must make proper use of punctuation.

Wow. What a concept!


Credits and Attributions:

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

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynn Truss, Publisher: Avery April 2004.

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Asking the right questions #amwriting

Sometimes we find ourselves  in the position of having to do research, even when a piece is not intended to be historically accurate. I write many things that are centered around Arthurian legends, and I am fortunate that a lot of tales still exist that were written during the Middle Ages. Nowadays much is being discovered about the real King Arthur through solid archaeology, and he is being discovered as a man of the 6th century.

But I am drawn to the popular legends, giving him a mythological place in our chivalric canon of romantic tales, written during the 11th through the 15th centuries. These accounts make him a man of their times, dressing him in their fashions and giving him their ideals and values.

The High Middle Ages were a golden period for historical writing in England, but the craft of researching history scientifically was not an academic subject taught in school. The gathering of historical tales was a hobby for educated men who had the time, social position, and the talents to pursue it.

As a result, the histories from this period are highly questionable–but are quite entertaining and are great fantasy reads. I’ve said this before: if J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing history in a monastery during the 7th and 8th century, The Lord of the Rings would have the same place in our historical narrative that the Arthurian Cycle has now, and Aragorn would have been the king who united all of Britain.

Nowadays Galahad is a minor knight, but he figures prominently in Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 work, Le Morte d’Arthura reworking of traditional tales that were hundreds of years old even in his day. Versions of Galahad appear regularly in my work. I studied Medieval Literature in college and found his story both diverse and fascinating. Many tales abound referencing him. But, what is the original story of Galahad that is bandied about most often? We know early Arthurian legend was highly influenced by the authors’ contemporaries, the Knights Templar.

Neither Arthur nor any of his knights could possibly have been Templars, but by modernizing and dressing his court in contemporary ideals, those medieval authors made Galahad into a superhero.

Traditionally, Sir Galahad, a Knight of the Round Table, finds the Holy Grail and immediately goes to heaven, raptured as a virgin – but was he? I mean raptured OR a virgin?  If he was not raptured, what could have happened to make medieval chroniclers think he was?

So, why was this notion of a virgin knight and being taken to heaven before death so important to medieval chroniclers that they would write it as though it was true history?

Well, they were writing some 300 to 400 years after the supposed event, during the final decades of the Crusades. Religion and belief in the Christian truths espoused by the Church were in the very air the people of the time breathed. All things of this world were bound up and explained in ways relating to the Christian traditions of the day.

Literature in those days was filled with religious allegories, the most popular of which were the virginity and holiness of the Saints—especially those Saints deemed holy enough to be raptured. These people did not have to experience death but instead were raised while still alive to heaven where they spent eternity in God’s presence.

A few years ago I was challenged to write an Arthurian tale with a steampunk twist. I accepted the task, but immediately wished I hadn’t, as it just seemed an impossible leap.

The first question I asked myself was: Where do Arthurian legend and steampunk connect well enough to make a story? The answer was—they don’t. I felt that block we all feel when the story will not reveal itself.

But, sitting on my back porch and letting my mind roam, I found myself wondering what Galahad and Gawain would have really been like. The people those characters were based on were men of the 5th or 6th century, ordinary men, and despite the heroic legends, they were made of flesh and blood.

And what if somehow Galahad got separated from Gawain through a door in time? How would Galahad get back to Gawain?  What if he was marooned in Edwardian England, with Merlin – can you say steampunk?

The title of that tale is Galahad HawkeThe main character is Galahad Du Lac, son of Lancelot Du Lac, illegitimate, some have said, but is he really? If he is, it implies the fifth century was a lot less concerned about the proprieties than we give them credit for. His line of work is that of a nobleman and hero. Thus, he goes on quests to find strange and magical objects such as Holy Grail.

The story was told in the first person point of view. I opened the story just after the Grail was found. Knowing that history and fantasy merge in the Early Middle Ages, I approached my story by asking these questions:

  1. What does Galahad have to say about his story?
  2. What if he and Gawain were lovers?
  3. How does he end up separated from Gawain?
  4. How does Galahad end up in Merlin’s company?
  5. Why are they unable to get back to Gawain?
  6. What is the reason the magic no longer works?
  7. What do they do to resolve the situation?
  8. How does the tale end – does Galahad get Gawain back or is he permanently adrift in time?

I wrote it two ways and picked the ending that moved me the most.

Often, I begin the process of creation by sitting down with a pencil and paper. I identify the core conflict, and then ask the five important “W” questions, (who, what, when, where, and why).

Asking questions and listing the answers is the key to unlocking the potential of any story idea. Through the experience of writing Galahad Hawke, I discovered that my characters can tell me a great deal if I let them.

Things got out of hand on the home front this last summer, most of which I spent caring for an injured son. My ability to write creatively was affected.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot how effective this crucial part of the process can be. I felt derailed at times, and what I was writing didn’t feel true. By returning to the basics and asking questions, I have given myself a new framework to hang my current stories on.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Sir Arthur Hughes, 1870, PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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Hyphens #amwriting

When creating my world of Neveyah for the Tower of Bones series, I discovered that hyphens are the gateway  to writer’s hell. I put together compound words, hyphenated to make them specific to that world.

I did this, not realizing I would be stuck writing these words consistently hyphenated for years… and years….

Take my advice and do not use a hyphen in your invented words unless the universe will dissolve without it.

In the real world, if a compound adjective cannot be misread or its meaning is firmly established, a hyphen is not necessary.

Words that are single words and don’t need a hyphen:

  • backstabbing
  • backstabber
  • (a) breakup as in (a) divorce, break up as in taking apart
  • breathtaking
  • comeback as in succeeding again, come back as in return to me
  • counterintuitive
  • counterproductive
  • downright
  • herself
  • himself
  • hobnob
  • latchkey
  • mainstream
  • midweek
  • myself
  • nevertheles
  • newfound
  • nighttime
  • nonetheless
  • nonstop
  • overdo
  • overexpose
  • overpriced
  • overrated
  • oversized
  • roundup as in a rodeo, round up as in a review or the next highest round number
  • secondhand
  • selfish
  • sidekick
  • sightseeing
  • straightforward
  • woebegone
  • yourself

A few words do require a hyphen to ensure their meaning is what you intended:

Wikipedia says: Compound modifiers are groups of two or more words that jointly modify the meaning of another word. When a compound modifier other than an adverb–adjective combination appears before a term, the compound modifier is often hyphenated to prevent misunderstandings, such as in American-football player or little-celebrated paintings. Without the hyphen, there is potential confusion about whether the writer means a “player of American football” or an “American player of football” and whether the writer means paintings that are “little celebrated” or “celebrated paintings” that are little.

Compound modifiers can extend to three or more words, as in ice-cream-flavored candy, and can be adverbial as well as adjectival (spine-tinglingly frightening). However, if the compound is a familiar one, it is usually unhyphenated. For example, at least one style guide prefers the construction high school students, to high-school students.

Words that DO need a hyphen:

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building

Some compounds are improvised to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds start out as improvised compounds but become so widely accepted that they are included in the dictionary as permanent compounds. Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are words like

  • know-it-all
  • heart-stopping
  • free-for-all (as in a rumpus)
  • down-at-the-heels

Context determines whether to hyphenate or not.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?” If your intended meaning is clear without the hyphen, leave it out.

Wikipedia offers the following examples:

  • Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)
  • Wild-goose chase (a hunt for resulting in nothing) as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a chasing a goose that is wild.
  • Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which in legalese could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)
  • Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which implies you have no liability protection).

A crucial task for you as an author is to make a stylesheet that pertains to your manuscript. Create a list detailing words that must be capitalized, which ones are hyphenated, and include the proper spellings of names for all people and places.

Some people use Scrivener for this and swear by it. For myself, I don’t need a fancy word-processing program with a difficult learning curve—my life is complicated enough as it is. You can make a simple list or go wild and make a spreadsheet. I use Excel to make storyboards that are my style guides for each novel or tale I write, and for every book I edit.

You can do this in Google Docs too, and that program is free–the perfect price for the starving author.

Regardless of how you create your stylesheet, I suggest you include these elements:

  • List invented Words and all Names spelled the way you intend them to be written forever, noting whether it is two words (De Mal), hyphenated (De-Mal), or two syllables connected with an apostrophe (D’Mal)
  • Note the page number on which the word first appears so you can check back for consistency.
  • If it is not a person’s name, list the meaning and how it is used, for example, if the word denotes a city, or an animal, or plant, etc.

Refer to this style sheet frequently and update it with every change you make to spelling in your manuscript.

I learned this the hard way. Making a stylesheet for a book after it has been written is a daunting task, and most editors will ask you for one when they accept your submission. Some editors refer to this as the ‘bible’ for that manuscript because all editorial decisions regarding consistency will be based on the spellings and style treatments you have established for your work.

I do suggest you go lightly when it comes to hyphens and apostrophes in your invented words. The reader likely won’t notice them too much, but they can become annoyances for you when you’re trying to ensure consistency in your narrative. Whether it is a handwritten list, an Excel spreadsheet, a WORD document, or in a program like Scrivener, a simple directory of compound words and phrases that are unique to the world you have created will be invaluable to you and your editor.

 


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Hyphen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Hyphen&oldid=824118099 (accessed February 11, 2018).

 

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#Writerlife101 Day 7: Worst writing advice #amwriting

Writing advice is good because beginning authors need to learn the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations. The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a wider vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds, etc., etc. Authors spend a lifetime learning their craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject.

Writing advice is bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

  • Remove all adverbs.
    This advice is complete crap. Use common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.
  • Don’t use speech tags.
    What? Who said that and why are there no speech tags in this drivel?
  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

Quote from Susan Defreitas for Lit Reactor: Sure, hot tears, a pounding pulse, and clenched fists can stand in for sadness, fear, and anger. But that type of showing can not only become cartoony, it doesn’t actually show what this specific character is specifically feeling. In order to do that, you either have to relay the thought process giving rise to those emotions or you should have already set up some key bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

Well, that takes all the adventure out of writing. Did Tolkien actually go to Middle Earth and visit a volcano? No, but he did serve in WWI, and lived and worked in Oxford, which is not notable for abounding in elves, hobbits, or orcs. Your life experiences and interests shape your writing, but your imagination is the fuel and the source of the story.

  • If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.

Quote from Helen Scheuerer for Writer’s Edit: Your reader hasn’t spent the last year or more combing through your novel like you have, so that’s just silly. I’ve seen this advice everywhere in the last year, and it bothers me – it just doesn’t take into consideration how hard writing is. Yes, we love it, yes, we don’t want to do anything else, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a challenge at times, it doesn’t mean that it’s not work.

Bad writing advice goes on and on.

Kill your darlings. It’s true we shouldn’t be married to our favorite prose. Sometimes we must cut a paragraph or chapter we love because it no longer fits the story. But just because you like something you wrote doesn’t mean you should cut it. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it was the best part of that paragraph.

Cut all exposition. So, why we are in this handbasket, and where we are going? Some background is essential. How you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story.

Bad advice is good advice taken to an extreme. It has become a part of our writing culture because all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Overuse of adverbs ruins the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing is boring and can be disgusting. Find that happy medium!
  • Know your subject . Do the research and if necessary, interview people in that profession. Readers often know more than you do about certain things.

New authors rely on handy, commonly debated mantras because they must educate themselves. Unless they are fortunate enough to be able to get a formal education in the subject, beginning authors must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides to learn the many nuances of writing craft. These guides are great, useful books, but they are written by people who assume you will use common sense as you develop your voice and style.

Hack writers bludgeon their work to death, desperately trying to fit their square work into round holes. In the process, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners, and a great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors learn the craft of writing and apply the advice of the gurus gently, producing work that stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.


Credits and Attributions:

The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear (and Probably Already Have), by Susan Defreitas April 11, 2014, https://litreactor.com/columns/the-ten-worst-pieces-of-writing-advice-you-will-ever-hear-and-probably-already-have,  © 2016 LitReactor, LLC (Accessed 05 February 2018.)

The Worst Writing Advice, by Helen Scheuerer, https://writersedit.com/fiction-writing/worst-writing-advice/, Writer’s Edit Copyright © 2018. (Accessed 05 February 2018.)

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