Tag Archives: #amwriting

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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under writing

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).

 

12 Comments

Filed under writing

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!

11 Comments

Filed under writing

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.

22 Comments

Filed under writing

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

5 Comments

Filed under writing

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).

 

12 Comments

Filed under writing

#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.)

46 Comments

Filed under writing

To schedule writing time or to wing it? #amwriting

I think that to be a writer, you must be obsessed with your own art, taking and making time to write. There is no other way to produce a finished book.

But to be a happy writer, you must have a balanced life. What is the point of life if you’re so busy writing about fictional lives that you aren’t present in your own?

That need to be present in my real life is why I schedule my writing time.

Some people manage to fit short bursts of writing into their daily schedule, writing at work while on break or at lunch. Others must schedule a dedicated block of time for writing, by either rising two hours before they must depart for work or by skipping TV in the evening.

I fall into both categories.

When I am gripped with a new idea, I find myself stopping off and on all day as I go about the business of daily life, making notes, quickly getting down any thoughts that occur. This is a habit I developed when I was employed outside my home. Until 2012, I was like everyone else, with a job and commitments that took precedence over any writing I might have wanted to do. I saw very little television in those days, as evenings and weekends were my only time for writing, making art, or for reading.

Now that I’m retired from working outside my home, six in the morning until noon are my best working hours. Unfortunately, being retired means you are always available when a crisis occurs. Events happen that disturb my writing schedule, but I usually forgive the perpetrators and allow them to live. At that point, I revert to writing whenever I have a free moment.

I’m a less than enthusiastic housekeeper even when not writing, but I keep things dug out. I’m like every other person. I make a stab at vacuuming and dusting, and cleaning bathrooms. I do laundry and change the beds regularly. These are the tasks everyone does, chores that keep our homes livable. I fit these chores into my writing time the way I used to fit writing into my working life.

But there is one hard, inviolable rule in my home, a rule of my own making. Whatever else happens during the day, we sit down to the table and eat dinner together. We turn off the television and turn on quiet music and enjoy the meal as a family. Then we work together to clear the table and clean the kitchen, continuing any discussions that were begun during dinner. This time of the day is dedicated to keeping the lines of communication open and maintaining the connections that bind us.

When my children were in school, I made dinner a priority. After school activities and sports sometimes interfered but for the most part, the evening meal was the one sure meeting place for my family all through “the blender years” of child-rearing.

Balance is the key to a happy life. We want to feel productive and creative, and we want to share our lives and interests with others. Creativity applies to everything from making a meal, to painting, to coming up with a business plan. Your spouse or child’s creative bent may be wildly different from yours, but if you want their support, you must be supportive of them. Therefore, we who write should set aside a specific time to write, allowing us to be creative and still be supportive of our families who all have activities and interests of their own.

In many ways, to be a writer is to be supremely selfish—about every aspect of life. It also requires discipline and the ability to set aside an hour or two just for that pursuit, a pocket of time where no one is allowed to disturb you. It might be good to encourage your family members to use that time to indulge in their interests and artistic endeavors.

Write when and where you can, and the rest of the time you must live and love with the same intensity that you write.

20 Comments

Filed under writing

Chapter length #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long should a chapter 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.

Some authors make each scene, no matter how short, a chapter. They will end up with 100 or more chapters in their books, and that is perfectly fine.

Other authors try to set a word-count limit. I personally have found that 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length, and most scenes seem to average that. One series of my books has  longer chapters, as it is really a collection of stories surrounding the main character. In that series, each story forms a chapter and sometime they are longer than 3,000 words.

Within the arc of the entire story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began. Once you have decided what length you are comfortable with for your chapters, longer scenes can be an entire chapter on their own, or several scenes can be chained together to make a chapter.

When you chain scenes together within one chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing 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, and this is my preferred choice. I don’t think that is completely necessary in every case, but you should limit point of view changes. 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, you must change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, 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.”)

So now we come to a second question: Should I just use numbers, or give the 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.

How do you want your book constructed? 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.

20 Comments

Filed under writing

Hard truths about the industry #amwriting

I love reading,  and always review the books I enjoyed. For every book I feel good about recommending, I may have to read six that are just plain awful. I’m not only talking Indies here—large publishing houses publish many novels every year that are a waste of paper and digital space. These travesties should never have made it past the gateway editor, much less the eye of an experienced agent.

This goes beyond my not caring for the style or voice of the piece. I’m talking lack of proofreading, garbled sentences, lack of knowledge of how to use words like ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, and misspelled words. This happens in traditionally published work as well as Indie, which should be embarrassing to the Big 5, but apparently isn’t.

Some books are so badly edited it seems like the author is the only person who has ever seen the manuscript. One glance at the first pages of the “look inside” option at Amazon and the other large online booksellers can show how abysmal a book is going to be, so use that tool and don’t buy a book that you haven’t had a look at first.

Other novels are moderately edited but not by a professional or someone who understands the craft of writing. This is a flaw that can drive away all but the most determined readers, people who would ignore most typos and slight inconsistencies for a good tale.

My own first novel was published by a small press. It was a good example of bad editing: the unbiased eye of an experienced, educated editor could have made a great novel out of a promising tale. Instead, I paid for work that wasn’t done (having to pay your publisher for editing is a red flag, btw) and the book was published without my seeing the changes my publisher made. That experience was painful, but it was an education I have taken to heart.

Sadly, rushing to publish isn’t limited to Indies. It happens all the time with traditionally published books, especially when the first novel in a series has had good success. These publishers set impossible deadlines and race to launch what they hope will be a follow-up best seller, but because they were rushed, these books sometimes fail to live up to the hype.

I see this as evidence that editing and proofreading by the large houses for many successful traditionally published authors are sometimes overlooked in the rush to cash in on commercial success. And while this means that they publish crap too, Indie authors face a double-standard: the stink of bad editing and proofing washes off the traditional houses, but clings to the Indie industry as a whole.

This brings me to my point: The big 5 traditional publishers pretend everything they publish is sheer magic, while loudly pointing out the faults inherent in self-publishing. And, while it makes me laugh that they decry us as worthless but leap to publish us the minute we show any sign of real success, there are hard truths here we indies who are committed to the craft of writing must face.

Consider your readers—they deserve the best you can give them. For this reason, I refuse to attempt to churn out more than one or two books a year. Some authors can write three decent novels a year, but it takes me four years to take a novel from concept to publication, so I have three manuscripts in various stages at all times. I understand that romance novels are a different kind of animal, but I write for readers with different expectations.

Some general advice for authors who are first starting out:

  1. Learn the mechanics of how to write in your native language. Grammar and punctuation are essential, no matter what genre you are writing.
  2. Join a writing group and meet other authors, either in your local area or on-line. This will help you with steps 3 and 4. Enter writing contests and participate in the boards and threads. Ignore the trolls; they pop-up everywhere (usually with badly written ego-stroking crap to their publishing credit.)
  3. Develop a thick hide, and find an unbiased eye among your trusted acquaintances to read your work as you are writing it so you can make changes more effectively at an early stage. This way you won’t be overwhelmed at the prospect of rewriting an entire manuscript from scratch.
  4. Lose your ego. Your ego gets in the way of your writing.  Are you writing for yourself or for others to read and enjoy your work?
  5. Find a good, professional editor. There are hidden aspects to every great book, and they are all centered around knowledge of the craft. An external eye is essential to the production of a good book. Check their references, and when you do engage their services, do not take their observations personally—editorial comments are intended only to make a manuscript readable. This editor must be someone you can work closely with, who makes suggestions and allows you to make the changes in your masterpiece yourself. They must understand it is your work and you have the right to disagree with any suggested changes. If you have this symbiotic relationship, you will turn out a good final product.
  6. Don’t give up your day job. Even authors receiving hefty advances have to struggle to make ends meet. (Read Thu-Huong Ha’s article, A New Book Shows the Financial Cost of Leading a Creative Life.)

It’s far more affordable now for a dedicated reader to buy enough books to keep themselves happy, but making your way  through the many offerings in our eBookstores is a perilous journey. You can’t always trust the quality by reading the publisher’s label. You just have to realize that whether a novel is traditionally published or Indie, some books are frogs, and some are princes.

To write well, you must read widely, no matter what your favorite genre is. You may have to read a few books you wish you hadn’t on your way to finding the book that sweeps you away. In the process of reading for the purpose of writing book reviews, I have discovered many wonderful books by talented authors in all genres, and on both the indie and traditional sides of the industry. Finding those gems makes wading through the lemons worthwhile.


Sources and Attributions:

A New Book Shows the Financial Cost of Leading a Creative Life,  by Thu-Huong Ha, Jan 11, 2017, Flipboard

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis (Self-photographed) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

31 Comments

Filed under writing