Tag Archives: #amwriting

How to use the Track Changes Function #amwriting

Part of being a writer is going through the experience of having your work edited by a professional editor. Submissions that have been accepted by anthologies and publications may require a little editing prior to publication. We do our best to submit a clean manuscript, but none of us are perfect.

Editors often use a function of Word that is called “Track Changes” along with inserting comments in the right-hand column. When you are new to this process, it can be confusing. It may make you think he has “mucked up your manuscript” because he may have made changes that are marked in red and which surprised you.

Trust me, you have the final say on all changes that have been made, and you can “accept” or “reject” each suggested change. If you reject a suggestion, the text reverts back to your original prose.

Just a note: before you submit your work to an editor, you must do what I think of as “Due Diligence.” If you have hired an editor for a novel-length manuscript that was poorly proofed, tracked changes can be distracting, looking like a wall of red. If that is the case, the manuscript probably wasn’t ready for editing. Editors can only do so much – you must submit work that is as clean as you can make it, and they will help you clean up the rest.

A good way to catch the majority of typos and dropped or missing words is to use the “Read Aloud” function (on the review tab) or read it aloud yourself.

When a manuscript is too rough, some editors will choose to edit only the first few chapters and put most of their suggestions into the comment column rather than using tracking. Editing via keying suggestions in the comment column can be quite time-consuming. They will ask you to consider the suggestions they have made and make revisions in the whole manuscript accordingly, and then resend the ms once those changes have been made.

MS Word has four ways to show tracked changes:

  • Simple Markup: This shows the final version without inline markups. Red or black markers will appear in the left margin to indicate where a change has been made.
  • All Markup: This shows the final version with inline markups.
  • No Markup: This shows the final version and hides all markups.
  • Original: This shows the original version and hides all markups.

When I am editing for a client, I use “All Markup” and add comments as needed.

Places where I insert a suggested change will be in red and have a line beneath them. Deleted items will be in red and have a line through them, or in the case of commas, above them.

To accept or reject changes:

  1. Select the change you want to accept or reject.
  2. From the Review tab, click the Accept or Reject
  3. The markup will disappear, and Word will automatically jump to the next change. You can continue accepting or rejecting each change until you have reviewed all of them.
  4. When you’re finished, click the Track Changes command to turn off Track Changes. Just click on it, and the dark gray will return to the same shade of gray as the rest of the ribbon.

The automatic comments generated by “track changes” will disappear when you resolve the suggested changes. Those will say “Inserted” or “Deleted” followed by the word or punctuation that was changed.

If your editor has made separate comments regarding larger issues, such as suggestions to move a section to a different place for continuity, they won’t disappear from the comment column when you accept or reject tracked changes. You’ll have to delete them separately.

  1. On the Review tab, in the Comments section, click Next to select a comment.
  2. On the Review tab, click Delete.

To delete all comments at once, click the arrow next to Delete, and then click Delete All Comments in Document.

This is how a document might look when it comes back from the editor. The left column shows a line indicating a change was made, the change itself is in red, and a comment was automatically generated explaining what that change was.
Some authors get exceedingly angry when the editor of an anthology requests some changes in the story they have submitted. Editors have a vision of how the whole book will flow when it is complete, and they may ask for some small changes so that the stories transition well.

If the changes are reasonable (and most are), do make them. If you strongly disagree, wait until you cool down before responding.

Once you have a handle on your irritation, write a note explaining why you don’t feel those changes are right for that piece. It could be that the editor just didn’t understand where you were going with it, and a few minor tweaks along with a calm discussion will resolve the problem.

Google Docs has a track changes function, and I am sure all other word processing programs do too. Their processes will likely be similar to what I have described, and you can go online to find out what the differences are. But Word is the program I use, so I am most familiar with that.

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Fonts and Headers #amwriting

Today we are going to discuss fonts and why we use “industry standard” fonts for all our submissions. Publishers have specific, standardized formatting they want you to use, and these guidelines are posted on their websites. When a call for submissions goes out, their editors will have no time to deal with badly formatted manuscripts. If you don’t follow their guidelines, they will assume you aren’t a professional and won’t read your work.

If you have a specific contest or publication in mind that you plan to submit your manuscript to, go to the publication’s website and read the standards and requirements they have laid out.

A good guide for making a manuscript conform to industry standards can be found at William Shunn’s website: Proper Manuscript Format: Short Story Format.

That looks complicated, you say. It isn’t, but you do need to learn how to use your word processing program, and I am here to help you.

I use Word as my word processing program, but most word processing programs (Open Office, Google Docs) follow a similar process as my program does.

Running across the top of the page is something called the ribbon, and this is your toolbox. Everything you need to create a manuscript is right there, waiting for you to learn to use it. On the right-hand side, by the question mark is a tiny arrow for expanding or hiding the ribbon – and we are going to expand it so we have access to all the tools we will need.

Now we must select the font. As I said before, I use Microsoft WORD, and like every other word-processing program, it has many fancy fonts you can choose from and a variety of sizes.

You don’t want fancy. Stick with the industry standard fonts: Times New Roman or Courier in 12 pt. These are called ‘Serif’ fonts and have little extensions that make them easier to read.

If you are using MS WORD, here are a few simple instructions for changing your fonts.

Open your manuscript document, and Click on the tab marked ‘Home.’  In the upper right-hand corner of the ribbon across the top of the page in the editing group, click:

select> select all. This will highlight the entire manuscript.

With the ms still highlighted, go to the font group, on the left-hand end of the ribbon. The default font, or predesigned setting, will probably say ‘Calibri (Body)’ and the size will be .11.

You can change this by opening the menu. Scroll down to Times New Roman or Courier (depending on the publisher’s guidelines). Click on that, and the font for the entire ms will be that font. If you have clicked on the wrong font, it can be undone by clicking the back-arrow (upper left hand corner).  Once you are satisfied with your changes, click save.

Now, with the ms still highlighted, we are going to format our paragraphs. Having it double-spaced allows for longer comments and is easier for an editor to read. The specific details for formatting paragraphs can be found in last week’s post, Formatting Your Paragraphs. It is a process that is absolutely critical.

Most publishers and editors want the header formatted. Each page should be clearly marked with your name and/or the title of the book as well as the page number. Many publishers will still accept print copies of manuscripts, but want them UNBOUND. No staples, not in a ring binder. You may use one large binder clip if you just can’t resist, but otherwise, they want the manuscript stacked and inserted in a manila envelope.

Accidents happen: if the printout of the manuscript accidentally falls off a desk, it can easily be reassembled, and the editor will always know that you wrote that story.

To make your header:

  • Open the “insert” tab.
  • Click on “page number.”  This opens a new menu.
  • Add the page numbers using the small dropdown menu.
  • Insert the title and your author name just before the page number.

That will be your header.

This is how the ribbon and menus look:Sometimes, a publisher will specify that the first (title) page have no header or page number, but they want the header and page numbers to begin on page two.

To make the page numbers begin on page two:

  1. Click anywhere in the document.
  2. On the Page Layout tab, click the Page Setup Dialog Box Launcher, and
  3. then click the Layout
  4. Under Headers and footers, select the Different first page check box, and then click OK.

What goes on the first page? Your first page should include:

  • The name of the work.
  • The approximate word count, some will want it only to the nearest hundred.
  • In the upper left, your contact details formatted in the same font and size as the manuscript font.

Now your manuscript:

  1. is aligned left.
  2. has 1 in. margins.
  3. is double-spaced.
  4. has formatted indented paragraphs.
  5. The header contains the title, author name, and page numbers, and is aligned right.
  6. The first page contains your mailing address and contact information in the upper left hand corner.

Good luck with your submissions. Selling work to anthologies and magazines is the best way for an indie to build a reputation as an author. You will be competing with many other authors, all of them as creative and talented as you are, so making your work look as professional as is possible will give you an edge.

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Formatting your paragraphs #amwriting

When we finish writing a short story, we feel the urge to immediately submit it to an anthology, a magazine, or contest. This urge can be overwhelming, but don’t do that just yet.

Set your manuscript aside for a week or so then come back to it and revise it.

Have the “Read Aloud” function of your word processing program read it to you as you go over it and look for editable flaws.

Check for words that spell check won’t find because they are spelled correctly but are wrong, little things such as “They went their for breakfast.”

Next, we want to format it for submission, which is a process with several steps, all of which are important. It is a bit too long for one post, so I am dividing it into digestible chunks and will finish this series next week.

First, you must look for extra spaces in odd places. They are most frequently found at the end of sentences. Nowadays, publishers and editors want one (1) space after each sentence. When I was learning to type in school, they taught us to hit the space bar twice (two spaces) after each sentence, but this is no longer acceptable as the extra spaces interfere with formatting for eBooks and other electronically uploaded applications. Other than at a few specialty printers, ALL books and magazines are uploaded electronically nowadays, even print books.

Tabs – I feel it’s important to revisit this subject, as I have seen many manuscripts where authors used the tab key to indent their paragraphs.

Using tabs to indent paragraphs screams “amateur.” The indents fail when the ms is uploaded to a mobi or ePub file, so publishers really hate it when this happens. Ninety percent of publications and publishing houses want electronic submissions. For this reason, make sure you have removed the tabs before you go any further with your manuscript. The following instructions only work if you have a ten-key pad on your keyboard.

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

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

That will leave you with no indents whatsoever.

If you don’t have a ten-key pad on your keyboard, you will have to remove each one by hand which is a daunting task no publisher or editor has time for.

Once the tabs are all removed, the following instructions will help you format paragraphs.

You want your work to look professional, even if you are only submitting it to your writing group for a critique. You can format the paragraphs two ways.

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

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

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

Step 2: On the indents and spacing tab of the menu: Use standard alignment, align LEFT. The reason we use this format is we are not looking at a finished product here. We are looking at a rough draft that will be sliced, diced, and otherwise mutilated many times before we get to the final product.

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

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

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

Step 6: ‘Line Spacing’: set to ‘double.’

To summarize, standard paragraph format has:

  • margins of 1 inch all the way around
  • indented paragraphs with no extra space between
  • double-spaced text
  • Align Left. This is critical.

Do not justify the text. In justified text, the spaces between words, and letters (known as “tracking”) are stretched or compressed. Justified text aligns with both the left and right margins. It gives you straight margins on both sides, but this type of alignment only comes into play when a manuscript is published, and at that point, the publisher will handle the formatting.

On Monday, we will look at the next step of formatting our manuscript—that of making it “submission ready.”

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Gaining strength through rejection #amwriting

We who are authors and artists are notoriously thin-skinned. When we are young in the profession and still consider our works to be the equivalent of our perfect children, we bleed profusely when you admit you didn’t really enjoy what we wrote (or sang, or painted). Some of us handle this kind of conversation with grace and dignity, and others not so well.

But what if the unloved thing was the best thing we ever wrote?

It does happen.

I get ten rejections at least for every one acceptance, but usually many more. I get so many that I hardly even notice them nowadays. I just keep the revolving door revolving. After all, if you don’t submit your work, you won’t get any acceptances.

When I first began shopping my work out, I would feel crushed upon receiving a rejection. However, when I look back at those efforts, I can clearly see why those particular pieces weren’t accepted.

First, I had no idea what a finished manuscript should look like. The internet wasn’t a thing yet, and I hadn’t heard of William Shunn or his instructions for how to properly format a manuscript. I knew my finished story had some problems, but I didn’t understand what those problems were or how to resolve them. I naively assumed an editor would fix them, because that’s what editors do, right?

Wrong.

I wasn’t as well educated as I thought I was. Typos, dropped and missing words, long, convoluted sentences, and hokey dialogue—all found their way into my first efforts.

I began to get past that stage when I found Orson Scott Card’s book, “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

I still didn’t understand everything, or even most of anything. But I was on the road to learning more about what I didn’t know. Books on the craft of writing began to fill my shelves, and I took classes and went to seminars.

Nowadays my work is submission ready and as clean as I can make it. Sometimes my work is accepted, and believe me, I celebrate. Most of the time it is rejected, and not because it is bad. Most of the time, rejection means that I submitted something that wasn’t what the editor was looking for.

Editors usually have a certain kind of story in mind when they put out an open call, and only a few of the landslide of submissions will be accepted. Those that are accepted are the few that perfectly fit the editor’s original concept.

What I’m going to say next has been said before, many times. Sometimes we receive a form letter rejection that boils down to “Sorry, but no.” It isn’t personal, so don’t brood over it. Those kinds of rejections are bad only because they don’t tell us why the piece wasn’t acceptable.

Sometimes we receive a little encouragement: “Try us again.” That means exactly what it says, so the next time you have something you think will fit in that anthology or magazine, send them a submission.

I know this makes no sense, but when an editor explains their reasoning in a letter, it is very likely that some phrase will be like a knife to the chest for the author. This is because it’s a rejection and may contain detailed criticism.

I once got a rejection from an anthology along with a note that said the subject of my quest had been done before. I was a little surprised and hurt because I felt that comment was vague and meant they didn’t even bother to read the story.

I could have responded childishly, but that would have been foolish and self-defeating. The truth was the type of quest it involves has been done before. I felt that my story was original in its presentation, but it didn’t ring that editor’s bells.

I hauled myself off to a corner and licked my wounds. Then, I sent that editor a response thanking them for their time. An editor’s bluntness is valuable, so I will someday rework that tale with a different twist.

We live in a world that is always observing us. We are judged by the way we act and react in every professional interaction. If you’re in a writing group and your work isn’t as well received as you thought it would be, don’t respond to a peer’s criticism without thinking it through.

Even worse, if you fly off and send a flame mail to an editor, you risk doing irreparable damage to your career—you will be put on that editor’s “no way in hell” list.

Also, please don’t go bad-mouthing that editor on Twitter or Facebook. All that drama is just plain embarrassing, and unprofessional.

It’s easy to forget that editors are also authors. They are involved with the same forums in all the many social platforms you are, so be careful of what you say online. Editors are just like the rest of us, and they’ve experienced their share of rejection.

When an author has a public tantrum, the innocent bystanders remember it. Snide tweets about other authors, awkward Instagram photos, or Facebook rants don’t show a person in a good light.

I shouldn’t have to remind anyone of this, considering all the noise about Facebook and our personal information, but how we interact online with others is public information and is visible to the world.

We must always consider what an interested reader will find when they  Google our author name. Our online interactions at Goodreads, Twitter, and in every other public forum will be available for eternity.

What should you do if your work is accepted, but the editor would like a few revisions?

If the editor wants changes, they will make clear what they want you to do. This happens most often for submissions to an anthology. Editors know what their intended audience wants.  Trust that the editor knows their business.

Make whatever changes they request.

Never be less than gracious to any of the people at a publication when you communicate with them, whether they are the senior editor or the newest intern. Be a team player and work with them.

Negative feedback is a necessary part of growth. I keep a file of my rejection letters/emails. Most are simple: “We are not interested in this piece at this time.” Some have short notes attached with the words, “Try us again in the future.” Some contain the details of why a piece was rejected, and while those comments are sometimes painful, they are the ones I learn from.

Rejection is the most common kind of response an author will receive, sometimes for years. How we react to it is where each of us has the opportunity to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. My next post will be on making your short-story manuscript “submission ready.”

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The Short Story: Need, Limits, and Theme #amwritng

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the important events in place at the right time.

Assume you have a 4000 word limit for your short story.

You have less than three paragraphs before a prospective editor sets your work aside. If those paragraphs don’t grab her, she won’t buy your story. Pay attention: you absolutely must have a good opening paragraph.

The first 250 words are the setup and hook. The next 750 words takes your character out of their comfortable existence and launches them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution.

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, I feel subplots should not be introduced into the short story unless they directly advance the larger story. You need to use every word you are allowed to make that story the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

I am a plotter, so I write my short works to an outline. However, I will deviate from my original plot if I have an idea that works. I need that structure when I begin writing, or my plot will stall, and the story will never be completed. When I don’t know how the story will end, the plot wanders all over the place, and I have a story that will garner a pile of rejections.

Theme is an essential tool for writing a coherent short story, and many anthologies are themed. When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:

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

What narrative mode will you use? Who is the best person to tell the story? One of my favorite short stories to write, Thorn Girl, is in the forthcoming anthology, Swords, Sorcery, and Self-rescuing Damsels. I could easily have told her story in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story.

Originally, I tried to write her tale in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. As I worked, that mode didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted.

My MC had to tell her own story.

The theme was a good theme, but it was a challenge to write something original and not overdone. It was an excellent opportunity to think wide.

In the first draft, there were several places that I thought were the beginning. As always, I had difficulty deciding where the story actually began. After reading that first draft, my writing group pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

I tossed out the first half of the original story and begin at what I had originally thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What did my character actually know? Realistically, she could only know what she witnessed.

I spent some time figuring out what she really could have witnessed or overheard, and then worked only with that information.

What did my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the purported quest was only an impetus, a prod to move her down the path she needed to travel. Her true quest was to find herself as a human being, as much as it was to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

Short stories are a real training ground for authors because words must be rationed. Writing short stories forces me to consider how my limited number of words can be used to their best advantage. It requires me to tell a large story using a limited number of words carefully chosen for their impact. Word choice and sentence structure must convey a massive amount of information: mood, atmosphere, setting, hints of backstory – all packed into a finite space that is already occupied by knowable characters, a coherent plot, and an ingenious resolution.

I try to keep conciseness and creative word choice in mind when writing longer works.

To wind this rant up, need drives the short story, theme stitches it together, and word-count limits force concise storytelling.

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The Author’s Superpower #amwriting

The world around you is filled with ordinary people, each going about their ordinary business, working ordinary jobs. When you meet these accountants, homemakers, engineers, programmers, and baristas, you would never know that among them are a few with a dark secret—they are possessed of dual superpowers.

What incredible feats are they capable of? Unfortunately, unless they are Doctors,  First Responders, Firefighters, or Astronauts, their dual powers are not likely to visibly shake the world.

But their powers do bring change, working subtly, opening minds to possibilities hitherto unconsidered.

They are authors. When no one is looking, they create entire worlds, fill them with people, cultures, political systems, religions, and with each paragraph they write, they start these worlds spinning.

The first superpower is the gift of “what if.” What if” is an ability latent in all sentient creatures, but only storytellers seem able to tap into it at will. This is the author’s first superpower, but it is useless without the second gift.

A moment of “what if” was the spark that started the fire in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

What if” started Bilbo Baggins down the road to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit.

Many people have that nagging idea, that moment of “what if,” but few also have the other gift, the “power of perseverance.” While many will imagine, and many will begin to write, few will go to the trouble of finishing their book.

Imagination and perseverance are the author’s superpowers.

They are the gifts of the few who have the determination, the will to learn the craft of writing so that their moment of “what if” can become a reader’s moment of “You have to read this book!”

So, you have the imagination, and you believe you might also have the perseverance. You have a book about to burst from you, and you want to get it right. What do you do? Every superpower must be trained, or who knows what havoc you could wreak?

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR SUPERPOWERS:

  1. Write new words every day. Revise old words as needed.
  2. Read books that inspire you.
  3. Read books you hate.
  4. Dissect books to discover what makes them great or awful.
  5. Write new words every day. Revise old words as needed.
  6. Go to writers’ conferences if you can.
  7. Attend writers’ seminars if you can.
  8. Join a local writers’ group.
  9. Buy and read books on the craft of writing.
  10. Write new words every day. Revise old words as needed.

Superheroes must work at training their powers, or they become flabby and useless.

Suggestion 9 is the most affordable of the suggestions.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. No one style guide will fit every purpose. I use Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar and Punctuation to answer my questions about grammar and punctuation.

The following is the list of books that are the pillars of my reference library:

My reference library grows daily. I talk to writers every day about the craft, about their lives, about their approaches to what they do. I want to know what inspires them, what books they got advice from, what books they read as children that lit the fire that burns inside them.

Writing is my superpower, and I am constantly in training.

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Thoughts on Character and Place Names #amwriting

I have addressed the subject of names for both places and people before, in my post of January 14, 2019, Naming Characters. A conversation in an online writers’ group has prompted me to revisit it, but there’s no reason for me to repeat the bulk of that post. However, there are some points that could use a little more expansion.

To begin with, names are more than just handles to carry your characters. How we name our characters, and the names we give places in our worlds offers the reader cultural information that you don’t have to resort to giving through an info dump.

A Viking named “Wayne” wouldn’t be believable. But for most Americans and many Europeans, Viking names are difficult to pronounce when written in Old Frisian, which is the root language that English shares with Danish. A good way to keep a cultural feel but make the tale easier to read is to write the names the way they are pronounced or use simple ones.

Many modern Nordic names are easy for English speakers to read and pronounce and will give your story that Saxon flair. So, consider looking names up on baby naming websites rather than the hokey “Discover-Your-Viking-Name” type websites. While “Wayne” doesn’t really work in an Old Saxon-style society, “Fritjof the Flatulent” doesn’t either, unless you are writing comedy.

I stressed this in my previous post, but I feel it needs to be said again. Do keep the simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation in mind when sourcing names for your work.  I didn’t understand that concept when I first began writing seriously. When I named my characters, I did it for how the words looked on the page, never considering that they might be read aloud.

When I wrote Huw the Bard, it never occurred to me that most people wouldn’t know that Huw is Welsh for Hugh and is pronounced the same. I was raised around people of both Welsh and Irish origin, and I wanted Huw to have that cultural flavor.

That spelling choice has been a problem since publication because most people are unaware that a “W” is actually a “Double U” – UU -2 U(s). It is pronounced “Yoo” or “oo” (like goo) in Welsh and in old English words.

I have another character in my Tower of Bones series named Friedr – pronounced Free-der. This name is also a problem for readers.

Audio books are the new “must do” way to get your work into the hands of “readers.” How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? Take my advice and write your names so a narrator can easily read it aloud without stumbling. If you are just beginning your career as an author, you probably don’t realize how  important this is.

I learned several things about names the hard way. I only have one book that is an Audio book, but the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply. I resolved my stupidity by telling the narrator he should pronounce the problem names the way that worked best for him, and that made him happy.

There are many good sites for names on the internet. You can find Norse, French, Hawaiian—they are all out there and they have some wonderful, simple names for you to use. You can get a little fancy—that is good and adds a cultural flavor to your characters. But when readers aren’t sure how to pronounce your main character’s name, they might focus on that rather than on your novel.

Speaking as one author to another, you never want to write something into your narrative that will throw the reader out of the book.

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Mind Wandering #amwriting

I write my blog posts a day or two ahead, usually trying to get them written and scheduled on Sundays. That way, I can concentrate on pretending to be an author.

It’s a pretense today because I just want to slounge around out on my back porch and enjoy that rarest of winter glories—the sunny day.

Some days are perfect for sitting on the porch and just letting my mind wander and this day is too cold, but I don’t care. I’ve had enough of winter and just want to sit in the sunshine, cold though it may be.

I take my blanket out and uncover a chair. I do check for spiders before I sit—they like the porch as much as I do, sadly. Every sunny morning from here on through September will find me out with a broom, chasing spiders off MY territory. My relocation program is inefficient and by August they will far outnumber me, but I don’t kill them. They have a place in this yard, just not on my porch or in my chair.

Fluffy white clouds drift overhead, hummingbirds dart here and there, my eyes close, and I absorb the sounds of my small town all around me.

The trees and shrubs of this small neighborhood harbor mourning doves and they seem to be speed-dating—eager to get on with nest building and rearing chicks.

The drone of large helicopters flying low over my home as they leave the base nearby shakes the house and rattles the dishes. I don’t like helicopters, and really don’t like them so low over my home, but it’s a disturbance I must put up with, as all who live in my area must do.

They pass over the hills and fade into the distance, diminishing altogether. A passing train resounds from the other end of town, sounding its horn to alert vehicles at the crossings. I like hearing the train in the distance.

But back to the finches, hummingbirds, and mourning doves. They share this neighborhood with chickadees, nuthatches, and brown tree-creepers. Crows and stellar-jays, starlings, and wrens also live here.

I need to just let my mind wander. I have a short story jammed in my head, and it will have to find its own way out. I know from experience that forcing them never works for me. Mind wandering is the only way to pry it loose.

Winter has been a long, drawn-out affair this year. We’ve had snow on and off for weeks, and while the piles of dirty snow in the local parking lots are mostly gone, it’s cold, only a few degrees above freezing. I should pull myself together and go inside. I have an editing job I need to finish, but the sun is shining, and the birds are out, and I’m warm enough under this blanket.

The finches and doves go quiet—a lady jay has landed in my still-barren maple tree. She flies down, picking something from the ground, then flies away.

Soon the sounds of the local mourning doves advertising their availability for mating resume, a gentle background to my thoughts.


Credits and Attributions:

Mourning Dove on Easter Day, by Kazvorpal [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mourning Dove on Easter day.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,

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Characterization #amwriting

The stories that interest me most have a strong character arc.  The protagonist begins as one sort of person, and through the events they experience, they are transformed. Often they change for the better, but sometimes the change is for the worse.

Each time I open a new book, I want to meet a circle new of friends, each of whom is distinguishable from the other characters. Every one of them must be a unique person with a distinctive thought process. What choices will they make, and how will those decisions affect their life?

Consequences are key to the forward momentum of the plot.

I have used the word consequences before when talking about the choices our protagonist must make. I use that word intentionally. If there are no consequences for bad decisions, what is the story about?

Equally, I want the side-characters and antagonist to be just as singular with their reactions and choices as the protagonist is.

A bit of unpredictability to a character’s nature keeps them interesting. They have an air of mystery—how will they react in a given situation? It must be slightly random, but please, keep it real and in character.

In other peoples’ work, I particularly notice when a protagonist or side-kick’s gut reaction causes them to act out-of-character for the person they have been portrayed as, up to that point. Am I able to see it in my own? I hope so.

Even in a fantasy setting, all the characters must be believable. If the author introduces an elf to me, I want to believe in that elf. I want to see him/her as if they are real throughout the entire story. I want to be invested in them for their entire arc, and I want to care what happens to them.

The motivations are crucial. What drives them and what will they do to achieve their goal. Just as importantly, what will they NOT do? What is out of character for them?

The obstacles your characters face and the choices they make in those situations are the story. Giving your characters an active role and allowing them agency is what drives a great, absorbing story. Agency is the power of an individual to act independently. When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices.

When I am first writing any story, giving my characters agency is difficult to do. This is because, in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me. I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth.

At some point in every great novel, the protagonists may lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. In the second draft, I see this moment as an opportunity to learn who they really are as individuals. The events leading to that point break the character, knocking them down to their lowest emotional state. How do they react? What keeps them pushing on in the face of such despair?

At times, I have a character I simply can’t figure out. I do a character study, and in that short document, one of the questions I ask myself is “What personal revelations come out about them?” Also, I ask, “What does he discover about himself?”

When those questions are answered, I look at the final event, the situation that ends the story. These people’s personal quirks and characteristics, their moral compass influenced the decisions that led them to that place.

Did I keep those clues distinct to that character, or was there a blurring of personalities, making the group all sound and look alike?

Most importantly, those people must have understandable motivations. We can’t be too obscure in trying to keep the air of mystery because if a reader can’t follow our protagonist’s reasoning, we haven’t done our job.

It’s part of the balancing act—creating intrigue yet making it believable. As I have said many times, this is a gig where I never stop learning and trying to grow in the craft. Reading is the key. Every story that leaves a mark on my heart has unique, individual characters that I can relate to. Even if I don’t like them, their motivations make sense because they are in line with how that character would think.

If I can visualize my characters as real people that I know and believe in, hopefully my readers will believe in them too.

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Conflict, Tension, and Pacing #amwriting

When we sit down to read a book, most readers don’t consciously look for certain key elements, but we know when something is missing. Unfortunately for most authors, I am not most readers. I can’t just read a book anymore. I must dissect it to see what makes it tick. When a story works well, I  want to know why. Then, as needed, I hope to incorporate that bit of author-magic into my writing.

Consider conflict—What pushes the characters? What element drives and forces the momentum of the story?

My book reading group just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read it in 1985 when it was first published, re-read it for a book review five years ago, and re-read it again for the group’s February book. I don’t like the book, but I admire it.

I know–that doesn’t make sense. But it does, because I admire it in a purely mechanical, technical way.

From Wikipedia:

Ender’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species which they dub the “buggers”. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.

Even though I had read it before, I became involved in Ender’s story on this third read primarily because the author did all the right things.

This, despite the fact I don’t care for Card’s writing style. His ability to convey both character and story outweighs the irritation I have with the prose and style of his work.

  • The plot is always moving forward.
  • There is no overuse of backstory.
  • Showing is well-balanced with telling—it’s not obnoxiously in-your-face with descriptions of minute facial expressions but has enough active prose to keep the reader involved in the narrative.
  • The characters are shown to have a believable internal/external struggle, even though the book is about training children to kill.

Card explores the theme of “Compassion vs. Ruthlessness,” and the book has some exceedingly violent scenes. The three Wiggins children are the primary characters, with Ender being the main protagonist.

Ender is compassionate, and yet ruthless. One thing I found disturbing is that in the book, Ender was 6 when he leaves Earth for Battle School and 11 by the time of the final examination battle. During that time, he has killed (in self-defense) two boys who were bullying him, and untold numbers of the enemy, although he never learns that he caused their deaths until much later.

Valentine, Ender’s older sister, is compassionate, but without the power of ruthlessness both Ender and Peter demonstrate. She becomes Peter’s accomplice.

Peter, the oldest of the Wiggin children, is ruthlessness embodied and is utterly without compassion—a sociopath. His one ambition is to rule the world, and he will stop at nothing and use anyone to achieve that end. Yet, despite his personal lack of compassion, he turns out to be a good ruler. Evil in this book is represented by his acting for the wrong reasons, regardless of the outcome.

I may not like his style, but I have a great appreciation for Card’s ability to reveal a character, and I admire the way he paced the narrative.

The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another—the author keeps the pressure on, raising the tension by always raising the stakes. Yet, he gives both Ender and the reader a chance to rest a little and regroup before flinging them into the (slightly more intense) action again. In these less intense moments, the story is still moving because we are learning something we didn’t know, and that knowledge is crucial to what may follow.

The serious topics of genocide and Western expansionism are explored. These actions are justified or regretted depending on the character in this book. Also, we see lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics acted out in a Military environment by bright young children.

The eternal problem of intention and morality is explored. Ender is able to strike and kill his enemies yet remain morally clean.

Those themes fuel the narrative and push the story when the physical action has temporarily calmed. They drive the conflict, create a constant raising of tension, and allow the pacing of the book to hard and fast but not overwhelming.

It is easy to unbalance a narrative by not allowing the reader to rest between scenes of intense violence and action. A scene that is all action is confusing if it has no context. Conversations are crucial because they give context to whatever action follows.

In any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle and the story fails to engage the reader. Balance the three, and the story works even if the reader doesn’t care for the writer’s style or prose.

The book group is going to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz next, for the May meeting. This is a book I haven’t read yet, so I’m looking forward to it. I will be looking at how characters are portrayed, what makes them compelling,  and how the pyramid of conflict, tension, and pacing pushes their growth.


Credits and Attributions:

Cover art, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, published 1985 by Tor Books,  Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ender’s Game,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ender%27s_Game&oldid=880941502 (accessed February 25, 2019).

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