Tag Archives: #amwriting

The derailed plot #amwriting

You’re a pantser, not a plotter–you like to wing it when you write, just let the ideas flow freely. This can be liberating, but sometimes in the course of writing the first draft, we realize our manuscript has gone way off track and is no longer fun to write.

At this point, we must go back and find the point where the story stops working. We cut everything back to there and make an outline to build some structure into the manuscript.

Let’s say we are working on a manuscript titled “Dog Days of Summer.” We wrote most of it during November and are sixty thousand words in, but we aren’t even a third of the way to the finish. When we look back, the first twenty thousand words are exactly what we wanted the story to be. But at that point we became a little desperate to get our daily word count, and now we don’t know what to do or how to bring the story to its intended conclusion.

When this happens to me, I stop floundering and (literally) cut my losses. It needs to be cut back to the place where it dissolved into chaos. This is good – it’s called rewriting. Nearly every published novel has entire sections that had to be rewritten at least once before it got to the editing stage.

Much of what you cut out can be recycled, reshaped, and reused, so never just delete weeks of work.

  1. Save everything you cut to a new document, labeled, and dated: “OutTakes_DDoS_rewrite1_09-19-2018.” (Out Takes, Dog Days of Summer, rewrite 1, 09-19-2018)

Now, you must consider what will be the most logical way to get the plot back on track.

Sit down with a notebook (or in my case a spreadsheet) and make a list of what events must happen between the place where the plot was derailed and the end—a list of chapters with each the keywords for each scene noted:

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

You can go even farther and color code your scenes to show who the POV characters are, as was noted in my previous post, Author Simon Wood on Plotting.

What is the core conflict? Make a large note to remind yourself of what the central conflict is so that you won’t go off track again.

Pay close attention to the story arc. Make a “blueprint” of the intended story arc, an outline.

  1. Where does the inciting incident occur?
  2. Where does the first pinch point occur?
  3. What is happening at the midpoint? Are the events of the middle section fraught with uncertainty but still moving the protagonist toward their goal? If not, cut them and insert events that propel the story forward.
  4. Where does the third plot point occur?

What does each character desire? List each character and make a note of what they want at the beginning, what stands in their way at the middle, and what they get at the end.

  1. At the outset, what do the characters want?
  2. What are they willing to sacrifice to get it?
  3. How are their attempts to achieve it frustrated?
  4. Do they get it in the end, or do their desires evolve away from that goal as the story progresses?

Everything you write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest for the unobtainable something. At the outset, your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Use whatever you can of the material you cut, and write new prose where you must.

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

Where are they going? If they are traveling in a created world, draw a simple map for your own reference. Otherwise, use an atlas or Google Earth to keep your story on track.

Don’t be afraid to rewrite what isn’t working. Save everything you cut, because I guarantee you will want to reuse some of that prose later, at a place where it makes more sense. Not having to reinvent those useful sections will greatly speed things up, which is why I urge you to save them with a file name that clearly labels them.

Finally, don’t feel that, just because you wrote a wonderful section, it has to stay in the manuscript. If the story is stronger without that great scene, cut it. Use it as fodder for a short story or novella set in that world.

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Titling that book, or wringing blood from a stone #amwriting

A great book title can sell a book or short story to the reader:

We all start out with a working title—after all, we have to label our files somehow. But how do we come up with a catchy title for that finished product? It’s an issue we all face.

First of all, write the book and don’t obsess about the title until you are at the stage where something must be put in place on the cover. During the writing of the book the perfect title might come to you, so don’t sweat it.

What is the book’s genre? Go to the bookstore (or online to Amazon) and look at books in that genre to see how other authors are naming them. This will also give you an idea of how the cover should look if you are an indie. You will know what to ask of your cover designer.

Your friends and your writing group are good resources for brainstorming titles, so get them involved. Your writing group will know what the book is about, so their ideas will be valuable. If they haven’t been able to help and you are in the editing stage, ask your editor for some ideas.

I have two books titled after the main character’s name, Huw the Bard and Billy Ninefingers. This works because their names are unique. Other authors have done this too:

Are there any scenes that depict watershed moments in the protagonist’s life, places that are turning points? Settings that represent the theme can be great titles.

What is the central plot point?

If your story is dark, you might want to emphasize that theme by going the mysterious route.

Giving your work an official title is sometimes difficult, and it’s hard to find good titles that aren’t already famous. In the US, book titles aren’t copyrighted so there may be multiple books out there with the title you want to use—take my advice and research your prospective title thoroughly.

I once was at a book signing event with my epic fantasy book, Mountains of the Moon (World of Neveyah), seated opposite an author selling a travel book, Mountains of the Moon, detailing his journeys in Africa. We laughed and helped sell each other’s books—because he was a good sport, the identical names worked to our advantage at that show, and we sold more books than we would have. But knowing what I do now, I would definitely give my book a different name–I had no idea such a place existed here in this world.

The right title is a subliminal lure enticing the reader into opening the book or clicking on the “look inside” option.

In 1989, I bought a book by Tad Williams: The Dragonbone Chair. That title hooked me, and the book itself lived up to its promise so well that I patiently waited two years between books for Mr. Williams to finish each installment in the series.

In my case, good titles are as much of a hook as an intriguing cover design.

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What is NaNoWriMo and why bother with it? #amwriting

As most of you know by now, I regularly participate in the annual writing rumble known as NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I’m a rebel in that I usually scratch out as many short stories as I am able in those thirty days.

I participate every year because for 30 precious days, writing is the only thing I “have” to do.

My friends and family all know that November, in our house, is referred to “National Pot Pie Month,” so if you drop by expecting a hot meal from Grandma, it will probably emerge from the microwave in the form of a formerly frozen hockey puck.

I usually have my “winners’ certificate” by the day they become available, but I continue writing every day through the 30th and update my word count daily.

NaNoWriMo is a contest in the sense that if you write 50,000 words and have your word count validated through the national website you ‘win.’ But it is not a contest in any other way as there are no huge prizes or great amounts of acclaim for those winners, only a PDF winner’s certificate that you can fill out and print to hang on your wall.

It is simply a month that is solely dedicated to the act of writing a novel.

Now let’s face it–a novel of only 50,000 words is not a very long novel. It’s a good length for YA or romance, but for epic fantasy or literary fiction it’s only half a novel. But regardless of the proposed length of their finished novel, a dedicated author can get the rough draft–the basic structure and story-line of a novel–down in those thirty days simply by sitting down for an hour or two each day and writing a minimum of 1667 words per day.

With a simple outline to keep you on track, that isn’t too hard. In this age of word processors, most authors can double or triple that. As always, there is a downside to this intense month of stream-of-consciousness writing. Just because you can sit in front of a computer and spew words does not mean you can write a novel that others want to read.

Every year many cheap or free eBooks will emerge testifying to that fundamental truth.

The good thing is, over the next few months many people will realize they enjoy the act of writing and are fired to learn the craft. They will find that for them this month of madness was not about getting a certain number of words written by a certain date, although that goal was important. For them, it is about embarking on a creative journey and learning a craft with a dual reputation that difficult to live up to. Depending on the cocktail party, authors are either disregarded as lazy ne’er-do-wells or given far more respect than we deserve.

As I said in my previous post on NaNoWriMo, more people do this during November than you would think–about half the NaNo Writers in my regional area devote this time journaling or writing college papers.

For a very few people, participating in NaNoWriMo will give them the confidence to admit that an author lives in their soul and is demanding to get out. In their case, NaNoWriMo is about writing and completing a novel they had wanted to write for years, something that had been in the back of their minds for all their lives.

These are the people who will join writing groups and begin the long journey of learning the craft of writing. Whether they pursue formal educations or not, these authors will take the time and make an effort to learn writing conventions (practices). They will attend seminars, they will develop the skills needed to take a story and make it a novel with a proper beginning, a great middle, and an incredible end.

They will properly polish their work and run it past critique groups before they publish it. They will have it professionally edited. These are books I will want to read.

The life of an artist or author is not one of constant accolades and fetes. After you have downloaded the PDF Winners’ Certificate from www.NaNoWriMo.org, you will rarely receive an award to show for your labors. Yes, some people will love and admire what we have created, but other times what we hear back from our beta readers and editors is not what we wanted to hear.

The smart authors haul themselves to a corner, lick their wounds, and persevere. They pull up their socks and keep to the path and don’t expect or demand overnight success.

When we write something that a reader loves—that is a feeling that can’t be described. That moment makes the months of intense work and financial sacrifice worth it.

And whether we go indie or the traditional route, writing is a career that will require financial sacrifice.

Most authors must keep their day jobs because success as an author can’t always be measured in cash or visibility in the New York Times bestsellers list. For most authors, success can only be measured in the satisfaction you as an author get out of your work. Traditionally published authors see a smaller percentage of their royalties than the more successful indies, but if they are among the lucky few, they can sell more books and earn more because of that.

The fact your book has been picked up by a traditional publisher does not guarantee they will put a lot of effort into pushing the first novel by an unknown author. You will have to do all the social media footwork yourself, tweeting, getting an Instagram account, getting a website, etc. You may even have to arrange your own book signing events, just as if you were an indie.

This is time-consuming, and you will feel as if you need a personal assistant to handle these things—indeed, some people rely on the services of hourly personal assistants to help navigate the rough waters of being your own publicist.

Every year, participating in NaNoWriMo will inspire many discussions about becoming an author. Going full-time or keeping the day job, going indie or aiming for a traditional contract—these are conundrums many new authors will be considering after they have finished the chaotic month of NaNoWriMo. While few of us have the luxury to go indie and write full-time (my husband has a good job), many authors will struggle to decide their publishing path.

However, if you don’t sit down and write that story, you aren’t an author. You won’t have to worry about it. With that in mind, November and NaNoWriMo would be a great time to put that idea on paper and see if you really do have a novel lurking in your future.

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Works in Progress Update #amwriting #NaNoWriMo

I don’t write quickly, as some of the authors I know do. Some write well in the first draft and can turn out a good book every six months but not me. It takes me several drafts to get a manuscript to a publishable form. I have a mind like a grasshopper in the sun, hopping around in the first draft of a manuscript with each new thought that occurs to me. While the initial outline I made for the novel is linear and details the important points of a complete story arc, the way I put the story on paper is not.

During the initial writing process, I have a friend who is a structural editor who points out plot holes and places where a story arc has flatlined. He sees the larger picture. The final draft goes to my editor, who line-edits and gets into the smaller issues of usage and style.

For me, taking a novel from concept to publication takes about four years. This is because after I finish writing each scene, I have to decide how I want to proceed with what I know must happen the next.

So, I work on something else until I get that flash of inspiration that kickstarts my brain again. The plots and characters of all my works in progress are lurking in the back of my mind at all times, which is why I always have several manuscripts in various stages of the process.

The manuscript that is currently closest to completion is in third draft form and just came back from my beta readers. I have some large changes to make, but thanks to their input this will go much more quickly than the previous drafts. I still expect to publish it next summer.

I am still working on the first draft of a new duology (2 novels) set in the world of Neveyah, a prequel to Tower of Bones. That manuscript is at the ¾ mark for the first novel and the first draft of book 1 will possibly be completed by Christmas.

I also have a contemporary fiction novel in the works that has been pushed back, but whenever I have a flash of inspiration, I do pull it out and get a bit more done on it.

But September, October, and November are what I think of as Short Story Season.

The calendar is full of conventions and NaNoWriMo events. My ability to focus on a long project becomes fractured, so I use this time to write as many short stories as I can so that I have a backlog of work to submit to magazines and anthologies.

And on the short story front, I’ve received minor edit requests on work I submitted to two anthologies, which I will have resolved today.

By using the Submittable App, I have found three more anthologies that have interesting themes that I would like to write stories to. The final dates for submissions are still six months out on these so I may have something worth sending by then.

This will be my eighth year of participating in NaNoWriMo, and my seventh as a municipal liaison. That month of merry madness forces me to become disciplined, to lose the bad habits I slip into during the rest of the year. It forces me to ignore the inner editor, that unpleasant little voice that slows my productivity down and squashes my creativity.

Also, for this one month of the year, nothing comes before writing. Some years flu season has gotten in the way, and I was in bed for part of the time. Nevertheless, I was still writing and getting my wordcount when I was awake. Thank God for NyQuil.

My rules for NaNoWriMo:

  1. Write at least 1,670 words every day (three more than is required) This takes me about 2 hours – I’m not fast at this.
  2. Write every day, no matter if you have an idea worth writing about or not. Do it even if you have to get up at 4:00 am to find the time and don’t let anything derail you.
  3. If you are stuck, write about how your day went and how you are feeling about things that are happening in your life, or write that grocery list. Use this time as a brainstorming session and just write about what you would like to see happen in your story. Change the color of the font so you can easily cut your ruminations out later.
  4. Check in on the national threads at http://www.NaNoWriMo.org and your regional thread to keep in contact with other writers.
  5. Attend a write-in if your region is having any, or join a virtual write-in at NaNoWriMo on Facebook. This will keep you enthused about your project.
  6. Delete nothing. Passages you want to delete later can be highlighted, and the font turned to red or blue, so you can easily separate them out later.
  7. Remember, not every story is a novel. If your story comes to an end and you are only at 7,000 words, start a new story in the same manuscript. Use a different font or a different color of font, and you can always separate the stories later. That way you won’t lose your word count.
  8. Validate your word count every day.

As writers, we tend to forget that output is important too. NaNoWriMo reminds us that if we don’t write a paragraph or two of new material every day we stagnate.  How unexciting it is to be stuck, going over and over the same stale passages, wondering why the book isn’t finished.

The act of sitting down and just writing whatever comes into your mind is liberating. Even if you don’t want the world to see what you write during the 30 days of NaNoWriMo, you have an outlet for your creative mind, a sounding board for your opinions and ideas.

Watching TV and playing video games all evening long doesn’t allow for creative thinking.  Your mind doesn’t get to rest from the daily grind. Creative thinking—assembling puzzles, quilting, writing, painting, building Lego cities—these activities are far more relaxing than vegetating in front of the TV. Assembling puzzles is a great way to sort out plot points.

If you have an obsession for a TV show that is interfering with your ability to find time to write, maybe this isn’t your time to be a writer.

My thought is that those shows will be available forever on Hulu, Netflix, or Amazon Prime and your favorite video games will be available too.

Something I have found  over the years is that by getting away from the TV for a while, your mind becomes sharper. By doing something different, you give your active mind a vacation. You rest better and your whole body benefits from having done something positive and restful with your free time.


Credits and Attributions

Underwood Standard Typewriter, PD|75 yrs image first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok.

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5), from Wikimedia Commons

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Final Revisions #amwriting

The question came up in a professional Indie writers’ group I frequent on Facebook: Do I need to get an editor for my final manuscript or is a good proofread enough?

The overwhelming answer was a resounding “Yes!”

I am an editor but I always have my final manuscript edited by a professional editor, and I get a final proofread by members of my writing support group before I hit the publish button. As authors, we never see all our own mistakes although we catch many. We see what we intended to write rather than what is written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row. Our brain fills in the missing words and doesn’t notice when we use ‘its’ rather than ‘it’s,’ or ‘their’ rather than ‘they’re’ or ‘there.’

Also, we tend to overlook clumsy and inadvertently awkward phrasing.

  • Her eyes rolled over her host’s attire.
  • Delicious sounds assaulted his eardrums.

We overlook little things like those examples in our own work because we are visualizing the scene as we read it, and to us, they convey what we are thinking. We can’t see our own work with an unbiased eye, any more than we can see our children with an unbiased eye.

If you are unable to afford a full edit, and they are not cheap, there is a way to make a pretty good stab at revising your own manuscript, but it is time consuming. If you aren’t going to hire an editor, you should consider investing in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. This is a resource with all the answers for questions you might have regarding grammar and sentence structure.

To do a thorough revision of your manuscript:

  1. Print out the first chapter. Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen.
  2. Turn to the last page. Cover the page, leaving only the last paragraph visible.
  3. Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.
  4. With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction.
  5. Look for
    • Typos,
    • Missing quotation marks,
    • Punctuation that is outside of the quotations.

Wrong: “dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house”. Said Toto. I went with her”.

Right: “Dorothy flew over the rainbow in a house,” said Toto. “I went with her.”

  • Words that are spelled correctly but are the wrong word – there-their-they’re, etc.
  • Look up “comma splice” and eliminate them from your manuscript.
  • Remove repetitions of entire ideas. If you explained it once, that was probably all you needed.
  • Check for repetitious use of certain key words and phrasing.
  • Eliminate all timid phrasing and remove unnecessary words. That and very are two words that can often be cut and not replaced with anything. Often cutting them makes a sentence stronger.

An editor points out and encourages you to correct all instances of timid phrasing. Timid phrasing leads to wordiness, and we really want to avoid that. Overuse of forms of to be (is, are, was, were) also lead to wordiness. Long, convoluted passages rife with compound sentences turn away most readers.

To avoid wordiness, use action words (verbs) in place of forms of to be. In active prose, our characters don’t begin (start) to move. Instead, they move. They act as opposed to beginning or starting to act.

  1. Open your manuscript on your computer and make your corrections.
  2. Repeat these steps with every chapter.

If you notice a few flaws in your manuscript in your final pass but think no one will be bothered by them, you’re wrong. Readers always notice the things that stop their eye.

In my own work, I have discovered that if a passage seems flawed, but I can’t identify what is wrong with it, my eye wants to skip it. But another person will see the flaw, and they will show me what is wrong there. This is why this editor always has a professional editor go over her manuscripts.

Once you have finished revising your manuscript in this fashion, have it proofread by a member of your writing group. If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors as proof readers—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

Editors do more than point out comma errors–they will make a note of incongruities, and contradictions.  They will also note inconsistent style and usage. When a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and that pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a style sheet.

The style sheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or  keep minimized until it’s needed. I copy and past every invented word, hyphenated word, or name the first time they appear in my manuscript, and if I am conscientious, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale. My editor is grateful that I make this list so that she doesn’t have to!

Be aware that it is not an edit if you have done it yourself–it is only a deep revision. The best we can do with our own work is to keep revising it until it is as clean as we can make it. (See my article of June 20, 2018 – Thoughts on Revisions and Self-editing.) Only an external eye can see our work with an unbiased eye and properly edit it. But with diligence and the assistance of your critique group, it is possible to make good revisions yourself and you can turn out an acceptable book that a casual reader will enjoy.

I hope these suggestions help you in your revision process. We want our work to be enjoyable by the casual reader, and if we are conscientious in the final stages, we can turn out a readable manuscript that is not rife with easily fixable errors.

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Identifying Genre #amwriting

If you have taken my advice and written several short stories, you now have something to enter in contests and submit to various publications. However, it can be hard to know what publication to send your work to.

This is where you must learn to identify the genre of what you have written.

When I sit down and begin writing a short story, sometimes I don’t have a particular theme or plot in mind. I key the first lines with an open mind, and random ideas begin to flow. Because I am working within the limits of 3000 to 7000 words, these are the stories that stretch my writing skills.

These “orphan” short stories are widely different from my normal work and aren’t always written in a genre that is easily identified.

Mainstream (general) fiction–Mainstream fiction is a general term that publishers and booksellers use to describe works that will appeal to a broad range of readers and will have some chance of commercial success. Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction.

It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either. The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and action that force the characters to grow.

Literary Fiction–Literary fiction tends to be more adventurous with the narrative, with the style of the prose taking a prominent place. Stylistic writing and the exploration of themes and ideas form the substance of the piece.

Writer’s Relief Author’s Submission Service defines literary fiction as “…fiction of ideas. While the story must be good, emphasis on action is not often as important as emphasis on the ideas, themes, and concerns of the book. Literary fiction tackles “big” issues that are often controversial, difficult, and complex.”  (end quoted text)

Literary fiction is frequently challenging to read, which is why certain readers search it out. They want to savor every word and turn of phrase. Sometimes literary fiction is experimental, wordy, and goes off topic, but the journey is the important thing to those of us who enjoy the works of David Foster Wallace, John McPhee, and George Saunders.

Science fiction–Science Fiction features futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.

If you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi, so don’t bother submitting it to a publisher who only wants science fiction.

Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in the physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible. Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is that Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction.

The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy: Fantasy commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works are set within imaginary worlds, environments where magic and magical creatures are common. Epic and high fantasy generally avoid scientific and macabre themes, although in some fantasy subgenres there can be a great deal of overlap between fantasy and horror, and fantasy mixed with science.

I’ve said it before, but every genre has its share of snobs and idiot purists, people who will argue your choice of sub-genre no matter what you choose.

High fantasy–High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real world. It commonly features elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narrative. Often the prose is more literary, and the primary plot is slowed by many side quests. Think Mervyn Peake, William Morris, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Epic Fantasy–These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy and can include elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes. These also come in multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s series, Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.

Paranormal Fantasy–Paranormal fantasy often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and supernatural.

Urban Fantasy– can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

Horror–Horror fiction, horror literature, and also horror fantasy are narratives written specifically to frighten, scare, or startle their readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Sometime these stories detail the experience of purely mental terror, other times they are rife with sudden graphic violence.

Romance– Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on developing a relationship despite many roadblocks, and in the end, the characters find true romantic love. These stories must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, or they are not romance.

Choose carefully what publications, anthologies, and contests you submit your work to. Read and follow their submission guidelines. Read one or two back issues so that you only submit the kind of work they publish.

Never submit anything that is not your best work, and do not assume they will edit it, because they won’t. No publisher will buy work that is poorly written, sloppily formatted, and generally unreadable.


Credits and Attributions:

How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book? By Writer’s Relief Staff, Writer’s Relief Author Submission Services Blog, posted July 22, 2009. (Accessed August 14, 2018.)

Cover of The New Yorker (first issue) in 1925 with illustration depicting iconic character Eustace Tilley,  drawn by Rea Irvin. Fair Use.

First Cover of Astounding Stories of Super Science (Analog Science Fiction and Fact) art by H. W. Wesso,  January 1930, Fair Use. Via Wikipedia.

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English, origins and style #amwriting

One of my favorite subjects is how English is and will always be an ever-evolving and ever-disintegrating language. The history of the evolution of English is intriguing.

In recent years scholars have determined that if you want to make Shakespearean poetry  and prose rhyme, it must be read with what is now a Scottish/Appalachian accent, as that was the accent of Renaissance England, and pronounce words the way they are spelled. To hear for yourself, go out to NPR’s Shakespeare’s Accent: How Did The Bard Really Sound? I found it to be a treat.

Jonathan Swift, writer and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, complained to the Earl of Oxford in 1712: “Our Language is extremely imperfect. Its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities.” He went so far as to say, “In many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.”

It was the linguistic wild-west, undisciplined and out of control. Slang words willfully forced their way into drawing rooms, newspapers, and books, and in the process they became part of our common usage. So, in an effort to tame our wildly evolving language, a group of clerks and clerics in the eighteenth century who wanted a more orderly language developed the rules for the “Queen’s English.”

Unfortunately, they used the rules with which they were most familiar. Being men of the church, they borrowed them from Latin. This poor choice on their part is the source of much of our grammatical dysfunction.  These men applied the rules of a dead language, Latin, to an evolving language with completely different roots, Frisian, added a bunch of mish-mash words and usages invented by William Shakespeare, and called it “Grammar.”

Despite their origin, the rules have been consecrated, hallowed, and immortalized in hundreds of books on style, and repeated by scholars who ignore the scabrous history of our English language. Frisian evolved into Modern Dutch, and Latin evolved into Modern Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian—and several other modern languages. Yet, despite the wide linguistic differences in the two root languages, these hard-and-fast rules have been passed down by generations of schoolteachers in a vain effort to teach students how to write and speak our common language.

These rules of grammar are what we also refer to as style.

When we leave school and first begin to write seriously, we soon discover that we don’t really know how to construct a narrative that people would want to read. So, we need to further educate ourselves.

Despite the pox-ridden history of the English language, it helps to have a framework to go by when writing. I use a book of rules, the Chicago Manual of Style.  This book is used in the big publishing houses here in the US and is the manual of choice for most American editors of fiction and literary works. Referring to it when I have a question helps me to remain consistent in my punctuation, and ensures my personal style is comfortable for the reader.

You can use any style guide you choose, but you must remain consistent. Refer to your guide of choice whenever you are confused about punctuation or grammar. This isn’t a cure-all for bad writing. Many times, confusion can only be eliminated by rephrasing, deleting excessive descriptors, and by cutting long, compound sentences in half.

Knowledge of grammar is no substitute for talent, but it can help make talent readable.

If you are in the UK, you might want to invest in the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing technical manuals, the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications would be a good investment for you.

If you are a journalism major, you may think Associated Press Style is the only style guide you’ll ever need, but you would be wrong. AP Style evolved for the printer setters in the newspaper industry and is intended to make the most efficient use of space in a column. It is not favored by the large traditional publishers and editors as the style guide for novels or short stories, which have different requirements.

For a good post on the major differences in these two very different American English styles, see this blog post written in 2016 by Acadia Otlowski for Hip B2B:

AP vs Chicago Manual of Style: Which Stylebook is Right for You?

I’ve seen AP and Chicago Manual users in hair-pulling matches over the Oxford comma, on-line disputes that were both embarrassing and needlessly troll-ish.

Regardless of your personal writing style, it’s a good idea to learn how to write and speak in your native language, as readers will be able to accept your personal style choices more easily if the larger elements flow as expected.

And that is the key word: expected.

We all habitually write in such a way that we consistently break certain rules. This is our voice and is our fingerprint. This does not mean you should throw grammar out the window—readers have expectations that authors will respect them enough to spell words properly, will understand the words they are using and use them correctly, and will insert pauses between certain clauses.

They don’t demand perfection, but they do want consistency.

A rudimentary knowledge of how your native language works is essential, so my advice is for you to invest in a few reference books and use them. Listed below are my go-to books.

If you are writing novels or fiction in the US, a handy book for you would be The Chicago Guide to Usage and Grammar by Bryan A. Garner. It is a more concise and to the point compilation of the important things than the big blue book that is the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you are in the UK, you should invest in The Oxford A – Z of Grammar and Punctuation by John Seely. I use this little guide when I am editing for my British clients.

A handy book for all who write in the many multi-national English dialects is The Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms – I find this book invaluable when I am stuck trying to think up an alternative word that won’t be awkward or pretentious.

I secretly love awkward and pretentious words, especially ones that rhyme. It embarrasses my children when I forget my manners and use them in public.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from: A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue by Jonathan Swift, 1712, 2nd ed. Edited by Jack Lynch, Professor and chair of the English Department in the Newark College of Arts & Sciences at Rutgers University – Newark. (accessed Aug. 12, 2018).

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How I became an author #amwriting

I have always been a writer, and a lover of music and art. Music was important in our house, as my parents had a large collection of vinyl records and the stereo was always cranking. Whether it was classical, jazz, or rock and roll, music was played loud enough to hear outside.

In an afternoon, you might hear the Beatles, followed by Vivaldi, Dean Martin, Herman’s Hermits, Loretta Lynn, the Monkees, and capping the evening—Mozart. Simon and Garfunkle, The Who, The Rolling Stones, 101 Strings, Electric Light Orchestra, Eddy Arnold, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder—you name it, the music was always played at a high volume in our home.

The books in our home were just as eclectic. My parents were prolific readers and were members of both Doubleday Book Club and Science Fiction Book Club. They also purchased two to four paperbacks a week at the drugstore and subscribed to Analog and several other magazines.

There was always something new and wonderful to read around our house, and most of it was literary fiction or speculative fiction, although we had the entire 54 volume leather-bound set of the Great Books of the Western World, and our father insisted we attempt to read and discuss what we could.

Some of those books were mostly understandable, such as William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys.

Plato, not so much, and yet his work did influence me.

At the age of fourteen, I didn’t understand Pepys, but I read him, and while we were bass fishing on a Saturday morning, Dad would talk about the differences and commonalities between life and morality in Pepys’ London and our life in suburban America in 1968. His thought was that I should learn about the 17th century and the Great Fire in London from an eyewitness, just as I had learned about the war in the Pacific from John F. Kennedy‘s autobiographical novel, PT 109.

But Pepys’ London of 1666 was so different from the ‘Mod’ subculture of the London of 1968 (and the Beatles) that I was familiar with thanks to Life magazine. To me, it was almost like speculative fiction. In many ways, it was more difficult for me to believe in historical London than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Everything I knew about sex, I learned from the books I stole from my mother’s nightstand.

When I married and left home, I still read every sci-fi or fantasy novel that came out in paperback, budgeting for books the way others of my acquaintance budgeted for beer. I read the classics for my irregular college classes and learned to love Chaucer and James Joyce. For a variety of reasons I never earned a college degree, but I’ve never stopped reading and researching great literature.

But reading for entertainment was still my “drug.” I jonesed for new books by the great ones, Anne McCaffreyJack Chalker, and Roger Zelazny, reading and rereading them until they were shreds held together with duct tape.

As a married student attending college in Bellingham Washington, purchasing books for pleasure became a luxury. I found a secondhand bookstore where I could get a brown paper shopping bag full of novels in too poor a condition to sell on their shelves for $2.00 a bag if you had a bag of better books to trade in.

As a college drop-out I went through a full shopping bag of books every week, and within a year, I had read every book they had.

Thus, out of desperation, I discovered a whole new (to me) genre: regency romances written by Georgette Heyer, and other romance writers of that generation. Those books, along with beat up copies of bestsellers by Jack KerouacJames Michener, and Jacqueline Susann began to show up in the pile beside my bed.

So at least some of my literary influences can be traced back to dragons, booze, morality, and England’s romantic Regency—lived vicariously through these authors’ eyes.

Always when the budget permitted, I returned to Tolkien, Zelazny, McCaffrey, AsimovBradbury, and as time passed, Piers AnthonyDavid EddingsTad WilliamsL.E. Modesitt Jr., and Robert Jordan to name only a few.

And there were so many, many others whose works I enjoyed. By the 1990s, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi were growing authors like a field grows weeds, and I loved it.

All of the books I read as a child and young adult have influenced my writing. They still inspire me.

Nowadays I rarely am able to read more than a chapter or two before falling asleep. My Kindle is full of books, and I haven’t got the time to read them because I have to write my own stories. Having the luxury to spend a day wallowing in a book is a treat to be treasured.

But it is because of the uncountable authors whose works I have been privileged to read that I was inspired to think that my own scribbles might be worth pursuing.

Writing has always been necessary for me, as natural as breathing. In the beginning, my writing was unformed, a reflection of whatever I was reading at the moment. As I matured and gained confidence, I found my own ideas and stories, and they took over my life.

Once that happened, I became a keyboard-wielding writing junkie.

Some days I write well, and others not so much, but every day I write something.

And every day I find myself looking for the new book that will rock my universe, a new “drug” to satisfy my craving, even if I know I won’t have time to read it.

I’m addicted to dreams and the people who write about them. Reading is my form of mind expanding inspiration. Without the authors whose books formed my world, I would never have dared to write.


Credits and Attributions

Potions of this article have appeared previously here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy in the post, The Genesis of an Author, © Connie J. Jasperson 2016, posted Jan 27, 2016

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logic, objective, and circumstance #amwriting

We begin any writing project with an idea, a flash of “What if….” Sometimes, that “what if” is inspired by an idea for a character, or perhaps a setting. Maybe it was the idea for the plot that had your wheels turning. Whatever the inspiration, a little pre-planning and a bit of an outline are beneficial in getting the manuscript started.

If you work at a day job and using the note-taking app on your cellphone to take down notes during work hours is frowned on, do as I still do. Carry a pocket-sized notebook and pen and write those ideas down. This is old-school but will enable you to discreetly make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you don’t appear to be distracted or off-task.

Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about where you are going with your story.

At the outset of the story, we find our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs which is the inciting incident. This is the first point of no return.

Pretend we are writing a mystery/thriller: On page one, Dave, an unmarried accountant, sees a woman from across a cafe, and through a series of innocuous actions on his part, he is caught up in thwarting a spy ring.

  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is out of character for him? Perhaps he buys a stranger lunch. You must show him as a shy person not given to buying lunch for strange women. This act must change his life.

Because he suddenly decided to “pay it forward” and paid for her lunch on his way out, he draws the attention of people who were following her. They suddenly think he is more than a simple accountant, that the act of buying her lunch was a secret code, making him a suspect.

Now, he is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation which is the core idea of your plot.

  • On his way back to his office, a white limousine pulls up alongside him, and four men in black suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Jeanne Delamont.

This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story.

  • How will the next phase of the story start? Who is Ms. Delamont?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: objective.

In every class I’ve taken on plotting, the instructors have said that if your main character doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he/she doesn’t deserve to have a story told about them.

  • At this point, our hero just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately.
  • What does the woman at the café for whom he bought lunch have to do with the whole mess?

Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest and answer that question. Your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Every scene and conversation will push the protagonist closer to either achieving that goal or failing, so if you make it a deeply personal quest, the reader will become as invested in it as you are.

I find it helps to have a broad outline of my intended story arc. Speaking as a reader, at some point near the outset of their manuscript authors need to have an idea of how it will end, so the story flows smoothly to the best conclusion.

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

Try them all and choose the one that you like best.

If you try to wing it through the whole book, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

  • What will be your inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want that pushes 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 midpoint to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

I write fantasy novels, but I also write literary fiction. Writing fantasy does require a certain amount of planning because so much goes into world building and creating magic systems. Literary fiction must also have a logical arc or the characters won’t evolve.

In any novel, when you are winging it through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

You don’t have to go into detail in that little framework, but if you give yourself a rough outline, you will know what you must do to accomplish each task within the storyline.

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

With a simple outline, you won’t become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up once the real work of writing starts.

Readers become frustrated with authors who randomly kill off characters they have grown to like.

Besides, you might need that character later.


Credits and Attributions

Cover of the original novel “The Maltese Falcon” 1930, by Dashiel Hammett, published by Alfred A Knopf, Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors, “The Maltese Falcon (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Maltese_Falcon_(novel)&oldid=851535327 (accessed July 25, 2018).

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Life is a river #amwriting

Most people have struggled in their personal life at one time or another. During the years I was raising my children, I had three failed marriages, worked three part-time jobs, and it was hard to find time to write.

We came through the lean times as a tight-knit family. But I think of life as being like a river, because you never know what is around the bend. By the time my last chick left the nest, I had gained financial security, but a new difficulty arose.

Two of my children developed adult onset epilepsy, a complication which has made our comfortable life… interesting.

When you look at the statistics detailing the age of all patients at the time of their first seizure, the number of those whose first documented seizure occurs after reaching adulthood is far higher than those who experience it as children.

Yet little research has been done to document the experience of living with a seizure disorder as an adult.

They once lived their lives the way normal adults do. They used to be able to legally drive a car without endangering other people, to say nothing of themselves. They didn’t have to worry that a short flight of stairs could kill them or that cooking their breakfast could send them to a long stay in the burn unit.

There is anger, confusion. Why me? What did I do wrong? What can I change? There is even denial–it can’t be epilepsy; it’s never going to happen again.

The truth is, no one knows what causes most forms of epilepsy, and each patient responds to the medications differently. And every well-meaning auntie in the universe has sage advice to offer, despite not having any experience with it. “Try marijuana.” “Go on a Keto diet.” These are effective treatments for some people, but not for everyone, and not my son or daughter.

There is no miracle drug or diet out there at this time.

Epilepsy is not a poster-child kind of disease, so funding for research is limited. At this point, because the cause is rarely knowable, all the medical community can do is offer drugs to control the symptoms. Most times, seizure disorders are not operable, unless it is a tumor or some other obvious thing. When you look at the wide spectrum of patients with adult onset, you see those “easy-to-find with an MRI” causes are quite rare.

Many, like my son, are never quite able to get it under control, and it affects their jobs, their relationships, and their ability to live a fully independent life.

Others, like my daughter, go many years between seizures, and their lives are mostly unaffected by it. She has her own business, volunteers at her son’s school and is also the co-chairwoman of the PTA there.

Both of my children have suffered terrible injuries during seizure episodes. Both have spent time in the hospital, had to have surgeries to repair wounds incurred, and no one has ever been able to find the cause of their seizures.

Writing has been an escape that kept me sane when nothing was certain except my daughter and son were in terrible trouble, and the doctors didn’t know why and couldn’t cure it. The medical community wants to cure it, but the way this condition affects each sufferer is different, which frustrates the doctors as much as the patients.

For many people, after they have a large seizure event, there is a post-seizure stage where they suffer an altered state of consciousness. This can be dangerous if they are alone. They’re locked in a dream and make no sense when they speak. As they begin to come out of that stage, they’re unable to think clearly, can’t focus their attention or follow a conversation. This altered state is like sleepwalking and sleep-talking, which is why it’s dangerous. As they move out of this stage, they will also have problems with short term memory, and may have decreased verbal and interactive skills.

Fortunately, that is a temporary thing, lasting only one or two hour for some, but it can go one or two days for my son. After recovering from that stage, it still takes about two weeks for my son to get back to where he can think clearly enough to work on whatever project he is doing. He can’t be alone then, but  between his wonderful girlfriend and I, we care for him until he can be on his own again.

This post-seizure state cost my son his long-time job (ten years) as a software developer at Amazon and made it difficult for him to find work elsewhere. Most employers can’t accommodate an employee who is randomly unable to work for two weeks, two or three times a year.

After a time of intense depression and searching for answers that don’t exist, my son decided to be proactive. He started his own company, doing what he loves. He is now writing his own software and apps and is his own boss so he can work around his situation.

We could allow this epilepsy thing to overshadow our every waking moment, but that would change nothing. Research, they say, is ongoing, but nothing has changed treatment-wise since my daughter’s first seizure at the age of twenty-eight—sixteen years ago. My children still sometimes have seizures, and we have learned to laugh and enjoy our life despite the occasional setback.

The hours spent in hospitals as my son or daughter recovered from injuries incurred during a seizure helped forge my writing. Life is what happens when we aren’t on that merry-go-round, and other than that, our lives are good.

Life is a journey, and you never know what lies around the corner, but a sense of humor can be a solace when nothing else is. Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, says: Gallows humor has the social effect of strengthening the morale of the oppressed and undermines the morale of the oppressors. According to Wylie Sypher, “to be able to laugh at evil and error means we have surmounted them.”

Laughing and making crude jokes about the situation is how we survive the chaos and fear—it is what gets us through to the better days that wait just beyond the battle. Life can deal us a hand full of the worst cards, and epilepsy is not the end of the world.

My father’s career in the military ended when he lost his left leg as a result of a bone infection–he was forced into retirement after 15 years of service. While he was in the hospital, his family lost everything when their farm burned to the ground. He had survived WWII, but lost his brother in Korea. Yet despite what he had been through in France and the losses on the home front, he had a wicked sense of humor and an enormous passion for life.

Other people inspire me to avoid self-pity. I have two writing companions, one here in Washington state and one in California. Both are paralyzed, life changing events that would be devastating to any family. Yet they made it through the dark days and live every day to the fullest. Both have wonderful laughs, both make me feel weak in the face of their power and self-determination.

Loss of limbs, loss of physical independence, loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, loss of dignity, loss of face—we all deal with loss and hard times in one way or another.

But in between those rough times, we have times of happiness and joy, forgetting the pain and anger for a moment. Those are the precious hours we have earned, and they are the real life we are given.

Life is a river. What the river has taken is gone, and we can’t get it back, but the currents are carrying us in a different direction, to new shores. Yes, we must adapt to these changes, but that is what humans do.

My life is good today, and easy as compared to last summer. “Easy” won’t always be the case, so I am enjoying it while I have it. Life is always in a state of change, and when I next find myself in the midst of chaos and pain, I will try to think of the good things I still have, and I will find a way to be grateful.

We none of us know what the future holds—all we can ever really be sure of is this moment, this minute, and this beautiful day.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Gallows humor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopediahttps://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gallows_humor&oldid=759474185     (accessed  July 22, 2018).

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