Tag Archives: creative writing

Semicolon; comma splice; comma (revisited) #amwriting

Here we are, entering the second week of National Novel Writing Month. It’s a good time to review the rules for the punctuation that we use (and abuse) so regularly. This essay first posted on March 14, 2018, so if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!


First up, the semicolon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the other hand, you can join them with the em dash. My personal inclination is to find alternatives to both semicolons and em dashes, as they can easily create run-on sentences.

I don’t dislike them, as some editors do, but I think they are too easily abused and misused. My rule for you is this: Semicolons should not be used if you are in doubt.

Some authors will do anything to avoid using a semicolon, which is ridiculous. However, they see their work is a little choppy, so they join the independent clauses with commas.

That is a grammar no-no. You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuumthe Dreaded Comma Splice.

If you join independent clauses with commas and we all die, you’ll only have yourself to blame because I did warn you.

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

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

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

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

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If a sentence feels muddled but you think a reader won’t notice, you are wrong. Be a little daring… crack open the grammar book or go online and look up the rules. You will become more confident in your writing, and your work will go faster.

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Four rules for writing conversations #amwriting

In my last post, we talked about internal dialogues, or thoughts our characters may have. But what about that which is spoken aloud?

How to punctuate dialogue can be confusing for those who are just starting out. I will warn you—from the reader’s perspective, punctuation is to writing what gravity is to the universe. It holds everything together.

We obey traffic signals when driving, so we don’t cause wrecks. In the same way, our written work must abide by specific fundamental rules, or it will be unreadable—a wreck.

What is spoken must be easily distinguished from the ordinary narrative. Therefore, punctuation is for the reader’s benefit. While we can take some liberties with grammar and dialect when writing conversations, following the established rules of punctuation is essential.

Many people are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not that complicated. Here are four rules to remember:

Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m here,” she said.

Begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are called closed quotes. All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow.

Rule 2: When quoting someone else as part of a conversation, you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

You can do this in two ways:

  • John said, “When I asked her, Grace replied, ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
  • John said, “When I asked, Grace replied ‘I can’t go.’”

Note that in the second sentence, 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation.

  • When asked, John said Grace couldn’t go.

We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Grace.

Rule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma:  “I’m here,” she said.

  • When leading with a speech tag, the comma is separating two clauses, so it is placed after the tag and is not inside the quotation marks: She said, “I’m here.”
  • Dialogue that is split with the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.

Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story but happens sometimes in essays and when quoting speeches.

In the following example, I tried to include all four of the rules:

    “We’ve forgotten one important thing,” Jan said, “barbarian or southerner, we’re all descended from the Remnant. We are all Aeos’s people, barbarian, southerner, or midlands farmer.

    “During my vision quest,  she told me two important things I didn’t understand until now. ‘Build my clergy’ and ‘lead my people back to the path of righteousness.’ I thought she only meant that I should guide the tribes, but now I know her true plan.”

The things readers won’t forgive are what I think of as the seven deadly sins of dialogue, often committed when writing the first draft:

  1. The info dump: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  2. Repetitively naming the characters being spoken to: “Ralph, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”
  3. Bizarre speech tags such as ejaculated or spewed.
  4. Long, drawn out thoughts and ruminations that are a wall of italics.
  5. Spelling out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts…”
  6. Leading off with verbal tics. “Aahhh…ummm…”
  7. Erratic and amateurish punctuation.

Something else I’ve mentioned before: Never resort to writing foreign languages by using Google Translate (or any other translation app). A single word used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

These are the fundamental rules of the road that readers expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers leave comments on Amazon like, “one star, could not finish.” Those are reviews of the worst kind.

If you have more questions about punctuation, good answers can be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. This is a handy book I regularly refer back to whenever I have questions about grammar.

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On Poetry: Interview with Alan Shue, creator of the Bug Rhymes Stories

This is the fourth and final installment in my series of interviews on the craft of writing poetry. Today Alan Shue, author of the hilarious Bug Rhymes Stories series of children’s books, talks to us about his approach to the craft.

Writing for children is a bit different than for older readers, and Alan kindly explains why.


CJJ: When did you begin to write poetry?

AS: I began to write poetry in small amounts during the 1960s and 70s, mainly in the form of song writing (little of which I can find now). In the 80s I started writing poems mainly for Christmas, family birthdays and other events to send out with cards and found I really enjoyed it. After a while I branched out into writing just for fun, playing with alliteration and various rhyming patterns and broadening my mix of topics to include humorous, romantic, and more serious themes. When I retired in 2008 I also started writing rhyming stories for children.

CJJ: Your published work is primarily children’s books. When did you realize this was your calling as an author? Have you written in other genres?

AS: I’m not sure I’ve had a calling as an author per se – I more or less stumbled into writing children’s books. When I reached retirement I knew I wanted to spend more of my newfound free time writing poetry and maybe also take a shot at writing short stories or novels. One warm summer day in 2008 I lay on my back in a grassy area in a park, looked up into a clear blue sky, and casually thought about what kind of writing I’d like to do. Within moments a few rhyming lines and silly plot ideas about fleas and other bugs popped into my mind. They felt fun and funny enough that I decided to give rhyming children’s stories a try, to see if I could create something I liked. That impulse turned into a series I call Bug Rhymes stories.

I have tried a few other genres. In the poetry realm I have written lyrics for a set of “New Age” compositions whose melodies I loved so much I felt compelled to put words to them. In the past five years I have also tried my hand at adult prose in the form of a short story (more like a novelette) and a fiction novel currently in progress. I find writing prose for an adult audience to be far more difficult than writing goofy rhymes for kids.

CJJ: What do you enjoy most about your work?

AS: I like the creative process of trying to communicate ideas and stories via rhyme. I enjoy the challenge of finding unusual and clever rhymes, giving rhythm to poetic verse, and employing alliteration to make lines and quatrains “roll off the tongue” (although admittedly I sometimes create tongue twisters). I’m a member of a local writing group and like the learning process involved in receiving critiques of my work and making improvements to it. It also has been a pleasure to visit elementary schools to read my books aloud and talk to students about writing. My greatest enjoyment comes when I receive feedback from kids and adults who have had a good laugh or a nice feeling from my ditties and stories.

CJJ: What do you find easiest about writing for children, and conversely, what is most difficult?

AS: My children’s stories tend to “anthropomorphize” bugs, i.e. they put bugs into situations faced by humans. I think having bugs as characters allows me the freedom to make the stories as humorous or dramatic as I want while still appealing to a child’s sense of fun and fantasy. I can create my own culture and world, e.g. a pair of bedbug bicycle cops on the trail of a bedbug bed burglar.

My greatest difficulty is keeping my children’s stories as short as most publishers recommend. Many children’s books are just a few hundred words long. My stories sometimes creep up to around a thousand, plus or minus, which can exceed the attention span of some who are in my target 3 to 9 year age range.

CJJ: What advice would you give other authors who want to write for children and who may be just starting out?

AS: My books are all self-published, which is far easier to do now than it was in 2008, so I would suggest considering that approach as it is far quicker and easier than acquiring an agent or publisher. By all means join a good critique group where you can get constructive criticism from other authors. I was not academically trained as a writer and listening to other writers has resulted in far better finished work from me. Read as many children’s books as you can to see what is getting published, what the market is looking for, and what your niche could be. Think about your goals. My niche has been the adventures of bugs scorned or overlooked by most other children’s book writers (e.g. fleas, mosquitoes, bedbugs, gnats, etc., no butterflies) and my goal has been to write stories kids and adults will enjoy, not necessarily to achieve commercial success.

CJJ: Finally, what are you currently working on?

AS: I’m about 35,000 words into my first full length novel. I’ve discovered that it takes far more research and skill for this type of writing – to make it realistic and keep adults engaged – than for fantasy-based rhyming stories for children. Additionally, I have several more finished Bug Rhymes stories that need illustration to become books. Kudos to my wife Linda (creative director and colorist) and my illustrator Elisa Wilson for the three Bug Rhymes books completed so far. I’ve found my participation in the illustration process immensely interesting and rewarding, but expensive, so am not sure what the future holds for additional books. I am also still writing poetry as new ideas, events and holidays stimulate.


Thank you for allowing me to prevail upon you, Alan.

I highly recommend Alan’s books for the fun rhymes, the overall stories, and the wonderful, detailed art.

My 7-yr-old grandson, Byron, loves “Grant the Ant.” We had a long discussion on the phone about the redemption of Zeater and what a great ending the book has.  After all, in Byron’s mind, the best stories have fun words, a lot of action, and a certain amount of “ew!”

Also, Byron thinks I should add a glossary at the end of my books as he liked the one at the end of “Grant the Ant.” I’ve always listened to marketing advice from my grandsons, as they are rarely wrong.

This series of interviews with working poets/novelists has been fun. I’m always interested in how other authors work. In case you missed them, here are the links to the three previous interviews:

Stephen Swartz

Shaun Allan

Maria VA Johnson

Writing poems doesn’t stop us from writing novels, or vice versa. We can give ourselves permission to approach the craft of writing in whatever way makes us happy.

Beginning Monday, I’ll continue the series on poetry and short fiction with Drabbles (100 word stories).


About Alan Shue:

Raised in Las Vegas, Alan moved to the Pacific Northwest to attend Oregon State University and then made Olympia, WA his home. As a published author Alan has a not-so-secret love for the written word and rhymes in particular. In addition to writing children’s stories, over the years he has written a great deal of poetry for family, holidays, and just fun.

As a contrast, during his career Alan wrote thousands of pages of information systems analysis and technical design. So, a little right brain here … a little left brain there … add in some bugs, rhymes, goofiness and imagination, and you have the origins of his Bug Rhymes Books series.

Alan lives with his wife of 50+ years, Linda, who has been instrumental in the illustration of his books. His published works so far include: Chee the Flea, Tweeter and Jeeter, and Grant the Ant. Alan is coordinator for the 150+ member Olympia Writers Group.

To find out more about Alan’s books visit his web site: http://bugrhymesbooks.com/

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Guest Post: Writing Essentials: Organizing Your Plot by Suzanne Hagelin

This is the third in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writer’s Association. You can catch up with them at https://www.niwawriters.com/

Today’s guest post is by Indie author Suzanne Hagelin. Suzanne is a USA Today best-selling author of science fiction. I’ve enjoyed her work and look forward to hearing what she has to say!


What could be more delightful than a great story told well? Homer continues to gain “Iliad” fans after thousands of years and Shakespeare retains his reputation as a master playwright. How did they assemble the parts to create a satisfying whole? Is it possible to find a common denominator for all the successful plots out there? The approaches to building a story are so numerous and versatile that it could be daunting to pull out a basic principle that works for all, but this might be a good starting place.

A good plot cooperates with the way human minds process information.

The key to processing and digesting information is organizing it in a way our brains can use. Reading books is no exception. A simple narrative with few characters can get away with a scattered tossing of events and ideas, but the more complex a story becomes, the more essential it is to have a well-organized plot.

When we organize a plot, we’re creating a pattern of events, forming the basic structure of the story. The author’s success in weaving them together depends on how the pieces are coordinated. Ideally, authors lay out their stories in ways that make sense and don’t require too much guessing or backtracking on the part of the reader.

Chronology

Reality happens in order—at least as far as we know in this branch of the multiverse—but we experience reality in complex ways because of how we process information; reviewing memories, comparing facts, dealing with trauma, struggling with questions. Our minds are existing in the present, and branch into the past and future as well, as we evaluate our lives. This is why we can enjoy stories told out of sequence and why breaking up the chronology of a plot can work.

In fact, it can be masterfully done.

“Memento” is a film about a man who can’t form permanent memories because of a traumatic incident that included the death of his wife. By showing only what he experiences and moving backwards, the movie captures what it’s like to be this man and shows us at the same time what is actually happening. It’s intense, tragic, and disturbing. The author set up the pattern very carefully so that, even as scenes were moving in reverse in time, our understanding of who the characters were and what was happening progressed in a logical way forward, building solidly. The viewer’s experience was sequential, like walking backwards in the snow, watching the ground so you can set each foot in the print you left on your way there, only seeing one at a time.

Most stories are told sequentially with occasional visits to the past.

Ways to organize the chronology of your plot

By characters

Take each of your main characters and jot down the flow of the story from their point of view. Let their motivations and personalities clarify gaps or redirect the plot. For example, “Joe” wouldn’t just be sitting there for seven chapters while “Mary” is battling a monster. Of course, you don’t have to write what Joe is doing, but you should know.

Once you’ve got each character’s thread, look at how they cross and interact. You may find some plot peaks and valleys this way.

By timeline

Take the space of time your story covers and place events on it. The most logical approach is to tell the story in the order it happened, within reason. You wouldn’t interrupt a scene to throw in what was happening at the same time somewhere else unless it were essential to tie the two events together immediately. You may want to interlace chapters that deal with different segments in order to preserve the forward momentum of the plot.

If you aren’t telling your story in the order it happened, why not? Memories and flashbacks happen within the mind. Whose mind are you connecting it to? It could be a specific character or the reader, as if they had found a historical resource to draw from.

Ask questions like:

  • Is there a good reason why this isn’t happening in chronological order?
  • Who is linked to this and how will I maintain the continuity of the plot?
  • Would putting this section back into the timeline make more sense or improve the plot?
  • Does this help the reader to know what I (the author) know or does it confuse them?

One of my novels was really suffering until I did this. I laid the scenes out on a timeline and realized how I had been botching it by neglecting the importance of chronology. Reorganizing the flow helped me regain momentum not only in the story progression but in my writing.

By key points

There are specific landmarks you need to get to, pivotal events in your book that are essential. Identifying those and placing them in strategic places will help you decide what should happen between them. I may not have decided how to accomplish this, but I know that about halfway through the book, that character has to be in this situation. Anchoring these might change the structure of your plot somewhat but that’s good. Now you know where you’re going.

The reader will sense that direction even if they don’t know where you’re taking them.

Composition

When composers craft a symphony, writing musical notes in patterns, choosing instruments and how they blend together, they are weaving a story with sound. The conductor interprets the notes, expanding or contracting tempos, creating highs and lows, excitement or calm, making it individual. The musicians follow the conductor’s instructions, but each one has their own level of skill, talent, and nuances of style.

Stories are compositions, like music. When authors sketch out a storyline, adding characters, locations, sequences of events, and dialog, they are composing a story with words. The style of writing fleshes it out, like a conductor, and determines the impact the plot will have.

Consider your book from a musical standpoint. Where are your crescendos and decrescendos? Are there long, legato passages and short staccato ones? Have you built a rhythm and pace that conveys emotion? This approach can identify long dull patches or consistently tense ones that never have peaks or valleys.

When you’re sitting down to organize your plot, there are several things to look at. You want to consider:

  • The structure of the timeline in the story, what happens when
  • The flow of how you tell the story, which isn’t necessarily the same
  • Where your characters are at each point in that flow

This is helpful because:

  • You can identify transitions and make sure you handle them the way you want.
  • You can make a note of where support characters come in and how much the reader needs to know about them that hasn’t happened on the pages.
  • You can get a feel for the tempo of the book, where it’s dragging or when it’s rushing at a steady clip for too long, and choose places to add pauses or excitement, as the case may be.

Tools for organization

My favorite tool for organizing plots is Excel. I can track as many things as I wish through the plot because there’s always room for another row or column. Sometimes it’s basically an outline. Sometimes it’s a lot more.

There are times, though, where I can’t get what I need on a computer no matter how many sheets I have open or how big the screen is. I need something that can be moved around or scribbled on or torn up with bare hands. Then I turn to 3 x 5 index cards, sticky notes, torn pieces of paper. Laying it all out and sometimes marking it with colored codes, I can solve problems that can’t be tackled any other way. I can see at once where everyone is, everything that’s happening.

This rescued that book I mentioned, spreading it out made me realize I had approached the flow all wrong. The how and when of the story had to change completely. Fortunately, it didn’t mean a lot of rewrites, but it did alter the pace drastically. Chapters I had written that had a good tempo acquired more of a rushed feel, but since the plot as a whole wasn’t working before, the gain was worth the cost.

Talking about the plot out loud can be handy as well. Listing the sequence of events may reveal a hole. Talking about character motives may indicate scenes I left out. Maybe something I thought was great actually sounds dumb when I say it aloud.

Scene flow

Organizing your plot extends into the details and can be an asset to writing individual scenes.

Once a scene has been written, I always go back and look at the flow. I have a tendency to jumble my ideas together, associating them in ways that aren’t sequential—especially when I’m comfortable with them and already blazing ahead in my mind to what comes next. A painting can do that. It can present all the pieces of its image together and let you choose how you examine it. One person may prefer to consider the colors first, and another looks for faces, but authors are only giving a piece at a time and if we aren’t careful, we can lose the reader before the picture is complete.

This sounds obvious, but sometimes I have to remind myself that the reader is reading sequentially.

Present ideas in order

The woman enters the room and sees the wild animal before pulling out her weapon with a shriek. She doesn’t scream first, shoot, and then enter the room. This seems obvious, and the example is kind of simplistic, but the truth is I usually have to go back and make sure I’m not doing this.

“Shrieking and pulling out her Glock, the woman blasted the creature repeatedly as she entered the room where the beast had broken in through a window.”

Reorganizing the progression makes it easier to follow.

“Entering the room, the woman shrieked at the sight of the beast, covered in glass from a broken window, and within seconds had pulled out her Glock and unloaded over twelve plugs into its bulk.”

This isn’t beautiful writing, but it’s easier to follow when the sequence makes sense.

Organize the flow of action, then identify and fill in missing pieces.

Final thoughts

The reader has no idea about our story until we present it to them. They can’t see what we can see or know the characters like we know them. If we want them to enjoy the process of entering into this world so they can experience the adventure we’ve prepared, we need to assemble the parts in an easily absorbed way.

A story that sweeps you up into its grasp and carries you off into the sunset doesn’t happen by accident.

Someone laid a well-crafted snare.


Thank you for this highly detailed post, Suzanne! 

Her first post in this series was “Writing Essentials: Organizing Your Mind”. You can read the second installment in this series here, “Writing Essentials: Organizing Your Time”, and the fourth post will be on William Cook’s Blog next week.

Graphic made with photos by NASA Hubble and Christophe Ferron on Unsplash


USA Today bestselling author of hard science fiction, Suzanne Hagelin, lives in the Seattle area where she runs a small press, Varida P&R, and teaches language on the side.

Her Books. The Silvarian Trilogy Book 1, “Body Suit” is available for 99c in April only and the audiobook is Downpour’s current Editor’s Pick at $4.95. Book 2 “Nebulus” just released on audio, and Book 3, “The Denser Plane” is in the writing stage. The Severance begins with “Cascade” and will be followed by “Eclipse”.

LINKS—Suzannehagelin.com, Suzanne’s Blog, Newsletter, Twitter, FaceBook, Medium

 

 

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The Depths of the Word-Pond – Word Choice #amwriting

The depths of the Word-Pond we call Story are clouded and visibility is poor. Who knows what creatures prowl down here, waiting for their next meal?

Exposition, the Kraken of the Deep is down here somewhere, lurking. How will we get out of here alive?

In a balanced narrative, some exposition is essential in order to provide context. How much is inserted and how it is delivered is what makes or breaks a story. The same goes for those subversive packets of inadvertent exposition: adverbs.

Some newly converted zealots loudly repeat mantras uttered by their personal gurus, whispering prayers to the demi-god Elmore Leonard– an author whose advice was good, but who would be surprised to learn he’s been elevated to such heights, his short list of advice turned into a holy text. The crusaders can be recognized from a distance because they’re all standing on soapboxes shouting, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it. Kill every Darling who uses an adverb!”

That kind of devotion is short-sighted. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are adverbs. Do these well-meaning fanatics really believe they can write decent prose with no adverbs whatsoever?

As with all religious cults, there is a solid kernel of truth to that arrogant fixation, but to think you can ban exposition and adverbs from the narrative completely is a delusion. Chuck Wendig, in his post The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, says,

“And so the advice really should be, don’t use adverbs or adjectives when they sound awkward, or when they fail to tell us something that we need to know.” [1]

Other Word-Choice Mantras bring discord to the ranks of the newly converted. The word ‘very’ comes in for a lot of abuse in writing groups and writers’ chat rooms.

Suppose you decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because you have discovered you overuse it. You are savvy—you understand your word-processing program well and know all the shortcuts. You open the navigation pane and bring up the advanced search dialog box. In the ‘Replace With’ box you don’t key anything, because you know this will delete the word and are convinced this will eliminate the problem and tighten your prose.

Before you click ‘replace all’ consider three common words that have the letters v-e-r-y in their makeup:

  • Every
  • Everyone
  • Everything

Deleting every instance of ‘very’ could mess things up on an incredibly large scale. Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You’ve already spent a year or more writing that novel, so why not take the time to do it right?

“Actually” is another word to look at individually. Perhaps you have been told it is a ‘weed word,’ and, feeling mocked by the more experienced authors in your writer’s forum, you experience a nearly uncontrollable gut reaction to eliminate it entirely in a scorched earth campaign. Before you obey that compulsion, examine the context.

Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? If so, you may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word in conversation.

Just as the laws of physics break down at the center of a Black Hole, the inviolable laws of grammar break down in conversations. And, just as gravity still rules, keeping chaos constrained in the singularity, punctuation still reigns in conversation, holding our sentences together.

Now that we have adverbs and religious zealots out of the way let’s continue on with word choice. Words, carefully chosen and used properly, have power. Choosing your words with care and binding them into small packets inserted into conversations is how you distribute your exposition (backstory) without resorting to a blatant info dump. Dole it out in small portions, delivered only when the reader needs to know it.

We choose words with power. In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and therefore carry more power.

Verbs are power words. Fluff-words and obscure words used too freely are kryptonite, sapping the strength from our prose.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs make active prose.
      1. I ran toward danger, never away.
  • Parallel construction
    1. When two or more ideas are compared in a sentence, each part of the sentence uses the same grammatical structure.
    2. What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar, who used the phrase “I came; I saw; I conquered.” in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela. Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering.
  • Contrast
    1. In literature, we use contrast when we describe the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence.
    2. The blue sun burned like fire, but the ever-present wind chilled one to the bone.
  • Simile
    1. Similes show the resemblances between two things through the use of words such as “like” and “as.” They are different from metaphors, which imply that something “is” something else.
    2. The blue sun burned like fire.
  • Deliberate repetition.
    1. Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
    2. Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
    3. Repetition of words or phrases in the opposite sense.
    4. Repetition of words broken by some other words.
    5. Repetition of the same words at the end and start of a sentence.
    6. Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
    7. Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
    8. Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
    9. Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
    10. Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
    11. It can also be a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.

Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry. [2]

  • Alliteration
    1. The occurrence of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of successive words.
      1. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled p
      2. Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, (The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe 1845) [3]
  • When I see birches bend to left and right

Across the lines of straighter darker trees, (Birches, by Robert Frost 1916) [4]

Poets know and use all the above word choice concepts to convey large ideas and entire stories with a minimum of words.

How we add depth to our prose without adding kryptonite involves verb placement and using ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary. Craft happens when you combine those common words in unexpected ways, forming extraordinary passages.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] The Danger of Writing Advice from Industry Professionals, by Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds,  The Ramble, http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2017/12/12/the-danger-of-writing-advice-from-industry-professionals/  ©2017. Accessed 31 July 2019.

[2] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published in 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (31 July 2019)

[3] Wikipedia contributors, “The Raven,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Raven&oldid=908701892 (accessed July 31, 2019).

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Birches (poem),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Birches_(poem)&oldid=886359747 (accessed July 31, 2019).

Images

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Print, Three ships surrounded by monsters, ca. 1590 (CH 18553601).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Print,_Three_ships_surrounded_by_monsters,_ca._1590_(CH_18553601).jpg&oldid=276506077 (accessed July 31, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Black hole – Messier 87.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Black_hole_-_Messier_87.jpg&oldid=359992100(accessed July 31, 2019).

Wikipedia contributors, “Childe Hassam,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Childe_Hassam&oldid=831999910 (accessed April 6, 2018).

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What we can learn from midlist books #amwriting

As part of my ongoing quest to improve my writing skills, I have been reading a series of novels written by a midlist author (whom I am not going to name), trying to decipher what it that I like about her work and what I don’t like.

Midlist is a term used by the traditional publishing industry referring to books that aren’t bestsellers, but which sell enough to justify their publication. If these authors can build a consistent sales record, the big publishers will probably want future books from that author.

Most books published today are midlist titles. Bestsellers earn the largest portion of overall royalties, but midlist novels are steady earners over a long period, and many of these authors have devoted fans.

So, I have been binge-reading this series of mystery novels, trying to decide why she sells enough to keep her publisher buying her books, and in the process,  I have figured out why she’s not a bestseller. I have come up with a list of strengths and shortcomings, things I can look for in my own work.

The positives:

  • Her plots tend to be intriguing. She is creative with her murders and doesn’t rely on cliché situations.
  • She knows how to sink a hook. The details of how and why each of the murders are discovered is interesting, and at the beginning, logical, so you keep reading.
  • She has good skills in world building. The ethnicity of the immigrant Armenian neighborhood feels solid, as if you know it well.
  • The main characters reveal themselves slowly. They have an air of mystery around them. You never feel like you know all there is to know about them.

The negatives:

  • Her books tend to follow a formula that is recognizably hers, which is why she can put out four novels a year. In that regard, they are like romance novels. Once you’ve read the first three in the series, you know the basic story line.
  • They’re not memorable in any way. The one thing that keeps you reading is curiosity to discover who out of the many possibilities actually did it.
  • Toward the middle and the second half, the story arc becomes jerky, at times almost flatlining. The eye wants to skip pages.
  • Then suddenly, it’s so chaotic it’s impossible to follow what just happened, and no matter how many times you go back and re-read it, you can’t understand what is going on.
  • References to habits, such as obsessive chain smoking, start out doing the intended job, conveying a personality. But these references soon become repetitive, over-used, inadvertent crutches.
  • Her political and technological references place these books firmly in a certain period – a double-edged sword. The political references are the biggest Achilles heel. She began writing the series in in the early nineties. Publishing schedules being as slow as they are, these references immediately made the books feel slightly out of date, rather than set in an era.
  • By book three, the Main Character hasn’t grown or evolved. They’re still locked firmly in their own time-warp.
  • Her publisher misses a lot of proofing errors. This is every indie’s nightmare, so it’s annoying to find so many flaws in a book by a reputable publisher.

In retrospect, I like this author’s work, but certain of her writing habits annoy me as a reader. So, why have I subjected myself to reading so many of her books if I’m so ambivalent about them?

Education.

We all know what we love when we see it. But unless we out-and-out hate something, being able to identify what we don’t love is sometimes difficult.

And this concept is especially true about our own work. Those of us whose vocation is writing fiction must work to ensure our voice and writing style is current and fresh. It is a quest that can take a lifetime and involves more than just reading “How to Write This or That Aspect of a Novel” manuals. Books on craft are important, but they only offer up a part of the picture.

You must read widely, and outside your favorite genre. This is why I study how books in all genres, both good and bad, are constructed.

When you come across authors whose work shocks, rocks, and shakes you, study them. What did you love? What did they do right and how can you incorporate those techniques into your work?

When you don’t like a novel, ask yourself why it failed to move you. What did the author do wrong and how could you write it better?

Read widely, dissect what you read, and then apply what you’ve learned to your own work.

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Conflict #amwriting

Winter has embraced my Northern home. For the last two weeks, cold and clear days have been followed by freezing, foggy nights. Each morning the roads have been covered with black ice, making the morning commute an adventure. We expect black ice here, but we don’t enjoy it.

The sun was so brilliant I had to locate my sunglasses when I went to my writing group last week. Driving east as the sun rose was like driving into a solar flare.

Alas, this week the rains have returned. But I am warm and dry here in the Room of Shame. I am now rewriting what was spewed forth during NaNoWriMo, turning garbage into something marketable, I hope.

I am taking a piece set in Neveyah, my Tower of Bones world, and rewriting it, so it is a story. This is something that happens to me all the time—4,000 words of a character talking, with no reason for them to be there. I loved the character that emerged, and I wrote what I thought was a story, but something was lacking.

Situations like this are why it is good to have a group of fellow writers whose opinions you value, and who can be trusted to see your work with unbiased eyes. I sensed something was wrong with it but didn’t know what, so I showed it to two of my writing friends, and they both gave me good insights.

What I had written was a character study. My characters are engaging, but there is no obvious obstacle for them to overcome, other than a minor quest for self-knowledge. So, now I am taking these people and that quest and turning it into a larger quest, making it a real story.

The story is for an anthology and can be only 5,000 words long so only one quest will be explored. That quest will not be the obvious quest, in which the hero believes he must free a kidnapped girl. The real quest will be for self-knowledge, and for his superiors, who see promise in him, to help him develop humility.

If I do this one right, there should be ample opportunity for hilarity.

So how do we create conflict in an established story?

We must ask our characters three things:

  1. What is the core of the problem? In the case of my story, the core of the problem is my Main Character is a cocky, arrogant sort, a young man who is good at everything and is quite “honest” about it. His Mentors fear his boasting will hold him back, as no one wants to work with him.
  2. What do the characters want most? The Main Character wants to be just like his childhood hero, or better. He desires approval and admiration. Everything he does is calculated to make him look like a hero. His Mentors have plenty of heroes on hand and just want a mage that can be relied upon to get a job done well and with no fanfare.
  3. What are they willing to do to get it? The Main Character has boasted many times that he will overcome any obstacle no matter how difficult the path to success is. His Mentors devise a simple quest with dirty and disgusting obstacles that he hasn’t planned for, and they ensure that when he does “rescue the hostage,” he gets their message quite clearly.
  4. How will it end? Quite messily, and with all the acclaim the young hero could ask for. But somehow, he won’t feel quite as proud as he thought he would. (Cue the evil laughter.)

I started with the core conflict: his arrogance. I didn’t see the way to take that arrogance and make it a story until my writing friends showed me what it was lacking. They didn’t tell me what to write, but their input gave me that “Ah hah!” moment where I knew just what had to be done. I think this will be one of my favorite Neveyah stories, as it is not dark—it’s full of gallows humor, detailing the deeds of a hero who becomes a man.


Credits and Attributions:

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

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Many will begin, few will succeed #amwriting

Every year, many writers begin writing on November 1st, fully intending to get their 1,667 words (or more) written every day, to get their 50,000 words by November 30th. In my region last year, 245 writers created profiles and began an official manuscript at www.nanowrimo.org.

The reality sets in within the first week. Last year 64 writers in our region never got more than 5,000 words written.

Some are young people just out of school who “always wanted to write a book.” They usually don’t have any idea of what they want to write, and no clue of how to be disciplined enough to spend two hours a day writing any words, much less the number of words it takes to make a novel.

They start, get 30 to 1,000 words in, and realize they have nothing to say. But 34 people made it to the 10,000 word mark before they stopped writing. That is almost a novella.

Others do well for a week, or even two, and then, at the 20,000 word mark, they take a day off. Somehow, they never get back to it. Someday, they may actually succeed in finishing that book. Just not this year.

Even seasoned writers may find the commitment to sit and write 1,667 words every day is not doable for them. Things come up—life happens.

But 78 writers out of the 245 in our region made it to the 50,000 word mark, and 5 exceeded 100,000 words.

It takes personal discipline to write 1,667 new words every day. This is not revising old work—this is writing something new, not looking at what you wrote yesterday. This is starting where you left off and moving forward.

For me, having the outline keeps me on track.

I’m not a good typist. The words that fall out of my head during this month are not all golden, just so you know. Some words will be garbled and miskeyed. This means I sometimes have a lot of revising of the work I intend to keep.

Some of what I write will be worth keeping, and some not at all. But even among the weeds, some passages and scenes  will be found that could make a story work. I will keep and use them because they say what I mean to say, and the others I will revise.

One flash fiction that came out of November 2015 fully formed and required little in the way of revisions is The Iron Dragon. The story wanted to be told, and I wrote it in two hours one morning.

Yet another very short story came out of NaNoWriMo 2015, The Cat, the Jeweler, and the Thief. That story remained very much as it began, and also was written in one morning.

I had the prompts and basic ideas of what I intended to write when I sat down. The words fell out of my mind, and the stories told themselves.

For me, as a NaNo Rebel, this is my little vacation from the serious novels that take up most of my time. I don’t accept any editing clients during November or December—my attention is on writing in November and cooking in December.

It’s a matter of getting the ideas down and putting the words on paper. If you don’t get those ideas out of your head and onto paper, you can’t revise and reshape them into something worth reading.

How do we develop the discipline to write every day? This is my list of suggestions for how to have a successful NaNoWriMo, and end November with that winner’s certificate:

  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. Just write and think about where you want to take your real story. Write about what you would like to have happen in that story. Soon, you will be writing that story.
  4. Check in on the national threads 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, 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.

These suggestions require you to actually sit in a chair and write. Talking about what you intend to write isn’t getting the book written—for that you must sit your backside down and write.

That is what NaNoWriMo is all about. Writing, and developing discipline.

Authors write. Authors have finished manuscripts to show for their efforts, whether they are good or bad.

If you don’t actually have time to write, you may be a dreamer and a story teller, but you aren’t an author – yet.

Set aside the time to write, develop a habit of writing, and don’t let anything get in the way of your writing time. Don’t allow your writing time to be infringed upon, but also, don’t let it eat into your family time. In 1989, as a single parent with one child still at home, I found myself writing on the bus as I rode to work. I hadn’t ever had the thought that someone would want to read my work, but I had one hour of peace and quiet each way in the morning and evening, and so I wrote in a notebook.

Find the least intrusive block of time for you to have to yourself. What would happen if you dedicated two hours an evening to writing your novel instead of watching TV? What if you got up an hour early and wrote before you went to work every day? Make it your rule, your daily habit to use that time to write 1,667 new words a day for the month of November.

That is how you can get your first draft of a novel written in 30 days and still have time for your family.


Credits and Attributions:

Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Notebooks, by L.Marie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lenore-m/2812598573/) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Layers of a Scene #amwriting

I try to approach writing each dialogue scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. I think of each conversation as an event that must advance the story, so dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  1. Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  2. Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  3. Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  4. Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

In the first stage of the rough draft, with those goals in mind, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationship. Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. No speech tags, just the exchange. I do this in short bursts, to get the basic words down. It’s a two stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add in the scenery and attributions, and the dialogue grows with each layer. This is because the scene has become sharper in my mind and I know more of the mental state my characters are in.

The next morning, when his stepmother came down for coffee, John was once again working on something in his notebook. He stood, gathering his pens.

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.” The peace he’d sought had gone, earlier than he hoped.

“Drawing what?”

John’s normally open features were closed, inscrutable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, he attempted to leave but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me. Now.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no! People want real art, not this drivel.”

“This is how I earn my living.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee, pausing only to sneer. “You don’t have a pot to—”

“Stop.” John reclaimed the sketchbook. “Coming back here was a mistake. I did it because Dad asked me to, and because it’s Christmas.” He crossed toward the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast.” The kitchen door closed behind him, cutting off his stepmother’s rant.

We know the characters’ relationship to each other, and what their place in this environment is. The layers that form this scene are:

  1. Action: She comes down for coffee. He holds a notebook, gathers pens, and stands.
  2. Dialogue: shows long-simmering resentment between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas.
  3. Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed off kitchen is symbolic of her closed off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off. She is at odds with her own son, as well as her stepchildren.

We work with layers to create each scene. With these layers, we show the reader everything they need to know about that moment in time.

In many ways, each scene is a story-within-a-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Every scene should have an arc, leading us to the next scene. We link the mini-stories together to form the larger story, pushing the characters to the final confrontation that ends the novel.

By beginning with the dialogue in each scene, I can get the words down and then concentrate on visualizing the setting where the conversation takes place. Over the course of a book, conversations take place in different settings, so readers are eventually shown the entire world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor-plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Let’s put that dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting and change how the characters are related to each other:

At the end of her watch the next morning, Ann warmed the flatbread from the day before and filled it with goat cheese for breakfast. Traveling alone with John was different without the others, more difficult in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Clearly surprised at waking to a hot meal, John thanked her but remained on his side of the fire. He opened his journal and made an entry, then with his breakfast eaten, he began drawing something in his sketch book.

This time she decided to see what was so absorbing. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?” Ann couldn’t read his expression, and normally she could.

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, John attempted to rise but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me,” she commanded. “I promise I won’t mock you. I’m just curious.”

Now the look in his eyes confused her. It was guarded yet had the same quality he did after praying. Clearly against his better judgement, he opened his notebook.

Page after page was covered with portraits of all the members of their tribe, including her, all looking as full of life as if they could step off the page. Every messenger they had ever been sent was there, and people she didn’t know whom he must have met on his travels. She nearly wept on seeing the many portraits of her brother, handsome and laughing.

“These… they’re amazing. You’ve detailed our life for the last three years. And David… it’s the way I want to remember him. Thank you.”

John seemed confused by her approval. His gaze was far away when he answered. “I dream all night long, and then I have to draw. I don’t know why.”

We began with the same words and a notebook, and used the same names. But with different relationships, we ended up with different characters. They have a different quest, and their story is written for a different genre. However, the layers in this fantasy do the same work as in the contemporary piece. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Ann prepares breakfast, something John is surprised to find her doing. He opens a notebook.

Dialogue: shows a wary interaction between two people who know each other well, and who may be entering a different stage in their relationship.

Environment: a campsite, an open fire. It is set in the wide outdoors, yet it is intimate.

The words are the same, the notebook is there, but the direction the conversation takes is different because the story is different.

By beginning with the conversation and envisioning it as if it were a scene in a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. Readers are smart and don’t want to be told what to think. The reader’s mind will supply the details of a kitchen or a campsite, depending on the clues I give.

How will you add the layers to your conversations? The possibilities are endless.

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Creating Societies #amwriting

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government. When I first began writing, I was woefully ignorant about many things, but I knew it was important to create a solid feeling of reality in any fantasy world. My first efforts were less than good, but as time went on and I read the works of other authors, and played certain, world-heavy video games, I learned how important creating a sense of depth is in world building.

We all know the importance of giving depth to the physical setting of your story. The environment must be absolutely clear in your mind. But the society your characters inhabit is just as important as his physical world–how they live in that environment a key component of world building.

You achieve depth in a society by creating layers. What those layers are is listed below, but key is in how you apply the layers. The society must be there in YOUR mind, rock solid and with no apologies. The reader doesn’t need to know the details or the history, only that it is.

The World of Neveyah was originally invented as the setting for an anime-based platform-style RPG (Role Playing Game) that was never built. We intended to create a Final Fantasy style world and game, but the tech crash happened, and the game didn’t materialize.

However, I had retained the rights to my maps, my characters, and my story line—which eventually became the Tower of Bones series. Mountains of the Moon is the original story that the series grew out of, although it was the fourth book to be completed and published.

In a large console/computer RPG, world-building is critical. When you look at the great games that are considered classics, you find one commonality: Whether the classic game is a Platform game, ‎a Beat ’em up game, ‎a Shooter game, ‎a Stealth game, or an MMO game—they all have memorable worlds and deep, involving story lines.

What I originally did for the game was to write the story of the community my protagonist grew up in, a word-picture of that world and how the environment shaped their society. I made a list of questions about the society and the answers formed the picture of Wynn’s world and his place in it.

With that done, I set it aside, to use as reference material when I need to know how a particular character would react in a given situation. This is the method I still use today when I create a new world.

I have posted the following lists before, so if you have already seen them, thank you for stopping by!

Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? are there

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the poorest class?
  • Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?

Do they have a written language? This is really important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a really low-tech society because it determines how knowledge is passed on. Low-tech generally equals an oral tradition.

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?
  • How is monetary wealth calculated?
  • Do they use coins? What is their monetary system? If you are inventing it, keep it simple. (I generally use gold, divided into tens: 10 coppers=a silver/ 10 silvers=a gold)

Ethics and Values: What constitutes morality?

  • Is marriage required?
  • How are women treated?
  • How are men treated?
  • How are same-sex relationships viewed?
  • How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness?
  • How important is the truth?
  • What constitutes immorality?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? If it is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  • What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  • What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  • Who has the power?
  • Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  • How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  • Who can join the priesthood?
  • Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it?
  • How is the priesthood trained?

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do this society have available to them? What about transport?

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
  • Medieval metallurgy and technology?
  • Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
  • modern day?
  • Or do they have a magic-based technology?
  • How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?

Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:

  • Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
  • How does the government fund itself?
  • How are taxes levied?
  • Is it a feudal society?
  • Is it a clan-based society?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?

Waging War: This is another area where we have to ask what their level of technology is. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and also what the enemy will be packing. Do the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.

  • What kind of weaponry will they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
  • How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?

This is by no means a comprehensive list, just a jumping off point. Considering this little list of ideas always leads to my realizing other large concepts that combine to make up a civilization. You are welcome to use this roster to form your own inventory of ideas about society.

Know your world, know the society, and write with authority.

Give the reader just enough detail to show the world as one that is real and solid, but don’t devolve into dumps about how that world came to be. You, as the author, are the only one who needs to know those details.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Milano Duomo 1856.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Milano_Duomo_1856.jpg&oldid=146639100 (accessed September 23, 2018).

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