Tag Archives: creative writing

Carving time for #writing

Time management is crucial for me. I don’t claim to be a great housekeeper, but I do need some order in my home, so it gets one hour of my attention. Laundry, dishes, dusting, picking up—one hour is all housekeeping gets. Period.

I have developed mad skills at carving out time for writing because every November, I participate in NaNoWriMo. As a municipal liaison for the Olympia area, I must get a minimum of 1,667 new words written each day. I usually average 3,000 to 5,000 words per day during that month. The rest of the year? 500 to 1,100.

I do this by having my daily prompts all set out in advance, and then I lock myself into my office and just wing it for at least two hours. Some of what emerges is good, and some, not so much. But it is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness writing at its most extreme, and it’s a good challenge for my elderly brain. Some of my better work was produced in its raw form during NaNoWriMo.

During the 1990’s, when I was working two jobs, I wrote every evening while my kids did their homework. Some nights I didn’t get a lot of words written, but many nights I did. Some days I wrote during my lunch half-hour. Countless afternoons were spent sitting in the car waiting for one of the kids to finish their after school activities, and I wrote then.

Every half-hour I spent writing was a gift in those days.

After the kids were out of the nest, I still wrote every night. I missed a lot of TV that way, but I had to choose what was important, and writing won.

Now I’m retired and write full-time. One of the most difficult parts of being a full-time author is the fact that we “work from home.” This means we’re on call at all times for any family emergency. It’s difficult for people to believe you are working if there is no tangible, visible reward such as a paycheck for your efforts.

However, once people can see that, yes, books have been published, they know that you really do write. But often, people still don’t understand how much time it takes to do this sort of work properly, or how difficult it is to get back into the writing mind after an interruption.

Time management comes into play for me because authors, both traditional and Indie, must be their own public relations team. I am very bad at this, but I use every automated assist available to me for that—Hootsuite has been a great help to me in scheduling tweets on my non-blogging days so that I don’t fade completely out of the Twitterverse. I care about that because much of my traffic here to this blog comes from Twitter.

WordPress’s “Publicize” tool is a real help. Thanks to that tool, this blog posts automatically to Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, and my author Facebook page. I also went out to Amazon’s author central and linked it to my Amazon author page. I keep forgetting to post it to my Goodreads page because I don’t like the climate there and rarely visit that strange place. One of my other blogs posts there—a book review blog.

Of course, time management occasionally flies out the window. I drop everything to go sit with my grandkids, who all live a two- to three-hour drive away, or to help when a family member is dealing with difficult times. I have two kids with epilepsy, so difficult times happen with no warning.

But we handle those episodes and I keep writing because my laptop travels with me. Writing is my refuge, at times. But when life is uncomplicated and going well, writing is still my great joy, and the time I have to write is really important to me on a personal level.

Life in all its random glory is why good time management is so important for me. I schedule my writing time now that I am retired just as I did when I was working in Corporate America. If I didn’t, life’s little demands would eat away at my ability to just sit down and write.

After I finish editing on Sunday morning, I open Hootsuite and preschedule a week’s worth of random tweets on vegan food, favorite books, life observations, etc., which takes about ten minutes. Then I write at least one blog post, but usually, I write all the posts for the week. Being able to preschedule everything takes much of the work out of this gig.

I do any editing I may have for clients first thing in the morning. After editing, I get that one hour of housekeeping in. If you go fast enough, you actually get a good workout—dusting and vacuuming can be quite invigorating when done at top speed. Laundry looks a little haphazard when folded that quickly, but hey—once it’s shoved in the closet, who’s gonna notice?

Once I have put in my one hour of housekeeping, I put on my writing music, and that is my time to get some writing done. This time is inviolable—God help the neighbor who interrupts me to borrow an ax—they might get it, but not the way they hoped.

(Bad author! Bad! Bad!)

(No neighbors were harmed in the writing of this blogpost.)

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Information and Misinformation #amwriting

This week, I am involved in editing for clients, hosting a writing meetup, and working hard on a first draft.

Over the weekend I made good headway with new material, and now I am putting much of what we have previously discussed into action as I expand on those chapters.

I’m ensuring that within the larger story, I have a structure of smaller arcs,  scenes that will come together to create this all-encompassing two-volume drama. If I do this right, I will keep my readers’ hearts invested in the narrative until the end of the second book.

I’ve talked before about the arc of the scene vs. the overall arc of the novel.

The end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s narrative arc than the previous scene did, driving the narrative. That pulse is critical to creating the necessary tension.

At this point, I’m still fine-tuning the plot, deciding who has the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension, a concept known as asymmetric information. This a situation in which one party has more or superior information compared to another. In business, this can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market. The company with the information has a monopoly.

In real life, a monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, it creates tension. A conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need to know at that moment. Whether or not they receive the information in time is up to you in the plotting stage.

So, this is what I am doing now, making sure the information is divided up disproportionately. No one ever has all the knowledge, and what my protagonist doesn’t know at the beginning is central to the plot and the final confrontation at the end of the second half.

The reader must get answers at the same time as the other characters, gradually over the first 3/4 of each novel. Book one has the first half of the story line and a satisfying conclusion, and book two is the protagonists’ ultimate destination and final meeting with the enemy. Dispersing small but necessary bits of info at just the right moment so there are no info dumps is tricky but by the final draft of both books, all will have been smoothed out.

As I said, I am creating small arcs, scenes that pose questions, but also provide answers to previously posed questions. Large and small events occur but are linked by conversations because events don’t happen randomly. Sometimes an incident is self-explanatory, but action alone wouldn’t be enlightening.

My characters are charismatic, as they exist in my head. My task in this first draft is to show them in such a way that the reader sees the magic in them that I see. I have to create a pulse of each character’s desires and objectives, laced with information and misinformation. I am creating a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the first conclusion at the end of book one.

Book one’s final confrontation has to be good and resolve the first conflict. I hate cliff-hanger endings so there will be none of that in my work.

I will finish both books before I publish book one, with book two in the final editing stage when book one goes to press. By planning out my production schedule like this, I hope I can achieve what I envision, an epic fantasy that hooks the reader with small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event.

My trusty beta readers will “politely” inform me (with a brick to my head) if I don’t somehow accomplish just that.

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Thoughts on revisions and self-editing #amwriting

New and beginning authors often (loudly) assert their ability to edit their own work. If you are “editing” your own manuscript, you have a fool for a client. There is no such thing as self-editing—the best you can do is make revisions and admire your work. For that reason, we need other eyes on our work.

As authors, we see what we intended to write rather than what was written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row.  If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

The first draft of any manuscript is the story as it flowed out of your mind and onto the paper. Yes, there is life and energy in your words, but your manuscript is not publishable at this stage, no matter how many times you go over it.

You need an unbiased eye upon your work, or your book will be published with typos, awkward sentences, dropped words—the list of inadvertent errors goes on.

Every author needs someone to read their work before it is published. Just because I can see six instances of the word ‘long’ in one paragraph of someone else’s work does not mean that I will spot it in my own.

To the author in the first flush of victory, the completed first draft of his manuscript is a thing of beauty, a flawless diamond to be cherished and adored.  It is the child of their creative muse and is perfect in every way.

Let us consider the word ‘that.’ The following passage is from one of my original manuscripts as it emerged from the first draft in 2008, ten years ago.

 Jeanne was not upset over something that he had not done or not said. Now he sensed that it was a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt that she was feeling.

In just two sentences, my stream-of-consciousness writing included 3 instances of the word ‘that’ and 3 of ‘not.’  Yet, in my own mind, it was as good as I could make it. I didn’t see those unnecessary words.

This is how that paragraph read in my mind and is how I would write it now, ten years on:

Jeanne wasn’t upset over something he had done or said. He sensed she felt a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt.

I began working with an editor in 2012, and that is when I truly began to grow as an author. Each time they showed me where I had gone wrong, I learned from it and gradually, my stream-of-consciousness writing improved. I use fewer unnecessary words, and my prose is leaner.

Better writing habits are learned over time by writing regularly and by consciously applying the tricks and tips you learn from other authors.

Once your writing/critique group has given you their best opinions on your manuscript and you have revised it to your best ability, you need an editor. Ask other authors who they might recommend as an editor and see if you can work well with that person.

Your editor will likely point some things out that you didn’t see, but that a reader will.  At that point, you might be slightly shocked and hurt, but if you’re smart you’ll consider each comment and make your revisions accordingly.

Once you see your work through someone else’s unbiased eyes, you will be able to take your story to the next level.

The fact is, unless you can accept criticism, your work will never be what you want it to be. You must be open to viewing your work the way the reader will see it. You’re not obligated to follow every suggestion an editor makes, but 9 times out of 10 I make changes along the lines they suggest because when I look at the problem area, I can see exactly what they meant.

Writing seems like a solitary craft, and much of the time it is. However, joining a local writing support group or a critique group will give you a sounding board that costs you nothing, but from which you will reap many benefits.

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Craft and Intention #amwriting

You’ve heard the saying, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” A small amount of knowledge can lead to overconfidence. A person might leap to invalid conclusions based on what they know without considering the things they don’t know.

New authors eagerly soak up the wisdom offered through writing groups, seminars, and handbooks on the craft of writing.

It is only when we begin reading widely, and in many different genres, that we discover a difficult truth: great writing is not simply a matter of following rules.

I know, the editor is implying that grammar doesn’t matter.

But I am not, exactly.

What I am saying is that applying rigid rules to literature is akin to expecting your two-year-old to behave perfectly every moment of every day. The books that move me are young and wild and have occasional tantrums. They’re sometimes messy, dirty little things.

Producing a book is a form of parenthood. Like the unruly toddler, when an author puts her manuscript to bed at the end of the day, it’s the most amazing creature she has ever seen.

As an editor, sometimes I discover life in a manuscript that has broken all the rules.

Grammar rules exist for a purpose, and if done wrong, this breaking of certain rules can destroy a reader’s enjoyment of a story.

However, sometimes when it is done deliberately by someone who understands how to write, this work shines because the writer’s style struck the right chord. Life is a natural consequence of the rush of creativity and is set into the manuscript when the first words are written.

Unfortunately, it is easy to murder what began as a beautiful story. Consider those writers who spend years carefully combing every spark of accidental passion out of their work, creating textbook-perfect sentences that are flat, toneless. When the prose is perfectly flat, the author has no voice and the reader may have no desire to care about the characters or their struggle.

Then, we find authors who randomly have characters swear, not consistently, but off and on, apparently for the shock value. Others might inject a little graphic violence or sex into the spots where they couldn’t think of what to do next.

When you do anything that breaks a rule, you must do it consistently and with purpose. “Shock value” has no value to offer a well-written manuscript, although a well-written manuscript may shock and challenge you.

When you have taken the time to understand how a story is constructed, you begin to find creative ways to phrase things so they keep the story interesting. My suggestion is to learn the rules. When what you write breaks with what is considered accepted practice, do it intentionally. Then, tell your editor what rules you are choosing to ignore and why, and she will make sure you are consistent.

Great authors (and good editors) understand balance.

You want to create a balanced narrative:

  • Information must be delivered only as the protagonist (or reader) needs it. Speaking as an author, it can be difficult to know when to dole out the background, but this is where writing becomes work.
  • The information can never be something everyone already knows, as that is boring.
  • Write with intention, use good grammar, but write using the phrasing and words you think best conveys your story. Refuse to be bullied by people who don’t like work published in your genre and who can’t understand what you are trying to achieve.
  • Write with consistency. If you choose not to use commas to join compound sentences, be consistent, or your narrative will look unedited. If you are consistent, most casual readers won’t notice, although they may think you use too many run-on sentences. However, many more readers are becoming authors, so be wary of breaking that rule.
  • No one will die if you use an adjective or adverb when they are needed. The caveat is don’t use descriptors excessively—creative writers find many ways to show the story, but sometimes only a descriptor will do. At that point, use a “telling” word, rather than going to absurd lengths to show an awkward moment.
  • Show who your people are but allow the reader to form their own idea of beauty. Do give the reader a good general framework to build their visualization around.
  • For the most part, stick to simple basic speech tags like said and replied, and if the conversation has only two people, skip speech tags for an exchange or two. Not for more than two exchanges, however, as lengthy discussions with no speech tags will become confusing.
  • Follow the story arc: it must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story consists of
  1. A setting
  2. One or more developed characters
  3. A conflict that forces growth/change
  4. A resolution.

Some authors are like pendulums, swinging wildly from one extreme to the other. They leave each meeting of their writing group confused and hurt, burdened with the notion that they are terrible writers. These people work hard and go all out in applying suggestions made by the group. Unfortunately, they’re making their manuscript more unpalatable with each misguided effort.

Their book is being written by a committee, and we all know how poorly some committees function.

First, we must realize that no one writes a perfect, completely flawless manuscript. Even Neil Gaiman and Alexander Chee begin their new works with imperfect first drafts. No novel emerges fully formed, no matter how brilliant the author.

This means we all begin at the same place as writers, all of us mortals with flaws.

So now that we understand we all begin with flawed work, I must ask you this question: are you writing for the critics who might be out there, or because you have a story you are burning to write?

If you are not writing for the joy of writing, quit now.

Otherwise, keep writing. Only by continued practice and attention to learning the craft will you develop the balance you know you need. Buy the Chicago Guide to Grammar Usage and Punctuation, and learn how sentences and paragraphs are constructed. Then learn how to fit those sentences and paragraphs into a story arc.

When you break a rule, be knowledgeable and do it with style.

You can gain a handle on balance by writing short-stories and essays.

With each short-story you write, you increase your ability to tell a story with minimal exposition and intentional prose. This is especially true if you limit yourself to writing the occasional practice story—telling the whole story in 1000 words or less. These practice shorts serve several purposes:

  • You have a finite amount of time to tell what happened, so only the most crucial of information will fit within that space.
  • You have a limited amount of space so your characters will be restricted to just the important ones.
  • There is no room for anything that does not advance the plot or influence the outcome.
  • You will build a backlog of short stories and characters to draw on when you need a good story to submit to a contest.

Go for the gusto, and try writing flash fiction–give yourself less than 1000 words to tell a story.

You can also challenge yourself to tell a story in around 100 words. That is called a drabble and is an art form in itself.

I write epic and medieval fantasy, but I also write short literary fiction and poetry. I read in all genres and learn from what I read—I learn many things I like and much I do not, simply by reading. I read everything from vampire romances, to science fiction, to classical literature. Think about this: the first superhero adventure, a pair of genre fiction novels written for the entertainment of the masses were two books written by Cervantes, and which are now known as “Don Quixote.”

Today’s novel has a chance of becoming tomorrow’s classic if you are brave and bold enough to write it.

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Thoughts on the craft #amwriting

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

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

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

Within those pages, we want to see:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story, by Robert McKee

Dialogue, by Robert McKee

The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda

Rhetorical Grammar, by Martha Kolin and Loretta Gray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credits/Attributions

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

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

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Five Thoughts On Writing #amwriting

Today, I have five thoughts for your consideration:

One: Some people don’t know what to do with commas and attempt to do without them altogether. This is not a good idea. Commas are to clauses what traffic signals are to streets—they govern the flow of traffic, although, in the case of sentences, the traffic is comprised of words, not cars.

  • Commas follow introductory words and clauses. Instead, they took a left turn.
  • Commas set off “asides.” Her sister, Sara, brought coffee.
  • Commas separate words in lists: We bought apples, oranges, and papayas for the salad.
  • Commas join two complete sentences, and once joined, they form one longer sentence. When used too freely, linked clauses can create run-on sentences.
  • Commas frequently precede conjunctions but only when linking complete clauses. When linking a dependent clause to a complete clause, don’t insert a comma. “I intended to come back to the Swords but found myself here instead.”

Consider how many sentences you link together with the word and. Could brevity strengthen your prose? Conjunctions are the gateway to run-on sentence hell. If you are deliberate in your use of conjunctions you will also use fewer commas. Craft your prose, but use grammatical common sense.

Two: Don’t write self-indulgent drivel. Go lightly with the praise, adoration, and general lauding of your characters’ accomplishments.

Three: Use active phrasing. There were Small colorful flowers growing grew in each raised bed. and some slightly Larger flowering plants growing grew around the fountain at the center. With a mixture of mild pastels and vivid colors, it was beautiful.

Four: Don’t waste words describing each change of expression and mood. Consider this hot mess of fifty-one words that make no sense: Eleanor looked at Gerard with concern. His voice changed so much in the telling of the story as his emotions came to the surface that it still seemed so raw, as if Timmy’s death had happened only days ago. In addition, his expressions also changed and his current one was akin to despair.

It could be cut down to fourteen words that convey the important parts of the sentence: Gerard’s raw despair concerned Eleanor, seeming as if Timmy’s death had happened only days before.

Five: Simplicity is sometimes best. “Delicious sounds captivated their eardrums. Please, just say it sounded amazing. If music touches the protagonist’s soul, it’s good to say so. We want to convey the fact the music was wonderful, and we don’t want to be boring. But when we try to get too artful, the prose can become awkward. Odors and sounds are part of the background, the atmosphere of the piece and while they need to be there, we don’t want them to be obtrusive, in-your-face. This is an instance of prose working better when it isn’t fancy.

Five thoughts to get your writing week started–now, go! Write like the wind!

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Character description: too much or not enough? #amwriting

I love eBooks for the simple reason I have over 800 books, and I don’t have to dust them. I do buy paper books, but only those on writing craft or research for my work.

I have managed to get nearly every book I ever loved as an eBook. Every week I add at least two more books to my library. I have become a fan of hundreds of new authors, most of them indies.

Every now and then I read a book that is traditionally published, sometimes taking a dip into general fiction. I did that this week, reading a book I saw advertised on twitter. I picked it up, knowing I might hate it because the critics loved it.

I can live without a happy ending, and even with no ending at all. Not every story ends happily. But please, make the pages that come before that lack of ending something more than self-indulgent hero worship of your protagonist. I get that you’re in love with your characters. I’m in love with mine too.

Just don’t wax poetic about their magnetic beauty on every third page, please.

Unfortunate phrasings that yank me out of a book:

“She lay there staring with her creamy blue eyes, water pooling in the corners.”

“Her eyes were the same color as the deep purple velvet drapes.”

Meh. Enough about their eyes already. Some authors go to incredible (and at times, awkward) lengths to force their personal creative vision of what a character looks like on the reader.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told what to think when I am reading a book. What I consider beautiful is not necessarily attractive to someone else.

But this brings us to a dilemma that many authors seem to face. How do you describe a character in such a way that the reader will find them as attractive as you want them to be?

You must give the reader enough of a general description that they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Generally, you want to show a character’s coloring, hair style/color, eye color, general physical description. Especially, you must somehow mention anything that is unique about their appearance. If they are not too fastidious, mention it, and the same goes for if they are obsessively fastidious.

Actions can reveal physical characteristics and mannerisms. Consider how they fix their hair, what style of clothes they gravitate to, even how they move and interact with both the environment and other characters. What are their habitual facial expressions?

Offer this information up in bits over a period of time rather than dumping it in a police-blotter style of delivery. Just don’t go on and on giving minute, unimportant details.

In my Tower of Bones series, the men in Edwin’s family have this sort of cachet that makes them irresistible to all women. It is the Goddess Aeos’s way of ensuring that the girl she has selected for them falls in love with them, and their bloodline is continued.

But what do Edwin and his father (and grandfather) look like? Edwin and his family are a lot like my uncles were as young men, tall, blondish, blue-eyed, and physically strong from working on their farm. They’re rather average, nothing spectacular. They’re good-looking, but aren’t overly handsome. However, there is something about them that causes trouble in a certain strata of female society that has a rather free approach to life.

So what is this charisma these men have? (And that my uncles did not have.)

Here is where I romanticize them. To most men, they seem no more intriguing than any other person, but to women, they are an irresistible banquet of masculine pheromones. Since they do a lot of traveling, this creates opportunities for mayhem. While writing the Tower of Bones series, I’ve had a lot of fun with that plot-line, especially when it came to Wynn Farmer in Mountains of the Moon.

For my other characters in various books, again we write what we know. In my mind, all my characters are exceedingly good-looking in their own different ways. I am of British Isles stock as is most of my family, but I live in a town filled with people of all races and origins. Throughout my life, my neighbors have been from such diverse places as Japan, Mexico, Alabama, Norway, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, and Minneapolis.

Thus, in my head, my characters are of all races, and all are attractive to me.

Huw the Bard is darkly handsome, blue-eyed with black curling hair, and has a roguish charm that women find irresistible. An incurable romantic and on the run, he loves many, but gives his heart only to a few.

Billy Ninefingers is exceptionally tall and strong, sandy-haired, with a boyish face. He’s competent and a strong leader with a firm sense of justice. He is in love with only one woman, but there are complications.

Reina Jacobs is a middle-aged woman, a retired pilot who has been conscripted back into active duty. She has short iron-grey hair and is a cyborg. She is attracted to Ladeaux, a pilot of her age, but while they are working together, she won’t fall into a romance.

Personally, I don’t find Prosperine as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to my taste, although as a painting it is flawlessly executed. But millions of people find her beautiful, and he certainly did. His model, Jane Morris, was considered a great beauty in her day.

Yet the images of her, both painted and photographed, portray her as sulky-looking, which is not attractive to me at all.

I choose not to beat the reader over the head with my personal vision, other than the general description for the reader to hang their imagination on. I want the reader to see beauty and magnetism in the way that is most appealing to them. I hope that mannerisms, conversations, and other characters’ opinions convey the image the reader wants to see in a protagonist.

And this is the way it is for every author. We are painters who use words to show an image. We want to the reader to see what they believe is beauty.

Your vision of beauty is not what your readers see, and to force too many details on them ruins the flow of the tale.

A good general description, with hints or comments about their beauty or lack thereof, is all that is needed. If you provide the framework, the reader’s mind will supply the rest.

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Random Thoughts on Lazy Writing #amwriting

For me as an author, the easiest part of writing is inadvertently slipping some clumsy bit of phrasing into my narrative and having an action scene go hilariously (and impossibly) wrong. I don’t usually notice the awkwardness until my editor points it out.

As a reader, there are a few things that will pull me out of the narrative, and most of them are lazy writing habits. First up is the poorly researched “historical” novel. Lazy writers get some info from Wikipedia and fabricate the rest.

Research: Using real science requires research which is hard work and can be expensive—I have a friend who is writing a historical novel and has been working on it for nine years. She has made two trips to New Zealand to the town where her novel is set. While in New Zealand she visited the local libraries and interviewed people who knew witnesses to the shipwreck she is writing about.

I realize we can’t all visit New Zealand to research a book, but wow—that is what I call doing “due diligence.”

Writing true history, writing medical dramas, and using police and military procedures requires ACTUAL research from more sources than Wikipedia and watching old CSI episodes. Robert Dugoni is a lawyer, and interviews law enforcement professionals for his novels. He knows what he is writing about, and his thrillers sell quite well.

If you’re writing historical/medical/legal fiction, you must read many books on your subject. Make notes as you read each one, noting the book title, the author, and the page number where you found the info—you may need to know those things later. It’s work, but this is a job you can’t skimp on.

Even if you are writing speculative fiction, you will accumulate background info in your world building process. Keep your notes in a clearly labeled file, and back them up on a thumb-drive or file them in the cloud via Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Docs. I use and work out of a file-saving service, so no matter what happens to my computer, my files won’t be lost. Turning those notes into your story is called research and is an important part of the writing process.

Lazy writers sometimes “write” work written by other people. When we first start out as bloggers, we don’t always realize what our legal obligations are when it comes to using images and information found on the internet. We may want to quote another blogger or use the information we have learned from them.

 Savvy bloggers cite their sources and only use images they have the legal right to use. 

If you are blogging, put it in quotes and include a link back to the site you found it. Then credit your source in footnotes at the bottom of your post. See my post on citing sources and images here: Citing Sources and Image Attribution

This is most important: do not ever copy lines from another person’s work and put them in your book or essay without their permission. That is plagiarism, and you never want to be accused of that. If you must quote someone verbatim in your work, contact their publisher and get their legal permission to do so and credit them by using proper footnotes. An excellent article on how to do this can be found here on Beard with a Blog: Cite Unseen: 3 Bits for a Better Bibliography

Random thoughts about strangely worded things I’ve read:

The awkward description: Sometimes we struggle to get too artful and it just doesn’t work. Please, don’t use a phrase like: “He felt his eyes roll over his host’s attire” and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host. Let me just say it now: If ever you feel your eyes roll over anything, pick them up and have a professional put them back in your head.

That unfortunately phrased sentence is one of the less obnoxious lines from a book I was unable to finish reading. I could see what the author was trying to say, but other than Professor Alastor (Mad Eye) Moody, most people’s eyes do not operate autonomously. Try to slip descriptions into the narrative in less obvious ways, with no clumsy lead in that announces a lengthy exposition is forthcoming.

Use of clichés. Speaking as a reader, please do a global search for the word alabaster. If you have used it to describe a woman’s skin, get rid of it, and find a different way to describe her. It’s an overused word that has become cliché. Find different ways to say what you want, unless you have a character who uses clichés—if so, she’d better have a good reason. Even then, don’t go overboard.

Use of obscure words. Sometimes we try too hard to bring variety to our prose. We need to change things up, but we should avoid technical words and jargon that only a professional in that field would know.

Events that occur for no reason: I loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books written by the late Douglas Adams. The books detail the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman traveling the galaxy in his pajamas. He and his friend are transported off the Earth just in time to miss the destruction of the planet by the Vogons, a race of unpleasant and bureaucratic aliens, to make way for an intergalactic bypass.

Don’t be afraid to be a little bit “out there” but there must be a point to having the protagonist leave his house wearing his pajamas. Otherwise, get rid of it. Adams used that opportunity to show the environment Arthur was about to be thrust out of. Adams understood he had to show Arthur in his happy home, and then he had to be quickly yanked out of there and placed on that Vogon Constructor Ship.

Books are my life—I read constantly, and often re-read my favorites. I learn just as much from the ones I don’t love as I do from the ones I like.

I haven’t had the time lately to write reviews, but I will have several reviews soon. I always try to review the books I loved, especially if the author is an indie. In fact, I’m several behind, so I need to stop chatting and get reviewing!

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Semicolon; Comma Splice, Comma #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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em dash, en dash #amwriting

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

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

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

So how DO we use them?

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

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow. What a concept!


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

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