Tag Archives: developing consistency in writing

#amwriting: regaining the mojo

Events in my family during May, June, and most of this month have hampered my mojo, stalling my creative mind. Many projects and plans have fallen by the way and I don’t really mind. This year I will not have my books in the bookstore at the PNWA conference (which kicks off on Thursday), as I just had no time and no way of getting them to the right people by the due date. But that isn’t a big deal, really—I will go to the signing event and visit my friends’ tables and buy their books, so all will be well.

Now, with my son on the mend and back in his own home, I am somewhat at sea. For four weeks, I spent two hours every morning doing wound care on his injured hand, and the rest of the day cooking, cleaning, and entertaining a houseguest. That became my schedule, and writing took the back seat, limited to writing blog posts on the fly—writing if and when I had the time.

Now, I have no demands on my time, no rigid schedule to adhere to. In a way, it’s like suddenly finding myself retired again, only this time I’m not killing time by painting flowerpots. (The last time, it looked like a Mexican pottery stand exploded on our front steps.)

Things have settled back to normal here, and I am struggling to get back into the habit of creative writing. While I have been inspired to write technical posts on writing craft for this blog, and do revisions on my finished novel as my editors ask for them, the rough draft of my new work in progress has languished, receiving erratic, haphazard attention.

Once again, just as I did years ago when I first challenged myself to ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, I am forcing myself to sit down and write from 6:00 am until noon. For me this kind of self-discipline is critical—other people may work better with a less rigid schedule, but I need to keep office hours to be productive.

I work “back and forth” when writing, rather than writing in a linear fashion, although each manuscript starts out in linear way. Each section is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale. Like assembling a quilt, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete. This is why I make a detailed outline, so I won’t get lost. Now  am revisiting what I have already done on the first draft of this book, finding that I have written the framework for a pretty good story. My notes are all detailed, and the backstory is on file in a separate file so I can access it or update when I have questions. This ensures I will know why certain things are happening.

The maps are drawn, and cover art has been selected—all these things were done in May. The first 50,000 words are written; the book is at the ½ point. The story arc has pretty much followed the original outline with only a few major divergences. The stylesheet is up to date because each change to the originally outlined story was noted as the changes were made. This means I know exactly where I left off in May, and what must happen to these characters to complete this book.

I am itching to get back to it as I want this first draft finished before November, if possible.  I need to have it done by then because November is NaNoWriMo, a month of divine madness—each year I write a patchwork of short stories, novellas, and doggerel, all of which become fodder for the rest of the year.

As an author, I am self-employed. This means I succeed or fail by my own efforts. I choose to succeed, and for me, that means finishing each book to the best of my ability. I am inherently lazy, a self-confessed slacker who would rather read a book or play video games than work—thus I must enforce the puritan work ethic my ancestors brought to America and which somehow passed me by.

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Elements of the story: showing the mood

My Writing LifeMost of us, if you are reading this blog, are writers who love to read for pleasure. We each enjoy different sorts of books, but all our favorite reading has one thing in common: the story, whether fictional or true, moves us in some deeper way, making us think about it long after the final page has been read.

In order for the reader to be moved by a story, his imagination must have been completely engaged in the work. Thus, the writer must perform a tightly controlled balancing act, walking the fine line between giving too much description and not enough.

As writers we are constantly admonished to show, not tell. This can be taken to extreme, and the result is a boring, unimaginative walk-though of a character’s most minute expressions. For example:

Gordon’s brow furrowed, and his eyes narrowed. His eyebrows nearly met in the middle. His lips turned down at the corners. He screamed, “You bloody idiot.”

Well, duh. Pick one, and let the reader imagine the rest.

Gordon appeared angry.

That doesn’t do it either. That is simply telling the reader Gordon was upset, rather than showing it. Perhaps Gordon’s face darkened and his voice was harsh. Or, Gordon’s eyes narrowed. “You bloody idiot!” 

If your character is angry, please don’t have them hiss their dialogue. People do not snort, hiss, or spit dialogue, no matter how angry they are unless they are a snake or a camel.

The writing world has several good handbooks on showing emotions, and these two are  in my library:

It’s good if you have bought a book on this subject and are using it to help show what is going on in  your character’s minds rather than telling it. But use some common sense. If there are fifteen ways to show dejection, please don’t use them all to describe one moment. Simply have your character sit slumped, or refuse to engage the others.

Readers don’t want to be told in minute detail what to imagine. They will put your boring book down and walk away with only one regret–that they bought it in the first place.

I’ve put together a little cheat sheet for showing emotions. Be sparing–show just enough to keep your readers engaged and the story moving along. If you provide a good framework and allow the reader’s imagination to do the rest, you will engage the reader. That, my friends, is priceless.

Cheat sheet for showing emotion and mood

Cheat sheet for showing emotion and mood

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Hyphens, style guides, and writing conventions

adult-footie-pjsYou need a good style guide. No, I am not suggesting that you need help with your wardrobe–those footie pajamas are awesome, and are the perfect uniform for the dedicated author. What I am suggesting is that you develop consistency in your writing, and there are guides to help you with that.

English is a completely wonky language, even for those of us who grow up speaking some form of it. My dialect is that of the western United States, specifically the Pacific Northwest, near the Canadian border. As in every other part of the world, we speak informally in our homes and with friends, but in writing, we should conform to certain standardized rules, or those who speak OTHER versions of English will not be able to follow us, despite the many similarities in our dialects.

Kathleen Cali, in an article at Learn NC, says: “Conventions are the surface features of writing — mechanics, usage, and sentence formation. Conventions are a courtesy to the reader, making writing easier to read by putting it in a form that the reader expects and is comfortable with.”

Since I am a US citizen, I use American writing conventions. In the United States, many non-journalistic professional writers use The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is the manual I use.

elements of styleA classic style guide for new authors and the general public is Strunk and White’The Elements of Style. This is a popular reference among writers just beginning in the craft. I sometimes use this guide, but as I have advanced as an editor, I find myself referring to the more in-depth Chicago Manual of Style. However, either one is excellent for the US author, and for any Europeans editing for a US author in this era of the internet and the global market for editing services.

Any author or editor who tries to tell you that one particular style guide is “the only” style guide is simply voicing an opinion, and if they are obnoxious and defensive about it, ignore them. Each style guide is an excellent reference tool, and each one plays to different requirements. But all of them are for the benefit of the reader.

chicago manual of styleThe Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most comprehensive style guides available, and for me in my role as an editor, it’s an indispensable tool because it contains information that I can’t find anywhere else. While I could easily access it all via the online version, I do like having my large book at my fingertips.

As a writer I rely on a style guide because  it often feels  like every rule has an exception, and knowing what those are makes huge difference in a manuscript’s consistency and readability.

For example, sometimes we don’t know if we should hyphenate or not. Or, we are unsure when to capitalize a direction or an honorific. When this occurs, our work becomes uneven and hard to read, because it’s rife with  inconsistency, hyphenating words in one place but not another. This happens because not every set of words needs to be hyphenated, and how do you know which to decorate with that dear little dash?

There are answers to these questions, in the handy-dandy style guides we have available to us.

So how DO we employ those little morsels of madness that work their way into every corner of my manuscripts? I love them!

Unfortunately, hyphens are not toys. As I discovered when creating my world of Neveyah for the Tower of Bones series, they are the gate-way drug to writer’s hell. Take my advice and do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building
Some compounds are created on the spot to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds start out as improvised compounds, but become so widely accepted that they are included in the dictionary as permanent compounds. Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are words like  know-it-all, heart-stopping, free-for-all, and down-at-the-heels.
shark memeContext determines whether or not to hyphenate.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?” Wikipedia offers the following examples:
  • Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)
  • Wild-goose chase (as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a goose chase that is wild)
  • Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)
  • Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which could be interpreted as there being no liability protection).

And finally, especially if you are writing in a fantasy genre, as you are writing your tale down and creating your world, also make a style sheet that pertains to your manuscript noting what words must be capitalized and what the proper spellings for invented places are.

Refer back to it frequently, updating it as needed. I learned this the hard way. Whether it is handwritten or a WORD document, a simple directory of compound words and phrases that are unique to the world you have created will be as invaluable to you as your copy of The Elements of Style.

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