Tag Archives: #writerlife

The literal layer #amwriting

McLane Pond, taken in July 2018

Stories are created from countless layers. Today we are looking at the many outwardly visible aspects of a story. These are the surface features that define not only genre but which either attract or repel a reader at first glance.

If you’ve ever seen a pond on a calm day, you may have noticed the sky and any overhanging trees reflected on the still surface. The picture I’ve included at the top here is one my husband and I took while walking the McLane Nature Trail, not far from our home. We took it in July of 2018.

If you were there on a stormy day, things were different. The waters were gray, reflecting the color of the clouds. Ripples and waves stirred the waters.

The surface of a story is the Literal Layer, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

In a story, events and the way our characters move through them stir the surface, creating the image our reader sees.

This surface is comprised of

  • Setting
  • Action and Interaction
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

When we look at the surface, we immediately see something recognizable.

Setting and props – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate situation
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment
  4. Objects the characters interact with
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The mechanical order of events forms the structure of the literal layer because they appear to be the story. This framework is the easel on which the setting and props are displayed:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

How do we shape this literal layer to entice the casual reader? We can add tropes common to a particular genre. Sci-fi or fantasy elements offer an immediate clue to a prospective buyer.

Many sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in close-to-real-world environments. The settings are familiar, akin to what we know. As readers, we could be in that world.

Good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019

An obvious point I still want to make, is that the literal layer is also comprised of word combinations and word choices. This aspect distinguishes the level at which the intended reader will be able to comprehend and enjoy.

I prefer the prose in my casual reading material to be suitable for the average adult, not too pretentious, and not dumbed down. I seek that happy medium when I peruse the paperbacks or use the “Look Inside” option for eBooks at the big store in the sky.

What we put into the surface layer of our story draws the reader to look more closely at the depths. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are profound aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the surface elements of the story ruffle the surface and stir things up on the literal layer, they are only a glimpse of the deeper waters.

A memorable story has soul and hidden depths. It makes you think about larger issues you might not have considered before.

Plot charts the twists and turns of events, but depth opens our eyes, enabling us to see how other people think, feel, and experience life.

Depth changes observers into participants.

Prose and how we choose words to express emotion and ideas most powerfully is the medium by which we convey depth.

Writing to formal constraints, as I’ve discussed in several previous posts, forces us to find words that drill down and say what we really mean. By using the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms, we can find ways to write concise prose that isn’t repetitive, isn’t longwinded, but still has a cadence to it that is our voice, our style.

Have you read the opening page of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss yet? That is your homework.

Go to the eBook section of the library or go to the online store of your choice and use the “look inside” option or the “download sample” option. You don’t have to do more than read the first paragraphs to complete this task.

Use one of the above cost-free methods to see how a master wordsmith uses prose to stir the surface in the opening pages of a fantasy novel.

With that ruffling of the waters in the first paragraphs, you are given a glimpse into the depths that lurk below.


Credits and Attributions:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.

Sentinel, 05 August 2019 (One of the Needles, Cannon Beach) © 2019 by Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved (author’s own work).

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On Poetry: Interview with Maria V A Johnson @amwriting

One week ago, I asked three good friends who write both novels and poetry, Stephen Swartz, Shaun Allan, and Maria V.A. Johnson to each answer the same 5 questions about how they approach writing both poetry and novels. (Which is why my questions might seem familiar.) It’s amazing how differently they have answered.

Each author has shared a different aspect of how they tap into their inner poet.

Part 1, Stephen Swartz can be found if you click on this link.

Part 2, Shaun Allan can be found if you click on this link.

I first met Maria when she joined Myrddin Publishing Group, the indie publishing cooperative I have been involved with since 2012. Maria is a meticulous editor and is easy to work with, and her poems are moving and inspirational.


CJJ:  When did you begin to write poetry?

MVAJ: I first started writing poetry when I was 16. My Nan died and I wanted to write something for the funeral. It drew heavily on inspiration found online, but I discovered I enjoyed it and haven’t looked back since.

CJJ: What is your favorite form, rhyming or free?

MVAJ: When it comes to forms, I’m a very modern girl and prefer free, though I did experiment a lot while at University.

CJJ: For me, poetry becomes an emotional catharsis. Where do you find the emotional strength to write and publish something as deeply personal as poetry?

MVAJ: I like to think that I’m not unique and others are in the same place as me. If my poetry can help them in some way, then I believe it is worth the emotional upheaval of sharing this part of myself. On the plus side, having a form of Autism (known as Aspergers) means that I struggle to connect with my emotions. While I can do it, my natural state is slightly distanced which lessens the pain of sharing. It does have a downside though – when I do connect to write, it can be quite overwhelming.

CJJ: We all write what we are in the mood for. Which literary form, novel or poetry is easiest for you today?

MVAJ: I’ve discovered that the best form for my poetry is modern free. This type is more focused on imagery than anything else, and I find that this works best with the hyperfocus that is part of being autistic.

CJJ: What are you currently working on?

MVAJ: At the moment I’m not working on anything. All my projects have been on hold since I bought a puppy in January. She was just reaching the stage where I could get back to work when the Covid-19 Lockdown took effect and I haven’t been in the right frame of mind to do anything, so I’ve been making greeting cards instead. However, I have a couple of projects to return to when I can. One is a poetry collection about disabilities, and one is a short novel about a damaged girl post-coma. I tend to flit between the two as the muse moves me.


Thank you, Maria, for giving us a glimpse of your writing world. I think many authors are finding it difficult to be creative right now.

On Wednesday, for the final post in this interview series, I have the good fortune of featuring Alan Shue. He is a poet and the author of three hilarious children’s books. Alan lives in my area and is active in local writing groups where we have mutual friends—so I prevailed on a member of my writing group to connect us via email.

(That was bold, I know, but nothing ventured, nothing gained!)

I can’t wait to share Alan’s interview with you. I’ve changed up the questions and he’s been a good sport about it.


About Maria V A Johnson:

Maria V A Johnson is a voracious reader, professional editor, and published author and poet with a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in English and Creative Writing. She loves the challenge of taking a raw manuscript and turning it into a polished novel. She specialises in Fantasy, however she can edit any genre. She first started writing seriously, when at sixteen she wrote a poem for her grandmother’s funeral and she grew to love poetry and writing from there.

She has collaborated in several anthologies which raise money for Farleigh Hospice in Chelmsford, Essex. She also has a poetry collection called Hearts and Minds released November 2012 and has been published in several anthologies since. Her first novel is currently in editing and she is working on her second as well as another poetry collection.

She has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, though she doesn’t consider it a disability, but rather a different way of looking at the world. If you want to know more about it, visit the National Autistic Society page at: https://www.autism.org.uk/

Maria’s book of poetry, Hearts and Minds, is available at Amazon.

You can find her at: https://maria7627.wordpress.com/

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On Poetry – interview with @StephenSwartz1 #amwriting

This is the first in 3-part series of short interviews with novelists who also write poetry. Today features Stephen Swartz, a good friend who came though on short notice! But first, I’ll need to lay a little groundwork.

When I think of the Romantic movement in poetry, I think of poets like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Blake, and Lord Byron.

According to Wikipedia, “The Romantic movement emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature.”

I have a reason for opening with “the big guns of Romantic poetry,” so to speak. The roots of my guest’s writing life were shaped by Romanticism.

For some who write poetry, the muse, the inspiration to bend words is not always a constant companion. For some of us, our writing career begins with poetry, but as we branch out into other genres, the poetic muse slips into the background and emerges at odd times.

Yet we sometimes feel we are the only one who have wandered away from that beginning.  It helps to know that others experience this wandering too, that writing a novel doesn’t make us less of a poet.

Poetry is always waiting to be rediscovered, accepting of the fact it will be set aside when something shiny catches our authorly attention.

Unlike most spurned lovers, Poetry forgives us when we abandon it for greener writing pastures. When we return to it, Poetry welcomes us home with no recriminations.

And now, my good friend, author Stephen Swartz, has kindly consented to answer a series of questions regarding both his current work and his life as a poet.


CJJ:  When did you begin to write poetry?

SS: I probably dabbled at silly rhymes early on, but I would count my poetic career beginning at age 12 when I became a Romantic…and have remained a member to this day. I used to write love poems to the girls in high school and college – mostly unappreciated. My first poem publication (school newspaper) was a set of rhyming quatrains about a young knight fighting a dragon and saving the town.

CJJ: What is your favorite form, rhyming or free?

SS: Depends on the subject. Although serious subjects still can lend themselves to rhyming, modern poetry favors free verse. In the past two years I’ve dabbled in Twitter poetry (from posted prompts) and for the sake of the short format I often write haiku or limerick.

CJJ: For me, poetry becomes an emotional catharsis. Where do you find the emotional strength to write and publish something as deeply personal as poetry?

SS: In the past few years, poetry has been more a mental exercise (like for the Twitter prompts), although I do try to say something. Otherwise, I write when I feel an emotional knot that needs to be untied or cut and putting it out in poetic form is cathartic. They also help me remember what I felt at various times in my life, like emotional postcards.

CJJ: We all write what we are in the mood for. Which literary form, novel or poetry is easiest for you today?

SS: I just finished a contemporary crime novel set in my own city. It was easy in the sense I did not need to “make up” anything because the real features of the setting were right there. However, previous novels in sci-fi and fantasy had their easier parts when I was able to simply invent something rather than having it conform to known facts. I tend to shift back and forth with regard to genre. I feel the urge now to swing back to something more fabulous than realistic.

CJJ: What are you currently working on?

SS: I am rather in limbo at the moment. I should finish a sci-fi book I’ve been working on since my first NaNoWriMo. I started an apocalyptic plague novel when the lockdown began but lost interest at 5000 words; I may yet return to it. I also need to get back to Book 4 of my vampire trilogy, sitting at 35,000 words. And there’s Epic Fantasy *With Zombies to work on. Now that my summer staycation has begun, I may yet be productive!


Thank you, Stephen! You came though beautifully on exceedingly short notice to help me kick off this 3-part series of interviews with working poets who are also novelists.

Tomorrow, Thursday, I will feature an interview with poet/novelist  Shaun Allan, and on Monday, Maria V.A. Johnson has agreed to talk about writing poetry from an autistic person’s perspective.


ABOUT AUTHOR STEPHEN SWARTZ

Stephen Swartz grew up in Kansas City where he was an avid reader of science-fiction and quickly began emulating his favorite authors. Since then, Stephen studied music in college and, like many writers, worked at a wide range of jobs: from French fry guy to soldier, to IRS clerk to TV station writer, before heading to Japan for several years of teaching English. Now Stephen is a Professor of English at a university in Oklahoma, where he teaches many kinds of writing. He still can be found obsessively writing his latest manuscript, usually late at night. He has only robot cats.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Blog: http://stephenswartz.blogspot.com/

Facebook: Author Stephen Swartz

Twitter:

  • @StephenSwartz1 (general use)
  • @dreamlandtrilogy (The Dream Land trilogy specifically)

Follow Stephen on Goodreads

You can find all of Stephen’s books on his Amazon Author Page

 

 

 

 

 

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Thoughts on Poetry and the Evolution of Language #amwriting

I think of poetry and language as coming into existence as conjoined twins. I can remember anything I can set to a rhyme or make into a song.

Yet, much of the time, modern songs and poetry don’t rhyme. Even so, they have tempo and rhythm.

If it doesn’t rhyme, what makes poetry “poetic?” And where does it fit into modern narrative prose?

Poetry is a primal form of communication in the human species, the literary invention that emerged as soon as we had words. It presents thoughts and feelings as abstractions and allusions rather than the concrete.

Poets select words for the impact they deliver. An entire story must be conveyed using the least number of words possible. For that reason, choices are made for symbolism, power, and syllabic cadence, even if there is no rhyme involved.

Narrative prose is broader, looser, more all-encompassing, with no limit on how long it takes for the story to unfold.

Modern humans deliver highly detailed concepts and ideas with packets of noise formed into individual words. We learn the meanings of these sound-packets as infants. By stringing these meaningful sound-packets together, we can share information with others of our species.

I suspect using rhyme as a mnemonic is fundamental to human nature. Research with modern primates in the wild proves that, while we were still in Africa before the great diaspora, humans developed complex languages within our tribal communities.

By observing primates in the wild, we see that our earliest ancestors had the ability to describe the wider world to their children. With that, we could teach them skills and the best ways to acquire food.

We understood and were able to see the motives of another person.

We developed compassion and burial rites.

Early humans relied on the cadence of repetition and rhyme. They could explain the how and why of a great flood or any other natural disaster, passing it forward across many generations.

The availability of food is central to the prosperity of all life, not just humans. Our ancestors saw the divine in every aspect of life, especially around the abundance or scarcity of food. They developed mythologies combining all of these concepts to explain the world around us and our place in it.

With the ability to pass on knowledge of toolmaking, we had leisure to contemplate the world. We discussed these things while eating and sharing food with each other.

We now know that other primates also deliver information by using sound-packets. Gorillas have been observed singing during their meals. Humans have always sung.

Chimpanzees and Bonobos have been observed chatting during leisurely meals.

We humans love to sit around the table and chat.

The larynx and vocal cords of each primate species are formed differently, which affects how they communicate. They understand each other perfectly, but because they are so different from us, our human ears can’t differentiate the meanings of the individual sound-packets that make up their calls.

To us, their communications are just mindless screeching, and so we have always assumed they must not be self-aware.

I suspect that in years to come we will find that we have been wrong. We may be the only species we reliably converse with, but we are not the only self-aware species who communicate through vocalizations.

For many humans, dogs and cats are their beloved family members, self-aware people who love and accept them like no one else does.

This brings me to another point – if we can’t figure out and understand the languages of the other intelligent creatures in this world, i.e., Elephants, Cetaceans, and other Primates, then how can we ever expect to communicate with an alien extraterrestrial being?

And if we can’t recognize, value, and protect the individual self-awareness and personhood of beings like Elephants, Cetaceans, and other Primates, how will we recognize an extraterrestrial life-form? How will we behave toward them? After all, to us, these fellow creatures of earth have been nothing but resources for us to exploit.

Like modern Great Apes, proto humans used rhyme and cadence to memorize and pass on ideas as abstract as legends or sagas to their children and to others they might meet in friendly circumstances. By handing down those stories through the generations, we learned lessons from the mistakes and heroism of our ancestors.

Rhyme and cadence were fundamental to our ability to make tools out of stone and bone. The capacity to learn, remember, and reliably pass on knowledge was why the three human genomes we call Homo Sapiens, Neanderthal, and Denisovan could master fire. This is why they could develop the tools that made them the apex predators we became. We could reliably feed our young, rear them to adulthood, and still have time to create art on the walls of caves.

Every tribe, every culture that ever arose in our world, had a tradition of passing down stories and legends using rhyme and meter. Rhyme, combined with repetition and rhythmic simplicity, enabled us to remember and pass on our histories and knowledge to our children.

In times gone by, writers used words for their beauty, employing them the way they decorated their homes. Authors labored over their sentences, ensuring each word was placed in such a way as to be artistic as well as impactful.

In writing poetry, we are forced to think on an abstract level. We must choose words based on their power. The emotions these words evoke, and the way they show the environment around us is why I gravitate to narratives written by authors who are also poets—the creative use of words elevates what could be mundane to a higher level of expression. When it’s done subtly, the reader doesn’t consciously notice poetic derivations in prose, but they are moved by them.

We have no need to memorize our cultural knowledge anymore, just as we no longer need the ability to accurately tally long strings of numbers in our heads. Readers seek out books with straightforward prose and few descriptors. Words for the sake of words is no longer desirable to the modern reader.

Modern poetry has evolved too. The love of poetry continues, and new generations seek out the poems of the past while creating powerful poetry of their own.

Modern authors, such as Patrick Rothfuss in his novel, The Name of the Wind craft narratives packed with powerful, evocative prose. We eagerly read their work because it is both straightforward and poetic. Most readers are unaware that they are drawn to the subtle poetry of his work as much as to the story that unfolds within the narrative.

I write poetry, some that follow traditional rhyming, and much that does not. Regardless of the structure, the cadence of syllables and the words I choose are recognizably mine. The emotions they evoke and the way they portray the environment I imagine is what lends my voice to my work.

Authors like me who read and sometimes write speculative fiction can enjoy our modern stripped-down narratives, guilt free.

That said, we who love the rhythm and cadence of words can still appreciate beauty combined with impact when it comes to our prose. And, if you love dark, heroic speculative fiction and haven’t yet read The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, I highly recommend it.


Credits and Attributions:

Admiring the Galaxy |CCA 4.0 ESO/A. Fitzsimmons

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The Author Community, by Mollie Hunt, Cat Writer #amwriting

This is the sixth and final post in a six-week blog tour series for the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association.  NIWA serves pacific northwest writers working to achieve professional standards in independent writing, publishing and marketing.


Many creative professions have a reputation for being competitive, hostile, and dare I say, catty, toward each other. Thankfully, this tendency for animosity, for the most part, has passed the author community by. Even as a budding writer, I was treated with respect by my fellows. I have been helped when I needed help, mentored when I needed mentoring, liberally complimented on my work, and generally accepted wherever I’ve gone within the writing circle.

This didn’t happen by chance, however. I did my part. Though I’m an introvert, I pushed myself to get out and meet people, ask questions, and make contacts. One of the most satisfactory way of doing that was to join writers’ groups. Along with NIWA, I am a member of Sisters in Crime, the Cat Writers’ Association, and Oregon Writers Colony. I have belonged to a few others as well, but these are the ones that have helped me learn, produce, and promote my books. If a group isn’t helpful to your work, then what are you getting for your yearly dues besides another name to add to your list of credits?

Each of those groups I listed offers me something different.

NIWA is a fellowship of local independent authors. Though I’m both self- and press-published, this group is extremely helpful. They put together communal bookselling events, host an impressive website and booklist, and offer a members Facebook page where I can communicate with others about anything and everything book.

My local faction of Sisters in Crime has information geared specifically for the mystery writer. They offer presentations from police, detectives, pathologists, and other professions we see a lot of in mysteries. One time, our group took the Ghost Tour of Fort Vancouver, because you never know when a ghost might come up in your novel.

Oregon Writers Colony supports members in all phases of writing, from “I want to write a book but don’t know where to start” to famous authors like Jean Auel. They have several different programs throughout the year, both to teach and inspire, as well as promote and sell members’ books.

The Cat Writers’ Association is the cat’s pajamas if your stories involve felines. They also have a stunning list of members from all branches of creativity. Bloggers, artists, photographers, as well as fiction and non-fiction authors make up this international organization.

There are many more writers’ groups, both national, international, and in your local area. I encourage you to look into them to see what they have to offer.

Besides writers’ groups, Book Faires and events are a great way to get to know other people in your author community. The more you participate, the more your circle of will grow.

Online and Facebook Groups offer another way of relating to those in your field and well and an opportunity to gather fans. Some groups allow you to advertise your work, where others are strictly for conversations about elements of craft. Try NIWA FANS AND FRIENDS to get started.

Once you begin to look for and engage with your author community, the possibilities open up exponentially. Good luck! And thanks for reading.


Thank you for following the NIWA Blog Tour. Let’s do it again soon!

Check out this week’s other participating NIWA blogsites:

About Mollie Hunt: Native Oregonian Mollie Hunt has always had an affinity for cats, so it was a short step for her to become a cat writer. Mollie Hunt writes the Crazy Cat Lady cozy mystery series featuring Lynley Cannon, a sixty-something cat shelter volunteer who finds more trouble than a cat in catnip, and the Cat Seasons sci-fantasy tetralogy where cats save the world. She also pens a bit of cat poetry.

Mollie is a member of the Oregon Writers’ Colony, Sisters in Crime, the Cat Writers’ Association, and NIWA. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and a varying number of cats. Like Lynley, she is a grateful shelter volunteer.

You can find Mollie Hunt, Cat Writer on her blogsite: www.lecatts.wordpress.com

Amazon Page: www.amazon.com/author/molliehunt

Facebook Author Page: www.facebook.com/MollieHuntCatWriter/

@MollieHuntCats

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Snares in the Depths #amwriting

Something lurks in the depths of the Word Pond that is our story, snares waiting to drown the unwary author.

An early trap is confusion: At first, we don’t know what to do with commas. Some frustrated authors will decide to do without them altogether.

This decision leads to chaos and an unreadable manuscript.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:

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 connecting a dependent clause to a complete clause, don’t insert a comma. “I intended to go back to London but found myself here instead.”

Another early snare the new author must avoid is the long-winded sentence. How often do you link several clauses together with the word and? Conjunctions are the gateway to run-on sentence hell.

If you are deliberate in your use of conjunctions, em dashes, and hyphens, you will also use fewer commas. Craft your prose but use grammatical common sense. Brevity usually strengthens prose.

Another trap waiting for the unwary is descriptive TMItoo much information.

Don’t waste words describing every insignificant 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.

That waste of ink could be cut down to fourteen (14) 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.

Using too many words mingled with catchphrases and acronyms to express simple concepts is a common requirement of corporate emails and documents for project managers. If you are coming from that environment, you must learn to write a lean narrative. Readers don’t want fluffy, meaningless prose littered with clichés and obscure words in their literature.

What does “Kill your darlings” really mean? All it means is don’t write self-indulgent drivel.

We all fall in love with our characters. Why make the point that people fall over themselves drooling at the beauty of the protagonist? Why make that point in every other paragraph? Is it that important to the narrative?

If it isn’t important to that scene, don’t include it. Gerard’s handsome visage and grace should be mentioned occasionally, but only where his god-like magnetism and charisma impacts the story.

Really–in real life, how often does that happen? However, if Gerard’s looks and charisma cause trouble wherever he goes, then it becomes a key part of the action and can be used to set up other scenes.

We write because we love words, but simplicity is usually best. Consider this morsel of “yuck.”

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 beautiful, and we don’t want to be boring. However, when we get too artful we are at risk of creating awkward visuals.

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.

I hope these thoughts help get your writing week started.

Now, go! Write like the wind!

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Reading to Impact Your Writing: Writing Books, Inspirations, and Beyond by Joyce Reynolds-Ward

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


Generally, when the discussion about reading to impact your writing begins, many people’s thoughts turn toward writing references and guides. That’s good for a beginning. But reading books about writing mechanics, process, and the like should not be the only things you read as a writer. Part of developing yourself as a writer includes expanding your reach as a reader—after all, growth arises in many ways, and reading something for the purposes of growing your awareness of style, idea usage, and the like. Picking up a challenging new book in a genre you don’t normally read can often provide insights on your own writing. Or reading a favorite author’s journal or memoir about writing process may help you past your own struggles. It all really depends on what resonates with you. Here are some of my favorites.

 

For myself, reading journals, letters, and memoirs/autobiographies (not biographies!) of my favorite authors has been a good source of writing inspiration and development. I was an early fan of John Steinbeck, thanks to one of my high school teachers. As a result, one of the earliest writer reads that has stuck with me over the years is John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters. While writing East of Eden, Steinbeck would start every writing day with a short letter to his editor and friend Pascal Covici. It was part of his warmup process and a means of separating from daily concerns to developing the focus needed for the day’s work. In a similar vein is Working Days: The Journals of the Grapes of Wrath and Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Because Steinbeck often used letter writing as a tool for warming up, his letters frequently reflect not only what was going on in his life at the moment but what was happening with his writing process—a valuable insight into the struggles that all writers have.

I tend to prefer journals and letters to memoirs and autobiographies because writers can and will embellish later accounts while journals and letters reflect the writer’s state of mind at the time they were writing. May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude is billed as “the intimate diary of a year in the life of a creative woman,” and it does not disappoint. While ostensibly a book about the process of writing, Jay Lake’s Process of Writing 2005-2010 is a collection of blog posts Jay wrote about writing organized into topics which—really—tells you as much about Jay’s daily struggles with the writing life as it does anything else. Also, given Jay’s reputation as an extremely fast writer, he gives a breakdown of exactly what that looks like and what it means for him economically as a writer. His analysis of his differing rates of writing speed is something that I recommend every writer read.

And then we get to memoir and biography. One book that I think every writer should read is Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography. Trollope wrote over sixty books over the course of his life, in part by exercising the discipline of rising early and writing 250 words every quarter of an hour for three hours before going to his day job with the British Post Office as a surveyor. His observations of the mid-19th century writing world (hint: Trollope does not like Dickens) are priceless and, if you have read Trollope or watched productions of his novels, you gain insights into how he built his characters. Ursula K. LeGuin’s essays on writing, often found mixed in with her other essays, are definitely worth considering.

And then there are the books explicitly about the craft of writing. Oh, the many books about writing techniques. I own a lot of them, and have bought and discarded many others. For me, the problem with many craft books is that they often speak to me at a particular stage in my writing or process. But as I progress beyond what they have to offer, I end up walking away from books I once loved. The reality about many books about the writing process is that they are often limited to a particular time and market. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you pick up an old Writer’s Digest book about writing, you need to crosscheck it to ensure that certain things about the field have not changed. Heck, that is true of any book explicitly about writing technique, because the techniques change and evolve.

Furthermore, while I know of many writers who cling to their favorite writing advice book over the course of the years, for me, the books that have resonated the most are those where the writer speaks candidly about the struggles they face in the writing life. The letters. The memoirs. The autobiographies. Those details where the struggle of the creative life is chronicled without whitewash or embellishment. The advice books often move on, except for a select few…but oh, the value of a chronicle of a writer’s struggle. At least that is what works for me.

And what about you?


Other posts in this series by Joyce Reynolds-Ward (note: each website owner will post at some point during the week listed).

March 29-April 4th—Organizing Your Plot www.joycereynoldsward.com

April 5-11—Self-editing, grammar, and beta readers https://authorwilliamcook.com/blog/

April 12-18—Genre and cross-genre https://tanstaaflpress.com/news

April 19-25—My Approach to the writing process https://varidapr.com

April 26-May 2—Reading to Impact your writing www.conniejjasperson.com

May 3-9—Advice for new writers https://lecatts.wordpress.com


Joyce Reynolds-Ward is a speculative fiction writer from Enterprise, Oregon. Her short stories include appearances in Well…It’s Your Cow, Children of a Different Sky, Allegory, River, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. Her agripunk thriller trilogy, The Ruby Project: Origins, The Ruby Project: Ascendant, The Ruby Project: Realization, are due for release in November, 2020. Her books include Shadow Harvest, Choices of Honor, Judgment of Honor, and Klone’s Stronghold. Joyce has edited two anthologies, Pulling Up Stakes (2018), and Whimsical Beasts (2019). Besides writing, Joyce enjoys reading, quilting, horses, and hiking, and is a member of Soroptimist International of Wallowa County.

You can find Joyce’s books at her website, Peak Amygdala or on her author page at Amazon.com.

 

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Writing Contemporary Fiction in a Time of Uncertainty #amwriting

The pandemic, combined with the political uncertainty of our time, has left many authors feeling unable to write. In an online group, an author who writes YA contemporary/near-future sci-fi novels said that looking at his keyboard made him feel like a deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car.

This subject also came up at our last writing group meeting via Google Chat. A good friend who is an integral part of my writing posse is suffering from this crippling inertia.

The block these authors are experiencing is caused by the extreme uncertainty of our times and the constant barrage of bad and often conflicting news. No one knows what the near future holds, so writing something that will be affected either by the next election or how the pandemic progresses is a difficult proposition.

For some people, writing anything right now is impossible.

To write contemporary or near-future sci-fi, one must be able to predict a multiplicity of futures and decide which is most likely to occur. This is an iffy thing even in less turbulent times.

Chuck Wendig managed to nail how our society might react to a true global pandemic with The Wanderers, A Novel. Just as in the novel, we have deniers and blame-casters who categorically refuse to accept scientific evidence. We are blessed with fools aplenty.

Isaac Asimov in The Naked Sun, George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451—these were the forward-thinkers of their time. These authors were able to extrapolate a possible future from reading about current events in the newspapers and watching the evening news on TV or radio.

These novels don’t describe a perfect example of how things are, but they contain glimpses of our modern life. In The Naked Sun, we find people who communicate almost exclusively via an internet of sorts and rarely meet in person.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel, we see the effects of mass surveillance and the brutal regimentation of all aspects of behavior within a society. Dangerous thoughts are illegal, and the Thoughtpol (thought police) spy on everyone to detect and eliminate those whose independent thinking questions the powers-that-be.

In Fahrenheit 451, we are asked to consider a society in which books have been ruthlessly condensed to accommodate short attention spans. Minority groups protest the controversial, outdated content they believe exists in literature. However, comic books and pornography remains, as these feed the mainstream population’s desire for mindless entertainment. At the outset of the story, it is illegal to own a book.

These are novels that raise questions and ask us to take a hard look at ourselves.

These authors were conscious of how people react to given events, how the herd mentality takes over, and how mobs function. They also paid attention to the cutting edge science and theories of the day.

We denizens of the 21st century spend a lot of time on the internet, communicating via social media. Our phones and computers are under constant surveillance by our governments as part of the war on terrorism, and Google Earth knows where we are and what we are doing.

And finally, in many homes, reading takes a distant second place to television when it comes to family entertainment.

This raises the question, does our society shape sci-fi, or does sci-fi shape us? We tease about our cell phones and e-book readers being Star Trek devices. But all jokes aside, cell phones and electronic books and notebooks are integral parts of our culture that were described by Gene Roddenberry as part of his 1966 sci-fi televisions series.

So, while the early speculative fiction authors weren’t seers or clairvoyants, they took the information that was available to them and wrote stories that intuited a multitude of possible future timelines fairly accurately, some aspects of which closely resemble our 21st-century society.

This time of uncertainty will pass. We may never go back to standing next to strangers in a line at the grocery store, but we will create a new normal. We will find security in whatever form that new normal takes once we get used to the routine.

In real life, the good guys never win completely, but neither do the bad guys. One may have the upper hand for a while, but the pendulum swings two ways.

Pandemics are horrible, but they do eventually pass, and we will recover as a society.

This sense of powerlessness will pass.

You who write contemporary and near-future fiction and who are momentarily unable to put pen to paper will regain your creative muse, and words will flow. You will once again write insightful stories, delving deeply into what it means to be human. You will show us what a beautiful, interconnected world we live in, and how fragile each link in the web of life is.

The words will come, and you will write them.


Credits and Attributions

Eye on Flat Panel Monitor, Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Dog Using Laptop Computer CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

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Why Authors Should Blog #amwriting

We authors, whether indie or traditionally published, are responsible for building our own brand. I have found most of this aspect of my career to be difficult. However, I have managed to succeed at one of the foundations of building my brand–I have a working author website and blog.

When I began, I used the free sites offered by both WordPress and Blogger, so cost should not hold anyone back. And the dashboards of both platforms are easy to learn with a little trial and error. If I can learn them, anyone can.

I often hear writers complain that they don’t update their author blog regularly because they have nothing to say. I disagree—they’re writers for heaven’s sake. Writers can wax poetic out the ends of their fingers, ranting for hours on the oddest subjects.

The trick is rambling on for 500 words or so and sticking to a schedule of sorts. Writers like to rant, but deadlines cause us to go into procrastination mode.

Still, although many will claim they aren’t able to write under pressure, that is when I do my best work.

NaNoWriMo has proven to me that nothing improves your writing chops more than writing every day.

Blogging offers me a mix of self-imposed goals and gives me the chance to riff on my favorite subject—the craft of writing. Much of what I have learned as a writer over the past decade has come about through researching topics for this blog.

I wasn’t always a confirmed blogger. In 2011, I signed up for a free Blogger (Google’s platform) website, taking that plunge only because my former publisher forced me to. He swore it would help get my name out there and give me a regular platform for my opinions.

The posts I wrote for that first attempt at blogging were pathetic attempts to write about current affairs and politics as a journalist, which is something that has never interested me. I was lucky if I managed to post one piece a month and had no readers or followers.

I soon realized I could not write on the subjects my publisher wanted and quit altogether.

After talking to some friends who were successful in marketing their work, it occurred to me there was one subject I could talk about for hours on end:

Books.

I went back to that old site and scrapped the awkward, unloved posts. I changed the site’s name and shifted to writing about something I loved—books. I wrote one book review post a week for the next five years.

While I haven’t had a lot of time lately to keep it updated, the site is the home of Best in Fantasy, my book review blog.

I hate to say this because we parted ways rather messily: despite my resistance, my former publisher was right about the importance of having an author’s website and writing the occasional blog post.

During the time I was first writing for Best in Fantasy, I began to realize that I was marketing everyone else’s work, but no one was promoting mine.

I needed a place to showcase my work.

That’s how this site came into existence.

It wasn’t until I stopped trying to fit into the mold someone else had designed for me that I discovered how much I love writing, and blogging is writing in its purest form.

You really are writing on the wing.

I write my posts, proofread them, and schedule them to publish on regular specific days.

That in itself is an adventure, opening you up to all sorts of embarrassing literary moments. As many of you know, despite my best efforts, my work sometimes posts “warts and all.”

Writing for this site has made me a thinking author, as well as a pantser, and has proven that I can write to a deadline. I can write using the “stream of consciousness” method, or I can write several days in advance by putting together a quick outline about whatever aspect of the craft occupies my thoughts at the time.

Usually, I do the research, and the post begins to write itself.

I’ve made many friends through blogging, people all over the world who I may never meet in person, but who I am fond of, nevertheless. This place, Life in the Realm of Fantasy, is where I develop seminars on the craft of writing. I find that talking about my obsession helps me organize my thoughts.

Blogging is only successful if you are passionate about what you are discussing. Usually, I talk about writing craft because I’m an obsessive nerd, but sometimes real life gets in the way of creativity.

When I need to, I talk about the difficulties of traveling while vegan. I’ve written about the challenges of having two children with epilepsy, the dysfunctionality of growing up with a father suffering battle-related PTSD and many other aspects of just trying to live a happy life in the real world.

Having a blog on your website and updating it at least twice a month is a way to connect with your readers on a human level. Fans will enjoy hearing what your writing goals are. They want to know where you will be signing books.

Also, they love to hear about the books you are reading.

Readers enjoy seeing little off-the-cuff pieces once in a while. Articles of less than 1000 words are fun to write and often find their way into your other work, as they are a great way to brainstorm ideas.

To my knowledge, I have never been plagiarized. I have a notice clearly in the sidebar on my website that the content is copyrighted. I also make sure all quoted material is credited to the original authors with links back to their websites.

So:

  • Keep it down to about 500 – 1000 words more or less.
  • Use the spellchecker tool to look for glaring errors.
  • Write in draft form and don’t publish it right away–come back and read it over again, and make corrections.
  • If you use information that you found elsewhere, quote it and credit the author
  • Use images that are either public domain or that you have the legal right to use
  • Put links to other informative sites in the text

Be Consistent.

Life in the Realm of Fantasy has evolved over the years because I have changed and matured as an author.

If you are wondering how to get started, please check out my post, Creating your Author Blog.  There, you can find detailed, step by step instructions for getting a free website, and getting started on either WordPress or Blogger. I use both platforms, and they are not too hard once you learn the ropes.

In the meantime, stay safe. One last thought: if you are finding writing difficult because of stress we all feel via the pandemic, riffing on a completely random subject might rest your mind and free your creativity. Give it a shot, and let us all know how it goes!

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How to be a good Beta Reader #amwriting

Beta Reading is the first reading of a manuscript by someone other than the author. One hopes the reader is a person who reads and enjoys the genre that the book represents.

I am fortunate in that I have excellent friends who are willing to do this for me, and their suggestions are both kind and spot on.

This first reading by an unbiased eye is meant to give the author a general view of the overall strengths and weaknesses of their story. This phase of the process should be done before you submit the manuscript to an editor.

In my work, the suggestions offered by the beta reader (first reader) guide and speed the process of revisions, so that my editor can focus on doing her job without being distracted by significant issues that should have been caught early on.

If you agree to read a raw manuscript for another author, you must keep in mind that it has NOT been edited. The author is not asking you to edit the manuscript.

This manuscript is the  child of the author’s soul. Be sure to make positive comments along the way and never be chastising or accusatory. Always phrase your suggestions in a non-threatening manner

What are the larger issues that must be addressed before the fine-tuning can begin? If you are beta reading an unedited manuscript, these are the more significant issues you should look at:

How does it open? Did the opening hook you? As you read on, is there an arc to each scene that keeps you turning the page? Make notes of any places that are confusing.

Setting: Does the setting feel real? Did the author create a sense of time, mood, and atmosphere? Is the setting an important part of the story?

Characters: Is the point of view character (protagonist) clear? Did you understand what the character was feeling?  Were the characters likable? Did you identify with and care about the characters? Was there a variety of character types, or did they all seem the same? Were their emotions and motivations clear and relatable?

Dialogue: Did the dialogue and internal narratives advance the plot? Did they illuminate the tension, conflict, and suspense? Were the conversations and thoughts distinct to each character, or did they all sound the same?

Pacing: How did the momentum feel? Where did the plot bog down and get boring? Do the characters face a struggle worth writing about, and if so, did the pacing keep you engaged?

Does the ending surprise and satisfy you? What do you think might happen next?

Grammar and Mechanics: At this point, you can comment on whether or not the author has a basic understanding of grammar and industry practices that suit their genre.

Be gentle—if they lack knowledge, suggest they get a style guide such as the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, or if you feel up to it, offer to help them learn a few basics.

I know how difficult it is to share your just-completed novel with anyone. My friends offer comments that help me turn my vision of what the story could be into a reality.

For that reason, being the first reader for their work is a privilege I don’t take lightly.

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