Tag Archives: #writetip

Layers of Depth: the uneven distribution of information

Plot points and conflicts are driven by the characters who have critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information creates tension.

WritingCraftSeries_depth-through-conversationIn literary terms, this uneven distribution of knowledge is called asymmetric information. We see this all the time in the corporate world.

  • One party in a business transaction has more or superior information compared to another.
  • That inequality of information gives them an edge against the competition.

In a story, as in real life, a monopoly of information creates a crisis. An idle conversation will bore your reader to tears, so only discuss things that advance the plot. A conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need.

The reader must get answers simultaneously as the characters, gradually over the length of a novel.

When I am writing a scene, I ask my characters three things:

The first question I ask is: “What is the core of the problem?” In the case of one story that was begun several years ago and never taken beyond the first draft stage, the core of the problem is Jared, my main character. The story is set in the World of Neveyah, and one of the canon tropes of stories set in that world is that all mages are trained by and work for the Temple of Aeos.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingJared is hilarious, charming, naïve, a bit cocky, and completely unaware that he’s an arrogant jackass. He is a young man who is exceptionally good at everything and is happy to tell you about it. Jared has no clue that his boasting holds him back, as no one wants to work with him.

This boy is both the protagonist and the antagonist of this story.

The second question I ask is: “What do the characters want most?” Jared is a mage, and as such, he is a member of the Clergy of Aeos. He wants to be just like his childhood hero, or better. Jared needs approval and admiration to bolster his sense of self-worth. Everything he does is an effort to be seen as worthy.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the Temple of Aeos have plenty of heroes on hand and just want a mage who can be relied upon to get a job done well and with no fanfare.

The third question I ask my characters is this: “What are they willing to do to get it?” Jared has boasted many times that he will meet and overcome any obstacle, no matter how difficult the path to success is.

His mentors like him, but despair of his ever succeeding as a mage. They devise a simple (and on the surface) heroic seeming quest tailored to improve his attitude. They layer it with dirty and disgusting obstacles that he hasn’t planned for. Jared meets and works his way through these roadblocks one by one. His mentors ensure that when he does “rescue the kid,” he gets their message quite clearly. This is where the asymmetric information comes into play. Jared’s innocent assumptions make for a wonderfully wicked plot arc.

How will Jared’s story end? It ends in a satisfying mess with all the acclaim the young hero could ask for—along with a large serving of humble pie. But nothing can keep Jared down for long—he takes that embarrassment and embraces it with his own personal flair.

Epic Fails meme2When I started writing this story, I had the core conflict: Jared’s misguided desire to be important. I had the surface quest: rescuing the kidnapped kid. I had the true quest: Jared learning to laugh at himself and developing a little humility.

I had all the pieces and the completed first draft, but other projects had more priority. Then the pandemic hit, and this story was shelved.

Now, with all the hustle and bustle of moving to a new home, I need something short and sweet to work on for relaxation, and I came across Jared’s story. It needs serious revisions, but it’s one of my favorite Neveyah stories, as it is not dark as they usually are. Jared’s tale of woe is full of gallows humor, detailing the deeds of a hero who becomes a man.


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Layers of Depth: getting a grip on narrative time

Narrative time and calendar time are separate entities. They are team members working on the same project but with different tasks. Point of view and narrative time work together to create an author’s voice.

calendarCalendar time is a layer of world-building. It sets the story in a particular era and shows the passage of time.

Narrative time is the grammatical placement of the story’s time frame in the past or the present, i.e., present tense (we go) or past tense (we went).

Narrative time works with point of view to shape the reader’s perception of a scene’s atmosphere and ambiance.

Once the reader passes the first page or two of a novel, a reader becomes used to the way the author has chosen to deliver the story. Narrative time and point of view fade into the background, becoming a subtle layer that goes unnoticed on a conscious level.

How does narrative time relate to “past” or “present” tense?

In grammartense is a word referencing time. Tenses are usually shown by how we use the forms of verbs, particularly in their conjugation patterns. The main tenses found in most languages include the pastpresent, and future.

We create depth by combining narrative time with two closely related components of a story:

  • Narrative point of view (or the perspective) is a personal or impersonal “lens” through which a story is communicated.
  • Narrative voice, or how a story is communicated, is an author’s fingerprint. Narrative voice or style arises from the words we choose and how we combine them. It is formed by our deeply held beliefs and attitudes. We may or may not consciously intend to do it, but our convictions emerge in our writing, shaping character and plot arcs.

The way that narrative tense affects a reader’s perception of the characters is subtle, an undercurrent that goes unnoticed after the first few paragraphs. It shapes the reader’s view of events on a subliminal level.

Every story is different and requires us to use a unique narrative time. Tense conveys information about time. It relates the time of an event (when) to another time (now or then). The tense you choose indicates the event’s location in time.

Verb ConjugationConsider the following sentences: “I eat,” “I am eating,” “I have eaten,” and “I have been eating.”

All are in the present tense, indicated by the present-tense verb of each sentence (eatam, and have).

Yet, they are different because each conveys slightly different information (or points of view) about how the action pertains to the present moment.

I regularly “think aloud” in writing the first draft. When writing by the seat of my pants, passive phrasings find their way into the raw narrative. I think of these words as traffic signals for when I begin revisions.  a shorthand that helps me write the story before I lose my train of thought.

  • In the rewrite, we look for the code words (passive phrasing) that tell us what the scene should be rewritten to show.

Many writers avoid the third person omniscient mode because it takes more work to make the prose active. But some stories work best in that mode.

Which sentence feels stronger, more pressing? Each sentence says the same thing, but we get a different story when we change the narrative tense, point of view, and verb choice.

  • He was hot and thirsty. (Third-person omniscient, past tense, passive phrasing.)
  • Henry trudged forward, his lips dry and cracked, yearning for a drop of water. (Third-person omniscient, past tense, active phrasing.)
  • struggle toward the oasis with dry, cracked lips and parched tongue. (First-person present tense, Active phrasing.)
  • You stagger toward the oasis, dizzy with thirst. (Second-person, present tense, active phrasing.)

The way we show this moment in time for these thirsty characters is important. If we write a sentence that says a character is hot and thirsty, we leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. The reader is on the outside, looking in. When we write that experience of thirst using active phrasing, no matter what narrative tense we write in, it changes everything.

Sometimes the only way I can get into a character’s head is to write them in the first-person present tense. This is because the narrative time I am trying to convey is the now of that story. (This happens to me most often when writing short stories.)

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. We must remember that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything, so the first-person narrator cannot be omnipotent.

transitive verb damon suede quoteEvery story is unique; some work best in the past tense, while others must be set in the present.

WARNING: When we begin writing a story using a narrative time unfamiliar to us, we may have trouble with drifting tense and wandering narrative points of view.

Drifting narrative tense and wandering POV are insidious. Either or both can occur if you habitually write using one mode but switch to another. For this reason, I must be vigilant when I begin in the first-person present tense but then switch to close third person.

For this reason, when you begin revisions, it’s crucial to look at your verb forms to ensure your narrative time doesn’t inadvertently drift between past and present.

So, where does voice come into it?

The way you habitually phrase sentences, how you construct paragraphs, the words you choose, and the narrative time you prefer to write in is your voice.

Summer is nearly upon us here in the Pacific Northwest. Packing and moving is going better than I thought it would. Time for writing is hit and miss this week, but by the second week of June, we will be settled in our new digs, and writing will be back on track. Life is good!


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Layers of Depth – using the world you know #amwriting

If you have been following my blog, you might know my husband and I are selling our home of eighteen years and moving back to the town we both grew up in. Currently, we live in a small quarry town twenty miles south of the state capitol. It is historic and small. But it is a vibrant town, creative and open to entrepreneurs, and has a close-knit community.

MyWritingLife2021If I were writing a story starring me as the main character, I would open it in the year 2005 with a couple of empty-nesters buying a house in a bedroom community twenty miles south of Olympia.

But what sort of town is this?

Tenino (Teh-nine-oh) is situated at the southern edge of Thurston County. Many people working for the State of Washington live here because the commute isn’t too bad and homes here are affordable, whereas homes in Olympia are expensive. This town has a long history of boom and bust; quarrymen, loggers, and farmers settled here, and they are still hanging on. But government employees don’t earn as much as private sector employees, and they can afford to buy homes here. So, the demographic is slowly changing.

Timber is no longer king here. Nowadays, our town is famous for Wolf Haven Internationalsandstone art, crafted whiskey, and award-winning wine. We still have a few large cattle ranches out on the Violet Prairie, between Tenino and Interstate 5. But 5-to-7-acre executive “horse properties,” antique stores, cheese makers offering goat yoga, and soap-making classes have found fertile ground here.

In the early 20th century, bootlegging was an industry here (my maternal grandfather’s line of work during prohibition). The distilleries here are the legal continuation of an old tradition.

Only_in_TeninoThe city center is isolated, twelve miles from the freeway and twenty miles away from every other town in the south county. If a fictional story were set in this town, it would feature the same political and religious schisms that divide the rest of our country. There are other tensions. Some families have been here for generations, and a few don’t appreciate the influx of low-paid state workers buying cookie-cutter tract homes (like mine) here.

Other than those employed by the local businesses, most people commute to work in Olympia or Centralia.

My street is a stretch of rough blacktop with no sidewalks. Most of the driveways, including ours, are paved. Our street runs east and west, with a fabulous view of Mount Rainier rising at the east end.

Homes line our street on both sides, but it’s visually divided. A nicely landscaped manufactured home park is on the north side of the road, across from my front door. On the south side, my side, a long row of forty stick-built homes was tossed up in 2005, just before the housing bubble crashed.

And I do mean tossed up. Some things that went into building these houses were bottom-of-the-barrel bargains, cheap toilets, cheaper water heaters, and improperly installed bathtubs—all things that failed and were replaced over the last eighteen years.

The row of homes on my side is nearly identical to each other, as there are only two types of floor plans, one for three bedrooms (mine) or the four-bedroom version. People have made their homes as unique as possible. For a few years, we had the only house with an orange door, but now our door is white, as we had to replace it and never got around to painting it.

Orange_Door_with_Hydrangeas_©_Connie_Jasperson_2019Two inches of rain fell the day we moved into our brand-new home in 2005, making moving our furniture into this house a misery. Our new house had no landscaping and rose from a sea of mud and rocks. With a lot of effort, we made a pleasant yard. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, many people on my side of the street lost their jobs, and some homes went into foreclosure.

Flippers found a wealth of projects here. For several years, wherever there were two or more empty houses, it looked somewhat like a ghost town.

That has changed. Now we are bustling, people walking up and down the street to and from the store.

Tenino has one grocery store, which also has a hardware store inside. The market carries the basics, but the quality of their fresh produce can be iffy. You really have to check the pull dates on things like eggs, hummus, and cottage cheese. It’s far more affordable to shop in Olympia.

However, the meat department sources beef from a local ranch. Their meat department smokes their own ribs and other cuts. Carnivores love this place because the wind carries the smoky aroma all over the neighborhood.

Even Tenino is changing with the times, with more hybrid cars in the parking lots. A large wind farm graces the top of the hills south of here. The store has always carried tofu but has lately begun carrying some plant-based sources of protein and dairy-free ice cream. That discovery was a Hallelujah moment for those of us with milk sensitivity!

Violet Prairie in MayOur main street, Sussex, passes through a historic district. The buildings are all built from sandstone quarried at the old quarries. Many of the old buildings are home to antique stores. The masonic lodge is made of Tenino sandstone.

It’s a slice of rural America with a Northwest twist, a quiet town that is the perfect setting for a paranormal fantasy or a murder mystery.

What about my immediate environment? In the morning, birdsong fills the air. Robins, wrens, finches, hummingbirds, crows, Stellar’s jays, mourning doves – the neighborhood borders Scatter Creek and is alive with birds.

During the day, I can hear the children playing at the school. In the evening, the neighborhood is filled with the sounds of kids playing in each other’s yards.

Highway 507 passes through the center of town, becoming Sussex Street. The sounds of traffic, from semi-trucks to sirens, occasionally vie with the horns from freight trains passing at the west end of town.

Even so, it’s a quiet place, a good place to live.

We’re sad to leave here, but it’s the right thing to do. We have rented an apartment and will be completely resettled by the middle of June. Our new home is in a terrific neighborhood, with easy access to shops and restaurants. It will be intriguing to rediscover the world we left behind and to see how it has changed since we left there.

The setting of your story is a multipurpose layer embedded in the depths, and is itself comprised of layers: sounds, scents, and visual details. It shows the immediate area and conveys your characters’ society, political climate, and economic class. These aspects are subtle, yet they’re as fundamental to the story as the blood in your veins. And like that blood, we only notice it when something draws our attention to it—which usually happens at inconvenient moments.

As an exercise, visualize your own community and write a word picture of it as if you were telling me about it. Then imagine the community your characters live in and write a word picture of how they would describe their world. Feel free to post your word-pictures in the comments!

Free-Range Pansies photo credit cjjap copy


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Layers of depth: The use and abuse of modifiers #amwriting

Depth in a narrative is created by many layers. One layer we must look at involves prose, words we use, and how we phrase things. The way we use modifiers and descriptors plays a significant role in how our work is received by a reader.

depthPart1revisionsLIRF05252021In writing, we add depth and contour to our prose by how we choose and use our words. We “paint” a scene using words to show what the point-of-view character is seeing or experiencing. Yes, we do need to use some modifiers and descriptors.

Modifiers are like any other medicine: a small dose can cure illnesses. A large dose will kill the patient. The best use of them is to find words that convey the most information with the most force.

When we refer to modifiers, what do we mean?

Any word that modifies (alters, changes, transforms) the meaning and intent of another word is a modifier. Modifiers change, clarify, qualify, or limit a particular word in a sentence to add emphasis, explanation, or detail.

We also use them as conjunctions to connect thoughts: “otherwise,” “then,” and “besides.”

What are descriptors? Adverbs and adjectives, known as descriptors, are helper nouns or verbs—words that help describe other words. They are easily overused, so these words are often reviled by authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

What is a quantifier? They are nouns (or noun phrases) meant to convey a vague number or an abstract impression, such as: very, a great deal ofa good deal ofa lot, many, much. The important word there is abstract, which I think of as a thought or idea describing something without physical or concrete existence.

modifying-conjunctions-04262022One of the cautions those of us new to the craft frequently hear are criticisms about the number of modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) we habitually use. This can hurt, especially if we don’t understand what the members of our writing group are trying to tell us.

Perhaps the number of modifiers isn’t the problem, but the forms we use fluff up our narrative.

Perhaps you have been told you use too many “ly” words or descriptors. Examine the context. Have you used the word “actually” in a conversation? You may want to keep it, as dialogue must sound natural, and people use that word when speaking.

However, if you have used “actually” to describe an object, check to see if it is necessary. Is the sentence stronger without it?

  • The tree was actually covered in red leaves.
  • Red leaves covered the tree.

Many descriptors are easy to spot, often ending with “ly.” When I begin revising a first draft, I do a global search for the letters “ly.” A list will pop up in my lefthand margin. My manuscript will become a mass of yellow highlighted words.

  • “ly” words are code words – a kind of mental shorthand in a first draft. In the revision process, they tell us what we need to expand on to fully explore the scene as we originally envisioned.

It’s a daunting task, but I look at each instance and see how they fit into that context. If a word or phrase weakens the narrative, I change it to a simpler form or remove it and rewrite the sentence.

Think about it – bare is an adjective, as is barely.

Context is everything. Take the time to look at each example of the offending words and change them individually. You have already spent months writing that novel. Why not take a few days to do the job well?

Sentence structure matters. Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are describing affects a reader’s perception. Adjectives work best when showing us what the point-of-view characters see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.

Sunlight glared over the ice, a cold fire in the sky that cast no warmth but burned the eyes.

Timid WordsIn the above sentence, the essential parts are structured this way: noun – verb (sunlight glared), adjective – noun (cold fire), verb – adjective – noun (cast no warmth), and finally, verb-article-noun (burned the eyes). Lead with the action or noun, follow with a strong modifier, and the sentence conveys what is intended but isn’t weakened by the modifiers.

The above scene could be shown in many ways, but a paragraph’s worth of world-building is pared down to 19 words, three of which are action words. This is an area I struggle with, and it occupies most of my attention during revisions.

Shakespeare understood the beauty and the power that contrasting modifiers can add to ordinary prose without making it artificial. Consider this line from his play, As You Like It, written in 1599:

It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room. As You Like It, Wm. Shakespeare, 1599.

What brilliant imagery Shakespeare handed us—strong words with powerful meaning: dead, great, reckoning, little. His prose moves us as we read or hear it spoken because he uses words with visual impact.

Most writers know that participating in a critique group requires delicacy and dedication. They know it involves restraint and the ability to allow other authors to write their own work. Most groups don’t micromanage a manuscript because they know how too much input and direction can remove the author’s unique voice from a piece.

These are dedicated people who love reading and want your work to succeed.

As writers, we all want to be accepted and have others like our work, but we must write from the heart. That means using modifiers, descriptors, or quantifiers when they are needed. It’s a balancing act. We must be mindful of the form and the context of how a modifier fits into our phrasing.

The following image is a list of code-words I seek out and re-examine when I begin revising a first draft. Each word points me in the right direction. All I have to do is rephrase that sentence with stronger forms of the “ly” word.

List of common adverbs


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Layers of Depth: Mood and Emotion #amwriting

Readers and authors often use the word mood interchangeably with atmosphere when describing a scene or passage. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere march along together—separate but intertwined so closely that they seem as one.

mood-emotions-2-LIRF09152020Mood is long-term, a feeling residing in the background, going almost unnoticed. Mood affects (and is affected by) the emotions evoked within the story.

Atmosphere is also long-term but is sometimes more noticeable as it is a worldbuilding component. Atmosphere is the aspect of mood that setting conveys.

Emotion is immediate and short-term. It exists in the foreground but contributes to the overall atmosphere and mood.

In his book, Story, Robert McKee tells us that emotion is the experience of transition, of the characters moving between a positive and negative. “Story” by Robert McKee,

Much of my information comes from seminar videos on the craft of writing found on YouTube and posted by Robert McKee. He is an excellent teacher, and his textbook is a core component of my personal library. A wonderful 6-minute lesson on the difference between mood and emotion can be found at:

Robert McKee, Q&A: What Is the Difference Between Mood and Emotion?

While emotions are immediate, they can be subtle. I look for books where emotions are dynamic, because that is when the character’s internal struggle becomes personal to me.

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of the characters—their personal mood.

Mood-and-atmosphere-LIRF04302023Undermotivated emotions lack credibility and leave the reader feeling as if the story is flat. In real life, we have deep, personal reasons for our feelings, and so must our characters.

A woman shoots another woman. Why? Add in the factor of her child having been accidentally killed by the woman she murders, and you have high emotion and high drama. Therefore, just as in real life, the root cause for a character’s emotions is a fundamental motivation for their actions.

Which is more important, mood or emotion? Both and neither. Characters’ emotions affect the overall mood of a story. In turn, the atmosphere of a particular environment may affect the characters’ personal mood. Their individual attitudes affect the emotional state of the group.

Because emotion is the experience of transition from the negative to the positive and back again, emotion changes a character’s values, and they either grow or stagnate. This is part of the inferential layer, as the audience must infer (deduce) the experience. You can’t tell a reader how to feel. They must experience and understand (infer) what drives the character on a human level.

What is mood? Wikipedia says:

In literature, mood is the atmosphere of the narrative. Mood is created by means of setting (locale and surroundings in which the narrative takes place), attitude (of the narrator and of the characters in the narrative), and descriptions. Though atmosphere and setting are connected, they may be considered separately to a degree. Atmosphere is the aura of mood that surrounds the story. It is to fiction what the sensory level is to poetry.[1] Mood is established in order to affect the reader emotionally and psychologically and to provide a feeling for the narrative.

What is atmosphere? It is created by our word choices and is intangible, but it affects how the reader perceives the story. The setting contributes to the atmosphere, so it is a component of worldbuilding. But we should note that the setting is only a place; it is not atmosphere. Atmosphere comes into play when we place certain visual elements into the scenery with the intention of creating a mood in the reader.

  • Tumbleweeds rolling across a barren desert.
  • Waves crashing against cliffs.
  • Dirty dishes resting beside the sink.
  • A chill breeze wafting through a broken window.

Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as by the characters’ moods and emotions. It is a component of the environment but is also an ambiance because it is intentional.

We build atmosphere into a setting with the aim of creating a specific frame of mind or emotion in the reader.

I love it when an author drops me into an atmosphere that colors their world and shapes the characters’ moods.

So, now we know that atmosphere is environmental, separate but connected to the general emotional mood of a piece. From the story’s first paragraph, we want to establish a feeling of atmosphere, the general mood that will hint at what is to come.

storybyrobertmckeeRobert McKee tells us that the mood/dynamic of any story is there to make the emotional experience of our characters specific. It makes their emotions feel natural. After all, the mood and atmosphere Emily Brontë instilled into the setting of Wuthering Heights make the depictions of mental and physical cruelty seem like they would happen there.

Happy, sad, neutral—atmosphere and mood lend a flavor to the emotions our characters experience, giving them emphasis and making them real to the reader.

For me, as a writer, the inferential layer of a story is complicated. Creating a world-on-paper requires thought even when we live in that world. We know how the atmosphere and mood of our neighborhood feel when we walk to the store. But try conveying that mood and atmosphere in a letter to a friend – it’s harder than it looks.

Next up: a closer examination of emotions and why showing is so much more difficult (and sometimes dangerous) than telling.

Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Mood (literature),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mood_(literature)&oldid=1147399122 (accessed April 30, 2023).


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How Writing Advice can be both Good and Bad #amwriting

Authors who are just starting out need to learn the craft. We humans find it easy to remember simple sayings, little proverbs, if you will.

My Writing LifeThe commonly bandied proverbs of writing are meant to encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations. These sayings exist because the craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, developing characters, building worlds, etc., etc.

The truth is, we can’t know everything about the craft just by learning a few common proverbs. They help, but we could spend a lifetime studying the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject.

Taken too seriously, simple mantras of writing advice are dangerous. This is because they can be taken to extremes by novice authors armed with little actual knowledge. An author with too rigid a view of these sayings will not be a good reviewer or beta reader. They won’t be able to see beyond the rules that imprison them and limit their creative existence.

  • Remove all adverbs.

This advice is complete crap. Use common sense, and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.

  • Don’t use speech tags.

What? Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this drivel?

  • Show, Don’t Tell. Don’t Ever Don’t do it!

Nothing is more ordinary than a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage, hollow displays of emotion with no substance. Lips stretch into smiles, but the musculature of the face is only a part of the signals that reveal the character’s interior emotions.

Flaubert on writing LORF07252022Then, there are the stories where the author leans too heavily on the internal. Creased foreheads are replaced with stomach-churning, gut-wrenching shock or wide-eyed trembling of hands.

And don’t forget the recurring moments of weak-kneed nausea.

For me, the most challenging part of writing the final draft of any novel is balancing the visual indicators of emotion with the more profound, internal clues.

  • Write what you know.

Please, use your imagination. Did Tolkien actually go to Middle Earth and visit a volcano? No, but he did serve in WWI and lived and worked in Oxford, which is not notable for abounding in elves, hobbits, or orcs.

So yes, Tolkien understood senseless conflicts and total warfare—because he had experienced it. His books detail his view of the utter devastation of war but are set in a fantasy environment. Your life experiences shape your writing, but your imagination is the story’s fuel and source.

  • If you’re bored with your story, your reader will be too.

That’s not true. You have spent months immersed in that story, years even. You know it inside and out, but your reader doesn’t.

Commonly discussed writing proverbs go on and on.

  • Kill your darlings.

Jack Kerouak on writing LIRF07252022Indeed, we shouldn’t be married to our favorite prose or characters. Sometimes we must cut a paragraph, a chapter, or even a character we love because it no longer fits the story. But have a care – people read for pleasure. Perhaps that phrase does belong there. Maybe that arrangement of words really was the best part of that paragraph.

  • Cut all exposition.

A story must be about the characters, the conflict, and the resolution. So, why are we in this handbasket? And where are we going? If we’re plucked from our comfy lives and dropped into the Handbasket to Hell, we want to know why.

The timing of when we insert the exposition into the narrative is crucial. The reader needs to know what the characters know. But they only require that knowledge at the moment it becomes necessary. The reader wants to understand the narrative but doesn’t want information dumped on them.

Bad advice is good advice taken to an extreme. The internet and social media allow us to make connections with other writers from all over the world. We gather in virtual groups and share what we have learned about the craft. Some of us become evangelical, born-again believers that the words of those great writers who have gone before us are the only truths we need to know.

While that isn’t so, we must remember that all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Overuse of adverbs fluffs up the prose and ruins the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags, especially odd and bizarre ones, can stop the eye. When the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue, I will put the book down and never pick it up again. My favorite authors seem to stick to common tags like said and replied.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience. Too much showing is tedious and can be disgusting. It takes effort to find that happy medium, but writing is work.
  • Know what you are writing about. Research your subject and, if necessary, interview people in that profession. Readers often know more than you do about certain things.

proverbs definition wikipediaHandy, commonly debated mantras become engraved in stone because proverbs are how we educate ourselves. Unless an author is fortunate enough to have a formal education in the subject, we must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides to learn the many nuances of the writing craft.

That is what I have done. I buy books about the craft of writing modern, 21st-century genre fiction and rely on the advice offered by the literary giants of the past. I seek a rounded view of crafting prose and look for other tools that I can use to improve my writing. I think this makes me a better, more informed reader. (My ego speaking.)

But sometimes online writer’s forums are a little – shall we say dicey? We come into contact with people armed with a bit of knowledge, a large ego, and a loud voice. Be careful, and don’t share your work with any group until you have seen how they treat each other.

Some writers are fearful of what others might say. They bludgeon their work to death, desperately trying to fit it into narratives defined by absolute limits.

In the process, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners, and a story with immense potential becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

I study the craft of writing because I love it, and I apply the proverbs and rules of advice gently. Whether my work is good or bad—I don’t know. But I write the stories I want to read, so I am writing for a niche audience of one: me.

However, I read two or three books a week. I love books where the authors clearly know the rules but break them when necessary.

So, my friends—go forth, and write. Now, more than ever, the world needs more novels.


Filed under writing

The Mushy Midpoint #amwriting

I am not good at winging it when plotting a novel. I might begin with nothing but a few characters and a loose idea for a plot, but somewhere toward the middle, I will lose momentum.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022I will have to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole and writing an outline as a framework to guide the story. The plot points I originally planned to occur at each of the four quarters of the story will be met, but how?

In my head, I know that character plus objective plus risk equals a story. In practice, it’s more complicated than it looks.

Every story begins with the opening act, introducing the characters and setting the scene. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” that first plot point that triggers the rest of the story.

I’m very good at getting this part on paper. But here is where my storytelling skills sometimes fail me.

At the midpoint of my outline, another serious incident is scheduled to occur, an event setting them back even further. They will be aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all.

While I  know that bad things have to happen at this place, I sometimes can’t figure out what those things are.

In my logical mind, I know that the protagonists must get creative and work hard to achieve their desired goals. I know they must overcome their doubts and make themselves stronger.

But what are those doubts?

We have arrived at the first pinch point. The characters are on the hunt for the MacGuffin. The antagonist makes an appearance, and the heroes survive the first roadblock and—


This sudden blank wall is where creating an outline comes into play. But since I know what the ending is that I must write to, I approach this part of the outline as if I were writing a murder mystery.

When I can’t figure out the middle, I start at the end of my story and work my way backward until I have joined the dots connecting the ending to the beginning.

Crime writers ask themselves several things when they begin plotting a mystery. We can all learn from their method:

  • What crime was committed?
  • Who committed the crime?
  • How did they pull it off?
  • Why did they do it?

So, I look at what I originally planned for the ending and ask, “What led us to this point?”

e.m. forster plot memeThe midpoint of the story arc is often where the protagonists lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. Something terrible happens, and they must learn to live with it.

What was that terrible thing?

Maybe the protagonist has suffered a terrible personal loss or setback. Because of this, maybe she no longer believes in herself or the people she once looked up to.

How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?

How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?

What gives her the strength and the courage to pull herself together and finish the job?

How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This midpoint crisis is where the protagonist makes the hard decisions and learns she truly has the courage to do the job. The antagonist has had their day in the sun and could possibly win.

What I sometimes forget is this: plot arcs hinge on our characters and their reasons for being there. No matter what genre we’re writing in, giving the individual players strong motivations makes the story easier to write.

If I haven’t made their motivations strong enough by the midpoint, I will lose track of the plot.

At the beginning of my story, I will know what “the crime” is, the incident that throws my characters into the action. I never lose track of that—it’s the middle that gets mushy for me.

I will know who the antagonist is and why they are acting against my main characters. I will even know why it is all happening.

The part I struggle with is the how.

WilliamBlakeImaginationLIRF05072022So, starting at the end, I look at my characters’ location when the story finishes. Then I ask myself what they were doing just before the final encounter.

And before they did that, what were they doing? What did they accomplish to move the story forward to that place? What location did they begin that part of the journey from, and why were they there?

I work my way backward through each step of the problem. It’s not a perfect method, and may not work for everyone. But by working in reverse from a known point, I can see what needs to happen and begin to write the story again.


Filed under writing

Character, Objective, and Risk #amwriting

Sometimes I lose the plot. I know that character plus objective plus risk equals a story, but sometimes I can’t figure out the risk part.

Or the objective.

StoryMemeLIRF10052021This happens even when I have an outline. I will get to a place where I don’t know what to write, and the characters stand around doing nothing. I repeat the same old crisis with slight variations, which is tedious.

It’s a medieval fantasy, and manticores are quite prominent in medieval heraldry.

Unfortunately, my imagination is stuck on manticores but even in fantasy they’re a rare beast. My hero just killed the last one so I’m unsure what to do now. Readers don’t like it when you milk a plot twist over and over, no matter how you change the scenery around it.

I hate this job.

So let’s look at the plot outline again. I’m all about giving your characters agency, but sometimes it takes divine intervention to get the plot moving again.

Sir Percival stands at my elbow, looking over my shoulder. “Ahem.” He stares at me. “You there. Are you the person plotting this book?”

My characters no longer surprise me when they intrude, but being polite when I am disturbed is impossible. “What do you want?” I prefer it when my heroes don’t feel compelled to harass me.

Bodleian_Library-MS_Bodl_764-fol_025r-manticoreHe says, “I rescued Lady Adeline, and the manticore is dead. Did you notice?”

“Yes. I wrote that scene, and if I do say so myself, you were magnificent.” One problem with heroes is their obsessive desire for obscene amounts of praise. Sir Percival is a prime example of that.

“Thank you,” he replies, attempting to appear modest and failing. “Well, the thing is, Lady Adeline has thrown herself into wedding preparations.”

“I know,” I reply. “I’m designing the dress.”

“Well, you’ve been doing that for the last twenty pages, but who’s counting. Anyway, I’ve been booted outside because no one needs the groom until the big day. I need something to do.”

I never noticed it before, but Percy isn’t handsome when he scowls. Is there some way I can make him look like an adult? I don’t like beards, but he needs something to disguise his serious lack of a chin.

Sir Percy taps his foot. “You know, you’re really good at telling folks how to plot a book, but you suck at it yourself. We’re 25,000 words into your novel, and you’ve already wasted the big scene.”

What? This man who owes his very existence to my creative genius is picking a fight with me? He’s in for it now. “What are you talking about? I have numerous quests just waiting to leap off the page and occupy your idle hands.” See? I can give a dirty look too, and I don’t whine about it.

He just stares. “Well?”

I despise sarcastic heroes.

He whines, “If you intend this to be a novel, you have at least 50,000 or so words left. I have nothing to do.'”

The idiot has a point. I mistimed the big finale, so now I need a new objective for him, something entailing risk.


No, I did that in Billy Ninefingers.

I know! Carnivorous fairies … but no. I did that in Billy Ninefingers too.

This could take a while. I gaze at Sir Percival the Prim, wondering what I was thinking when I made a whiney inbred nobleman like him the star of this charade. “I can’t work with you staring over my shoulder. Find something to do for a few minutes.”

Of course, he flounces off to the living room. I should have given him a few more social graces.

clicker“Look, why don’t you sit here and watch TV for a while?” I park him in front of the TV and give him the clicker.

He looks first at me and then at the clicker. “What is this?”

Sighing, I show him how to turn the TV on and help him find something he’ll enjoy.

That takes an hour. Nine hundred channels and nothing interests him. Eventually we settle on old Star Trek reruns.

Finally, I am back at the keyboard and scraping the bottom of the barrel for a few more terrifying plot twists, hoping to keep this bad boy busy. The trouble is, all I can think of is manticores, but he’s already killed the only one that was left in the world.

Besides, readers hate it when authors milk plot twists.

Of course, my knight in shiny armor has acquired a certain amount of skill in manticore murdering, but how can you build a career out of that?


I look up, only to see Duchess Letitia, his future stepmother-in-law standing at my elbow. “Yes?”

Book- onstruction-sign copy“I’m sorry to bother you, but we desperately need a certain magical ingredient for my special anti-aging cream.” She looks at me expectantly. “My stepdaughter’s wedding is a big deal. But the outline says Percival and Adeline will assume the throne upon their marriage. It’s canon now, so I’m done, kicked to the curb in the prime of my life.” She dabs the corner of her squinty eyes with a silken handkerchief. “You set this story in an era where women have few career options. I simply must have my beauty cream, or I won’t be able to snare a new hubby.”

She has a point. “And that ingredient is…?” I hope it’s not a complicated thing because now I have two bored characters nagging the hell out of me.

A sharklike smile crosses her features. “Manticore’s milk.”

How odd. Another thing I never realized until this moment is how evil Adeline’s stepmother looks when she smiles like that. I love this woman.

She says, “I’m sure Sir Percival can get some since he’s just sitting around watching a magic box filled with other people having adventures.”

Duchess Letitia’s malicious smirk offers me no end of possibilities. I consider this for a moment. I could rewrite the original battle scene and subtract the dead manticore part.

He could get killed milking the manticore.

Or perhaps only mutilated.

Lady Adeline would have to rescue herself and then him. But what the hell. He’s a hero, right? Bad days at the office come with the territory. I walk to the living room, finding him sitting with his dirty boots on my coffee table.

This means war. Oh, yes. I promise, there will be mutilation in his future. Rather than deleting his character from the story and starting anew, this jackass will live. Percy the Prim and Proper will beg me to kill him off.

You know, manticores are an endangered species.

Lady Adeline won’t approve of his attempting to murder the last one so there will be trouble in paradise. The noble idiot will have misadventure after misadventure until my new coffee table is paid for.

“Percy, I have a task for you! Take this bucket and get some manticore’s milk. It’s a matter of life and death.”

He looks up. “I will in a minute, but I must see how this story ends. Captain Kirk might die if Spock can’t get the medicine!”

That’s another good plot twist. Note to self: have Duchess Letitia supervise stocking the medical supplies in Percy’s kit.

The duchess was wrong about one crucial thing. Nothing is actually canon until the book is published. I think the duchess deserves a much larger role in this story.

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London Film Museum via Wikipedia

So does my new hero, Lady Adeline.

A lady hero who needs armor and a sword.

And a horse.

A horse that’s a unicorn.

I love this job.


Filed under writing

The business side of the business: budgeting for in-person sales events #amwriting

Spring and summer are conference and convention seasons. Regardless of your publishing path, indie or traditional, you must budget for certain things. You can’t expect your royalties to pay for them early in your career. And just so you know, many award-winning authors must still work their day jobs to pay their bills long after becoming bestsellers.

Its a BusinessAt first, getting your books in front of readers is a challenge. The in-person sales event is one way to get eyes on your books. This could be at a venue as small as a local bookstore allowing you to set up a table on their premises.

Or it could be as large as a table at a regional conference or convention.

Signings at writers’ conferences are usually a bit pricy for the number of books you might sell, but they are great ways to network.

What are the minimum costs for working a table at a signing event?

The bare minimum expenses:

You must have a stock of books on hand. You can’t sell books that you haven’t ordered. I order well in advance, as it can take three weeks for an order to arrive via the least expensive shipping method. Paying for overnight shipping of fifteen to twenty books is well out of my price range.


Coins, Microsoft content creators

We must consider the table fee. A bookstore might not charge you anything for the table, but they may take a small cut if they run your sales through their cash registers.

However, large conferences and conventions will charge table fees ranging from $70.00 to as high as $300.00 or more. This varies with the size and type of conference, the venue where the convention is being held, and the vendors you will be competing with.

Sci-fi and Fantasy fan conventions can be quite pricy. You will be in an immense, crowded room, competing with big-name RPG game franchises and movie franchises, plus all the vendors of memorabilia and collectibles that are available in the vendors’ alley.

If you are able to get a table at a major fan convention, you must pay for transportation, food, and lodging. These costs could be gas, parking, airfare, hotel, etc., if you don’t have friends or family in that area. If you are planning to stay in a hotel, take simple foods that can be prepared without a stove. Being vegan, I tend to be an accomplished hotel-room chef, as most coffee bars don’t offer many plant-based options. While that bias is changing, I still go prepared.

Bring at least one pen for signing your books. I bring four or five because sometimes the pens don’t work as advertised.

Square Card Reader 1The final thing you will need is a way of accepting money. I have a metal cash box, but you only need something to hold cash and some bills to make change with. A way to accept credit cards, something like Square, is a good option. You will find a lot of vendors use Square, but there are other options out there.

These things are the bare minimum you will need to provide. At many shows, you’ll be given a table with skirting and a sign attached to the front with your name in block letters. You can get by with this if you’re on a tight budget. New vendors manage with this minimal setup all the time. This option lets you squeak by on little more than the cost of your books. Your setup and teardown time will be short, and you’ll have little to transport—always a positive, in my opinion.

My good friend, Lee French, is a pro when it comes to selling at conventions. She co-wrote the book, Working the Table: An Indie Author’s Guide to Conventions with Jeffrey Cook. She tells us that to really succeed, you’ll need to invest a bit more.

It helps to have some kind of promotional handout. I find bookmarks and business cards are the most affordable option. I know a few authors who have all sorts of little buttons and promotional trinkets relating to their books made. They give them out to everyone who passes their table, buyers or not.

However, most of my friends agree that business cards and bookmarks are the best bang for the buck in promotional material. They are less expensive when purchased in bulk, so I get as many as my budget allows.

You will need a business license to sell books at most conventions. Each state in the US has different requirements for getting these, so do the research and get whatever business license your local government requires. This allows you to get a reseller’s permit, enabling you to buy copies of your own books without paying sales tax. If your state doesn’t assess sales tax, you don’t need this, but you’ll still need the business license.

If you live in a state like Washington State, be smart and set aside the money collected as sales tax. It is not yours and shouldn’t be considered part of your income.

Investing in some large promotional graphic, such as a retractable banner, is a good idea. A large banner is a great visual to put behind your chair. A second banner for the front of the table looks professional, but they do require some fiddling with pins.

Lee French suggests getting a custom-printed tablecloth that drops over the front of the table, acting as a banner. It looks more professional, and the books will hold it down, so you don’t have to mess with pins. You can find a wide variety of sizes and shapes of banners and graphic promotional props on the internet.

I have an inexpensive black tablecloth for under my books, but you can get one in the color of your choice. Venues will often provide a white tablecloth, so buying one isn’t necessary, but it makes your display look more professional. Most shows offer a 6×3 table.

steampunk had holding pen smallI suggest buying book stands of some sort. Recipe stands work, as do plate and picture stands. Whether they’re fancy or cheap, be sure you know how to use them properly so they aren’t falling over when someone bumps the table. I use folding plate stands as they store well in the rolling suitcase I use for my supplies.

This brings us to storage and shifting goods. We must move our gear between the table and our vehicle, and sometimes we’re forced to park in inconvenient places. Many people use wheeled bins or fold-up handcarts. Luggage carts are a great, lightweight option when you only have a few books. I use a large wheeled suitcase, as I travel pretty light.

I have a plastic container with a good lid for storing pens, bookmarks/cards, book stands, and other whatnot.

I suggest you keep it simple because the more you add to your display, the longer setup and teardown will take. The shows and conferences I have attended offered plenty of time for this, but I’ve heard that some require you to be in or out in two hours or less.

Aside from the table fee and transportation, Lee French says it will cost about $400 for your stock of books, banners, bookmarks, and odds & ends. The way inflation is going, it may take more than that.

Shop the internet for sales on banners and similar items. You will need to replace bookmarks, business cards, and book stock, but most larger promotional items won’t need to be repurchased for a year or two.

working the tableIf you plan to get a table at a large conference this year, I highly recommend Working the Table: An Indie Author’s Guide to Conventions by YA authors Lee French and Jeffrey Cook. This book has all the tips and tricks you will need to successfully navigate the wild seas of selling your books at conventions.

And if you choose to embark on the in-person event circuit, I wish you good luck and many happy sales.


Filed under writing

Making Your Author’s Website Work for You #amwriting

Whether we are indie or traditionally published, we are responsible for getting our author name out there via the available social media. Expenses can mount up and finding affordable ways to get your name out there can be difficult.

blogging memeBut when it comes to having a website, don’t sweat it. WordPress and Blogger (Google’s platform) offer free blogs and theme templates. You can have a nice-looking website, with only a small amount of effort and a little self-education.

I began this site in 2011. I used WordPress’s free plan and had no website skills whatsoever. I also had a book review site, Best in Fantasy using Google’s Blogger platform. I used both platforms’ learning tools and can hold my own now.

Your website is your store, a newsletter, and is also your public presence. We want people to find and read our work. It’s a platform where you can advertise your books and have links to where they are available.

I belong to several professional organizations. One of the comments even traditionally published, well-known authors make most often when explaining why they don’t keep their blogs updated, is this:

They don’t know what to write about.

Several years ago, a well-known author told me that updating her blog is as exciting as doing laundry. This is because it hasn’t occurred to her to write about her passions.

She is an avid music fan and gets to every festival she can. I think her fans would have loved to hear about 2022’s Bonnaroo, a music festival I’ve never had the chance to attend. It sounded amazing when she told me about it, and she could have made a quick post featuring photos and tweet-length comments.

However, my friend regularly posts on Instagram and Twitter about her garden and what she had for dinner. Many authors use twitter to connect with fans, but they don’t think their thoughts are worth more than the 280 characters in a tweet.

Yet those small chunks of personal life could be stretched a bit to make a delightful short read.

Margaret Atwood on writing LIRF07252022A blog post doesn’t have to be long. Think of it as a slightly longer tweet or Facebook post. Just write a paragraph or two about what you are interested in at that moment. You will have 300 – 500 words written in no time.

That is an acceptable length for a blog post. My first posts averaged 400 words and detailed my experience of floundering around as a writer. I began with four followers, and while I’m not burning up the internet, I’m connecting with many more people now than I was then.

Many of us are adept at using Facebook to connect with readers. The work you put into a Facebook post for your author page could easily be turned into a short blog post.

If you fall into that category, even a bi-monthly update on your works in progress and where you will be signing books is a good option. We only need something to keep our fans engaged.


Rembrandt and Saskia as the Prodigal Son.

I have made a personal commitment to post three times a week on this blog. This allows me to rant about the craft of writing and gives me a place to talk about fine art – something I love.

Financial constraints mean I can’t travel the world to view great art in person. Wikimedia Commons allows me to see the works of all the artists from prehistoric times to the present. I love talking about what I have discovered at Wikimedia Commons.

Writing blog posts requires me to be a thinking author as well as a pantser. I can write using the “stream-of-consciousness” method or from an outline of whatever interests me at the time. I do the research, and the post begins to write itself.

This blog never fails to provide me with a sharp dose of reality and has made me a better writer. I proofread my work, run it through Grammarly, have the Read-Aloud function of my word-processing program read it back to me, and then publish it.

Nothing bursts your bubble of self-importance like discovering gross errors and bloopers several days after you published the post.

I do admit, finding new and interesting content can be a challenge. Sometimes, I consider cutting back to publishing only on Mondays and Fridays. I have written posts on nearly every aspect of the craft and am repeating myself.

But then, a complex subject will be raised in a forum, and I hear a new point of view on it. I see things from a different perspective, and I’m fired up again.

I know it’s hard to gain readers when you first start out. But it’s like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. If you keep at it, you gain readers. If you write it, readers will comeif you do these three things:

  1. Tweet the new post’s link.
  2. Post the link to Instagram.
  3. Post it to your author Facebook

You can set WordPress up to post automatically to Twitter and Facebook, taking the work out of everything.

I advise writing short posts, scheduling them for a particular day and time and not worrying about how many hits, likes, or comments you get. That’s a stress you don’t need.

Instead, write your posts as if every person on the planet will read them. Just post them and forget about them until it’s time to post the next one.

  • Don’t even look at the stats for the first six months.

Quill_pen smallAfter six months, you’ll have a history of stats to look at. Use that information to gauge what topics did best. Make sure the time the blog goes live is a good slot. You want to post it when people are looking for something short to read, like when riding the bus or train to or from work.

Updating your website twice a month to discuss your writing and how life treats you will be interesting to people who read. They are your target audience.

If that’s too much work, approach it like your other social media. Any social media platform post can be converted into a quick blog post.

It is another good way to connect with your readers. And if you go the free route as I did for the first five years, it costs you nothing.


Filed under blogging, writing