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Three books ruined by sins of repetition #amwriting

Last week I read three books, which is about my usual average. When I read, I like to see how other authors construct different aspects of their novels.

Two of the books I read were recent publications, both highly recommended by numerous reader-reviewers at the Big Bookstore in the Sky. The first one was a 2018 mystery published by Thomas & Mercer. This Amazon company publishes mysteries and thrillers, and the novel was written by a well-known British author.

The second book was published in 2020 by Tor Books and was a fantasy novel by a high-profile American author.

The final book I read was published by Doubleday and written in the 1980s by another well-known British author.

I’m not going to name these books or their authors because while they were good enough books, I wish to focus on the negatives I found in the diverse works I read.

Before I do that, I must say that I did enjoy the books, but in my view, they were three-star books, average and acceptable. The flaws I’m going to discuss didn’t detract from the overall story arcs. The main characters, for the most part, were engaging. I just didn’t like them enough to review them on my blog because I only review books I think are worth four or more stars.

I say the characters were engaging for the most part. Book Number One’s title proclaims it to be “an absolutely gripping whodunit full of twists.” No, that is not a tagline or review quote. The publisher has the gall to put that in the book’s title, something no indie would ever get away with.

If nothing else, it’s a shining example of what not to put in your book’s title.

Despite the glowing title, I was disappointed, but it did offer me an education on what I don’t want to do in my own work. This is actually a “2.75 star” book, in my opinion. It only gets three stars because of rounding up to the next higher number.

It began well. The protagonist was given to making snarky comments, which I thought livened things up. I would have connected with her if not for one fatal flaw. She was made less engaging by the author’s continual reference to her size and amazing sexual desirability.

The protagonist is a caterer who solves mysteries. She is continuously described as Junoesque, ample, vast, chubby, size eighteen, fat, large…and on and on. In every chapter, at least once and usually twice, we are given a visual description of her, along with indications of how she affects the males around her.

These mentions were meant to emphasize the author’s perception of her protagonist as plump but irresistible to the males. However, as the book wore on, it became jarring and unnecessary. Those distractions made it difficult to remain engaged in the book. For me, lesson one was that I had a visual picture of the caterer in the first chapter, and one or two mentions further on down the road would have been fine.

The overall arc of the mystery was good and carried the story enough to keep me reading. However, I will probably avoid buying any more books written by that author.

Book Number Two, the Fantasy book, had a 2020 publishing date. It had a good story arc, but it was clearly a novella that had been stretched to novel length. Of the three, this book had the most engaging protagonist.

Unfortunately, the way the author and publisher stretched this book’s length was to have the main character recap previous events whenever a new character entered the story. I should have expected it because an earlier book in the series had the same flaw.

Book Number Three was a police procedural, written and published in the 1980s, and was the best one of the lot. The one flaw was the continual reference to the protagonist’s pipe. Every scene involved fumbling with the tobacco, the ashes, etc. It was a distraction that jarred me out of the book.

Books One and Three bring up the question: when we are trying to convey our protagonists’ personalities, how do we go about it? Frankly, we walk the knife’s edge, balanced between too much and not enough.

Protagonist A is a larger woman, and she has sex appeal. After the first three references, we knew that.

Protagonist C is a sharp, personable detective with a dirty habit. After the first three references, we knew that.

In books One and Three, I felt that the authors did their protagonists a disservice by pointing out these character traits too often, from the external omniscient God-like view. Once I can visualize how the other characters see the protagonist, I want to see what the protagonist sees from that point on.

Reading those two books, I realized that an occasional observation of the main character from another character’s POV would have been a better way to show how the other characters saw them.

I would think this especially works if there is a blossoming love interest.

Book Number Two raised a different specter: padding the narrative with repetition to stretch the book.

What would you rather be known for writing? Would you want to be known as having written a brilliant novella or an average novel? Book Number Two could have been a brilliant novella had the padding been removed in the editing process.

These flaws, harping on character traits and fluff-dumping, are “sins of repetition.”  In all three of these books, the bulk of the story was told from the close third-person point of view which worked well.

This week, I am working on characterization in my own work. I am in the revision stage and strengthening how my protagonists are represented and shown.

In my current writing, I hope to portray my protagonists as I see them without bashing my readers with their magnificence.

We authors can see our characters so clearly. We love them and can wax poetic about specific characteristics each person has. The great difficulty is to convey those traits naturally and in such a way that the reader isn’t beaten over the head with them.

At 70,000 words, my current novel may be a little short when compared to other fantasy novels. Fantasy tends to be longer than some different genres, but I refuse to introduce padding to get the word count I want. 70,000 words is novel-length.

So, no one new will die, and no dramatic elements will be introduced just to fluff up the book-length.

If the finished product is a little short for a fantasy novel, that’s fine. If I can get my characters clearly drawn and balanced within that length, I will have achieved my goal.

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Revisions part 5: Near-Homophones or Cursed Words #amwriting

One thing that I notice when reading is the improper use of near-homophones, or words that sound closely alike, are spelled differently, and have different meanings. When we read widely, we’re more likely to notice the difference between words like accept and except when they are written.

The different meanings of seldom-used sound-alike words become blurred among people who have little time to read, and little encouragement. Wrong usages become part of everyday speech.

For this reason, new and beginning writers are often unaware they habitually misuse common words until they begin to see the differences in written words.

Let’s look at two of the most commonly confused words, accept and except. People, even those with some higher education, frequently mix these two words up in their casual conversation.

Accept (definition) to take or receive (something offered); receive with approval or favor.

  • to accept a present.
  • to accept a proposal.

Except (definition) not including, other than, leave out, exclude.

  • present company excepted.
  • with the exclusion of.

We accept that our employees work every day except Sunday.

English, being a mash-up language, has a long list of what I think of as cursed words to watch for in our writing.

Farther vs. Further: (Grammar Tips from a Thirty-Eight-Year-Old with an English Degree | The New Yorker by Reuven Perlman, posted February 25, 2021:

Farther describes literal distance; further describes abstract distance. Let’s look at some examples:

  • I’ve tried the whole “new city” thing, each time moving farther away from my hometown, but I can’t move away from . . . myself (if that makes sense?).

  • How is it possible that I’m further from accomplishing my goals now than I was five years ago? Maybe it’s time to change goals? [1]

When we use these words, we want to ensure we are using them correctly.

Ensure: make certain something happens

Insure:  arrange for compensation in the event of damage to (or loss of) property, or injury to (or the death of) someone, in exchange for regular advance payments to a company or government agency.

Assure: tell someone something positively or confidently to dispel any doubts they may have.

What follows is a looooooooong list of cursed words to double-check the meanings of.

If you need to use one of these words in your work, I suggest you look them up in the online dictionary to be sure your words say what you think they do.

For the moment, ignore the grandiose words and learn how to use all your words correctly. The majority are good words and using them correctly when they’re the only word that works is not pretentious.

However, if you pepper your narrative with obscure words, your readers might put the book down out of frustration, so go lightly. Still, it never hurts to know the meaning and uses of words.

178 Homophone and near-homophone comparisons and other often misused words:

  • abhorrent vs. aberrant
  • accept vs. except
  • ado vs. adieu
  • adopt vs. adapt
  • adverse vs. averse
  • affect vs. effect
  • afflict vs. inflict
  • aggravate vs. irritate
  • allude vs. elude
  • allusion vs. illusion vs. delusion
  • alternate vs. alternative
  • ambiguous vs. ambivalent
  • amicable vs. amiable
  • amoral vs. immoral
  • amuse vs. bemuse
  • anecdote vs. antidote
  • appraise vs. apprise
  • ascent vs. assent
  • assume vs. presume
  • assure vs. ensure vs. insure
  • aural vs. oral vs. verbal
  • aver vs. avow
  • bare vs. bear
  • bazaar vs. bizarre
  • breach vs. breech
  • bridal vs. bridle
  • broach vs. brooch
  • callus vs. callous
  • capital vs. capitol
  • censor vs. censure
  • chord vs. cord
  • cite vs. site vs. sight
  • climactic vs. climatic
  • complement vs. compliment
  • compose vs. comprise
  • concurrent vs. consecutive
  • confident vs. confidant(e)
  • connotation vs. denotation
  • connote vs. denote
  • conscious vs. conscience
  • contemptible vs. contemptuous
  • continual vs. continuous
  • correlation vs. corollary
  • council vs. counsel
  • decent vs. descent vs. dissent
  • definitely vs. definitively
  • demur vs. demure
  • desert vs. dessert
  • didactic vs. pedantic
  • disassemble vs. dissemble
  • discomfit vs. discomfort
  • discreet vs. discrete
  • disillusion vs. dissolution
  • disinterested vs. uninterested
  • disperse vs. disburse
  • dual vs. duel
  • economic vs. economical
  • elusive vs. illusive
  • emigrate vs. immigrate vs. migrate
  • eminent vs. imminent
  • eminent vs. imminent vs. immanent
  • empathy vs. sympathy
  • endemic vs. epidemic
  • entitle vs. title
  • entomology vs. etymology
  • envelop vs. envelope
  • envy vs. jealousy
  • epidemic vs. pandemic
  • epigram vs. epigraph
  • epitaph vs. epithet
  • especially vs. specially
  • exalt vs. exult
  • exercise vs. exorcise
  • expedient vs. expeditious
  • extant vs. extent
  • facetious vs. factious vs. fatuous
  • faint vs. feint
  • farther vs. further
  • faze vs. phase
  • ferment vs. foment
  • fictional vs. fictitious vs. fictive
  • figuratively vs. literally
  • flair vs. flare
  • flaunt vs. flout
  • flounder vs. founder
  • formerly vs. formally
  • formidable vs. formative
  • fortunate vs. fortuitous
  • gambit vs. gamut
  • gibe vs. jibe
  • gig vs. jig
  • gorilla vs. guerrilla
  • grisly vs. gristly vs. grizzly
  • hale vs. hail
  • healthful vs. healthy
  • hero vs. protagonist
  • historic vs. historical
  • hoard vs. horde
  • homonym vs. homophone vs. homograph
  • hone vs. home
  • imply vs. infer
  • incredible vs. incredulous
  • indeterminate vs. indeterminable
  • indict vs. indite
  • inflammable vs. inflammatory
  • ingenious vs. ingenuous
  • insidious vs. invidious
  • instant vs. instance
  • intense vs. intensive vs. intent
  • introvert vs. extrovert
  • irony vs. satire vs. sarcasm
  • it’s vs. its
  • laudable vs. laudatory
  • lay vs. lie
  • loath vs. loathe
  • lose vs. loose
  • luxuriant vs. luxurious
  • marital vs. martial
  • mean vs. median vs. average
  • medal vs. meddle vs. mettle
  • metaphor vs. simile
  • moral vs. morale
  • morbid vs. moribund
  • nauseated vs. nauseous
  • naval vs. navel
  • objective vs. subjective
  • optimistic vs. pessimistic
  • overdue vs. overdo
  • palate vs. palette vs. pallet
  • paradox vs. oxymoron
  • parameter vs. perimeter
  • parody vs. parity
  • peak vs. peek vs. pique
  • peddle vs. pedal vs. petal
  • persecute vs. prosecute
  • personal vs. personnel
  • pitiable vs. pitiful vs. piteous vs. pitiless
  • pore vs. pour
  • practical vs. practicable
  • pragmatic vs. dogmatic
  • precede vs. proceed
  • precedent vs. president
  • predominate vs. predominant
  • premier vs. premiere
  • prescribe vs. proscribe
  • pretentious vs. portentous
  • principal vs. principle
  • prophecy vs. prophesy
  • prostate vs. prostrate
  • quote vs. quotation
  • rebut vs. refute
  • regrettably vs. regretfully
  • reluctant vs. reticent
  • respectfully vs. respectively
  • sac vs. sack
  • scrimp vs. skimp
  • sensual vs. sensuous
  • simple vs. simplistic
  • slight vs. sleight
  • stationary vs. stationery
  • statue vs. statute
  • than vs. then
  • that vs. which
  • their vs. there vs. they’re
  • tortuous vs. torturous
  • troop vs. troupe
  • turbid vs. turgid
  • unconscionable vs. unconscious
  • undo vs. undue
  • unexceptional vs. unexceptionable
  • venal vs. venial
  • veracious vs. voracious
  • wave vs. waive
  • weather vs. whether
  • who vs. whom
  • who’s vs. whose
  • wreck vs. wreak vs. reek
  • your vs. you’re

Credits and Attributions:

[1] Farther vs. Further: (Grammar Tips from a Thirty-Eight-Year-Old with an English Degree | The New Yorker by Reuven Perlman, posted February 25, 2021 (accessed 28 Feb 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Collegiate Dictionary.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Collegiate_Dictionary.jpg&oldid=497770186 (accessed February 28, 2021).

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Revisions part 3: The Detour #amwriting

We who write fantasy and other genre fictions are story-tellers.  We write about invented people living in invented worlds, doing invented things. Unfortunately, there are times when we realize we have written ourselves into a corner, and there is no graceful way out.

This happened to me in 2019. I took one of my works in progress back from 90,000 words to 12,000.

That was the point where I began fighting the story, forcing it onto paper. I hated to admit that I had taken a wrong turn so early on, but by the 50,000-word point, the story arc had gone so far awry there was no rescuing it.

But I’m no quitter. No sir, not me.

I spent 40,000 more words refusing to admit I had “gone off the rails.”

Fortunately, much of what I had written can be recycled into a different project. NEVER DELETE months of work. Don’t trash what could be the seeds of another novel. Save it in an outtakes file and use it later:

HA_outtakes_29Dec2019

I had accomplished many important things with the 3 months of work I had cut from that novel.

  • The world was solidly built, so the first part of the rewrite went quickly.
  • The characters were firmly in my head, so their interactions made sense in the new context.
  • Some sections that had been cut were recycled back into the new version.

Writing the failed novel wasn’t a waste, just a detour. This sort of thing is why it takes me so long to write a book.

At the 12,000 word point, I needed a new outline. I spent several days visualizing the goal, the final scene, mind-wandering on paper until I had a concrete objective for my characters.

I finally realized that Alf had two quests, both of which were core plot points. I was unable to visualize a final scene because they had merged in my mind.

Beginning the novel with no definitive resolution was how I had lost my way.

So I separated them, and now I had a concrete goal to write to.

That was when I realized this book is actually two books worth of story. The first half is the personal quest. The second half resolves the unfinished thread. Both halves of the story have finite endings, so the best choice is to break it into two novels.

With that in mind, I outlined the first half, made a loose outline of the second for later reference, and began writing.

I was near the end of part one when I saw the flaw in my outline. This was 4 days into NaNoWriMo 2020, and I had just finished writing the ending to my serialized novel, Bleakbourne on Heath. I planned to finish Heaven’s Altar, and dove right into it.

I began to make good headway.  If you are a regular visitor here, you know what happened.

In trying to resolve the logic for the antagonist, I had to know the path that a tainted relic had take through the years. I needed to know where it originated and how it had survived for centuries, and why it had the power to corrupt my antagonist.

I accidentally wrote a completely different novel with a completely different cast of characters and plot. I finished November 2020 with around 90,000 words on three projects.

That accidental manuscript is in the final stages of my rewrite and is nearly ready for my beta readers.

For those of you who are keeping count—that’s 3 novels in progress in that world, and one almost complete stand-alone novel set in a different world entirely.

And it’s all because of one core plot-point and the logic of how it comes into my original, still unfinished, novel.

There are times when we must accept that we are forcing something and it’s not working. That’s when the best course is to look at it dispassionately and pare it down to the bare bones.

The sections you cut can be better used elsewhere.

I believe in the joy of writing, the elation of creating something powerful. If you lose your fire for a story because another story has captured your imagination, set the first one aside and go for it.

We who are indies have the freedom to write what we have a passion for.

True inspiration is not an everlasting fire-hose of ideas. Sometimes there are dry spells, and that is when you come back to the original work. You will see it with fresh eyes, and the passion will be reignited.

Yes, that is also when the work begins, but I think of Patrick Rothfuss and his struggle to write the books in his series, the Kingkiller Chronicle. The first two books, The Name of the Wind (2007) and The Wise Man’s Fear (2011) have sold over 10 million copies.

Rothfuss’ work is original and powerful, but though his work is highly regarded, he struggles to put it on paper just as the rest of us do. Despite a decade having passed, the third novel titled The Doors of Stone has not yet been released, and some fans are highly critical of him for that.

The two published books are work I consider genius, and I am willing to wait for him to be satisfied with his work.

Patrick Rothfuss’ battle to write the book he envisions gives me permission to keep at it, to not just push out a novel that is almost what I wanted to write.

When a book that gave you so much trouble turns out to be one of your best efforts, it’s worth it.

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Revisions part 2: Efficient self-editing #amwriting

In the new millennium, the traditional publishing world has changed and evolved in how they do business. In some ways, they haven’t changed enough, and in others, they’ve gone too far.

All authors must create a social media platform to promote their work. In most cases, the amount of help the Big Four publishers (Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Hachette) offer their new, unknown authors is minimal. So, whether you go indie or not, you’re on your own.

Whether you intend to publish your work independently or try to go the traditional route, you are responsible for editing your work.  Unedited work shouts “amateur” to an agent or editor, so never submit work that isn’t your best effort.

If you can’t afford a full professional edit, there is a way to make a pretty good stab at revising your own manuscript. However, it is time-consuming, which is why an editor’s services are not cheap.

Open your Manuscript. Save a copy of your original manuscript in its bloody, raw form with a file name that denotes exactly what it is.

If you are using MS Word, your manuscript title will look like this: Book_Title_version_1.docx. My current work is: Gates_of_Eternity_version.docx.

Do save the original draft in a separate file on a thumb drive or in a file storage service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive. You will have a fallback manuscript in case something happens to your working files.

Break it into separate chapters and save them in a new master file labeled with the word ‘revisions.’ I would name the master file: Gates_of_Eternity_revisions_02-17-2021.

First, I divide my manuscript, saving each chapter as a separate document within the master file. Clearly and consistently name each chapter. Make sure the chapter numbers are in the proper sequence, and don’t skip a number.

For a work in progress, Gates of Eternity, I labeled my individual chapter files this way:

  • GoE_ch_1
  • GoE_ch_2

The reason we divide it into chapters for the editing process will be made clear further down this post.

The next step requires pencils, yellow highlighters, a printer, paper, and a good supply of ink, which may be a cost outlay. Another, more affordable option is to save your work to a USB Flash Drive, take it to an office supply/print shop, and print all the files at one go. In the US, FedEx Office, formerly known as Kinkos, provides printing and copying services.

I am currently in need of a new printer, so I feel your pain. My ancient thing is still limping along, but soon it will go to the recycling center. Once you have the required equipment, print out the first chapter.

Everything looks different printed out, and you will see many things you don’t notice on the computer screen.

Step 1: Turn to the last page of that chapter. Cover the page, leaving only the final paragraph visible.

Step 2: Starting with the last paragraph on the last page, begin reading, working your way forward.

Step 3: Look for typos and garbled sentences.

Step 4: With a yellow highlighter, mark each place that needs correction. In the margin, pencil in notes of how you want to correct them.

Some things you should consider in this step: consistency in spelling, consistency in punctuation, crutch words, repetitious paragraphs/ideas, and long, rambling sentences.

Step 5: I use a recipe stand for this step. Take the corrected printout and lean it where you can easily read it while you make corrections. (Amazon sells copy stands, but recipe stands are cheaper.)

In your word-processor, open the chapter file. Save as a new file:  GoE_ch1_edit1. It’s important to clearly label it as edited, so you don’t mix edited with unedited files. Reading from your corrected printout, make your revisions.

Step 6: At the end of it all, reassemble the corrected files into one manuscript, again making sure you haven’t skipped a chapter. Save that manuscript with a new label: GoE_manuscript_edit1_16-Feb-2021.

The date at the end of the file name is essential as you will know what the most recent edit is (not the most recent time you saved the file) and will have the previous version to go back to if needed.

For this method to work, YOU MUST UNDERSTAND AND OBEY THE BASIC RULES OF GRAMMAR.

First, you need something called a style guide. As an editor, I regularly refer to my copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. If you are an author writing fiction you someday hope to publish and have questions about sentence construction and word usage, this is the book for you. Another option is the online version: The Chicago Manual of Style Online.

The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living, changing language. When generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

A less expensive option you might consider investing in is Bryan A. Garner’s Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. This is a resource with all the answers to questions you might have regarding grammar and sentence structure. It takes the CMOS and boils it down to just the grammar.

Here is a list of links to articles I’ve previously posted on the basics of grammar:

Those who think the common rules of grammar don’t matter to readers are doing their work and their reputation a disservice.

You don’t have to be perfect, but readers want to enjoy the book, not struggle through rambling, garbled sentences.

Self-editing is not an easy task. You will still want another person, perhaps from your writing group, to read your work before you send it off or publish it. Then you may need to make some revisions.

However, all that hard work pays off when you put your best product possible in the hands of a reader, and they like what they read.

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Subjunctives: The Hamlet Paradox #amwriting

Writers often find the words and rules we use to describe existence convoluted and hard to understand.

The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts.

In other words, subjunctives describe unknown intangible possibilities.

William Shakespeare said it best in his tragedy, Hamlet: “To be or not to be… that is the question.”

Should he exist, or should he not exist—for the deeply depressed Dane, suicide or not suicide is the question. In his soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates death and suicide. He regrets the pain and unfairness of life but ultimately acknowledges that the alternative might be worse.

Be–a simple word, a verb that is a subjunctive. But sometimes the many forms of this word are overused in the narrative. The whole subjunctive thing looks quite complicated on the surface, but it doesn’t have to be. As writers of genre fiction, we have to identify the habitual overuse of subjunctives in our writing.

We must make our prose stronger by not using them except where nothing else will do. Most of the time, dialogue is the place for subjunctives, as in Hamlet’s monologue.

In writing fiction, subjunctives work well when used in conversations but create a passive voice when used in the narrative. They separate us from the story, remove the sense of immediacy that we as readers hope to experience.

But first, what does “subjunctive” mean?

http://www.Dictionary.com defines “Subjunctive” as:

adjective

  1. (in English and certain other languages) noting or pertaining to a mood or mode of the verb that may be used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions, as the mood of ‘be’ in ‘if this be treason.’

  2. the subjunctive mood or mode.

  3. a verb in the subjunctive mood or form.

First, let’s consider existence and what Past Subjunctive Tense covers: how to use the words ‘was’ and ‘were,’ which are forms of the verb ‘be.’

English Club says: The English subjunctive is a special, relatively rare verb form that expresses something desired or imagined.

We use the subjunctive mainly when talking about events that are not certain to happen. For example, we use the subjunctive when talking about events that somebody:

  • wants to happen

  • anticipates will happen

  • imagines happening [1]

Which is correct?

  • I wish I were a penguin. I would fly through the water.
  • I wish I was a penguin. I would fly through the water.

If I am only wishing that I were a penguin, were is correct.

However, if I could actually be a penguin, was would be correct, and I would have to rewrite my sentence by changing ‘would’ to ‘could.’

The Grammar Girl gives us a great example: Think of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevye sings “If I were a rich man,” he is fantasizing about all the things he would do if he were rich. He’s not rich, he’s just imagining, so “If I were” is the correct statement. This time you’ve got a different clue at the beginning of the line: the word “if.” [2]

There are times when we use a form of the verb ‘was’ even though the subject of the sentence has not yet happened or may not happen at all:  the past subjunctive verb form. It is unreal and may remain that way. “If I were.”

When you suppose about something that might be true, you use a form of the verb “was” and don’t sweat it.

If it’s likely real: Was (possibly is): I heard he was training his dog to fetch.

If it’s likely unreal: Were (possibly isn’t): If I were a penguin, I wouldn’t need to rent a tuxedo.

The past subjunctive verb forms express a hypothetical condition that may exist in a present, past, or future time:

  • What if I was…
  • I wish I were…
  • If this be treason…
  • To be or not to be…

Perhaps you are writing a technical manual, a dissertation, or an email to a client or coworker.

Despite the misguided efforts of many critique groups and Microsoft Word to erase all forms of ‘to be’ from the English language and replace it with ‘is,’ there are times when only a subjunctive will do the job.

When your intent is formal, subjunctives may abound, often in the form of commonly used phrases:

  • Be that as it may.
  • So be it.
  • Suffice it to say.
  • Come what may.

Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor whose discussions on the connections between language and what we see as humanity are eye-opening. He writes at a college level, but in his book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, he raises a point that is important to this blogpost:

Subjunctives are hard to spot. Forms of “to be” can be found in subordinate clauses where something is mandated or required:

  • I demand the prisoner be fed the same as anyone else.

A verb like “see” also has a subjunctive form when something is mandated or required:

  • It’s essential that I see your report before you send it.

In ordinary writing, we rarely need to use subjunctives in clauses with mandates except perhaps in conversation.

Feel free to copy and save the above graphic for your personal use: right click>copy>save as: .jpeg or.png.

We often “think aloud” in writing the first draft. We insert many passive phrasings into the raw narrative, words that I think of as traffic signals. These words are a shorthand that helped us get the story down, a guide that now shows us how we intend the story to go.

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence, but just like adverbs, they are telling words. In the rewrite, we look for these telling words, places where they have crept out of conversations and into the narrative.

We look at each instance and rewrite the paragraph to show the event, rather than tell about it.

  • They were hot and thirsty could be shown as: They trudged on with dry, cracked lips, yearning for a drop of water.

That’s not a perfect example, but hopefully, you can see what I am trying to say.


Credits and Attributions:

EnglishClub contributors, Subjunctives © 1997-2021 EnglishClub.com All Rights Reserved https://www.englishclub.com/grammar/subjunctive.htm [1]

Subjunctive Verbs, by Mignon Fogarty, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/subjunctive-verbs, Copyright © 2021 Macmillan Holdings, LLC. Quick & Dirty Tips™ [2]

“File:Penguin Front.png.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 12 Sep 2020, 08:35 UTC. 6 Feb 2021, 17:14 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Penguin_Front.png&oldid=456325700>.

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Conveying Mood part 2: adverbs #amwriting

Today is the second installment of a series on modifiers, words we use to describe nouns and verbs. I’m on a quest to find ways to use fewer of them and make the most of the ones I do use.

In the previous post, I  mentioned going to an online thesaurus and looking up your overall mood word. This is where you will find synonyms for your mood words and also the opposites.

In the root form, adverbs are adjectives, words that modify nouns. Add the suffix ‘ly’ to them, and they become words that modify verbs.

Adverbs tend to be fluffy. Most readers don’t like fluffy prose. I suggest you don’t muck up your modifiers by adding ‘ly’ at the end of them unless it is the only thing that works.

With that said, my rule is don’t write clumsy prose just to avoid using ‘ly.’

In the first draft, modifiers are brain-storming words. They show us what we intended to convey when we first wrote the narrative.

For that reason, they are essential parts of English and can’t be completely discarded as some deluded authors loudly swear they have done.

I suppose one could write a novel without using any modifiers whatsoever, but I wouldn’t want to read it. However, modifiers can weaken verbs by telling the story rather than showing it.

I don’t self-edit my first drafts as I write, so my prose is always a mess when I begin revisions.

This year’s NaNoWriMo novel was written with no outline, so it’s an example of my worst “thinking habits.” It is a sea of adverbs and adjectives, but these words are the roadmap that tells me what prose need reshaping to show the story.

At the time, I was imagining the scenes and plotting as I wrote. When I look back, the early drafts for all my work are littered with adverbs.

When you imagine your adverbs as signals from your creative mind, you see them a guide leading you to the story you really wanted to write.

In the second draft, I want to inject impact into the opening paragraphs and all the sentences that follow right to the grand finale. But I also want them to show what I envision.

That requires rewording the sentences to make them active. Look at your sentence structure.

Sentence structure matters.

Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are modifying affects how a reader perceives it. Noun-verb is a strong lead in. Nouns work best when one strong, well-chosen adjective shows us what the point-of-view characters sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes, rather than fluffing the verbs and hindering the action.

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

The example sentence contains four nouns, one modifier (an adjective), and three verbs. The sentence is 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).

Verb followed by noun shows us what the noun did. Verb-adjective-noun shows us how the noun looked (smelled, tasted, or felt) during the action.

To search for unnecessary adverbs, look for ‘ly’ words in MS Word:

1: Click replace in the upper right corner of the Home tab.

2: Type ly into the “Find What” box.

3: Leave the “Replace With” box blank.

4: Look at each instance individually and decide to keep the ly or delete it. Many words, such as early or easily, have ly as their suffix, so look at each instance and decide if it stays or goes.

5: Once you have decided, click find next and repeat the process.

The above instructions are for MS Word, but Google Docs and Open Office both have some kind of search and replace function. Go to the internet and find the instructions!

In the first draft, the important thing is to get the idea down without self-editing. For this reason, we don’t publish our first drafts.

If you are like me in your first drafts, cleaning up and strengthening the prose could take a while, especially in a large manuscript. However, it is part of the revision process and is well worth the time you put into it.

The English language has evolved over the last century. The word very has become a ‘fluff word’ that sticks out when we see it written too freely in a narrative. It has a purpose but is easy to overuse. In that case, it adds nothing of value to the prose, so editors will suggest you remove it to make your sentences stronger.

Below is a list of modifiers, words that paint an image of the world our characters inhabit. Some will change the voice from active to passive, so be wary of how you use them.

When you do use a modifier, be creative. Sometimes, using an unexpected adjective lends life to an otherwise ordinary scene.

Nouns like a well-placed modifier, but most of the time, verbs are stronger when they work alone.

313 Modifiers for Nouns

  • Abnormal
  • Absentminded
  • Accidental
  • Adventurous
  • Afterward
  • Almost
  • Always
  • Annual
  • Anxious
  • Arrogant
  • Awkward
  • Bashful
  • Beautiful
  • Bitter
  • Bleak
  • Blind
  • Blissful
  • Boastful
  • Bold
  • Brave
  • Brief
  • Bright
  • Brisk
  • Broad
  • Busy
  • Calm
  • Careful
  • Careless
  • Cautious
  • Certain
  • Cheerful
  • Clear
  • Clever
  • Close
  • Coaxing
  • Colorful
  • Common
  • Continual
  • Cool
  • Correct
  • Courageous
  • Cross
  • Cruel
  • Curious
  • Dainty
  • Dear
  • Deceiving
  • Deep
  • Defiant
  • Deliberate
  • Delightful
  • Diligent
  • Dim
  • Doubtful
  • Dreamy
  • Easy
  • Elegant
  • Energetic
  • Enormous
  • Enthusiastic
  • Equal
  • Especial
  • Even
  • Even
  • Eventual
  • Exact
  • Excited
  • Extreme
  • Fair
  • Faithful
  • Famous
  • Far
  • Fast
  • Fatal
  • Ferocious
  • Fervent
  • Fierce
  • Fond
  • Foolish
  • Fortunate
  • Frank
  • Frantic
  • Free
  • Frenetic
  • Frightful
  • Full
  • Furious
  • General
  • Generous
  • Gentle
  • Glad
  • Gleeful
  • Graceful
  • Grateful
  • Great
  • Greedy
  • Happy
  • Hasty
  • Healthy
  • Heavy
  • Helpful
  • Helpless
  • High
  • Honest
  • Hopeless
  • Hungry
  • Immediate
  • Innocent
  • Inquisitive
  • Instant
  • Intense
  • Intent
  • Interesting
  • Inward
  • Irritable
  • Jagged
  • Jealous
  • Jovial
  • Joyful
  • Joyous
  • Jubilant
  • Judgmental
  • Just
  • Keen
  • Kidding
  • Kind
  • Kindhearted
  • Knavish
  • Knowing
  • Knowledgeable
  • Kooky
  • Lazy
  • Less
  • Light
  • Like
  • Limp
  • Live
  • Lofty
  • Longing
  • Loose
  • Loud
  • Loving
  • Loyal
  • Mad
  • Majestic
  • Meaningful
  • Mechanical
  • Merry
  • Miserable
  • Mocking
  • Month
  • More
  • Mortal
  • Most
  • Mysterious
  • Natural
  • Near
  • Neat
  • Nervous
  • Never
  • Nice
  • Noisy
  • Not
  • Obedient
  • Obnoxious
  • Odd
  • Offensive
  • Official
  • Often
  • Open
  • Optimistic
  • Overconfident
  • Painful
  • Partial
  • Patient
  • Perfect
  • Physical
  • Playful
  • Polite
  • Poor
  • Positive
  • Potential
  • Powerful
  • Prompt
  • Proper
  • Punctual
  • Quaint
  • Queasy
  • Queer
  • Questionable
  • Quick
  • Quicker
  • Quiet
  • Quirky
  • Quizzical
  • Random
  • Rapid
  • Rare
  • Ready
  • Real
  • Reassuring
  • Reckless
  • Regular
  • Reluctant
  • Repeated
  • Reproachful
  • Restful
  • Righteous
  • Rightful
  • Rigid
  • Rough
  • Rude
  • Safe
  • Scarce
  • Scary
  • Searching
  • Sedate
  • Seldom
  • Selfish
  • Separate
  • Serious
  • Shaky
  • Sharp
  • Sheepish
  • Shrill
  • Shy
  • Silent
  • Sleepy
  • Slow
  • Smooth
  • Soft
  • Solemn
  • Solid
  • Sometimes
  • Soon
  • Speedy
  • Stealthy
  • Stern
  • Strict
  • Successful
  • Sudden
  • Supposed
  • Surprising
  • Suspicious
  • Sweet
  • Swift
  • Sympathetic
  • Tender
  • Tense
  • Terrible
  • Thankful
  • Thorough
  • Thoughtful
  • Tight
  • Tomorrow
  • Too
  • Tremendous
  • Triumphant
  • True
  • Truthful
  • Ultimate
  • Unabashed
  • Unaccountable
  • Unbearable
  • Unethical
  • Unexpected
  • Unfortunate
  • Unimpressive
  • Unnatural
  • Unnecessary
  • Upbeat
  • Upright
  • Upside-down
  • Upward
  • Urgent
  • Useful
  • Useless
  • Usual
  • Utter
  • Vacant
  • Vague
  • Vain
  • Valiant
  • Vast
  • Verbal
  • Very
  • Vicious
  • Victorious
  • Violent
  • Vivacious
  • Voluntary
  • Warm
  • Weak
  • Weary
  • Well
  • Wet
  • Whole
  • Wild
  • Willful
  • Wise
  • Woeful
  • Wonderful
  • Worried
  • Wrong
  • Yawning
  • Year
  • Yearning
  • Yesterday
  • Yielding
  • Youthful
  • Zealous
  • Zest
  • Zestful

Previous in this series:

Conveying Mood Part 1: Adjectives

Short Story part 1: word choice

The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere 

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

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Conveying Mood part 1: adjectives #amwriting

This week we are continuing our exploration of words. I’m on a quest to find ways to use fewer of them and make the most of the ones I do use.

I’ve said many times that words are the colors we use to show entire worlds. Today, I’m exploring the many ways we use words for better impact.

I like to find my information easily, so I make a new file for every story I write. Once I know what the mood for the story I intend to write is, I go out and look for the mood words I want to have on hand. I list them in a document that I will save in that file with a proper file name, such as: mood_words_Rainbows_End.

This takes very little time, and I have a supply of mood descriptors to draw on to build my world without having to stop and look things up. Having this list helps me avoid crutch-words.

Because I am currently writing several pieces with a Gothic mood, my example word last week was ominous. It is an adjective that conveys the impression that something bad or unpleasant is going to happen.

But first, what is an adjective? For those of us who can’t remember what we ate for dinner last night, much less what we learned in grade school, adjectives are words or phrases that modify a noun, which is a person, place, or thing. They add to (or grammatically relate to) a noun and act to modify or describe it.

We don’t want to get crazy with adjectives, because they’re like salt–too much and you’ve ruined your food.

However, they are a fundamental part of English grammar, and while we can be sparing with them, we can’t eliminate them because (again) they are like salt: some are essential.

I use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. But if you don’t own a good thesaurus, the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus is your best friend. https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus

You will find many words, some of which are obscure.

Do yourself a favor and choose words that are fairly common, ones most readers with an average education won’t have to stop and look up.

Synonyms for ominous I can use: baleful, dire, direful, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words to subtly reinforce the mood: black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray/grey, lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber/sombre, sullen, sunless, threatening, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonyms for ominous, opposites I can use to provide contrast, so my mood is made more explicit: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous. [1]

Toward the end of my work, I will want things to feel hopeful. So, I have researched the word auspicious the same way as I did ominous.

Definition of auspicious: having qualities that inspire hope or pointing toward a happy outcome.

Synonyms for auspicious: bright, encouraging, fair, golden, heartening, hopeful, likely, optimistic, promising, propitious, rose-colored, roseate, rosy, upbeat.

Words related to auspicious:

cheering, comforting, reassuring, soothing, assured, confident, decisive, doubtless, positive, sure, unhesitating, favorable, good.

Antonyms for auspicious: bleak, dark, depressing, desperate, discouraging, disheartening, dismal, downbeat, dreary, gloomy, hopeless, inauspicious, pessimistic, unencouraging, unlikely, unpromising.

Near Antonyms for auspicious: cheerless, comfortless, doubtful, dubious, uncertain, grim, negative, unfavorable, funereal, glum, gray/grey, miserable, wretched. [2]

If you are writing any kind of genre work, the best way to deploy your descriptors is to find the word that conveys the atmosphere you want with the most force.

Sentence structure matters. Where you place an adjective relative to the noun they are modifying affects a reader’s perception. They work best when showing us what the point-of-view characters sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes.

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

In 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).

The scene could be shown in a multitude of ways, but a paragraph’s worth of world-building is pared down to 19 words, three of which are action words (verbs).

In my next post, we will go deeper into the uses and abuses of modifiers.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] “Ominous.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/ominous. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.

[2] “Auspicious.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/auspicious. Accessed 23 Jan. 2021.

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The Short Story part 2: Setting and Atmosphere #amwriting

When I begin writing a short story, I want my first paragraphs to surprise an editor in a good way, to make them suspend their disbelief long enough to finish reading the story.

Especially in a short story, we must use the setting to establish a feeling of atmosphere, a mood that will hint at what is to come. Atmosphere is the part of a world created by your inclusion of colors, scents, and ambient sounds. The words you choose determine how the visuals are shown.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s reality is affected by emotions they aren’t even aware of. So, in a short story those first paragraphs must give the reader a sense of familiarity even though it’s a place they’ve never been.

We give the reader something they can understand without being bluntly told.

Do you want to convey a sense of danger? Imagine a woodland pond. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it. When a storm rolls in, things change. The waters move. Ripples and small waves stir the surface, reflecting the dark gray of the stormy sky.

Use the colors of the sky, the chill of the wet earth. Allow the scent of rotten leaves to linger in the air.

In the previous installment of this series, we talked about how important word choice is when attempting to communicate a feeling of action.

This is also true when you want to show the atmosphere of a setting. A dark, gloomy setting created by “weighted words” establishes an ominous atmosphere. This will be reflected in the mood of your characters.

“Weighted words” are those with strong descriptive power. Choose words that are intense and bold in their own right. This is crucial when writing a short story because you have a word count limit to consider.

Lighter words, such as those that begin with softer consonants, will create an atmosphere that feels gentler.

We have mentioned this before: while the two terms, mood and atmosphere, are usually used as synonyms, they are different from each other. In literature, mood refers to an individual’s internal feelings and emotions as often as it does the piece’s overall atmosphere. The term atmosphere is always associated with a setting.

The characteristics we call mood and atmosphere are created by inference. We offer the reader a word-picture that is hinted at and suggested rather than bluntly stated. Writers give the reader something to infer, something they can interpret.

What is the interpretive aspect of this layer? The author’s job is to use inference so that the reader can interpret their intention. That is, a reader can effortlessly understand what the author was attempting to convey.

The general mood is heavily influenced by other aspects of the narrative: setting, theme, ambiance, and phrasing.

A reader’s perception of a setting’s atmosphere is affected by a character’s emotions. Emotion, as written on the page, is the character’s experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again.  As the characters’ emotions change from high to low throughout the story, the overall mood is influenced.

In this layer, visual objects in a room or an outdoor space color the atmosphere and affect the characters’ moods. Think about the word” Gothic.” Gothic atmosphere has a winter feel to it, even in summer.

Barren landscapes and low windswept hills feel gothic to me. The word Gothic in a novel’s description immediately tells us we are looking at a dark, moody piece set in a stark, desolate environment. We know it will include some supernatural elements.

The atmosphere/mood dynamic of any narrative is there to make the story’s emotional experience specific. It is not a substitute for emotions that an author can’t figure out how to write.

For me, as an author, creating the right atmosphere leads to shaping the characters’ overall mood. The right mood can help you articulate specific emotions.

Environmental symbols are subliminal landmarks for the reader. Thinking about and planning symbolism in an environment is key to developing the general atmosphere and affecting the mood.

In a short story, you have only the first few paragraphs to set the scene and establish the mood. If you can do it in one sentence, even better.

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

And so, to wind this up, setting, atmosphere, and mood are intertwined. Getting those three aspects right and establishing them at the outset means making good word choices. Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters.

To do that, go to the thesaurus and look up synonyms and antonyms for your mood word. Are you writing a dark story? Is the mood ominous?

Synonyms & Antonyms of ominous

Definition: being or showing a sign of evil or calamity to come.

Synonyms: baleful, dire, direful, doomy, foreboding, ill, ill-boding, inauspicious, menacing, portentous, sinister, threatening.

Related words:

black, bleak, cheerless, chill, cloudy, cold, comfortless, dark, darkening, depressing, depressive, desolate, dim, disconsolate, dismal, drear, dreary, forlorn, funereal, gloomy, glum, godforsaken, gray (also grey), lonely, lonesome, miserable, morbid, morose, murky, plutonian, saturnine, sepulchral, somber (or sombre), sullen, sunless, wretched.

Other related words:

discouraging, disheartening, hopeless, unfavorable, unpromising, unpropitious, ill-fated, ill-starred, star-crossed, troubled, unfortunate, unlucky, evil, malign, malignant.

Antonym for ominous: unthreatening.

Near Antonyms for ominous:

auspicious, benign, bright, encouraging, favorable, golden, heartening, hopeful, promising, propitious, prosperous.


Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

Short Story part 1 word choice


Credits and Attributions:

“Ominous.” Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/ominous. Accessed 19 Jan. 2021.

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The Short Story part 1: word choice #amwriting

Last week, we discussed how important exploring the theme is when writing for a themed anthology. This week, we are going deeper, finding ways to show a story and keep it within the word count limits.

Skill as a writer comes with practice. As we continue to work with our writing groups, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation).

Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint. It will always be distinctly ours, because we all speak differently. However, many of the ways we express ourselves when speaking don’t translate well to writing within a tight framework.

Writing to a strict word count limit forces an author to pare away all that is unnecessary. To do that in 4,000 words or fewer, we choose words that have power.

We have talked about this before: active prose is Noun-Verb centric. If you are writing only for yourself, write any way you choose. But if you are hoping to sell books, it’s wise to keep in mind that today’s reader has high expectations and a great many other books to choose from.

We who write genre fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Romance) must use words that are dynamic and convey a feeling of action.  In English, words that begin with hard consonants sound tougher and more powerful.

Say you have been invited to submit your work to an anthology. You have been given the theme which plays well to an idea you’ve had for a short story, and you are ready to write it.

But what is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence dramatically affects the mood, which either highlights or plays down the theme.

  • Placement of verbs in the sentence
    1. Moving the verbs to the beginning of the sentence makes it stronger.
    2. Nouns followed by verbs feel active.

Let’s look at four sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All describe the same self-destructive person, and none are “wrong.” Each conveys a different mood because of how they are expressed.

  1. She runs toward danger, never away.
  2. She never runs away from danger.
  3. Danger approaches, and she runs to meet it.
  4. If it’s dangerous, she runs to it.

I like it when an author makes good use of contrast when describing the difference(s) between two or more things in one sentence. Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend.

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

Verbs are power words. If you choose forceful words, you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

How we add depth to our prose without weakening it takes time and involves thought in the revision process. Consider word order, think about where you place your verbs, and use ordinary words that most people know and don’t have to look up in a dictionary.

We who write fiction create pictures without paint. We must learn to convey an inner landscape and imaginary world by painting a picture of the setting with a few deliberately chosen words. We also must show the atmosphere, the emotions, and the action.

Readers want us to use words that are “primary colors,” the words most people with an average education understand without having to go to a dictionary.

An example of this is Escape from Spiderhead,” a short science fiction story written by George Saunders and published in his 2013 anthology collection Tenth of December. It was first published in the New Yorker on Dec. 13, 2010.

This is a riveting story, one that challenges the reader to consider the ideas of free will and determinism. It also points out how easy it is for a society to strip certain individuals of their humanity, and how we justify it to ourselves.

Escape from Spiderhead is gut-wrenching and memorable because the words Saunders used to paint it with and the way he used them have power.

Emotional impact is created when an author combines common, everyday words in uncommon ways. I love finding an author whose words speak to me. Their stories surprise me, and the ideas they transmit fundamentally alters my perceptions of the world around me.

Previous in this series:

Theme part 1

Theme part 2

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Theme part 2 #amwriting

Not every anthology is themed, but many are. Most will also be restricted to one genre (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime) or a particular location, like a city or a place such as a coffee shop, etc. This is because theme alone isn’t enough to unify a book encompassing ten or more stories that are widely divergent in genre.

The concept of how to create a cohesive anthology was explained to me this way:

Consider a community art project where you ask five local artists to paint murals of cats to be displayed in the local community center. You will get five wildly divergent styles, and clashing colors, and cats that don’t go together well. But, if you ask them to paint black cats (or orange or red), your community wall art will have a consistency that celebrates the variety of the artists’ different styles rather than an eye-bleeding jumble of cats.

Therefore, when planning a story for a particular anthology, you must take the theme and any other setting or genre restrictions and run with it.

The first thing I do is research all the synonyms for that word. I recently wrote for an anthology with the theme of Escape, and it had to be set in the Pacific Northwest. I set my story in Olympia, Washington, in the area I grew up in. With my setting established, I went online and looked up every synonym for the word “escape.”

The above list is an image and not text, but feel free to copy it for your files.

Then after I had all the synonyms, I looked for the antonyms, the opposites.

Capture. Imprisonment. Confront.

Once I had a full understanding of all the many nuances of the theme, I asked myself how I could write a fantasy set in my real-world environment. My solution was to set it in a historical time, the late 1950s. I was a very small child then so anything I know about that era is a fantasy that I learned from television.

Then, I began plotting. I asked what my character needed most in her effort to escape. My gut answer was courage.

Sometimes, it helps if I use polarities (opposites, contrasts) to flesh out a character. These polarities helped me in fleshing out a protagonist and also the antagonist:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

As an editor, when I begin reading a short story, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:

  1. They introduce the problem.
  2. They introduce the characters and show us how they see themselves.
  3. They introduce the theme.

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the essential events in place and occurring at the right time.

Assume you have a 4,000 word limit for your short story.

The Setup: The first 250 words are the setup and hook. You must have a compelling hook. In some cases, the first line is the clincher, but especially in a short story, by the end of the first page, you must have your reader hooked and ready to be enthralled.

The next 750 words take your characters out of their comfortable existence and launch them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not? What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution. What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme? How did the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, subplots should not be introduced into the short story.

Word Count: Many times, publications and anthologies will have strict limits on the word count, such as no more than 4,000 or less than 2,000. For this reason, when writing short stories, we keep the cast of characters to a minimum.

When you’re only allowed 4,000 words, you must make each one count. You want that story to be the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

We also keep the setting narrow: one place, one environment, be it a cruise ship, a restaurant, or a gas station—the location shouldn’t be epic in scale.

In a novel, side-quests and subthemes help keep the story interesting. This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at how often it doesn’t: you have no room to introduce side-quests in a short story.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Allegory is an essential tool for the author who wants to underline a theme and express crucial ideas with the least number of words. Using allegory and symbolism in the objects in the environment is a way to subtly underscore your theme. It allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and look up “danger”:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger, we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

All of the above polarities would play well to the theme and would give your characters depth.

In any work, novel or short story, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

One final suggestion: Don’t think you can pull out some old story you have in a drawer, dust it off and tack on the theme word in a few places. No editor will be fooled.

Editors will look for many things when they are reading submissions. But no matter how brilliant the story is, if it doesn’t explore the theme well enough, they won’t accept it.

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