Tag Archives: writing craft

Using Polarity #amwriting

When I get into revisions, I often find my characters seem two-dimensional. Certain passages stand out because the characters have life, an intensity that feels palpable.

Others, not so much.

ContrastsI aspire to write like my heroes, authors who create characters who come alive. While I’m in that world, I see the people and their stories as sharply as the author intends.

Some of my work manages to find that happy place, but other passages feel flat, lacking spark. That is where I look at contrast – polarity. When I use polarity well, my narrative makes my editor happy.

I know I say this regularly, but word choice matters. How I choose to phrase a passage can make an immersive experience or throw the reader out of the book. Sometimes I am more successful than other times.

My goal is to make vivid sensory images for my readers, but not one that is hyper-dramatic and overblown. Subtlety in contrasts is as essential as painting a scene with sweeping polarities. They both add to the texture of the narrative but must be balanced for optimal pacing.

Poets understand and use polarity. John Keats used both polarities and similes in his work. The last stanza of To Autumn begins with this line:

“Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;”

We see one obvious polarity in that line, and also a sneaky one:

  • Lives or dies is a clear polarity.
  • Sinking implies heaviness, and Keats contrasted it with light wind, a less weighty, gentler sensory experience, the opposite of the weight of sinking.

activatePolarity gives the important elements strength. It provides texture but often goes unnoticed while it influences a reader’s perception.

The theme is the backbone of your story, a thread that binds the disparate parts together. Great themes are often polarized: good vs. evil or love vs. hate.

Think about the theme we call the circle of life. This epic concept explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death. Within that larger motif, we find opportunities to emphasize our subthemes.

For example, young vs. old is a common polarized theme with many opportunities for conflict. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Wealth vs. poverty allows an author to delve into social issues and inequities. This polarity has great potential for conflict, which creates a deeper narrative.

In my current outline, I seek to see beyond the obvious. I am searching for the smaller, more subtle contrasts to instill into my work. My intention is that these minor conflicts and hindrances will build toward each major plot point and support the central theme and add texture to the narrative.

This outline is evolving into a mystery. The main character is a peacekeeper who must solve it. To that end, I am inserting clues into the outline, guideposts for when I begin the first draft. On the line that details the plot arc for each chapter, some of those words will have antonym’s listed beside them, opportunities for roadblocks.

The theme of justice looms large in this novel. Hopefully, I can make this plot worthy of the characters I’ve created and who stand ready for NaNoWriMo.

Contrast is the fertile soil from which conflict grows. It can make protagonists more interesting, and in worldbuilding, it underscores the larger theme with less exposition.

Contrasts within the narrative shape the pacing of the action, as ease is contrasted against difficulty. In my projected piece, justice as a theme allows for many contrasts. Justice only exists because of injustice.

Polarity is a sneaky way for each word’s many nuances to raise or lower the tension in a scene.

Let’s look at the word cowardice. Cowardice is a gut reaction to fear. In real life, cowardice is often exhibited as a habitual evasion of the truth or as an avoidance mechanism.

It can be shown in an act as mild as a fib told for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Or it can be as epic as an act of treason committed for fear of a political change in a direction the character finds untenable.

Bravery can be as small as a person facing a silly fear or as thrilling as a responder entering a burning building to rescue a victim.

I like stories with protagonists who contrast acts of bravery with small acts of cowardice. It adds texture to their otherwise perfect personalities and subtly powers their character arcs.

In all its many forms, polarity is a catalyst—the substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a faster rate. In this case, the reactions we’re trying to speed up are the emotions of the reader.

oxford_synonym_antonymI use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. This book is as essential to my writing as my copies of Damon Suede’s Activate and the Oxford Writer’s Thesaurus.

Here is a sample of words found in the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. I’ve posted this list of opposites before because they create powerful mental images:

  • dangerous – safe
  • dark – light
  • decline – accept
  • deep – shallow
  • definite – indefinite
  • demand – supply
  • despair – hope
  • discourage – encourage
  • dreary – cheerful
  • dull – bright, shiny
  • dusk – dawn

In short, by employing polarities in our word selections, we add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool for both character creation and worldbuilding.

Often you can find great reference books second-hand, which will save you some cash. But even at full price, the books I referenced above are good investments.

However, we’re all cash-strapped these days, so a comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. Their website is a free resource.


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Narrative voice: more words and how we choose them #amwriting

We all use the same words to tell the same stories.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemWhy do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true. All stories are derived from a few basic plots, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Plot Archetypes as defined by Christopher Booker in his work, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Archetype MeaningOvercoming the monster
  2. The quest
  3. Voyage and return
  4. Comedy
  5. Tragedy
  6. Rebirth
  7. The Rule of Three

The words we habitually use to show a scene will be recognizable as our voice. I know a lot of words and their alternatives, and I try to learn new ones every day. But I often find myself stuck when pounding out a first draft, using a particular word over and over. My brain knows what I’m trying to say but can’t be too creative.

Fortunately, this sin is noticeable when I get to revisions, and that is when I hunt down the synonyms, alternative words that mean the same thing.

Words with only a small number of alternatives become problems for me. This happens in my work with the word sword. The other options for the word sword are many. Unfortunately, most describe a specific type of weapon – epee, rapier, cutlass, saber/sabre, etc.

Unfortunately, my swords are only broadswords or claymores. Thus, I am limited to sword, blade, weapon … you get the drift. The lack of alternatives does one good thing, though – it keeps me from indulging in long, drawn-out fight scenes.

Other words cause problems too. Sometimes, the thesaurus available in my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusFor that reason, I have the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. I also have a book called Activate, written by Damon Suede, a thesaurus of verbs, actions, and tactics. I refer to these books when I must search for an alternative to a word I am leaning too heavily on.

Which happens far too often.

Memory is a mushy thing. I prefer a hard copy reference book rather than the internet, as I remember what I read on paper better than what I read on screen. However, the internet is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. I get sidetracked too easily when doing research on the net. Hard copies of reference books encourage me to do the research and get back to work.

So, we know that we all tell stories with fundamentally similar plots, and we all must use words with the same meanings.

But we sound different on the page. Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The word I select might mean the same as the one you use, but I might choose a different form.

When we write, we build a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances (distinctions, subtleties, shades, refinements, etc.).

We use words that convey our vision of the mood, atmosphere, and information. You and I may be writing the same plot, but my vision of it is different from yours.

Let’s write a story about a hero who finds a magical object and an evil entity who wants possession of it.

J.R.R. Tolkien may have used that plot in the Lord of the Rings, but what we write will be ours, not his. Your words will show the hero in a setting and communicate an atmosphere completely different from what my words express.

How do our word choices add depth to world-building? An example might be sound or color. How do you show an intense sound or color? Loud is a word that works for both sound and color.

Thunderous conveys more power than loud, even though they mean the same thing in the context of sound.

Lurid conveys more power than loud, and in the context of color, they mean the same thing.

Let’s look more closely at the word loud:

  • oxford_synonym_antonymNoisy
  • Boisterous
  • Deafening
  • Raucous
  • Lurid
  • Flamboyant
  • Ostentatious
  • Thunderous
  • Strident
  • Vulgar
  • Loudmouthed

These are only a few of the many options we have to work with. The website www.PowerThesaurus.com lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

How about the word “disruptive”? It’s a straightforward, blunt adjective. Maybe you don’t want to say it bluntly. Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive.

Hostileconfrontationalsurly—many common words convey the information that a person is being difficult in a simple but powerful way. The synonyms for disruptive express many different shades of meaning and might be more appropriate to your narrative.

Use your vocabulary but don’t get too creative. Do your readers a favor and use words that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand.

I don’t mean to say that rarely used words should be ignored. Our prose should never be “dumbed-down,” but we shouldn’t use big words just to show how literate we are.

ten dollar wordsMy Texan editor refers to those convoluted morsels of madness as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known. This is why I probably wouldn’t use obstreperous in place of disruptive, but I might choose rebellious or confrontational.

The problem is, sometimes, I can’t find the right words to show what I envision. I can see it but can’t express it. It annoys me to leave that scene and come back to it later.

Other times I have all the words I need, and those are the best days, the days I am glad to be a writer.

We imagine and assemble stories for other people’s entertainment. We paint those images with words carefully chosen to draw the most precise framework for the reader to hang their imagination on.

The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The words we choose make the reader’s experience richer or poorer. As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who are bold when they choose their words.



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When Good Advice Goes Bad #amwriting

The craft of writing involves learning the rules of grammar, developing a broader vocabulary, learning how to develop characters, build worlds etc., etc. Most of us don’t have the money to embark on an MFA program in writing. Instead, we educate ourselves as well as we can.

Jack Kerouak on writing LIRF07252022Even if you have an MFA degree, you could spend a lifetime learning the craft and never learn all there is to know about the subject. We join writing groups, buy books, and most importantly, read. We analyze what we have read and figure out what we liked or disliked about it. Then, we try to apply what we learned to our work.

Most writing advice is good because it reinforces what we need to know about the craft, and simple sayings are easy to remember. They encourage us to write lean, descriptive prose and craft engaging conversations.

The same advice can be bad because it is so frequently taken to extremes by novice authors armed with a little dangerous knowledge.

  • Remove all adverbs.

This advice is silly. Without descriptors, you can’t show mood, atmosphere, or setting. Remember, not all adverbs end in “ly,” so use a little common sense and don’t use unnecessary adverbs.

I am a wordy writer and a poet. I love words in all their many shapes and forms. I know readers like lean prose, so I work to trim it, sometimes more successfully than others. In the second draft, I use the global search (find option) to look for each instance of ‘ly’ words and rewrite those sentences to make them more active.

Margaret Atwood on writing LIRF07252022

  • Don’t use speech tags.

Well, that makes things pretty confusing. Who said that, and why are there no speech tags in this nonsense?

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

We’ve all experienced intensely painful feelings, such as fear, sadness, and anger. If you have shared your work with a writing group, you have been admonished to show these emotions rather than saying, “Joe grew angry.”

You can see their point. So, you sit down and rewrite your scene graphically: Joe snarls, cheeks going hot, brows pulling together, eyes glaring, lips curling in a sneer, and fists clenching. Edith sits hunched in on herself with drooping shoulders, downturned quivering lips, shaking hands, nausea rising, and tear-streaked cheeks.

Maybe that much detail is necessary, but maybe it’s not. Set that scene aside and come back to it later. Then look at it with fresh eyes and decide what will be enough to show their emotions and what is too much.

An avalanche of microscopic showing can make your characters seem melodramatic and sometimes cartoonish. Truthfully, that much physical drama doesn’t show a character’s emotions. What is going on inside their heads?

You must either relay the thought process that led to those physical reactions or lay the groundwork with some crucial bits of exposition.

  • Write what you know.

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.

Flaubert on writing LORF07252022You have just spent the last year or more combing through your novel. This is another example of silly advice that doesn’t consider how complex and involved the process of getting a book written and published is. I love writing, but when you have been working on a story through five drafts, it can be hard to get excited about making one more trip through it, looking for typos.

  • Kill your darlings.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. We can’t be married to our favorite prose. When a paragraph or chapter we love no longer fits the story, we must cut it, save it in a separate file, and move on.

However, cutting a passage just because you like it is stupid. Maybe it does belong there—maybe it is the best part of that paragraph.

  • Cut all exposition.

BE reasonable. Some background information is essential to making the story understandable to a reader. How, when, and where you deploy the exposition is what makes a great story. Hold the deep history back – like a magician, only produce the backstory at the time and place where the characters and the reader need to know it.

Good advice taken to an extreme has become a part of our writing culture. This is because all writing advice has roots in truth.

  • Too many descriptors can ruin the taste of an author’s work.
  • Too many speech tags can stop the eye, especially if the characters are snorting, hissing, and ejaculating their dialogue.
  • Too much telling takes the adventure out of the reading experience.
  • Too much showing can be tedious and is sometimes visually revolting.

Our task is to find that happy medium between too much and not enough. Our voice and writing style reflect our thought processes and the way we strive for balance.

Neil_Gaiman_QuoteWhen we first embark on learning this craft, we latch onto handy, easy-to-remember mantras because we want to educate ourselves. Unless we’re fortunate enough to have a formal education in the art of writing, we who are just beginning must rely on the internet and handy self-help guides.

Something to remember: most readers are not editors. They will either love or hate your work based on your voice, but they won’t know why. Voice is how you break the rules, but you must understand what you are doing and do it deliberately. Craft your work so it expresses what you intend in the way you want it said. So, the most important rules are:

  • Trust yourself,
  • Trust your reader.
  • Be consistent.
  • Write what you want to read.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022We can easily bludgeon our work to death in our effort to fit our square work into round holes. In the process of trying to obey all the rules, every bit of creativity is shaved off the corners. A great story with immense possibilities becomes boring and difficult to read. As an avid reader and reviewer, I see this all too often.

Great authors work to learn the craft of writing and apply writing advice gently. Their work stays with the reader long after the last line has been read.


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Pacing and the Function of the Action Scene #amwriting

I love writing action scenes. Even though the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture, it is fun to write because of the action and events.

ScenesHowever, (cue the danger theme music), once I have set it aside for a while, I will have to begin the revision process. That is when writing becomes work. This is the moment I discover the child of my heart isn’t perfect – my action scenes are a little … confusing.

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene, we don’t worry about the details when we are in the zone and writing the first draft. We just write it as quickly as possible and get the story’s basics down before we forget the good ideas we had while we were at the store.

It’s a little terrifying how many things I find in my early drafts that must be changed to enable a reader to see the story the way I envision it.

I think of a story as being like an ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links events and transitions. Now we are going to look at how each action scene flows.

Our raw manuscript has a beginning, middle, and ending. We have linked our scenes with transitions, but our manuscript is not ready for a reader. We still need to flesh that skeleton out.

The functions of the action scene are:

  • to propel the plot forward,
  • to provide stumbling blocks to happiness,
  • to force change and growth on the characters.

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent, via Wikimedia Commons and Google Art Project, PD|100

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot. Scenes of conflict are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be inserted into the novel as deliberately as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.

Arguments and confrontations in real life are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read.

Readers want to see the logic behind a book’s plot. So, we must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

  • Book- onstruction-sign copyWhat motivated the action?
  • Why was the action justified in the character’s mind?
  • What could they have done differently?

Clarity is crucial. Threats can’t be nebulous. Whatever you have the characters do, their reasoning, even if it is flawed, must be made clear to the reader at the outset.

Vague threats mean nothing in real life other than causing us to worry about something that will never happen.

I look for info dumps, passive phrasing, and timid words. These telling passages are codes for me, laid down in the first draft. They are signs that a section needs rewriting to make it visual rather than telling. Clunky phrasing and info dumps are signals telling me what I intend that scene to be. I must cut some of the info and allow the reader to use their imagination.


Sir Galahad, by George Frederick Watts, 1888. PD|100

So, did the knowledge our characters and readers require emerge gradually with each action and transition sequence? Did each clue and vital piece of knowledge fall at the right point in the arc of the scene?

Once you understand the ultimate threat to our characters’ survival, you can dole out the necessary information in small increments, teasers to keep the readers reading, and the plot moving along.

Rumors and vague threats should be the harbinger of future events. But they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Once the inciting incident has occurred, hold the solution just out of reach for the rest of the narrative until the final confrontation. Every time our protagonists nearly have it fixed, they don’t, and things get worse.

I use a spreadsheet to design action sequences, which takes a little time. You can use any way that works for you, but I suggest you do it on a separate sheet and save it in your outtakes file with a name specifying what that page details. HG_Tor_vs_dragon_.docx (It signifies: High Gate scene, Torvald vs. dragon. I use MS Word, so its file extension is .docx).

When I put action into a scene, I hope the reader doesn’t say, “She wouldn’t do that.” Random gore and violence muddy the story. Nothing should be random; everything must fall into place as if the next event is inevitable based on what has gone before.

The arc of an action scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the story arc than when it started.


Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this scene necessary, or am I desperate? Am I trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  • What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  • Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  • What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  • Why was this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex are often featured in the most profoundly moving stories I have read. However, those scenes only worked for me because they occurred for a reason. They were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.

Action scenes are not only about violence and chaotic events. They can convey the setting and mood and offer information about relationships without bloated exposition. Scenes of quiet action can change everything and still act as transition scenes.


Here we have a character who wants no part of anything remotely hinting at romance. Yet, there is an attraction that must be shown. We have the warning that significant events will occur later, forcing them to work together. However, in the meantime, one character is standoffish.

I get the most mileage from transitions when I make them scenes of action and information, and I have less of a tendency to dump information – my personal curse.

Large, violent events demand a purpose. Scenes of nonviolent action used as transitions can provide the characters and reader with the reasons for that action.

That ebb and flow of upheaval and relative calm that occurs over the arc of the story is pacing.



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Pacing and the Function of the Transition Scene #amwriting

The transition scene is the most challenging part of the narrative for me to devise in the first draft. I get stuck, trying to decide what information needs to come out and what should be held back. I forget that the first draft is only the foundation of the bigger picture.

transitionsWe add the details when we begin the revision process. One of the elements we look for in our narrative is pacing, or how the story flows from the opening scene to the final pages.

Our manuscript is finished in the regard that it has a beginning, middle, and ending, but it’s not yet ready for a reader. Now that we have the story’s skeleton, it’s time to flesh it out.

Stories are comprised of a string of moments that are connected by common themes. These moments are scenes, and when you put them together in the right order, they combine to form a narrative.

story as an ocean of wordsThis string of scenes is like the ocean. It has a kind of rhythm, a wave action we call pacing. Pacing is created by the way an author links actions and events, stitching them together with quieter scenes: transitions.

Genre fiction has one thing in common regardless of the tropes: characters we can empathize with are thrown into chaos-with-a-plot.

But while the characters might be immersed in turmoil, the reader needs an underlying order in the layout of the narrative. This pacing is subliminal, but without it, the book is chaos.

  • action,
  • processing the action,
  • action again,
  • another connecting/regrouping scene

The scene’s arc is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending at a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started.

If you ask a reader what makes a memorable story, they will tell you that the emotions it evoked are why they loved that novel. They were allowed to process the events, given a moment of rest and reflection between the action. The characters can take a moment to think, but while doing so, they must be transitioning to the next scene.

While I am not always successful, I work hard to make each scene as emotionally powerful as possible without going overboard.

Here are a few things a transition scene can show:

  • Capitulation (defeat, surrender, change of heart, retreat, giving in).
  • Catalyst (spark, stimulus, goad, incentive, the means by which we can fire things up).
  • Confrontation (disagreement, opposition, conflict, dispute, sorting things out).
  • Contemplation/Reflection (thinking things through, analyzing, seeing events from a different perspective).
  • Decision (making a choice for good or ill).
  • Emotions (Feelings, passions, reactions, sentiments).
  • Information (receiving or offering knowledge, news, the data we must have to go forward).
  • Negotiation (mediation, arbitration, “I’ll do this if you’ll do that”).
  • Resolution (answer, solution, end, outcome, upshot).
  • Revelation (the “oh my god” moment).
  • Turning Point (the “it’s now or never” moment).

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Plot points are driven by the characters who have vital knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information can create high emotional tension.

A scene comprised only of action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed argument or dispute gives the reader the context needed to process the action and understand why it happened. The reader and the characters should receive information simultaneously when they need it.

What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? A transition scene must reveal something new and push the characters toward something as yet unknown, but which is unavoidable.

I picked up my kit and looked around. No wife to kiss goodbye, no real home to leave behind, nothing of value to pack. Only the need to bid Aeoven and my failures goodbye. The quiet snick of the door closing behind me sounded like deliverance.

The character in the above transition scene completes an action (departing for somewhere). It reveals his mood and some of his history in 46 words. Don’t waste words on empty scenes. This is why I find the revision process the most challenging aspect of writing.


Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Gustave Dore PD|100

We can’t natter on about nothing, but conversely, we can’t have non-stop action. Pandemonium is exhausting to write and more exhausting to read. The characters and the reader both need to process information, so the character arc should be at the forefront during these transitional scenes. That period of relative calm is when you allow your characters’ internal growth to emerge.

We allow the characters to justify the decisions that led to that point and plan their next move, making it believable.

The transition is also where you ratchet up the emotional tension. Introspection offers an opportunity for clues about the characters to emerge. It opens a window for the reader to see who they are and how they react. It illuminates their fears and strengths. It makes them real and self-aware.

Keep the moments of mind wandering brief. Go easy if you use italics to set your thoughts off. A wall of italics is hard to read, so don’t have your characters “think” too much if you use those.

Characters’ thoughts must illuminate their motives at a particular moment in time and explore information not previously discussed.

conversationsInternal monologues should humanize our characters and show them as clueless about their flaws and strengths. It should even show they are ignorant of their deepest fears and don’t know how to achieve their goals. With that said, we must avoid “head-hopping.” The best way to avoid confusion is to give a new chapter to each point-of-view character. Head-hopping occurs when an author describes the thoughts of two point-of-view characters within a single scene.

Visual Cues: In my own work, when I come across the word “smile” or other words conveying a facial expression or character’s mood, it sometimes requires a complete re-visualization of the scene. I’m forced to look for a different way to express my intention, which is a necessary but frustrating aspect of the craft.

Fade-to-black is a time-honored way of moving from one event to the next. However, I don’t like using fade-to-black scene breaks as transitions within a chapter. Why not just start a new chapter once the scene has faded to black?

One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six hundred words, keeping each character thread separate and flowing well. A hard scene break with a new chapter is my preferred way to end a fade-to-black.

Chapter breaks are transitions. I have found that as I write, chapter breaks fall naturally at certain places.

The struggle to connect my action scenes into a seamless arc with good pacing is why writing isn’t the most uncomplicated occupation I could have chosen. But it is the best job I’ve ever had.



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The Business Side of the Business: conferences and conventions #amwriting

If you are a regular here at Life in the Realm of Fantasy, you may have seen my two-part series on the business side of being an author. If not, and if you are interested, I will put the links to those articles at the bottom of this post.

Its a BusinessRegardless of your publishing path, you must budget for certain things. You can’t expect your royalties to pay for them early in your career – and many award-winning authors must still work at their day jobs to pay their bills.

But conferences and conventions are one way to meet agents and editors. Also, if you have a table at sci-fi and fantasy fan conventions (or whatever your genre), you will meet readers and create a fanbase for your work.

No author, indie or traditionally published, can live on their royalties at first, so attending conferences requires planning, possibly up to a year in advance. I suggest you work with your budget and set aside the money for conventions and seminars.

I do have some ways to keep your costs down.

First: Join the association offering the conference, as members get reduced conference fees and many other perks all year long. Take advantage of the early-bird discount if you can. I belong to three writers’ associations, and each one offers something I can use all year long.

Second: Does your library system offer occasional seminars by local authors? If it is a public library, these will likely be free.

Third: Use the internet – google “writers’ conferences in my area.” If you can find a local one, you can eat food that fits your dietary needs and sleep at home, which means you only pay for the conference itself.

Fourth: If you are planning to attend a large convention or conference where you will need to stay in a hotel, take simple foods that can be prepared without a stove, and which are filling. 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.

road tripConferences are an extension of the self-education process. I have discovered so much about the craft of writing, the genres I write in, and the publishing industry as a whole—things I could only learn from other authors. I gained an extended professional network by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association in 2011 and going to their annual conferences.

This last weekend, I attended the first of three conferences I have budgeted for 2022. The Science-fiction & Fantasy Author’s Association held the 2022 Nebula Conference this last weekend. It was a virtual conference again this year, so my only cost was the conference fee itself. That cost was quite reasonable because I took advantage of both my membership discount and the early bird discount.

The Nebula Conference is normally held in Southern California, and I am not a happy flyer, so a virtual conference was optimal for me. I may not attend in person again. However, since SFWA is a global association of professional science fiction and fantasy authors, their conferences will also be available in virtual form from here on out.

The following two conferences I have scheduled will be in September and are in-person events. The first, Southwest Washington Writers Conference (SWWC), is local enough that I can commute from my home. The last one for this year is Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) in the Seattle area. It’s a 70-mile commute, so I will stay in the hotel. September is the start of virus season, so I expect many people (like me) will wear masks at both events.

Me working in a starbucks, through the fishbowl, copyright Dan Riffero 2013

Me writing in a Seattle Starbucks, taken through a fish tank. I was the big fish in that tank! Photo by Dan Riffero.

As a small fish in a very big ocean, attending these two local conferences puts me in contact with other authors and industry professionals. The attending authors are people I don’t usually come into contact with as they hail from all over Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.

I always attend as many panels and workshops as I can fit into my schedule. I do this because the seminars offered at each of the three conferences have taught me as much about the craft as about the business of writing.

This weekend at the Nebula Conference, I attended many outstanding panel discussions by famous authors. All the authors on the panels were people who have achieved success, and they shared their insights on current trends in the publishing industry.

My favorite seminar out of all those stellar panels was the one discussing Speculative Fiction Poetry, which was held on Sunday morning. I have always written poetry and love reading it. Many spec fic poets are experimenting with sestinas, which (thanks to the pandemic) became my new favorite poetic form to write in during lockdown. Trying to adhere to a strict structural form challenges my creativity and forces me to grow in all areas of writing craft.

ICountMyself-FriendsSometimes I am invited to participate in panels or offer a workshop, and I can share my experiences with others. Either way, I learn things. In September, I will be on a panel with Lee French, Johanna Flynn, and Ellen King Rice at SWWC, talking about what we wished we had known when we first began writing professionally.

I feel honored (and a bit intimidated) to be a part of this group as they are award-winning writers. But more than that, they are women whose work I enjoy and respect. But facing your fear of public speaking is part of what growing your career entails – putting yourself out there, learning what you can, and sharing what you know.

Two previous posts on the Business side of the Business:

The Business Sequence for Writers, guest post by Ellen King Rice #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)

The Business Side of the Business, part 2: Inventory #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)


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How the Written Universe Works – Warping Time #amwriting

In cosmology, the concept of space-time combines space and time into a single abstract universe. Apparently, we all move through time. Here on earth, time either passes us, or we pass the time. It’s all relative (Einstein humor) to how fast you are going and a lot of sub-atomic particle stuff I can’t really take the time to explain here, and you aren’t interested in anyway.

How the written universe works - warping time.Time interests me because I mostly write fantasy, although I write contemporary short fiction and poetry. Fantasy, and all speculative fiction, relies heavily on worldbuilding, and managing time is a facet of that skill.

But all genres, including contemporary and literary, require worldbuilding. Every story, true or fiction, is set SOMEWHERE, either in this world we are familiar with or in an alternate fantasy universe.

When I begin writing a book, I create a stylesheet in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel for the universe, a workbook that has a page devoted to a glossary for that world, and a page for the calendar of events. A calendar is an essential tool that helps you with pacing and consistency.

  • Calendars are good for pacing, as they keep the events moving along the story arc.
  • They ensure you allow enough time to reasonably accomplish large tasks, enabling a reader to suspend their disbelief.
  • They ensure you don’t inadvertently jump from season to season in your visuals surrounding the characters.

So, for me, the calendar is a device that keeps the events happening logically.

Picture2HERE is where I confess my great regret: in 2008, a lunar calendar seemed like a good thing while creating my first world.

  • Thirteen months, twenty-eight days each,
  • one extra day at the end of the year,
  • a Holy Day on the winter solstice. They have two Holy Days and a big party every four years.

That arrangement of thirteen months is actually quite easy to work with. Where it becomes difficult is in the choices we made in naming things. You know how planning meetings are–ideas tossed at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what sticks.

We were just beginning to design the game, and while I had the plot and the synopsis, I didn’t have some details of the universe and the world figured out. So, in a burst of creative predictability, I went astrological in naming the months, to give the player a feeling of familiarity.

  • Caprica, Aquas, Piscus, (winter).
  • Arese, Taura, Geminis (spring)
  • Lunne, Leonid, Virga (summer)
  • Libre, Scorpius, Saggitus (harvest)
  • Holy Month (begins winter). Holy Day falls at the end of this thirteenth month, occurring on the winter solstice. The premise of the game was the War of the Gods, so religion is central.

strange thoughts 2In an even worse bout of predictability, I went with the names we currently use when I named the days, only I twisted them a bit and gave them the actual Norse god’s name. (The gods and goddesses of Neveyah are not Norse.)

That choice is an example of how what seems like a good idea at the time, may not be.

  1. Lunaday
  2. Tyrsday
  3. Odensday
  4. Torsday
  5. Frosday
  6. Sunnaday – this is the confusing day, as it falls where Saturday is in our normal calendar.
  7. Restday

One thing I did right was sticking to a twenty-four-hour day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep things simple when we are worldbuilding. Simple things are less likely to add to the chaos when the plot gets complicated.

That game was never built for several reasons, but I retained the rights to my work. I took my maps and the storyline and wrote Mountains of the Moon, an epic portal fantasy. That story was the genesis of an entire series set at various points along the timeline of that universe.

I couldn’t get that story out of my head and onto paper fast enough—it obsessed me. As I wrote, the calendar I had invented for the RPG was incorporated into the world of Neveyah, and now it is canon.

Time can be an abstract thing when we are writing the first draft of a story where many events must occur. Things are accomplished in too short a period to be logical, or we take too long.

Calendars are maps of time. They turn the abstract concept into an image we can understand.

Even though I regret how I named the days in Mountains of the Moon, my characters progress through their space-time continuum at a rate I can comprehend. I can move events forward or back in time by looking at and updating their calendar. The sequence of events forming the plot arc remains believable.

calendarI LEARNED from my mistakes – the timeline for the Billy’s Revenge 3-book series, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland, uses the familiar calendar we use today.

I heartily suggest you stick to a simple calendar. That is the advice I would give any new writer—stick to something close to the calendar we’re familiar with and don’t get too fancy.

Next up: Time and Distance – how calendars and rudimentary maps work together to keep the plot moving and believable.


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When Good Novels go Bad #amreading

On Monday, I reviewed a lovely memoir by Judy Kiehart, a book I heartily enjoyed. Today I want to talk about a book by one of my favorite authors, who shall remain nameless. I don’t love every book that comes my way, but I don’t do negative reviews.

magicHowever, we can learn a great deal from books embodying poorly executed plots and badly scripted dialogue.

The book in question is the third installment in what may become a five-part subseries set in the early days of his 22-book universe. I have been a fan of this author’s work since the opening pages of book 1 in this epic series.

I immensely enjoy the way he explores the concept of good vs. evil and gives the side that began in the first five books as antagonists a role that makes them heroes. His protagonists are usually likable, easily relatable people. I care about their happiness and want them to succeed.

In his universe, neither side is good. Both sides manipulate events to make their case, and both are convinced of the purity of their motives. This author has devised a magic system where some people are born with the ability to manipulate certain kinds of subatomic particles.

scienceThe first books of the series establish a science of magic. One can either use chaotic magic or ordered magic. Although some mages can only use one side or the other, the most powerful mages can manipulate both sides of the magic. The entire series explores this concept well. It is a well-planned magic system, with good rules.

These books are military fantasies. Politics and the abuse of power are frequent themes in his novels, as are the age-old conflict between men and women. The overall lesson of the entire series is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Absolute order is death, and so is absolute chaos. Still, both are necessary for life, so maintaining the balance of order and chaos is crucial.

One of the crucial points of the 22-book series is that every great and powerful civilization begins with the purest of motives—to create a better place for humanity. Throughout the 22-book series, greed and an unquenchable lust for power eventually prove the ruin of the greatest empires.

So, let’s discuss what disappoints me about the subseries that begins with book 19. The protagonist is a naïve, untried young mage forced from his home. His uncle is a powerful chaos mage and raises him to use chaos, but our protagonist is bad at it. After the local ruler murders his uncle, our main character is forced into hiding and discovers he is an order mage.

This subseries deals with the origins of a city of mages, who in generations to come, will ultimately base their power on chaos magic. The twist the author explores in these books is that the city is founded by an order mage as a haven for all mages. It is a fact that future generations will choose to forget.

The prior subseries, books 17 and 18, was brilliant, two of my favorites. However, book 19 begins a decline in quality. The idea for the plot was strong in 19. However, the story arc weakened in 20 and was stretched too thin in 21.

DangerStructurally, the books in this subseries feel like he knew how to end it but struggled to fill in the arc. Past events and conversations get repeated verbatim to every new character. Long passages of remembering and agonizing over what is done and dusted fluffs up the narrative.

This is an author who has always championed both racial and gender equality. While he writes straight protagonists, he includes LGBTQ characters. Most of the time, he gets it right. But in book 19, he lost the way when it came to his female characters. We are supposed to think the women are strong and admire them, but they are two-dimensional, arrogant, and always have the last word.

I disliked the women intensely and felt that if a good editor had seen the work before it was published, the snidely superior way their dialogue reads could have been toned down. As it is now, they all come off as bitches.

And that is only the visible part of the iceberg that is sinking this subseries.

Unlikeable side characters don’t derail a book. However, the pacing stutters along, and that will ruin any novel.

The plots of the three books 19, 20, and 21 form one complete arc that would total around 300,000 words. However, the filler events feel forced, like the author would have set this project aside at several points but was contracted to churn out three books whether he was inspired to write or not.

The arc completely flattens in book 21. It feels like the author had the inspiration for one good book of a decent length but was required to peck out enough words to cut the manuscript into three novel-length sections.

ok to write garbage quote c j cherryhTo me, book 21 reads as if (while books 19 and 20 were in the publishing gauntlet) he still had to fluff up the ending to make book 21 long enough to be considered a novel. The evidence of a lack of genuine inspiration is the absurd “scar” the protagonist is left with after winning an unbelievable victory and nearly dying.

My disbelief refused to be suspended.

In the early days of this series, the author managed to put out one book a year, and they were well-structured. Line editing and proofreading in this author’s books have never been a strong point. I have always felt like he was the only one who saw his work before publication but was able to ignore the flaws.

This subseries is different. I suspect once he had plowed to the end of his first draft, my favorite author checked the manuscript for typos using Word’s ReadAloud function and ProWriting Aid or Grammarly and handed it in at the last minute.

Then, the Big Traditional Publisher published it as is, assuming the manuscript was clear of obvious flaws and gave it scant editorial input. They knew they could sell the series just on the author’s name.

That kind of arrogance irks me and does the author no favors. This could have been a brilliant subseries. The concept of an origin story allows for so much opportunity—and because of Big Traditional Publisher’s churn-and-burn policy, it just fell flat.

The Flaws:

  • Two-dimensional characters
  • Repetitive dialogue
  • Thin plot
  • Absurd events are inserted to justify previous actions and keep things moving
  • Did I mention the repetitive dialogue?

The Positives:

  • Great worldbuilding overall
  • A wonderful exploration of power and the lengths people will go to acquire it
  • A believable magic system.
  • Good exploration of the layers of society
  • Good historical explanation of future societal tensions

I wanted to love those three books. I really enjoyed books 17 and 18 and had hopes for a good, satisfying read. What I got instead was a hard lesson in the truth about writing:

f scott fitzgerald quoteEveryone, even your favorite author, writes a stinker now and then.

I’m ¼ of the way into book 22 in this series, which is a follow-up. It takes place fifteen years later, with the daughter of a side character as the protagonist. So far, she is more believable than the women in the prior three novels, and most of the dialogue is less annoying.

My inner editor is behaving herself, and it feels like we may enjoy this book.


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Proofreading vs. Editing #amwriting

I am in the middle of revisions, working with my editor on a large project involving merging old work with new. The difference in the quality of the older work vs. the way I write now is clear—and embarrassing.

keep clam and proofreadWhen I am finished with the revisions, I will format my manuscript as both ebooks and paper books. At that point, I will be looking for proofreaders.

At some point, we must draw the line and say, “this book is done. I want no more changes, no more fiddling with it.” So, when the manuscript is as polished as I can possibly get it, I will have one final step, one that will either ruin a formatted manuscript or make it great: proofreading.

I have said this before, and while some people will dispute this, proofreading is not editing.

Proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made. Hopefully, it is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things in an otherwise clean manuscript will stand out.

By the time the manuscript has come to this stage, we know it far too well. We have seen every sentence, every paragraph, every scene so many times we are sick of going through them. Our eye sees what it expects to see. We find many things, but we don’t catch it all.

This is where the final person in the process comes in–the proofreader.

they're their there cupIf you didn’t see it when I mentioned it above, I will repeat it: proofreading is not editing. We discussed self-editing in my previous post, the three-step process for successful self-editing. However, editing as done by a professional editor is a different process, one I will go into at length next week. All editing and revisions are completed, and the final manuscript has been approved by the time we get to the proofreading stage.

Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there may be places where the reader’s eye will stop. These errors are usually introduced in the process of making final revisions, so the author and editor have no idea they are there.

If it has been edited, why are there still errors?

When making revisions, we do a lot of cutting and pasting as we move passages to better places or even remove entire sections. In some places, words might inadvertently have been left out, or punctuation may be missing at the end of a sentence.

Any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur as we make revisions, and these small errors are what we are looking for.

At the outset, the proofreader must understand that no matter how tempting it may be, they have not been invited to edit the manuscript for content. That has already been done and done again, and the author is satisfied with their novel’s arc. 

Find another proofreader if the one you have can’t refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content.

What the Proofreader Should Look For:

Spelling—misspelled words and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These are words that spell-checker may or may not catch, so a human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong:  Bobby wont out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Right:  Bobby went out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Wrong: There cat ran, and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their cat ran, and he had to chase it.

Epic Fails meme2Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These happen when making revisions, even by the most meticulous of authors. The editor won’t see any mistakes you introduce after they have completed their work on the manuscript.

These are insidious and difficult to spot, and spell-checker won’t always find them. Sometimes these errors seem like unusually garbled sentences.

  • Wrong: First of all, all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted practice thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot thoughts.
  • Right: First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Missing closed quotes at either end of the dialogue:

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man? asked Officer Shultz.
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man?” asked Officer Shultz.

Numbers that are digits:

  • Wrong: There will be 3000 guests at the reception. (It’s easy to inadvertently miss key digits.)
  • Right in certain circumstances: There will be 300 guests at the reception. (For notes and emails, we can use digits.)
  • Right: There will be three hundred guests at the reception. (In literature, we write it out.)

Dropped and missing words:

  • Wrong: Within minutes, the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table me gently while I made hot water for tea.
  • Right: Within minutes, the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table grilling me gently while I made hot water for tea.

Each time you (or a well-meaning editor) tweak the phrasing or create a new passage in your already edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error.

Do not ask an editor to proofread your manuscript, as they will be unable to resist tweaking the phrasing, asking for more changes. Editing is their nature and their job. This can go on forever, and you might iron the life out of your manuscript. You could lose the feeling of spontaneity, making your narrative feel contrived.

Conversely, you risk putting up a manuscript that looks unedited because of the flaws introduced in the proofing process.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Don’t allow someone else, even an editor, to make the changes for you. Editors are human and can inadvertently make mistakes. When they are too familiar with a manuscript, they might see what should be there rather than what is.

Any person who makes changes to the final product can inadvertently ruin it.

At some point, your manuscript is done. You have been through the editing process, and the content and structure are what you envisioned.

  • Have the manuscript proofread before you format it for print or publication.
  • Then, have the final product proofread before you press the publish button.

Those two final steps will ensure the body of the manuscript you upload to Amazon KDP or IngramSpark is as clean as you can make it.

oopsUnfortunately, my last book went live when I thought I was ordering a pre-publication proof.

I said a lot of naughty words because the paperback version and the Kindle version are two different things. There was no option to order a pre-publication copy, which would have helped me a great deal. You’re less likely to see the formatting flaws until you hold that paper book in your hand.

I don’t know if this policy of not offering pre-pub paperback proof copies has changed or not. If you are publishing to KDP for a paper or hardback, carefully go over the PDF proof that KDP offers you. Do this despite the fact it’s terribly difficult to see and understand the possible formatting errors on a PDF, unless you really know what you are doing.

That experience is why I will be hiring a professional to format my paper books in the future. I see that as money well spent.


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Write from the heart #amwriting

Writers are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter the subject or genre, we write escapes for people who need to just get away for a while.

MyWritingLife2021Our stories take the reader to exotic places and introduce them to other realities. When we publish a book, we hope it will find a reader on the day they were looking for just such an escape.

If it does, we hope we have written something reader will stay with to the end. We hope they see life and vitality in the narrative, the kind of energy we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.

No matter how well edited a manuscript is, readers will only stay with us if we allow ourselves to write from the heart. We must write what we believe is true even though the story is about people and events that never happened. If we believe in what we write, the prose will have power.

poetry-in-prose-word-cloud-4209005I wrote poetry and lyrics for a heavy metal band when I first started out. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook that my poems weren’t honest. Eighteen-year-old me was trying to make a point rather than offering ideas for further thought.

Paging through that notebook and looking back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived – I was trying too hard to be the next Bob Dylan. The words that emerged hadn’t been good enough, so I went out of my way to be clever.

When I began writing stories for my children, I knew better than to get fancy. I still wrote crap but what I wrote then was honest crap because I no longer had anyone to impress.

my-books-cjjasp-own-workChildren are unimpressed by the fact their parents might write a story or play music or paint or do any of the creative arts.

They are also blunt when they tell you where a story or a song or a picture fails to impress them and are upfront about why. Thanks to the tough audience that my children were in those beginning years, I found ways to write fairy tales with truths that weren’t shaded by what I thought art should be.

These stories were better, but they weren’t written by an educated author.

As my children left home, I had more time to learn how to write a literate, well-plotted story. I made connections with other writers and joined writing groups. That was when I discovered that an author needs to be consistent with punctuation even when writing from the heart.

I had no idea I was uneducated because I had done well in writing and literature in school. I navigated college courses with no problem other than laziness. Alas, members of my writing group pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.

steering the craft leguinAs Ursula K. LeGuin said in her excellent book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.” [1]

So, I knew a lot of words but didn’t know a lot about how to shape them. I try to embrace what I fear, so I forced myself to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar. I’m not perfect, but I try to do as well as possible. My editor still finds habitual errors.

If you are a regular reader here, you know I enjoy reading books in every genre and style.  While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation.

Often, these authors break other grammar rules with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.

Punctuation matters because it is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, yield, go again, or stop. If an author gets the punctuation right in most places, the reader can suspend their disbelief.

Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours achicago guide to grammar day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. Mr. King also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.

In my quest to understand the art of constructing a story, I have come across some pretty awful books. As a freelance editor, I have twice had work submitted to me by authors who believed a convoluted mess was ready for the publisher and just needed a bit of proofreading. No editor has the time or desire to completely rewrite a story for a client, and they will decline that project.

We all suffer agonies on hearing criticism until we have been at it for a while. At first, our skin is thin and delicate and bleeds copiously when flaws are found in the precious child that is our work.

storybyrobertmckeeEvery editor will tell you no amount of money is worth the time and effort it would take to teach an author how to write coherent, readable prose. That is what seminars, books on craft, and books on style and grammar are for.

I have said this before—I don’t consider something awful and hard to read if it is written in an old-fashioned style. However, I do think a book is awful when its author wastes my time by not learning how to construct a sentence.

And when it comes to the narrative, poetry can’t be forced, but good prose can be ruined by trying to make it poetic.

I learned the hard way that contrived prose is not poetic, nor does it prove you are talented. When poetry or good imagery emerges naturally, rejoice and keep writing. Let the imagery flow when it will, and don’t force it. Every word we write doesn’t have to be golden.

LarrysPostRapturePetSittingService_EllenKingRiceI want to read an honest story about people who seem real, who have the kind of problems we can all relate to on a human level. I want to read a story that comes from an author’s deepest soul. The setting doesn’t matter—it can be set on Mars or in Africa. Characters matter, and their story matters.

I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive the imperfections if the author has tried to be consistent and knows the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.

I love nothing more than finding a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart. If it has passages that flow naturally and strike deep into my poetry-loving soul, all the better.


[1] Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.


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