Tag Archives: writing craft

Idea to book – Project Management #amwriting

Authors who want to take their books from idea to paperback must become project managers. Like any other endeavor, writing and successfully taking your novel to publication has many steps, from “what if” to proto product, and from there to completion. It doesn’t matter if you are going indie or sticking to the traditional route.

project managementThen there is the marketing of the finished product, but that is NOT my area strength, so I won’t offer any advice on that score.

Even on the surface, writing fiction is complex.

We all know a high-quality product when we see one. The manufacturer didn’t make it out of cheap components. They put their best effort and the finest materials they could acquire into creating it. Because the manufacturer cared about their product, we are proud to own it.

For authors, the essential component we must not go cheaply on is grammar. We don’t have to be perfect—after all, the way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) adds to the feeling of depth.

to err is human to edit divineHowever, we must have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills. These rules are the law of the road, and readers expect to see them. Knowledge of standard grammar and punctuation rules prevents confusion. Readers who become confused will set the book aside and give it a one-star review.

If you have limited knowledge of grammar, your first obligation is to resolve that. The internet has many easy-to-follow self-education websites to help you gain a good understanding of basic grammar in whatever your chosen language is. One site that I like is https://grammarist.com/.

If you are writing in US English, I recommend getting a copy of the Chicago Guide to Punctuation and Grammar. If you write in UK English, purchase the Oxford A – Z of Grammar and Punctuation.

Authors who are just starting out often write erratic prose. They will be inconsistent with capitalizations, insert random commas where they think it should pause, and use exclamation points instead of allowing the narrative to show excitement. They don’t know how to punctuate dialogue, which leads to confusion and garbled prose.

We must know the rules of grammar to break them with style and consistency. How you break the rules is your unique voice.

Readers expect words to flow in a certain way. If you choose to break a grammatical rule, you must be consistent.

Tenth_of_DecemberErnest Hemingway, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. They all break the rules in one way or another, but they are deliberate and consistent. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work.  You never mistake their work for anyone else’s.

Alexander Chee employs run-on sentences and dispenses with quotation marks (which I find excruciating to read).

George Saunders writes as if he is speaking to you and is sometimes choppy in his delivery. But his work is wonderful to read.

We who write need a broad vocabulary, but we also need to be careful not to get too fancy. To be successful, we need an understanding of the tropes readers expect to find in our chosen genre. We must employ those tropes to satisfy the general expectations of our readers. How we do that is our twist, the flavor that is our unique “secret sauce.”

We don’t consciously think about this, but organizational skills are critical because we want the story to flow easily from scene to scene. This is why successful authors are project managers, even if they don’t realize it.

Identify your Project Goals. Your story is your invention. Your effort, your ideas, and the skills you have developed will determine the quality of the finished novel.

Queen of the Night alexander cheeEach author is different, and the length of time they take on a book varies. Some authors are slow—their books are in development for years before they get to the finish line. Others are fast—their novels complete and ready to be published in a relatively short time. Regardless of your timeline, this is where project management skills really come into play.

I use a phased (or staged) approach to project management. This method breaks down and manages the work through a series of distinct steps to be completed.

Concept: You have a brilliant idea. Make a note of it so you don’t forget it.

The Planning Phase: creating the outline. Some people don’t need this step, but I do.

The Construction Phasewriting the first draft from beginning to end. Take it though as many revisions as you need in order to get it the way you envision it.

Monitoring and Controlling—This is where you build quality into your product.

  • Creating a style sheet as you go. See my post on style sheets here: Self-editing: Ensuring Consistency.
  • Finding beta readers and heeding their concerns in the rewrites.
  • Taking the manuscript through as many drafts as you must to have the novel you envisioned.
  • Employing a good line editor to ensure consistency in the quality of your product.
  • Finding reliable proofreaders. (Your writing group is an invaluable resource.)

Completion—things we don’t have to worry about just yet while we are in the construction phase. But they will come up later.

  • Employing a cover designer if you are going indie.
  • Finding an agent if you are taking the traditional route.
  • Employing a professional formatter for the print version if you are going indie.
  • Courting a publisher if you are taking the traditional route.

After that comes marketing, something you must do whether you are going indie or traditional. Both paths will require serious effort on your part. 

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusBut as I said earlier, I have no skills in the area of marketing and no advice worth offering.

What I do know is this: write the basic story. Take your characters all the way from the beginning through the middle and see that they make it to the end.

Once you have completed the story and have it written from beginning to end, you can concentrate on the next level of the construction phase: revisions. This is where we flesh out scenes and add depth to the bones of our story.

Over the next few posts, I will work on some of the sublayers of depth in our next series on the craft of writing. First up, we will think about why a story isn’t finished just because it has an ending.

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

Today we’re continuing our NaNo Prep by imagining a world. These exercises will only take a few minutes unless you want to spend more time on them. They’re just a warmup, getting you thinking about your writing project. In our previous post, we asked ourselves who we think our characters might be. Now we ask, “Where do my characters live? How do they see their world?”

WritingCraftWorldbuildingEvery world in which every story is set is imaginary. This is true whether it is a memoir, a cookbook, a math book, a sci-fi novel, a contemporary novel set in London, or an encyclopedia.

All written worlds exist only in our minds, even those non-fiction books detailing recent events.

The world you paint with words will be inhabited by the characters you create. I write fantasy, and I have three created worlds, peopled with characters I cherish and places where I feel at home.

But my created worlds didn’t begin that way. They emerged as the first draft of the first novel evolved. Each world started as an idea and grew in detail as the narrative unfolded in my imagination.

But what if you aren’t writing fantasy? Creating a fantasy or sci-fi world is exactly the same as detailing a historical time or a current event.

The difference is in documentation. While you can use Google Earth to visit a distant city, read documentation concerning a historical event, or view maps drawn by contemporaries, you must create the history and landscape of your fantasy world. With fiction, your preparatory world-building is the documentation.

800px-Mount_Rainier_sunset_and_cloudsWhen writing our narrative, we want to avoid contradicting ourselves about our protagonist’s world. Keeping it all in your head is not a good idea, especially if you’re like me—too much data means I regularly have the eternal loading screen when trying to recall something. (I’ll never forget what’s-his-name.)

I recommend you create a file containing all your ideas regarding your fictional world, including the personnel files you are making. I learned to do that the hard way, so take my advice: write down your ideas, and update them with later changes.

I list all my background information in a separate Excel workbook for each book or series. You don’t have to go that far; you can use any kind of document, handwritten or digital. Many people make notes on their phones. You just need to document your ideas. If you want to get fancy, see my post, Ensuring Consistency: the Stylesheet.

Find images on the internet that are either historical or represent your ideas. Paintings and great photography inspire me and fire my imagination. Go to the internet and find maps.

If you are writing a fantasy or sci-fi novel, sketch a map. It doesn’t have to be pretty, but I recommend you use a pencil in case you need to rearrange it.

Clementines_Astoria_Dahlia_Garden2019Just like we do when creating our characters, we want to begin with a paragraph that might be the encyclopedia explanation of where the action takes place. I write fantasy, so here is the one paragraph I might start with:

The Citadel of Kyrano, a port city along the River Fleet. Its population is around five thousand, and its primary industry is wool production. Every industry in Kyrano supports the cloth trade in one way or another. The merchants’ council rules the citadel and a small armed militia keeps the peace and patrols the walls, repelling the occasional band of highwaymen.

I will ask myself several questions about Kyrano.

  • What objects do the characters see in their immediate environment?
  • When they step outside, what ambient sounds do they hear?
  • What odors and scents do they encounter indoors and out?
  • What objects do the characters interact with?
  • What weapons does this society use for protection? (swords, guns, phasers, etc.)
  • How important is religion?
  • What are the layers of society, and where do my characters fit?
  • Is the use of magic a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what is the science of that magic? What are its limits?
  • Are science and technology a part of my story? If so, who can use it, and what are its limits?

Keep your world-building document handy, or a notepad and pen. As you go about your life, observe the world around you and make notes of smells and sounds you can incorporate into your work. I spend a lot of time walking in my neighborhood, but my own backyard is a haven for birds and insects. If you plan to set your work in a fantasy or sci-fi world, what can you incorporate into it that is familiar, something the reader can identify with?

Write a paragraph or two about what you think your characters might see and hear in their environment. What do they smell? It’s been exceptionally warm and dry so far this autumn here in the Northwest. When I go outside, I smell smoke from distant wildfires. I see browning vegetation, falling leaves, and a militant spider colony attempting to annex my back porch.

An author takes an idea, translates it into words, and dares the reader to believe it. Successful fantasy and sci-fi authors take the world they see and reshape it just a little, just enough so it seems alien yet familiar.

Every novel requires world-building.

Make notes about possible places where events will occur, writing them down as they come to you. Remember, the setting for a contemporary novel requires the same thinking and the same imagining of place as a fantasy novel does.

Seattle from the w space needle 2011If I were to write a thriller set in the current Seattle of 2023, I’d want the reader to see the landscape as if they lived there. I would use the eternal gray of certain times of the year to underscore my dark themes.

In fact, world-building is nothing more than taking what we know and reshaping it into what might be and then dropping casual hints about it into the narrative. It is only the backdrop against which our characters live out their lives. But without that backdrop, the story unfolds on a barren stage.

Pike_Place_Market_SeattleThe internet has information about every kind of environment that exists on Earth. All we have to do is use it.

Google Earth is a good tool for contemporary world-building if you can’t travel to the place in person.

The websites of NASA and other international space agencies are bottomless wells of information about the environment of space and what we know about other worlds.

Over the next few months, it’s up to you who write fantasy and science fiction to take what we know and make that intuitive leap to what might be.

Those of you who write romance, or thrillers, or action adventures, cozy mysteries or any other kind of novel—you must also take what we know of this world and turn it into what might be.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting


Credits and Attributions:

Pike Place Market, by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. (Accessed October 10, 2022)

Mount Rainier Sunset and Clouds, US National Park Service, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022).

Downtown skyline in Seattle viewed from the w:Space Needle, by M.O. Stevens. Wikimedia Commons contributors, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, File:Downtown Seattle skyline from Space Needle May 2011.JPG – Wikimedia Commons (accessed October 10, 2022)

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

National Novel Writing Month is not only about writing novels. This is a month solely dedicated to the act of writing. Even if you have no intention of “doing” NaNoWriMo, it can’t hurt to think about what you might like to write.

nano-computer-word-count

November’s Goal

First, we must decide on a project. Once we know what we’re writing, we can begin laying the groundwork.

Many people know they want to write something but don’t know what. The words live within us, but how do we free them? First, we have to find out what those words want to be.

Some ideas are:

Novel

  1. What genre?
  2. What is the central theme?
  3. Who are the characters, their gender, their culture?
  4. Will you “pants it” through the plot or create an outline?

Poetry collection

  1. What genre? Free verse? Or do you prefer traditionally structured poetry? Odes, Haikus, Elegies, Sonnets, Dramatic Poetry, or Narrative Poetry? In my misspent youth, I was a musician and wrote lyrics for a heavy metal band, so I tend to write lyric poetry. I have a friend who writes sci-fi poetry.
  2. What is the central theme of this collection? (The central theme in my poetry is the landscape that shaped me, i.e., the lake where I grew up, the river emerging from the south end of it, and the hills rising above it.)
  3. Will these be random poems expressing the thoughts of the moment?
  4. Will these poems be planned to express certain ideals and beliefs?

Old booksShort story collection

  1. What genre? Or will it be a mix of genres?
  2. What is the central theme that gives shape to this collection?
  3. Will you have a recurring character binding the collection together?
  4. Will a different protagonist be featured in each?
  5. Will the stories be set in one town or in many?
  6. Will you “pants it” or write little outlines? I work both ways when it comes to short stories.

You’ve noticed that I’m repeating myself—but trust me, a fiction project is easier to create if you know what genre you are writing for and can see the central theme that will bind it together.

Memoir

  1. Have you read any memoirs? Do you know how the plots of successful memoirs are constructed?
  2. Your actual memories or a fictionalized account?
  3. Dare to name names or not?

Family history

  1. Are you just curious, or are you searching for an identity, trying to find a past to know who you are and where your family comes from?
  2. Research from a site such as ancestry.com or gleaned from family bibles, letters, and other collected papers? A combination of both?
  3. Photographs?
  4. Will you include interviews with older family members who may remember something about your family’s history?

Academic Papers

  1. Will this be the basis for a thesis, or is it an independent study?
  2. Will it become the basis for a textbook?
  3. Will you be required to conform to a specific format for disseminating the arc of information? (Structural editing.)
  4. Will you need to use a specific Academic Style Guide for grammar and mechanics? If so, where can you acquire it?

As we go toward November, we will delve further into plotting a novel or short story. We’ll also talk about structuring literary collections (short stories or poetry) so a reader will stay involved and finish the book.

Now is a good time to declare your intention to participate, if you are so inclined. But navigating the website at www.nanowrimo.org can be confusing. Take the opportunity to explore it ahead of time and get to know all the many tricks for using it. You’ll be more comfortable when November arrives.

Perhaps you haven’t been a participant for several years and are considering joining again. You’ll find the new website is quite different from the old site. Many features we used and loved in the past are no longer available. However, the new site includes many features you will enjoy. The following screenshots will help you find your way around the website:

First, go to www.nanowrimo.org. This is how the landing page looks:

nanoLandingPage

Next, create a profile. You don’t have to get fancy unless you are bored and feeling creative. On your profile page, click the “Announce New Project” button. Open this to declare your project.

profile page

dragon_fangirl’s profile page at http://www.nanowrimo.org

  1. Give your project a name if you have one. I don’t have a working title yet, so I’m going with 30 Days of Madness and Pot Pies, my all-purpose NaNo title, when I have no idea what to call my project.
  2. Pick the genre you intend to write in.
  3. Write a few paragraphs about your intended project if you know what you plan to write. If you have nothing yet, don’t worry about it.

You can play around with your personal page a little to get used to it. I use my NaNoWriMo avatar and name as my Discord name and avatar. This is because I only use Discord for NaNoWriMo and two other large writers’ organizations. (Later in this series, we’ll discuss Discord and how numerous regions rely on it for word sprints and virtual write-ins.)

While creating your profile, write a short bio. With that done, you’re good to go. If you’re feeling really creative, add a header and make a placeholder book cover—have fun and go wild.

NaNoWriMo-Menu-IconNext, check out the community tabs. The tabs will be across the top if you are in full screen. If you have the screen minimized, the button for the dropdown menu will be in the upper right corner and will look like the blue/green and black square to the left of this paragraph.

When the button is clicked, the menu will be on the right-hand side instead of across the top.

Your regional page will look different from ours because every region has a different idea of how they present themselves. It will be there in the Community tab. Also, don’t forget to check out the national forums, which can be found on the Community tab.

You may find the information you need in one of the many forums available.

Book- onstruction-sign copyBy the time November arrives, I hope that those who want to “do NaNoWriMo” will have the tools they need and the confidence to get it done.

Many people don’t choose to participate in something that intensive but still want to write. November is dark and gloomy here in the Pacific Northwest–a good month to begin a casual writing project, but often, people don’t know how to get started.

If that is you, my goal will be to get you closer to identifying what you want to write and helping you begin that project.

Whether you participate in NaNoWriMo or not, I hope to help you take that nebulous idea and turn it into written words.

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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.

Escape-synonyms-01112021LIRF

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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.
2560px-Sargent,_John_Singer_(RA)_-_Gassed_-_Google_Art_Project

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.

220px-Sir_Galahad_(Watts)

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.

LIRF07172022_B

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.

LIRF07172022

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.

storyArcLIRF10032021

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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_Quijote_and_Sancho_Panza

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.

storyArcLIRF10032021

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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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