Tag Archives: writing craft

#NaNoPrep: Signing up and getting started #amwriting

Even if you don’t have an idea of what you want to write, it’s time to go out to www.nanowrimo.org and sign in or sign up. That will inspire you!

Navigating the website at www.nanowrimo.org can be confusing. However, if you take the time to explore it and get to know all the many tricks to using it, you’ll be more comfortable with it.

If you haven’t been a participant for several years and are considering joining again, you’ll find the new website is radically different from the old site. Many features we used and loved in the past are no longer available, but it includes numerous features that really are nice. The following screenshots will help you find your way around the website:

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

nanoLandingPageOnce there, create a profile. You don’t have to get fancy unless you are bored and uber-creative.

Next, declare your project: Give your project a name if you have one. I don’t have a working title yet, so I’m just going with Accidental Novel 2 since it features the same characters as last year’s accidental novel. Pick the genre you intend to write in. Write a few paragraphs about your intended project if you know what you plan to write.

AnounceYourProject2021You 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 one other large organization of writers. (Next week, we’ll talk about Discord and why NaNoWriMo HQ wants us to use it for word sprints and virtual write-ins.)

While you are creating your profile, write a short bio, and 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.

right dropdown menu buttonNext, check out the community tabs. If you are in full screen, the tabs will be across the top. 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 right of this paragraph.

When the button is clicked, the menu will be on the righthand 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, but it will be there in the Community tab. And don’t forget to check out the national forums, also on the Community tab.

Olympia_Region_homepageYou may find the information you need in one of the many forums listed here.

Now, let’s talk about eliminating heartache and attempted suicides among authors.

Losing your files is a traumatic experience. Some authors within my writing group have lost several years of work in a surprise computer crash – an unimaginable tragedy.

I use a cloud-based storage system because entire manuscripts can go missing when a thumb drive or hard drive is corrupted.

fileFolderMake a master file folder that is just for your writing. I write professionally, so my files are in a master file labeled Writing.

Inside that master file are many subfiles, one for each new project or series. My subfile for this project is labeled Ivans_Story.

FileDocumentGive your document a label that is simple and descriptive. My NaNoWriMo manuscript will be labeled: Accidental_Novel_2.

First of all, you need to save regularly. I use a file hosting service called Dropbox. I have a lot of images on file, so I pay for an expanded version, but they do have a free version that offers you as much storage as a thumb drive. I like using a file hosting service because it can’t be lost or misplaced and is always accessible from my desktop, laptop, or Android. I work out of those files, so they are automatically saved and are where I want them when I closeout.

You can use any storage system that is free to you: Google Drive, OneDrive, or a standard portable USB flash drive.

Save regularly. Save consistently. DON’T put off saving to a backup of some sort – do it every day before you close your files.

One final thing for those who have participated in the past: NaNoWriMo HQ has announced that there will be no sanctioned in-person write-ins again this year. While this is disappointing, we care about the health of all our writers.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543Still, we can come together and support each other’s writing via the miracle of the internet. My region is finalizing a schedule for “Writer Support” meet-ups via Zoom – little gab sessions that will connect us and keep us fired up.

Our region will use the Discord Channel for nightly write-ins in the general chat and word sprints in our wordwars room. The pandemic has had one positive benefit – our region has remained active for the last year, with several intrepid writers doing nightly sprints.

Check out what you region offers you for year-round support. You might be amazed what they are doing.

The #NaNoPrep series to date:

#NaNoPrep: part 1: What’s the Story?  (the storyboard)

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 3, the End

10 Comments

Filed under writing

Character Development: Narrative Time

Last week, we discussed how the descriptive narrative of a story is comprised of three aspects:

Narrative point of view is the perspective, a personal or impersonal “lens” through which a story is communicated.

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

Narrative voice is how a story is communicated. It is the author’s fingerprint.

verb-conjugationToday we’re discussing how narrative time, or what we call tense, affects a reader’s perception of character development. In grammartense is a category that expresses time reference. Tenses are usually shown by how we use the forms of verbs, particularly in their conjugation patterns. The main tenses found in most languages include the pastpresent, and future.

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

Every story is different and requires us to use a unique narrative time.

Tense conveys information about time. It relates the time of an event (when) to another time (now or then). The tense you choose indicates the event’s location in time.

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

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

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

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

Subjunctives are insidious. The subjunctive (in the English language) is used to form sentences that do not describe known objective facts. In other words, subjunctives describe unknown intangible possibilities.

Maeve Maddox, in her article The Many Forms of the Verb To Be, says:

Of all Modern English verbs, to be has the most forms: am, are, is, was, were, be, being, been. In addition, the helping verb will is used to form a future tense with be (e.g. I will be with you in a minute.)

The forms are so different in appearance that they don’t seem to belong to the same verb. The fact is, they don’t. Oh, they do now, but they came from three different roots and merged in the Old English verbs beon and wesan.

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

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

Subjunctives are small verbs of existence, but just like adverbs, they are telling words. These words fall into our narrative in the first draft because they are signals for the rewrite.

Be_Eight_Forms_LIRF05122019In the rewrite, we look for the code words that tell us the direction in which we want the narrative to go.

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

If we write a sentence that says a character was hot and thirsty, we leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. The reader is on the outside, looking in.

When we take that experience of thirst and make it immediate, no matter what narrative tense we are writing in, it changes everything.

Which sentence feels stronger, more pressing?

  • They were hot and thirsty.
  • They trudged on with dry, cracked lips, yearning for a drop of water.
  • I walk toward the oasis with dry, cracked lips and parched tongue.

The way we show the perception of time for these thirsty characters is the same – the narrative is in the past tense in the first two cases and the present in the third.

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

“Were” is a verb, but it is subjunctive and is perceived as a weak word, where “trudged” conveys power. The narrative time in which the story is set (past or present tense), verb choice, and expansion of the imagery – these combine to change how we see the characters at that moment.

No matter what narrative tense you choose for your story, using strong verbs to describe their actions and emotions will reinforce the reader’s connection to the characters.

For my short story, View from the Bottom of a Lake, the narrative tense that worked best was a past tense, close third person.

Peggy Jayne smiled. Beneath the green-glittering gaze, her toothsome smile flayed her daughter, leaving Sarah breathless, panicking and longing for her lake.

Who are youSometimes the only way you can get into a character’s head is to write them in the first-person present tense, which happened to me with Thorn Girl. I struggled with her story for nearly six months until a member of my writing group suggested changing the narrative tense and point of view.

Once I did that, the story fell out of my head the way I had envisioned but couldn’t articulate, and I wrote it in one evening.

My first instinct is to shake my head and back away.

But I don’t. Long ago, my Lady told me that in every life, a time will come when you arrive at a precipice. You must either leap the chasm or fall to your death.

I stand at that place now.

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

powerwordsWordCloudLIRF06192021Every story is unique, and some work best in the past tense, while others need to be in the present. When we begin writing a story using a narrative time that is unfamiliar to us, we may have trouble with drifting tense and wandering narrative points of view.

This happens most frequently if you habitually write using one mode, say the third-person past tense, but switch to the first-person present tense.

For this reason, when you begin revisions, it’s crucial to look for your verb forms to make sure your narrative time doesn’t inadvertently drift.


PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Storyboarding character development 

Character Development: Motivation drives the story 

Character Development: Emotions

Character Development: Showing Emotions

Character Development: Managing the Large Cast of Characters

Character Development: Point of View

This post: Character Development: Narrative Time


Credits and Attributions:

Maeve Maddox, The Many Forms of the Verb To Be, Copyright © 2007 – 2021 Daily Writing Tips. All Right Reserved

Quote from View from the Bottom of a Lake, © 2020 Connie J. Jasperson. Story first appeared in the anthology Escape, published by the Northwest Independent Writers Association and edited by Lee French.

Quote from Thorn Girl, © 2019 Connie J. Jasperson. Story first appeared in the anthology Swords, Sorcery, and Self-rescuing Damsels, edited by Lee French and Sara Craft.

14 Comments

Filed under writing

Character Development: Showing Emotions

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level. We bandage our wounded egos and work at showing our characters’ inner demons. We spend hours writing and rewriting, forcing words into facial expressions.

depth-of-characterHappiness, anger, spite – all the emotions get a description. Eyebrows raise or draw together; foreheads crease and eyes twinkle; shoulders slump and hands tremble. Lips turn up, lips curve down, and eyes spark – and so on and so on.

Using facial expressions as dialogue tags can work when done sparingly and combined with a conversation.

But that solution can easily become a crutch that keeps us from delving deeper into our characters.

Also, it’s aggravating when it becomes repetitive.

And this brings me to the core of this post. In the early drafts of my most recent work in progress, I struggled to give my characters balanced personalities. During NaNoWriMo, when I was writing new words as quickly as I could, I leaned too heavily on the external, with a LOT of smiling and shrugging.

Those facial expressions were code words for the second draft, places where more work would be required to flesh out the scene.

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

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

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

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

It takes effort to write a narrative so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to infer what to feel (remember we are still in the inferential layer of the Word-Pond). We must make the emotion feel as if it is the reader’s idea.

If you haven’t seen this before, here is my list of surface emotions:

  • Admiration
  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Anguish
  • Anticipation
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Defeat
  • Defensiveness
  • Denial
  • Depression
  • Desire
  • Desperation
  • Determination
  • Disappointment
  • Disbelief
  • Disgust
  • Elation
  • Embarrassment
  • Ethical Quandary
  • Fear
  • Friendship
  • Grief
  • Happiness
  • Hate
  • Inadequacy
  • Indecision
  • Interest
  • Jealousy
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Powerlessness
  • Pride
  • Regret
  • Resistance
  • Revulsion
  • Sadness
  • Shock
  • Surprise
  • Temptation
  • Trust
  • Unease
  • Weakness

These are emotions you can show with either a facial expression or a physical reaction, combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alI have mentioned The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Sometimes all we need is a hint of how to show what a character is feeling, someone to point the way when we’re suffering from a blank mind.

Just don’t go overboard when describing emotions, as it can turn into mawkishness, maudlin caricatures of emotions, and over-the-top melodrama.

Readers form mental visions of the scenes you describe, and you don’t want them to find your protagonist’s reactions repulsive.

A few subtle physical hints and some internal dialogue laced into the narrative show a rounded character, one who is not mentally unhinged.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions.  Our characters must have credible reasons, too. A flash of memory or a sensory prompt can inspire emotions that a reader can empathize with.

Why does a blind alley or a vacant lot make a character nervous?

Why does a grandmother hoard food?

Why does the sight of daisies make an old woman smile?

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. Motivation is the foundation of emotion in a narrative. If a character’s eyes light up at the sight of daisies, WHY does she react with that emotion?

Emotions that are undermotivated have no base for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential. Let’s say the sight of a river sparks a memory.

The emotion hits, and the character processes it, experiencing a physical reaction.

If something sparks a memory that advances the plot or explains something about the character, simply mention it in passing. That way, you avoid dumping backstory, and the reader can extrapolate the needed information.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusOpen the thesaurus and find words that carry visual impact in your narrative, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description.

Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience of the narrative, dulling the emotional impact of what could be a highly charged scene.

Balancing the internal and external reactions our characters experience is necessary. Otherwise, all we have is a bunch of drama queens on a quest for sanity instead of heroes looking to rid the world of evil.

The books I love are written with bold, strong words and phrasing. The emotional lives of their characters are real and immediate to me. Those are the kind of characters that have depth and are memorable.

Homework assignment: A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create scenes involving characters you currently have no use for.

  1. My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013The setting is a coffee shop.
  2. You must create two to four characters.
  3. One of them is hiding a gun.
  4. One of them is angry.
  5. Give them conversations and mental dialogue and practice using their body language instead of dialogue tags.

Mixing body language into paragraphs in place of dialogue tags to show who is speaking serves several purposes:

  • It describes what they are thinking and feeling in fewer words.
  • It keeps the “he said, they said” problem down to a dull roar.

Again, common sense is required, or the scene becomes nothing but words followed by grimaces, foot shuffling, and paper rattling.

Remember, just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

PREVIOUS POSTS IN THIS SERIES:

Storyboarding character development 

Character Development: Motivation drives the story 

Character Development: Emotions

14 Comments

Filed under writing

Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World #amwriting

One of the most valuable tools an author can have to aid them in worldbuilding is the stylesheet. It costs nothing to create but is a warehouse of information about your work-in-progress. If you’re smart, it contains a glossary of created words, names, a list of sites where you got your research, and myriad notes that relate to that novel.

The post on creating this essential tool is here: Designing the Story (includes developing a stylesheet).

WritingCraftWorldbuildingIf you are writing a contemporary novel or historical work set in our real world, this is where you keep maps and maybe a link to Google Earth.

The original plot and characters of Mountains of the Moon began life as a storyline for an anime-based RPG that never went into production.

I had created the maps for the game, so I knew the topography was as much an antagonist as was the ultimate threat posed by the minions of the Bull God. I had to first build and then destroy the ecology for the game because the dangerous environment and creatures capable of elemental magic are a core plot point in the story, a threat with which the protagonist must learn to coexist.

The world of Neveyah, where Mountains of the Moon is set, is an alien environment. Yet it’s familiar, based on the world I live in, the Pacific Northwest. The plants and geography are directly pulled from the forested hills of Southern Puget Sound and Western Washington State.

The foods they have available to them are primarily those available in the pre-Columbian Americas, although chickens and sheep aren’t native to this continent. I also invented plants that served as medicines and were helpful as tools or dyes.

In 2010, I wrote the proto novel of what later became Julian Lackland as my first NaNoWriMo project. I drew on the landscape around me to create the world of Waldeyn, where the Billy’s Revenge series is set. I used familiar landscape and flora, but in this case, I invented creatures born of magic. These are beasts whose predations limit travel and the ability of technology to advance beyond the waterwheel. The quest for indoor plumbing is a thorn in the side of my favorite innkeeper, Billy Ninefingers.

How do you fit the visual world into a narrative without dumping it on the reader? I try to use the scenery to show the mood and atmosphere.

Ivan drew his cloak around himself, listening to the soft rattling of branches moving with the breeze. The occasional calls of night birds went on around him, as if he weren’t full of doubt and indistinct fears, as if he didn’t exist to them. Leaves fell, brown and harvest-dry, drifting, spiraling down to the forest floor.

For a moment, he caught the faint, disgusting scent of a water-wraith and drew his blade in case he had to rouse the others.

3-Ss-of-worldbuilding-LIRF07182021The “three S’s” of worldbuilding are critical: sights, sounds, and smells. Those sensory elements create what we know of the world. Taste rarely comes into it, except when showing an odor.

Inside the lair, the caustic atmosphere burned her eyes and throat. “Shallow breaths,” she reminded herself. The nest was huge, but Sofia climbed in and quickly grabbed the egg, slipping it inside her shirt, next to her skin. She switched the round rock into its place, positioning it as the egg had been.

 Silently, she ran back to the entrance, slipping from boulder to boulder until she disappeared into the shrubbery. Once hidden in the thick undergrowth, she breathed deeply, but the metallic aftertaste of the bitter air lingered.

In my part of the world, Douglas fir and western red cedar are the most common tree species. They both can reach up to 80 – 100 meters with a trunk up to 3 meters across. Western hemlock is shorter, only 60 meters, but has a larger trunk, up to 4 meters wide. Once a familiar tree, it became less common as old-growth forests were cut down and replaced with plantations of fast-growing Douglas fir.

Modern forest management has developed an understanding of the interdependence of diverse forest species, so a more natural approach to managed forestry has evolved.

These are the native forest trees I see in the world around me, along with big-leaf maples, alders, cottonwood, and ash. This is the world I visualize when I set a story in a forest.

What makes up your written world? How does your environment affect the way your characters live?

Darkness had fallen, but the alley’s gritty pavement still radiated a low heat. Wanda raised her eyes to see the new moon high in the black velvet sky, the distant stars obscured by the glow of neon signs and halogen streetlamps.

The odors behind the Flamingo Bar and Grill offered a pungent counterpoint to the aromas of burgers and barbecue emanating from inside. Above the back door, the weak bulb flickered but remained on, illuminating the litter.

Just a few more minutes and Bill would emerge. She knelt beside the dumpster, the gun pointed, cocked, and ready.

You might believe you can’t picture a place you haven’t been. Why?

Open your eyes and look around.

Sunset_Cannon_Beach_05_August_2019At this moment, inside your room and outside your door, you have all the elements you need to create an alien or alternate world.

These elements might exist before your eyes, or they live in your memory. Use what you know.

Reshape your environment, reuse it, and make it your fictional world.

 


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

Worldbuilding Part 2: Maps, Place-names, and Consistency

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World

Up Next: Worldbuilding Part 4: Designing the Parameters of Science and Magic


Credits and Attributions:

Sunset by Connie J. Jasperson © 2019, All Rights Reserved.

7 Comments

Filed under writing

Designing the story #amwriting

July is Camp NaNoWriMo month. If you are interested, join Camp NaNoWriMo to take on any writing project, novel or not, and set a word-count goal of your own. Yes, any goal, any project.

Words-And-How-We-Use-ThemI think of stories as if they were ponds filled with words. A pond has layers, and so do good stories. I see the three layers of a story as:

Surface: The Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. Characters live, and events happen. These are reflected in the surface of the story. We change the look of the surface layer by choosing either realism or surrealism or a blend of the two.

Realism is a common form of storytelling. It is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of story. The setting can be anywhere and told using the tropes of any genre. The reality of that world is solid and never changes.

Surrealism takes the feeling of a real world and gives it a slightly hallucinogenic twist. Everything feels real, but on the surface, it makes no sense. One must find understanding in each small increment rather than the larger chunks we are used to absorbing.

Beneath the story’s surface lies the middle: This is the area of unknown quantity filled with cause and effect: events and reactions. We see why these characters’ lives are important enough to be portrayed and why events happened. This is where emotions muddy the waters. It is a layer where inference and implication come into play.

Bottom: The Interpretive Layer. This level is not only foundational; it contains and shapes the story:

  • Themes
  • Voice/style
  • Messages
  • Symbolism
  • Archetypes

The words in this pond behave like the waters of a pond in nature. While close scrutiny reveals that the waters of a pond are separated into layers by temperature, salinity, microbial life, or by the sheer weight and pressure of the volume of water, the overall structure is one large, important thing: a hole filled with water.

Without water, a pond is a depression in the ground filled with possibilities only. The same is true for a novel.

If you want to write anything, it’s best to sit down and get that first draft out of you while the story is fresh in your mind. You’ll spend a year or more rewriting a novel, but if you don’t get the original ideas and entire story down while they’re fresh, you’ll lose them.

Many people say they intend to write a book. They begin, get a chapter or so into it, and lose the thread. They can’t see how to get the story from the beginning, to the crisis, to the resolution.

I draft a story plan in four acts. First, I tell myself how I believe the story will go. This only takes half an hour and gives me finite plot points, destinations where each section of the story will end. Once I have the four acts, I know where the turning points are and what should happen at each. The outline ensures there is an arc to both the overall story and to the characters’ growth.

A good way to discover what you are writing is to “think out loud.” Divide the story into four acts. Acts two and three are really one long extension of each other.

short-story-arcAct 1: the beginning: We show the setting, the protagonist, and the opening situation.

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

Act 3.: Mid-point: We show their dire condition and how they deal with it.

Act 4: Resolution: Let’s end this misery in a way that feels good.

Take a moment to analyze and plan what needs to be said by what point in the story arc. This method works for me because I’m a linear thinker.

PostItNotePadI have mentioned before that I use a spreadsheet program to outline my projects, but you can use a notebook or anything that works for you. You can do this by drawing columns on paper by hand or using post-it notes on a whiteboard or the wall. Some people use a dedicated writer’s program like Scrivener.

Everyone thinks differently, so there is no one perfect way to create that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

If it’s an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the important characters by name and list the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

On page two of the workbook, I create a page that outlines the projected story arc chapter by chapter.

Page three of the workbook is most important—it is the list of made-up words, names, and places. The way they appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I plow along, laying down prose.

Update the glossary page anytime a name is added or changed, or new place or made-up word is added.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central piece that keeps the events happening in a logical way.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009.

screenshotStyleSheetLIRF06262021We never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. The plan serves to keep us on track with length and to ensure the action doesn’t stall.

If you know the length of a book or story you intend to write, you know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters you need to devote to that section.

As you write each event and connect the dots, the plot will evolve and change. You begin to explore the deeper aspects of the story. Emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, secrets withheld, truths discovered—all these details that emerge as you write will shape how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions will alter the shape of the larger story.

Creating a project for Camp NaNoWriMo is a good way to get into the habit of writing new words every day. When you write every day, you develop strengths and knowledge of the craft. Give yourself the gift of half an hour of private writing time every day.

You’ll never know what you’re capable of until you try.


Credits and Attributions:

DangApricot (Erik Breedon), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, ‘File:PostItNotePad.JPG’, Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, 26 August 2020, 17:42 UTC, <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:PostItNotePad.JPG&oldid=443715836> [accessed 26 June 2021]

10 Comments

Filed under writing

Fundamentals of Writing: 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 that take it from idea to proto-product to completion. It doesn’t matter if you are going indie or sticking to the traditional route.

ProjectManagementLIRF05232021Then 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. The way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) adds to the feeling of depth. We must have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills as they are the rules of the road and prevent confusion:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation

If you have a 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/.

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

Uneducated authors write erratic prose with inconsistent capitalizations, random commas, and use too many exclamation points. They show no understanding of how to punctuate dialogue, which leads to confusion and garbled prose.

Authors 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 absolutely must be consistent about it.

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. All of them break the rules in one way or another, but they are deliberate and consistent. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work. Their prose is magnificent, and 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 need a broad vocabulary, but we also need to be careful not to get too fancy with it. To be successful, we need an understanding of the tropes common to 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.

The first aspect of this is to Identify your Project Goals. Your story is your invention. You want to sell that invention, so your effort and the materials you create it out of are what determine the quality of the finished product.

Some inventions are in development for years before they get to market. Others are complete and ready to market 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. This method breaks down and manages the work through a series of distinct steps to be completed.

  1. Concept: The Brilliant Idea. Make a note of that idea, so you don’t forget it.
  2. The Planning Phase: creating the outline. Some people don’t need this step, but I do.
  3. The Construction Phase—writing the first draft from beginning to the end through multiple drafts.
  4. Monitoring and Controlling—This is where you build quality into your product.
    1. BGoogle Sheets Storyboard Template Screenshot 2017-10-15 07.13.09 cjjaspBCreating a style sheet as you go. See my post on style sheets here: Self-editing: Ensuring Consistency.
    2. Finding beta readers and heeding their concerns in the rewrites.
    3. Taking the manuscript through as many drafts as you must in order to have the novel you envisioned.
    4. Employing a good line editor to ensure consistency in the quality of your product.
    5. Finding reliable proofreaders. (Your writing group is an invaluable resource.)
  5. Completion or Closing—
    1. Employing a cover designer if you are going indie.
    2. Finding an agent if you are taking the traditional route.
    3. Employing a professional formatter for the print version if you are going indie.
    4. Courting a publisher if you are taking the traditional route.

After that comes marketing, whether you are going indie or traditional. Both paths require serious effort on your part. But as I said earlier, I have no professional skills in the area of marketing. I recommend you seek professional help but be wary—the waters are full of starving sharks waiting to devour you and your savings.

ok to write garbage quote c j cherryhWrite the basic story. Take your characters all the way from the beginning through the middle and see that they make it to the end. If you have completed the story and have it written from beginning to end, you can concentrate on the next level of the construction phase: adding depth.

We will work on some of the sublayers of depth in our next series on the craft of writing. First up, we will examine why your story isn’t finished just because it now has an ending.

10 Comments

Filed under writing

Writing the Short Story part 2: indirect speech #amwriting

In a short story, our words are limited, so we must craft our prose to convey a sense of naturalness. Scenes have an arc of rising and ebbing action, so let’s consider how conversation fits into the arc of the scene.

J.R.R. Tolkien said that dialogue must have a premise or premises and move toward a conclusion of some sort. If nothing comes of it, the conversation is a waste of the reader’s time.

What do we want to accomplish in this scene? Ask yourself three questions.

  1. Who needs to know what?
  2. Why must they know it?
  3. How many words do you intend to devote to it?

My rule of thumb is, keep the conversations short and intersperse them with scenes of actions that advance the plot.

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

  1. To reveal story information
  2. To reveal character
  3. To set the tone
  4. To set the scene
  5. To reveal theme

So now that we know what must be conveyed and why, we find ourselves in the minefield of the short story: 

  • Delivering the backstory.

Don’t give your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of uninterrupted dialogue. A short story has no room for bloated exposition.

Let’s look at a scene that opens upon a place where the reader and the protagonists must receive information. The way the characters speak to us can take several forms:

  1. Direct discourse. Nattan said, “I was going to give it to Benn in Fell Creek, but he wasn’t home, and I had to get on the road.”
  2. Italicized thoughts: Nattan stood looking out the window. Benn’s not home. What now?
  3. Free indirect speech: Nattan stood looking out the window. Benn wasn’t home, so who should he give it to?

Examples two and three are versions of indirect speech, which is a valuable tool in your writer’s toolbox

Wikipedia describes free indirect speech this way:

Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration which uses some of the characteristics of third-person along with the essence of first-person direct speech; it is also referred to as free indirect discoursefree indirect style, or, in Frenchdiscours indirect libre.

Free indirect discourse can be described as a “technique of presenting a character’s voice partly mediated by the voice of the author” (or, reversing the emphasis, “that the character speaks through the voice of the narrator”) with the voices effectively merged. This effect is partially accomplished by eliding direct speech attributions, such as “he said” or “she said”.

The following is an example of sentences using direct, indirect and free indirect speech:

  • Quoted or direct speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. “And just what pleasure have I found, since I came into this world?” he asked.
  • Reported or normal indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. He asked himself what pleasure he had found since he came into the world.
  • Free indirect speechHe laid down his bundle and thought of his misfortune. And just what pleasure had he found, since he came into this world?

According to British philologist Roy Pascal, Goethe and Jane Austen were the first novelists to use this style consistently and nineteenth century French novelist  Flaubert was the first to be consciously aware of it as a style. [1]

When I began writing seriously, I was in the habit of using italicized thoughts and characters talking to themselves as a way to express what was going on inside of them.

That isn’t necessarily wrong. When used sparingly, thoughts and internal dialogue have their place. When they are used as a means for dumping information, they can become a wall of italicized words.

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_Pacing

In the last few years, as I’ve evolved in my writing habits, I am drawn more and more to the various forms of free indirect speech as a way of showing who my characters think they are and how they see their world.

The main thing to watch for when employing indirect speech in a short story is to stay only in one person’s head. Remember, short stories are limited for space, so it’s essential to only tell the protagonist’s story.

In  longer pieces, such as novels, you could show different characters’ internal workings provided you have clear scene or chapter breaks between each character’s dialogue.

If you aren’t careful, you can slip into “head-hopping,” which is incredibly confusing for the reader. First, you’re in one person’s thoughts, and then another—it’s like watching a tennis match.

When you are limited in word count, you must find the most powerful ways to get the story across with a minimum of words. Showing important ruminations as an organic part of the unfolding plot is one way to give information and reveal a character while keeping to lean, powerful prose.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Free indirect speech,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Free_indirect_speech&oldid=817276599 (accessed March 30, 2021).

7 Comments

Filed under writing

Foreshadowing #nanowrimo2020 #amwriting

November is half over, and we are on the downward slide for NaNoWriMo 2020. This is a good time to think about where you are taking your story.

Good foreshadowing is crucial. Suppose you have been working from an outline. In that case, you should have a few clues embedded in the first quarter of the story to subliminally alert the reader that things are not what they seem. These are little warning signs of future events.

For those who wing it, this happens on a subconscious level, but it does happen. Clumsy foreshadowing or neglecting to foreshadow are things we do when laying down our story’s first draft.

Recognizing those signals can be a challenge unless you have a plan.

When a possibility is briefly, almost offhandedly mentioned, but almost immediately overlooked or ignored by the protagonists, that is foreshadowing.

Some readers will miss the suggested possibility just as the unsuspecting characters do. Other readers will guess what is going on.

We subtly insert small hints, little offhand references to future events. If the narrative is well-written, readers will stick with it as they will want to see how it plays out.

The most crucial aspect of foreshadowing is the surprise when all the pieces fall into place. This is the moment when the reader says, “I should have seen that coming.”

We have many reasons to pursue good foreshadowing skills. In my opinion, the most important is that it helps avoid using the clumsy Deus Ex Machina (pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah) (God from the Machine) as a way to miraculously resolve an issue.

A Deus Ex Machina occurs when, toward the end of the narrative, an author inserts a new event, character, ability, or otherwise resolves a seemingly insoluble problem in a sudden, unexpected way.

Foreshadowing also helps us avoid the opposite ungainly device, the Diabolus Ex Machina (Demon from the machine). This is the bad guy’s counterpart to the Deus Ex Machina.

Death on a Pale Horse, William Blake c. 1800 (via Wikimedia Commons)

That occurs when the author suddenly realizes the evil his character faces isn’t evil enough. We see the sudden introduction of an unexplained new event, character, ability, or object designed to ensure things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists.

As a reader, I hate it when a character suddenly develops a new skill or knowledge without explanation. When this happens, it’s usually explained away as a Chekhov’s Skill.

You need to mention previous examples of the characters using or training that skill. Without briefly foreshadowing that ability, the reader will assume the character doesn’t have it.

This is when the narrative becomes unbelievable.

Literature and the expectations of the reader are like everything else. They evolve and change over the centuries.

In genre fiction today, a prologue may or may not be a place for foreshadowing. This is because modern readers don’t have the patience to wade through large chunks of exposition dumped in the first pages of a novel.

Shakespeare used both exposition and foreshadowing. Larger events may be foreshadowed through the smaller events that precede them.

Let’s look at Romeo and Juliet and the scene where Benvolio is trying to talk Romeo out of his infatuation for Rosaline.

“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,

And the rank poison of the old will die.” 

In other words, “The minute you see a different girl, you’ll forget this one, Bro.”

Benvolio’s advice proves to be correct because as soon as Romeo lays eyes on Juliet, he forgets his obsession with Rosaline.

And again, later, when Benvolio brings the news that Mercutio is dead, Romeo says,

“This day’s black fate on more days doth depend; 

This but begins the woe, others must end.”

Romeo is predicting that Mercutio’s death is a disaster for everyone and feels as if he is racing toward an unknown future.

In that moment, we see that Romeo is deeply aware that he has reached a point of no return.

He will fight Tybalt to avenge Mercutio because his society requires it. Therefore, he must duel but is fully aware that killing Tybalt won’t resolve anything. Instead, the murder will only perpetuate the problem.

Romeo has seen the foreshadowing and knows he is no longer in control of his fate.

Inserting small hints of what is to come into your narrative gives the protagonists an indication of where to go next.

It tantalizes a reader and keeps them turning the page.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:DickseeRomeoandJuliet.jpg&oldid=431079125 (accessed November 17, 2020).

Painting: Death on a Pale Horse, Commissioned from Blake and acquired by Thomas Butts c. 1800 (via Wikimedia Commons)

9 Comments

Filed under writing

Mid #NaNoWriMo Update: Best Laid Plans Gone Awry #amwriting

Well, I’m not sure how it happened, but I am now halfway through the first draft of a novel I didn’t intend to write. This book didn’t exist last month even as a possibility, so I began writing it with absolutely no outline.

I may have a working title.

Or not.

It is set in the world of Neveyah, so I do have an Excel workbook containing basic maps and a style sheet for word-usage. I know the ecology and the kind of society the protagonists live in well. Thankfully, the world is solidly built. I keep the Neveyah Excel workbook/style guide open while I am writing and regularly add new usages and made-up words.

I am also updating the general map as I go along.

The way this came about was this: On Nov 1, day one of NaNoWriMo 2020, I sat down and began pounding out the ending for  Bleakbourne on Heath. I had outlined it well, so writing the final chapters took far less time than I planned for, only two days.

On day four, I immediately plunged into my other work-in-progress, writing my antagonist’s story, just as I had planned. That went amazingly well for a day, and I made serious headway on his character arc.

On day five, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about the tainted artifacts. Yet, these relics are significant traps for the protagonists.

That raised a question. Where did the mage-traps originally come from, and who had the dark magic and skills to make them? On the day of the Sundering of the Worlds, the universe intervened. Tauron, the Bull God, was barred from physically entering the World of Neveyah.

So, they must have been created before the Sundering. At the time of Daryk’s story, a thousand years have passed since the Sundering. What dark properties allowed this artifact to conceal itself for a millennium? Where did Kegan get the relic, this mage-trap, that he used to ensnare Daryk?

I always start my backstory in a separate document, so I began telling myself the story.

The next thing I knew, I was writing a novel detailing the path of the tainted artifact.

Now, I am so focused on this that I can hardly think of anything else. I was like this for Huw the Bard and Tower of Bones.

I know I’m nuts, but I have now written over 50,000 words on that story alone, and (fingers crossed) this first draft should be concluded by the end of the month. Whether or not I ever take it beyond first draft to publication is another question. Still, I’m having fun with it, and the exercise is serving its purpose.

Writing this backstory has several functions. First, I am writing the outline as I go, and keeping the ultimate goal in mind gives me a finite point to write to. When I pause to plan my next steps, I can look at this book’s page in my workbook and see the story arc to that point. I will then decide what has to happen to get the protagonists to their next obstacle.

This has been a productive world-building exercise. In this time, the world is beginning to recover from the catastrophic war of the gods. The ecosystem is rebounding, and as life becomes easier, values are changing. The original fifty tribes are starting to go apart, to form distinct cultures.

Society is splintering—a small number of tribes are leaving their roots behind, becoming tribeless. During this time of transition, these tribeless citadels have shifted to a more commerce-driven economy. There are positives on both sides of this, and for both emerging cultures, resistance to change is pointless.

As I write, I am discovering how the artifact manipulates its owners. In writing this historical piece, I find things popping up that need to be noted on my other work-in-progress outline. Because of that, I am making good headway on fleshing out the outline of Daryk’s side of the story.

Writing this backstory helps me understand the negative changes to his personality and makes them logical. Regardless of whether I ever choose to publish this little fun-run, I’m having a great time writing it.

To me, that is what NaNoWriMo is all about—writing something that has been simmering in the back of your mind and having the best time of your life doing it.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Landscape MET DP800938.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Landscape_MET_DP800938.jpg&oldid=451365649 (accessed November 15, 2020).

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Semicolon; comma splice; comma (revisited) #amwriting

Here we are, entering the second week of National Novel Writing Month. It’s a good time to review the rules for the punctuation that we use (and abuse) so regularly. This essay first posted on March 14, 2018, so if you’re already up on these rules, thank you for stopping by and happy writing!


First up, the semicolon.

This joining punctuation is not complicated, once you know the one rule about when to use semicolons:

If you join two clauses with a semicolon, each clause must be a complete sentence, and they must relate to each other. In other words, they must be two short sentences expanding on ONE idea.

If your two short sentences don’t relate to each other, use a period at the end of each clause and make them separate sentences. You’re an author, for the love of Tolstoy. Use your creativity and reword those little sentences, so they aren’t choppy.

Two separate ideas done wrong: We should go to the Dairy Queen; it’s nearly half past five.

The first sentence is one whole idea: they want to go somewhere. The second sentence is a completely different idea: it’s telling you the time.

Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of time is important: We should go to the Dairy Queen soon. They close at eight, and it’s nearly half past five.

If time is the issue in both clauses and you want it to be once sentence, use a semicolon, reword it to say, “The Dairy Queen is about to close; it’s nearly half past five.”

On the other hand, you can join them with the em dash. My personal inclination is to find alternatives to both semicolons and em dashes, as they can easily create run-on sentences.

I don’t dislike them, as some editors do, but I think they are too easily abused and misused. My rule for you is this: Semicolons should not be used if you are in doubt.

Some authors will do anything to avoid using a semicolon, which is ridiculous. However, they see their work is a little choppy, so they join the independent clauses with commas.

That is a grammar no-no. You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuumthe Dreaded Comma Splice.

If you join independent clauses with commas and we all die, you’ll only have yourself to blame because I did warn you.

Comma Splice: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu and I like it, the dog likes to ride shotgun.

Same two thoughts, written correctly: My car is a blue Chevy Malibu, and I like it. The dog likes to ride shotgun.

But what do we join with commas? Commas are the universally acknowledged pausing and joining symbol. Readers expect to find commas separating certain clauses. Some simple rules to remember:

  1. Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
  2. Do not insert commas where you think it should pause because every reader sees the narrative differently.

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

  1. In the first sentence, “because he was afraid” isn’t necessary.

I italicized the introductory clause in the above sentence to show that it is not a stand-alone sentence. This clause introduces the clause that follows it, and its meaning is dependent on that following clause.

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, and so to separate two independent clauses. They are called coordinating conjunctions.

However, we don’t always automatically use a comma before the word “and.” This is where it gets confusing.

Compound sentences combine two separate ideas (clauses) into one compact package. A comma should be placed before a conjunction only if it is at the beginning of an independent clause. So, use the comma before the conjunction (and, but, or) if the clauses are standalone sentences. If one of them is not a standalone sentence, it is a dependent clause, and you do not add the comma.

Take these two sentences: She is a great basketball player. She prefers swimming.

  1. If we combine them this way, we add a comma: She is a great basketball player, but she prefers swimming.
  2. If we combine them this way, we don’t: She is a great basketball player but prefers swimming.

I hear you saying, “Now wait a minute! My English teacher very clearly taught us to use commas to join clauses.”

I’m sorry, but she probably did explain that exception. It just didn’t stick in your memory.

Two complete ideas can be joined with ‘and’ and you don’t need a comma.

Think of it as a list: if there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma.  I am buying apples and then going to the car wash.

If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used to separate them, with a comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the final item/idea. This is called the Oxford comma, or the serial comma.

I must buy apples, go to the car wash, and then go to the library.

Oh yes, my friend. We do use serial commas to prevent confusion. In March of 2017, the New York Times reported that the omission of a comma between words in a list in a lawsuit cost a Maine company millions of dollars.

One habit I had to unlearn the first time I sent my work to a professional line editor:

  1. Do not place a comma before the word ‘because’ unless the information that follows is necessary to the sentence.

Grammar doesn’t have to be a mystery. If we want to write narratives that all speakers of English from Seattle, to London, to Mumbai, and to Brisbane can read, we must learn the simple common rules of the road. To this end, I recommend investing in The Chicago Guide to Grammar and Punctuation. It is based on The Chicago Manual of Style but it’s smaller and the contents are easier to navigate.

If a sentence feels muddled but you think a reader won’t notice, you are wrong. Be a little daring… crack open the grammar book or go online and look up the rules. You will become more confident in your writing, and your work will go faster.

10 Comments

Filed under writing