Tag Archives: writing craft

Employing polarity  #amwriting

When we have finished the first draft of our story and come back to revise it later, we find that in places, our characters seem two dimensional.

Certain passages stand out; the characters have life, intensity. Their emotions grab us, and we feel them come alive. We see them as sharply as the author intends.

In other passages, they are flat, lacking any sort of spark.

When we add contrast to the scenery – polarity – the setting comes alive. The imaginary world of the narrative becomes as real to the reader as the world of their living room.

The same is true for how we show our characters.

Word choice matters. How we phrase a passage makes an immersive experience or throws the reader out of the book.

Our goal is to make vivid sensory images for our readers.

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 one sneaky one:

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

Characters grow more distinct when portrayed with subtle contrasts. We all know opposites attract; it’s a fundamental law of physics. Contrast – polarity – supplies a needed missing component of the narrative, giving the important elements strength.

Polarity gives your theme dimension. Remember, the theme is the backbone of your story, the 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 subthemes. For example, young vs. old is a common polarity 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 offers an author the opportunity to delve into social issues and inequities. This polarity has great potential for conflict, which creates a deeper narrative.

What we must see beyond the obvious are the smaller, more subtle polarities we can instill into our work. Small, nearly subliminal conflicts support the main theme and add texture to the narrative.

  • Without injustice, there is no need for justice. Justice only exists because of injustice.
  • The absence of pain, emotional or physical, is only understood when someone has suffered pain. Until we have felt severe pain, we don’t even think about the lack of it. In literature, emotional pain can be a thread adding dimension to an otherwise stale relationship.
  • Truth and falsehood. The fundamental issue of trust adds drama to a plot and provides a logical way to underscore a larger theme.

Throughout the narrative, ease should be contrasted with difficulty. This is called pacing.

Many commonly used words have opposites, such as the word attractive, the opposite of which is repulsive. When you want to add texture to your narrative, look at how you could show the mood and the emotions of a scene by using antonyms, words with contrasting meanings.

  • create – destroy
  • crooked – straight/honorable
  • cruel – kind

Each polarity has many nuances. In daily life, cowardice is most often exhibited as a subtle, habitual evasion of the truth or as an avoidance mechanism. It can be shown in an act as mild as a fib. Or, it can be an event as large as an act of treason committed for personal gain.

Bravery can be as small as a person facing a silly fear, as large as a person not backing down when a strong personality attempts to assert authority over them, or as epic as a responder entering a burning building to rescue a victim.

When we have characters who contrast subtle acts of bravery with small acts of cowardice we add power to a scene.

In all its many forms, contrast is a catalyst for change when we wish to electrify an otherwise bland scene.

It’s the fertile soil from which conflict grows. Each small polarity pushes your characters a bit further and underscores your larger theme.

Here is a sample of words found in the “D” section of  the  Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. This small selection is filled with opposites that 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

Every time you employ polarities in your word selections, you show something about the world or a character without having to tell it.

You add a dimension of depth.

I love and regularly use the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms to spur my creativity. It can be purchased in paperback, so it’s not too expensive. Often you can find these sorts of reference books second hand. The internet is also your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This website is a free resource.

Opposites add dimension and rhythm to our work. Polarity is an essential tool of world building.

Polarities, words that show contrast add dimension to an otherwise flat depiction, showing a written world that is as clear to the reader as the room they inhabit.

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Schadenfreude and Humor #amwriting

September is conference month for me. I just finished attending the Southwest Washington Writers’ Conference in Centralia, Washington. On Thursday the 12th of September, I will be in Seattle for four days at the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Conference.

I will be attending a masters’ class offered by Donald Maass, on exploring depth with The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Writers’ conferences are great ways to connect with agents and publishers, but they are also excellent ways to connect with other writers. A good conference offers the best education a new and beginning author can get.

This last Saturday, while in a seminar on injecting humor into the narrative, I reconnected with an old word that is making a resurgence in the English language: Schadenfreude (shah-den-froid-deh) This word from our Germanic roots describes the experience of happiness or self-satisfaction that comes from witnessing or hearing about another person’s troubles, failures, or humiliation.

I discovered this lovely (Deutsch) German word years ago while in college and had forgotten it. However, we are all familiar with it, as we experience it on a personal level quite often.

About schadenfreude, Via Wikipedia:

Schadenfreude is a complex emotion, where rather than feeling sympathy towards someone’s misfortune, schadenfreude evokes joyful feelings that take pleasure from watching someone fail. This emotion is displayed more in children than adults; however, adults also experience schadenfreude, though generally concealed.

In other words, we know it’s an uncharitable emotion, and we don’t like it in others. But for many centuries, popular humor had an aspect of schadenfreude to it. Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Jerry Lewis were all popular comedy acts of the 20th century who employed physical comedy that evoked a feeling of schadenfreude in the audience.

Since the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Egyptians began writing plays, people have always enjoyed seeing other people’s missteps and pratfalls as long as the comedian recovers with a smile and “keeps on keepin’” on. Aristotle said that we are amused when we feel superior to others.

Dr. Adam Potthast, in his 2016 thesis on the Ethics of Slapstick Humor discussed how the recurring themes of clowns and idiots in popular slapstick comedy evoke a subtle feeling of superiority and also desensitizes us to violence. It makes bullying acceptable.

And, until recent years, dealing with bullying has been a common theme of childhood that teachers and parents, all former victims of bullying, weren’t equipped to deal with. According to Andy Luttrell in his post for Social Psych Online, psychologists believe we find something funny when it’s a “benign violation.” In other words, we are amused by things and incidents that violate the way we think things should work and which do so in a non-threatening manner.

In our current society, we don’t want to promote bullying or harassment as a positive thing in any form. But in the narrative, we do want to inspire that feeling of “payback” in the reader whenever roadblocks—instant karma—temporarily halt the Antagonist. If we can inject a little humor into a narrative, the reader feels an extra burst of endorphins and keeps turning the pages.

Exchanges of snarky dialogue (mocking irreverence and sarcasm) liven up regrouping scenes, transitions from one event to the next.

Humor and what is hilarious can vary widely from person to person. E. B. White wrote, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process, and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”

He was right. I can’t know what you find humorous, but I do know what makes me smile. I like snark and witty comments. I like things that surprise me, and which take a sudden detour from the expectations of normal.

Some of us have an earthy sense of humor, while others are more cerebral. For me, humor occurs when conventional rules are undercut or warped by incongruity. I have never liked slapstick as a visual comedy, but Horror authors often have it right: in the narrative, putting your characters through a little comedic disaster now and then can’t hurt.

When I was growing up, my family ran on “gallows humor” and still does, to a certain extent. We put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

That grim and ironic tendency to find humor in a desperate or hopeless situation is a fundamental human emotion.

This is why I often find myself writing gallows humor into my own work. We all need something to lighten up with now and then.

Adding a little humor can add both depth and pathos to the characters, humanizing them without your having to resort to an info dump. Each individual character’s sense of humor (or lack thereof) shows more of who they are and why the reader should care about them.

For many reasons, humor is an aspect of depth in the narrative that is impossible to fully define, but which adds a little fresh air at places where the story arc could otherwise stall.

Humor in literature occurs on an organic level, arising during the first draft before the critical mind has a chance to iron it out. Have you found yourself writing the occasional hilarity into your work? If not, why not? What holds you back from expressing this aspect of your personality in your work?

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The Inferential Layer: Motives #amwriting

We talk a lot about motivation, in rather general terms. We ask what the characters want most and what they’re willing to do to obtain it. As an overview, that’s a good place to start.

Motivation is sometimes defined as the overall quest. Motives are more intimate, secrets held closely by the characters.

Consider the quest to destroy the One Ring. Every person in the Fellowship is motivated by the need to keep the One Ring from falling into Sauron’s hands. This is the acknowledged reason for their accompanying Frodo and is the core plot point around which the story unfolds.

Yet they each have secret thoughts and desires, some of which are subconscious. Some have plans that are left unspoken.

Each member of the Fellowship has personal reasons for volunteering to accompany Frodo to Mordor. In the end, those secret motives are the undoing of some and the making of others.

Samwise is a loyal friend who refuses to leave Frodo’s side. Fear that Frodo will need him forces him to insist on being included. Pippin and Merry have similar but different reasons—they don’t want to be left out if Frodo and Sam are going to have an adventure. Their motives are simple at the outset but become more complicated as their stories diverge and unfold. Pippin and Merry are separated from Frodo and Sam at Amon Hen. In the process, these four young hobbits lose their youthful naiveté and become leaders, warriors to be counted on when the going is rough.

Boromir desires the ring for what he believes is a noble purpose, and intends to take it to Minas Tirith. This is evident at the beginning of the Council of Elrond, but he soon sees he won’t achieve his overall goal unless he agrees to join the quest to destroy it. He tells himself he wants it so he can preserve Gondor. In reality, he knows the power of the ring and believes that by his possessing it, Gondor will return to its former glory and be safe forever. He will rule the world with a just hand. His true motive is a quest for personal power.

When we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled—a quest of some sort. For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal, but he/she also must have secret, underlying motives not specifically stated at the outset. Each of the supporting character’s involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

The Antagonist must also have motives both stated and unstated. He/she has a deep desire to thwart the protagonist, but there are reasons for this, a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad-guy and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

Motivation is a major current in the inferential layer of the story. The hints of backstory, combined with clues, information delivered via conversation, should show each character as an individual. They must have underlying personal reasons that have nothing to do with acquiring the object or achieving the goal. These secret motives may or may not be important enough to be stated.

The hints and clues can be divulged both in conversation with the character in question or about them. Either way, snippets of dialogue are a useful tool for offering the protagonist and the reader information as needed.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason, or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse.

The fundamental laws of physics, the rules that govern the universe are in force here: Nothing that occurs happens for no reason whatsoever. There is always a causative factor. Without a cause, there is no effect. Cause is motivation. Effect becomes cause, which becomes motivation. Motivation is a chain reaction of cause and effect, which becomes the story.

And it’s all traceable back to the character’s first idea, their first secret desire to do or have something.

When we look at things this way, we see that motivation must be a multilayered thing if we are to have well-rounded characters, people the reader can believe in.

Characters that feel too shallow sometimes lack sufficient personal motivations for buying into the larger quest. If we have supplied each character with a secret backstory, those hinted-at motives can sometimes push the story into newer, more original waters.

And isn’t that what we readers are looking for? We read because we are searching for a story that feels new, offers us a fresh view of the world through the characters’ eyes.

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The Word-Pond – Surface #amwriting

Story is an arc of action, but it is also a deep pond filled with words. Today we are looking at the visible layer, the surface.

When you look at a real pond you will see the effects of the world around it reflected in its surface. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

Add in a storm and things change. The waters move; ripples and small waves stir the waters, which only reflect the dark gray of stormy sky.

The surface of the Word-Pond is the Literal Layer; the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer.

The storms that alter the surface are the events and the way our characters move through them.

This surface layer is comprised of

  • Setting,
  • Action and Interaction,
  • All visual/physical experiences of the characters as they go about their lives.

The surface of a story is like a picture. When we look at it we immediately see something recognizable. The surface is comprised of:

Setting – things such as:

  1. Objects the characters see in their immediate environment
  2. Ambient sounds that form the background of the immediate environment
  3. Odors/scents of the immediate environment.
  4. Objects the characters interact with in their immediate environment.
  5. Weapons (swords, guns, phasers)

The still, reflective surface of the word-pond is affected by the breeze that stirs it. As mentioned above, the breeze is made of the action and events that form the arc of the story:

  1. The opening.
  2. The inciting incident.
  3. Rising action and events that evolve from the inciting incident.
  4. The introduction of new characters.
  5. The action that occurs between the protagonist and antagonist as they jockey for position.
  6. The final showdown

These components form the literal layer because they appear to be the story.

How do we shape this literal layer? We can add fantasy elements, or we can stick to as real an environment as is possible.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll showed us that while surrealism is a large, ungainly concept to describe, it can be incorporated into the literal layer. An author might build into the setting an unusual juxtaposition of objects. The characters behave and interact with their environment as if the bizarre things are normal. The setting may have a slightly hallucinogenic feel to it, making the reader wonder if the characters are dreaming. The placement of the unusual objects is deliberate, meant to convey a message or to poke fun at a social norm. Surrealism on the surface level takes what is real and warps it to convey a subtler meaning but doesn’t say “Look what I did!” It tries to pass as “normal.”

Most Sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in real-world(ish) settings, with a good story and great characters. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, we could be in that world. That is where good world building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

SO, we know that the surface layer of our story can contribute to the feeling of depth. Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious components should give the reader a hint that there are deeper aspects of the story, more than what-you-see-is-what-you-get.

While the winds (action and reaction) may ruffle the surface, stir things up on the literal layer, it rarely disturbs the deeper waters of the Word-Pond. A good story has all these components, but it also has soul, makes you think about larger issues. The way our characters interact within this surface layer are influenced by what is going on in the next layer down—the Inferential Layer.

Just below the surface, in the Inferential Layer lies Mood and Emotion. They are not the same and the differences will require a little examination.  Friday’s art post will be a dip into surrealism–but on Monday we will pick this discussion up and talk about Mood vs. Emotion.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “American Realism,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=American_Realism&oldid=902714117  (accessed June 29, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Augustus Edwin Mulready Fatigued Minstrels 1883.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Augustus_Edwin_Mulready_Fatigued_Minstrels_1883.jpg&oldid=335802594 (accessed June 2, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Adriaen van Ostade – The Painter in His Studio – WGA16748.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Adriaen_van_Ostade_-_The_Painter_in_His_Studio_-_WGA16748.jpg&oldid=270705051 (accessed May 10, 2018).

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World building Part 2 – the Commonalities of Need #amwriting

Need shapes the environment and forms an obvious but unobtrusive layer of the world our characters inhabit.

What our characters do for a living, the tools they use, what they must acquire – these things form a layer that grows out of need. This layer shows the reader the level of technology, the society they inhabit, and their standing within that culture. This layer is easy to construct in many ways but can be a stumbling block to the logic of your plot.

First, no matter what genre you are writing in, you must establish the level of technology and stick to it. Do the research and then create your technology.

The Romans had running water, central heating, and toilets in their homes. So did the Minoans. However, all their great architectural creations required human hands to do the physical work. They walked, rode horses, donkeys, or oxen, and were limited to wagons drawn by those same domestic beasts.

In the ordinary environment, cups will be cups, bowls will be bowls. The materials they are made of might be different, but those items will always be the same. Furniture will be similar—people need somewhere to sit or sleep. They need a place to cook and somewhere to store preserved food.

Clothing styles are up to you, but I suggest you keep it simple and don’t wax poetic about it.

Some aspects of a story require planning if you are to keep to the logic of your established world setting.

Characters remain the same, no matter what genre you are writing. Beneath the obvious tropes of a particular genre is a human being. Consider the soldier:

I write fantasy, so the following is an excerpt from a short story written this last year, The Way of the Seventh Door.

Worlds are like clothes. I could drop Jared into any world, and he would still be who he is—a young, hapless schmuck with potential. Genre defines the visuals, but the characters are paper dolls we dress to fit the society we have placed them in. The clothes and world of Soldier Barbie fits Corporate Barbie… and Malibu Barbie… and Star Wars Barbie.

We will take one protagonist and place them in one of three kinds of settings: fantasy, sci fi, or contemporary. As we go, write your own version of this scene.

  • A soldier, your choice of gender, gears up for an impending battle. It will take place on foreign soil and could involve personal, face-to-face combat.
  1. First, we must consider what garments they might wear.
  2. Next, we armor them.
  3. Then we give them weaponry.
  4. Finally, we equip them with some sort of rations and water, as sustenance becomes an issue if a battle stretches for several days.
  5. We do it in one paragraph.

Now let’s put Jared, my luckless protagonist from the previous example into this scenario. Fortunately for the safety of everyone in Neveyah, he isn’t preparing for war, but he does have a mission, and it requires dressing appropriately, and ensuring he has what he might need to complete it:

In any setting, there are certain commonalities with only minor literary differences for soldiers: they all need garments, weapons, armor, and sustenance, and you can use those things to

  1. offer more clues about your character’s personality and
  2. set your protagonist up for a meeting with destiny by inserting clues: white armor, new boots – what could go wrong?

Whether the weapon is a rifle, a sword, or a phaser is dependent on the level of technology you have established.

Logic determines how each need is met. In the case of weapons, within each category there are many varieties of each. Which kind of hand-held weapon your protagonist will use is dependent on their skill level and physical strength as well as what is stocked in the armory.

When it comes to weaponry, if you are writing about them, you need to research them to know what is logically possible. Within each of the three world settings, strength and skill are determining factors—a cutlass is an efficient blade and is much lighter than a claymore. A one-handed blade allows the wielder to carry a shield. A shotgun is much lighter than a machine-gun but is less effective, so be true to the logic and research what might be most useful to your characters and don’t introduce an element that doesn’t fit.

Sci-fi writers—I suggest that for advanced weaponry, you should do the research into theoretical applications of lasers, sonic, and other theoretically possible weapons. Sci fi readers know their science, so if you don’t consider the realities of physics, your work won’t appeal to the people who read in that genre.

For soldiers of any technology level, from Roman to medieval, to contemporary, to futuristic—armor will always consist of the same elements: breast and back plate, shin-guards, vambraces, a helmet of some sort, and maybe a shield. These elements won’t vary much, although the materials they’re made of will differ widely from technology to technology. For the sake of expediency and logic, garments must be close-fitting as they will go under the armor.

Expediency affects logic which affects need. The same is true for any occupation–bookkeeper, lawyer, home-maker–the setting changes from genre to genre, but the fundamental needs for each occupation remain the same.

In every aspect of a world, expediency decides what must be mentioned and how important it is. At times, you must go back to an earlier place and make changes that allow for a certain necessary turn of events.

For instance, in a battle situation, food must be extremely compact, lightweight, and must provide nutrients the soldier needs. Nutrition bars, jerky—battle rations and how the soldier carries them must be considered. How do you fit that into the world building? Casually, with one sentence, a few words.

What basic things do you need in your real-world? You need food, water, clothing, and shelter, and a means of providing those things. Place the character in a room and call it a kitchen, and the reader will immediately imagine a kitchen. Mention the coffeemaker, and the reader’s mind will furnish the cups.

Need manifests in other, more subtle ways.

Do you require a way to communicate with others quickly? Messengers, letters, telephones, social media, or telepathy? Choose a method for long distance communication that fits your technology and stick to it.

If you are writing a sci fi tale, what sort of personal power does that technology confer on the characters? What powers it? What are the limits of that technology, and how do those limits hamper the protagonist? What do they need to acquire to overcome those limitations?

If magic is a part of your world, you must design the way it is used, what powers it, and set rigid limits. Limits create opportunities for both failure and creative thinking.

In all levels of technology, some of what the characters need should be denied to them.

Obstruction offers the opportunity for heroism.

No matter the genre, need and human failure makes the story more real.

Next week, we will explore the commonalities of science and magic and how they are applied to world building.


Credits and Attributions:

Excepts from The Way of the Seventh Door, © Connie J. Jasperson 2019, All Rights Reserved.

Gladys Parker [Public domain] “Mopsy Modes” paper doll published in TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mopsy Modes – TV Teens, Vol. 2, No. 9.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mopsy_Modes_-_TV_Teens,_Vol._2,_No._9.jpg&oldid=344503399 (accessed May 21, 2019).

Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0] Japanese Paper Doll, ca. 1897-1898 Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:MET DP147723.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:MET_DP147723.jpg&oldid=305535412 (accessed May 21, 2019).

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Voice #amwriting

If you write professionally, you develop habits, ways of expressing yourself that “sound” like you. Voice is how you bend the rules and is your fingerprint. For your voice to be compelling and not jarring, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which ones must be obeyed. Knowledge is key—it enables you to craft your work so it says what you want, in the way you want it said.

Most editors will ignore liberties you take with dialogue but will point out habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

If you work with an editor, you must be willing to explain why you are choosing to flout a particular rule. If you don’t understand the rule to begin with, you can’t defend your position with authority.

This is why I always suggest you buy a good style guide. I like the simplicity and thoroughness of Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

If an editor asks you to change something you did deliberately, you are the author. Explain why you want that particular grammatical no-no to stand. If you have a concrete reason, your editor will most likely understand.

Repetition of a key word for emphasis is one example of breaking a rule with style.

This is why it’s important to educate yourself. If you know the rule you are breaking, you will be better able to explain why you are doing so, and your work will reflect that confidence.

However, if I am your editor, you must be prepared to break that rule consistently. Readers do notice inconsistencies.

No one is perfect, and even authors who also work as editors need and use editors. Certainly, I have benefited from the editors I have worked with. I began this journey knowing nothing about the mechanics of writing, other than that which I had retained from my school days. Writers who were further along in the craft gave me good advice, and I began growing as a writer.

To go back to what I said in the first paragraph, you must understand what rules you can break with impunity, and which of them must be obeyed. The average reader doesn’t take joy in reading James Joyce’s experimental prose. Alexander Chee can be difficult for an average reader to enjoy. This is because both Joyce and Chee take liberties with punctuation that makes reading their work a real challenge. Some readers are up to that, others not so much.

I will admit, I had to take a class to be able to understand James Joyce’s work, and I did have to resort to the audiobook for Alexander Chee’s work. It’s the hypercritical editor coming out in me, making it difficult for me to set that part of my awareness aside. It’s my job to notice those things.

I can hear you now: these are literary authors, and you are writing genre fantasy fiction or sci-fi. Shall I toss out another name or two?

Tad Williams mixes his styles. His Bobby Dollar series is Paranormal Film Noir: dark, choppy, and reminiscent of Sam Spade. In this series, he seems to be somewhat influenced by the style of crime authors, such as Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. It is a quick read and is commercial in that it is for casual readers.

Yet his fantasy work set in Osten Ard has lusher prose, multiple storylines, dark themes. It is written for serious fantasy readers. The story starts slow, but his powerful writing has generated millions of fans who are thrilled to know he has set more work in that world.

Beginning slow and working up to an epic ending is highly frowned upon in writing groups, but Tad broke that rule and believe me, it works.

George Saunders writes sci-fi and historical fantasy but is considered literary. He has a unique, literary voice because he takes liberties with the rules.  His work reads like a conversation with him, a little crisp and choppy, but intimate.

If you are writing a genre such as fantasy or sci-fi or mystery, I suggest you do not get experimental with your punctuation unless you don’t mind bad reviews. People who look for quick reads for the adventure and romance don’t want experimental. They want an escape; they want prose that doesn’t interfere with the narrative. Run on sentences, commas inserted every place you breathe, or no commas at all—these are flaws that ruin the experience for the casual reader.

Get a good style guide and stop guessing about where the commas go and how to use that ellipsis.  Don’t know if you should use a semicolon or not?

Get a style guide.

Your writing will go faster, and your beta readers will be able to give you better opinions on what reads well and what needs more work.

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Introspection and Dialogue #amwriting

Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write as they require serious choreography. However, no matter how well we write them, they won’t accomplish their task if we don’t allow time for introspection. Action without a frame of reference is confusing. Also, if we don’t allow our characters a chance to consider what just happened and how they want to proceed, we can end up with undeveloped, two-dimensional characters.

How does the action affect our protagonist? Action, aftermath, action, aftermath—a rhythm that is often compared to the way a skater crosses the ice: push, glide, push, glide.

These moments in the aftermath of violence are opportunities. We want to avoid info dumps, but we also have to provide some information to explain events. These moments of respite are opportunities for us to dole out information that might be needed to answer questions and yet keep the reader engaged. Doling out the backstory only as it is needed keeps the reader reading.

So, we only need to discuss in conversation or internal dialogue things that pertain to

  1. What just happened or
  2. What is about to happen.

Action is important because it is interesting and provides drama. Even when we are “gliding” we want to keep the story moving forward. So, we allow the reader to process things at the same time the protagonist does, or we run the risk of losing the story in the confusion.

The story is the hero’s journey, and it must be as much a personal journey as a physical one.

We’re all familiar with the term ‘flat-lined’ as a medical expression indicating the patient has died.

When the story arc is imbalanced, it can flat-line in two ways:

  • The action becomes random, an onslaught of meaningless events that make no sense.
  • The pauses become halts, long passages of random internal monologues that have little to do with the action.

Readers only connect with a protagonist’s story if they can sympathize with them. They want a relationship with the people who inhabit the books they read. The way we build relationships between our readers and the characters in our stories is through the characters’ conversations and introspections.

The trick is balancing the introspection and chaos, ensuring that contemplation and dialogue don’t devolve into info dumps where your character ponders everything at length.

Some stories are more literary and are meant to be more introspective than active. My favorite literary classics are all about the character’s thoughts rather than their actions.

But if you are writing genre fiction, you must ensure you have properly balanced your action and introspection.

A good way to avoid a flatlined story arc is through character interaction. Your characters briefly discuss what is on their minds. With the conversation over, they move forward to the next event. This offers an opportunity for new information important to the story to emerge.

Introspection opens a window for the reader to see who the characters secretly are, how they react and illuminates their fears and strengths. It shows that they are self-aware.

In an action-based narrative, introspection is brief but important. Internal monologues are minimal and serve to illuminate a character’s motives at a particular moment in time.

Internal monologues should not make our characters seem too clever by introducing convenient knowledge. We like characters who are somewhat clueless about their situation as well as about their own flaws and strengths.

When characters are having a discussion, our point-of-view character will be in the most danger of being too smart. We have to ensure the dialogue is not too exact when the protagonist and her cronies are making predictions because it ruins the mystery of the piece.

The same follows for inner monologues, perhaps even more so.

Throughout the course of the story, each of the characters’ faults and flaws diminish (or in the case of the antagonist they become clearer) because the characters grow and change as people, as human beings. The protagonist is pushed down the path to wisdom. Self-awareness should gradually blossom toward the “resurrection” that occurs near the end of the hero’s journey.

Introspection is important for the protagonist because surviving the journey to self-knowledge is as important as living through the physical journey.

The antagonist should also have moments of introspection as they take greater chances, risk more, apply more effort to winning at any cost.

My characters begin in an unfinished state, like a pencil sketch. My goal is for them to emerge from the events of their journey in full color, fully realized in a multi-dimensional form that readers will remember and think about after the last page has been read.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Imogen – Herbert Gustave Schmalz.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Imogen_-_Herbert_Gustave_Schmalz.jpg&oldid=342359236 (accessed May 1, 2019).

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The transition scene #amwriting

A well-paced narrative has a kind of rhythm. Instructors commonly refer to this as “push, glide, push, glide,” as if skating. What that means is that while the characters might be in the midst of chaos, there is order in the layout and pacing of the narrative.

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

These “processing” scenes are transitions, moving the plot forward while allowing the reader to process what just happened.

We can’t have non-stop action, as that is exhausting to write and more exhausting to read. The character arc is often at the forefront during these transitional scenes as that period of relative calm is when you allow your characters’ internal growth to emerge.

We justify what just happened, making it believable. It is also where you ratchet up the tension.

When it comes to writing transitions between scenes, we have several paths to choose from.

Introspection:

  • Introspection offers an opportunity for new information important to the story to emerge.
  • It opens a window for the reader to see who the characters are, how they react and illuminates their fears and strengths. It shows that they are self-aware.

Keep the scenes of introspection brief, and go easy on them if you are given to using italics to set them off. A wall of italics is hard to read, so don’t “think” too much if you are using those.

  • Characters’ thoughts must serve to illuminate their motives at a particular moment in time.
  • In a conversation between two characters, introspection must offer information not previously discussed.
  • Internal monologues should not make our characters too wise. Humanize them, show them as a bit clueless about their flaws, strengths, or even their deepest fears and goals.

Conversations:

  • Conversations should not become clumsy info-dumps. “As you know….”
  • Each character must speak uniquely, sounding like themselves. Don’t dump conversations into a blender and pour out a string of commentary that makes them all sound alike.

Don’t get fancy with speech tags/attributions. It’s best for me as a reader when the author avoids words that take me out of the narrative. Some words are eye-stoppers. I recommend you stick with said, replied, answered—common and ordinary  tags that don’t leap out at the reader like ejaculated, disgorged, spewed, and so on. Occasionally, you can get away with more forceful tags, but keep them to a minimum. Make the characters’ actions and words show the force of their words. In my opinion, you can do away with speech tags for some brief exchanges if the scene contains only two characters.

Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks:

I’m in two minds about using fade-to-black scene breaks as transitions. Why not just start a new chapter?

One of my favorite authors, L.E. Modesitt Jr. sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character thread truly separate and flows well.

In a short story, a hard scene break is sometimes required, as you don’t have the option to do chapters. Use an asterisk or hashtag between scenes. * #

New chapter:

Each of the major players has a point of view. Some authors use the aftermath of an action scene as an opportunity to advance the antagonist’s story line. That is a good strategy, as we do need to show why the enemy is the enemy.

The key is to avoid “head-hopping,” and I feel like the best way to do that is to give a new chapter to the point-of-view character. Head-hopping occurs when an author switches point-of-view characters within a single scene. It happens most frequently when using a third-person omniscient narrative because the thoughts of every character are open to the reader.

My favorite authors will employ all the above listed transitions as they move their characters through the story arc. Each transition will lead us into a new scene, and when they are done right, we the readers won’t even notice that they are transitional.

The transition is the most difficult part of the narrative for me to formulate in the first draft. I get stuck, trying to decide what information needs to come out, and what should be held back.

Sometimes, a transition just will not work no matter what. This happens when a flaw in the logic exists in the scene preceding it. Usually, I can’t see it at that point, but my writing group will show me what the problem is.

This struggle to connect my action scenes into a seamless arc is why writing isn’t the easiest occupation I could have chosen. But when everything comes together, it is the most satisfying job.


Credits and Attributions:

Detail from: Journey of the Magi (East Wall) by Benozzo Gozzoli 1459Magi Chapel of Palazzo Medici-RiccardiFlorence, 1459–1461. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Benozzo gozzoli, corteo dei magi, 1 inizio, 1459, 51.JPG,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Benozzo_gozzoli,_corteo_dei_magi,_1_inizio,_1459,_51.JPG&oldid=179731811 (accessed April 24, 2019).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Sir Galahad (Watts).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Sir_Galahad_(Watts).jpg&oldid=277887181 (accessed April 24, 2019).

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The author’s blog #amwriting

Today I want to encourage authors to make use of their websites, by blogging occasionally.

For an author, the goal of a website is not to gain “fans” – it is to gain readers. Your website is a resource that offers readers a place to meet you and see what you are interested in. It is also your storefront, a place where readers can find and buy your books.

Writing three times a week for this blog has helped me grow more confident as a writer. I can write using the “stream of consciousness” method, or I can write it several days in advance. Usually, I put together a quick outline and do the research on whatever aspect of writing has been on my mind, and soon I have written 700 or more words.

I have made many friends through blogging, people all over the world whom I may never meet in person, but who I am fond of, nevertheless. Readers love to talk about what they are reading, and authors want to talk about what they’re writing. Both subjects are obsessions for me.

And I can’t tell you how much I enjoy discussing my little passion for 16th and 17th century Netherlandish art. When I write about a particular artist or picture, I find some new bit of creativity to admire, things that make me almost feel the artist is someone I might know.

I think the best bloggers are those who are passionate about something and who have the courage to write about it. Here are only some blogs I follow:

Lee French – Finding Family in Strange Places

Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo

Aaron Volner

Stephen Swartz’s Deconstruction of the Sekuatean Empire

Chris the Story Reading Ape’s Blog

These are the just the blogs I can think of off the top of my head – in reality I follow many, many more. In fact, if you are already a regular blogger, I am probably following you and reading your posts!

Real life can be a rolling disaster, as everyone knows. This is why I occasionally write about the difficulties of traveling and how hard it is for a vegan to find food on a long road trip. At times, I write about the challenges of having two adult children with epilepsy.

I’ve sometimes written about the dysfunctionality of growing up with a father suffering from battle-related PTSD.

I have also talked about growing up in a family of word-nerds, and the shock of discovering we weren’t “normal.”

Whatever I am thinking about, I post a short piece on it.

If I can do it, so can you.

If you are an author, having a blog on your website and updating it at least twice a month is a good way to connect with your readers on a human level. Readers will enjoy hearing what your writing goals are.  They want to know where you will be signing books, or if you will be at a convention near them. Also, they love to know what you are reading.

I do recommend publishing short pieces occasionally. Bits of flash fiction are fun to write and readers enjoy them. These pieces can find their way into your larger work, as they are a great way to brainstorm ideas.

At the bottom of each flash-fiction piece, I post a disclaimer that it is copyrighted:

  • Bleakbourne on Heath, by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2016 All Rights Reserved

I suppose I am a compulsive blogger. I sometimes think about slowing down, but then I suddenly have an idea that I need to write about. In no time flat, I will have written 500 words. In fact, this post is around 600- 700 words long.

Not a bad length and not too long to write.


Image Credits:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt – Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_-_Rembrandt_and_Saskia_in_the_Scene_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=340120613 (accessed April 17, 2019).

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When creativity fails #amwriting

Every writer has moments when creativity fails them. We sit before our computer and the words refuse to come, or when they do, they seem awkward. At times like this, we feel alone and isolated. After all, an idea is jammed in our head and words should fall from our fingers like water from the tap.

I have suffered this, the same as every author does. However, it never gets too firm a grip on me because I have several exercises that help me write my way through the block. Something we sometimes forget is that the act of writing every day builds mental muscle tone and keeps you fit and in the habit of writing.

Every author suffers a dry spell now and then. Even so, this job requires us to practice, just like music or dancing. Doing well at anything artistic or sports related requires discipline. Just like a retired football player, when we stop writing for any reason, we lose our momentum and our purpose.

We lose our passion.

If you are in the middle of a manuscript and you lose your ability to go forward, save the file and close it. Walk away from that manuscript for a while.

Before we go any further, you must delete nothing. You will come back to your manuscript later with a fresh viewpoint and will be able to use some or all of it, so file it properly.

Occasionally, we get distracted by a different project that wants to be written. When that is the case, I always suggest you go ahead and work on the project that is on your mind. Let that creative energy flow, and you will eventually be able to become reconnected with the first project.

But what about those times when you need to write, you have to write, but the words won’t come? Trust me, it isn’t the end of your career. This is true writers’ block.

First, we have the element of fear to overcome. You are suddenly afraid that you have written everything good that you will ever write, and anything you write now is garbage.

It isn’t the end of everything. You will prove to yourself that you can write. This is a small exercise, very short. It should take you perhaps ten or fifteen minutes each day. My solution for this problem is a combination of mind-wandering and a a few simple writing exercises.

I got the idea for this while in a seminar on the craft of writing essays offered by the bestselling author of Blackbird, Jennifer Lauck.

In that class, Jennifer gave us prompts and asked us to write to them. I have never been good at writing to someone else’s prompts. My ideas don’t flow that way. To make it worse, we were going to have to share them with someone else in the class.

I felt panicky, terrified I wouldn’t be able to write, and would embarrass myself. My mind was blank.

When I saw what Jennifer’s prompt was, it occurred to me that I could do that. I had one of those bolt-of-lightning moments, a tangent to nowhere that didn’t pertain to her class. But it seemed important so I wrote it down. When I got home, I pondered a little more about it and put my thoughts into a short essay.

In that class, I realized that most of the time, writer’s block is a result of not being able to visualize what you want to write about. If you can’t visualize it, you can’t articulate it.

It hits us in two stages, two emotions that are so closely related, it feels like one horrible emotion.

  1. If you can’t visualize it, you can’t describe it. This can create a brief flash of panic.
  2. Once you have experienced that moment of complete inability, fear that it will happen again magnifies the problem until it paralyzes us.

This is the writing prompt Jennifer Lauck used as the first exercise in her class:

  1. Open a new document. At the top of this document type: Where I Am Today:

This is going to be a literal interpretation and description of your surroundings:

  • Look around you and see the place where you are.
  • Briefly describe the environment you are sitting in, what you see.
  • Describe how you feel sitting in that place.

Just give it two or three paragraphs. For me, sitting here at this moment and writing this post, it runs like this:

I sit in the small third bedroom of my home. It’s my office, a cluttered storeroom, known here as the Room of Shame. A cup of cooling coffee sits beside my elbow, as does my cell phone. My desk holds many books on the craft of writing and also my computer.  

Stacks of cardboard boxes filled with things that were, at one time, deemed important to keep, surround me. Filing cabinets full of legal papers, tax forms, and research take up space, all stuffed with the debris of our business life.

I could easily clean this space. It would take no time at all, perhaps a day at most. It’s a mountain I put off climbing.

See? At the end of this exercise, you have written a small short story.

But, more importantly, you have written the setting for a scene. Those paragraphs are around 120 words and are nothing special. But they were words and I wrote them, which keeps my mind functioning in a writing mode.

  1. For your next exercise, go somewhere else and take your notebook. Write three more paragraphs detailing what you are looking at, and how you fit into it, and how it makes you feel.

You could do that on your porch, in a coffee shop, or the parking lot at the supermarket, but go away from your normal writing space. Just write a few paragraphs about the space you have come to, what you see, and what you sense.

The third exercise is more abstract:

  1. Where do you want to be? Visualize and describe it the same way as you described the places you could see, a few short paragraphs. For me, I want to be flying my kite on Cannon Beach.

Your practice work is for your eyes alone. No one has to see it if you don’t want to share it.

If you do these three exercises at the same time every day, describing the environments and your perceptions in a different space each time, even when you have nothing to say that is worth reading, you are writing.

It’s a weird thing but writing about nothing in particular is like doodling. It is a form of mind-wandering. It can jar your creative mind loose. With perseverance, you will be writing your other work again.

The important thing is to write every day, even if it is only a few paragraphs. These are the exercises that work for me and which I recommend for working through writer’s block.

Remember, if you are suffering from a temporary dry spell, you are not alone. We all go through those times. When you want to talk about it, you will find friends here.

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