Tag Archives: writing craft

Character description: too much or not enough? #amwriting

I love eBooks for the simple reason I have over 800 books, and I don’t have to dust them. I do buy paper books, but only those on writing craft or research for my work.

I have managed to get nearly every book I ever loved as an eBook. Every week I add at least two more books to my library. I have become a fan of hundreds of new authors, most of them indies.

Every now and then I read a book that is traditionally published, sometimes taking a dip into general fiction. I did that this week, reading a book I saw advertised on twitter. I picked it up, knowing I might hate it because the critics loved it.

I can live without a happy ending, and even with no ending at all. Not every story ends happily. But please, make the pages that come before that lack of ending something more than self-indulgent hero worship of your protagonist. I get that you’re in love with your characters. I’m in love with mine too.

Just don’t wax poetic about their magnetic beauty on every third page, please.

Unfortunate phrasings that yank me out of a book:

“She lay there staring with her creamy blue eyes, water pooling in the corners.”

“Her eyes were the same color as the deep purple velvet drapes.”

Meh. Enough about their eyes already. Some authors go to incredible (and at times, awkward) lengths to force their personal creative vision of what a character looks like on the reader.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told what to think when I am reading a book. What I consider beautiful is not necessarily attractive to someone else.

But this brings us to a dilemma that many authors seem to face. How do you describe a character in such a way that the reader will find them as attractive as you want them to be?

You must give the reader enough of a general description that they can fill in the blanks with their imagination.

Generally, you want to show a character’s coloring, hair style/color, eye color, general physical description. Especially, you must somehow mention anything that is unique about their appearance. If they are not too fastidious, mention it, and the same goes for if they are obsessively fastidious.

Actions can reveal physical characteristics and mannerisms. Consider how they fix their hair, what style of clothes they gravitate to, even how they move and interact with both the environment and other characters. What are their habitual facial expressions?

Offer this information up in bits over a period of time rather than dumping it in a police-blotter style of delivery. Just don’t go on and on giving minute, unimportant details.

In my Tower of Bones series, the men in Edwin’s family have this sort of cachet that makes them irresistible to all women. It is the Goddess Aeos’s way of ensuring that the girl she has selected for them falls in love with them, and their bloodline is continued.

But what do Edwin and his father (and grandfather) look like? Edwin and his family are a lot like my uncles were as young men, tall, blondish, blue-eyed, and physically strong from working on their farm. They’re rather average, nothing spectacular. They’re good-looking, but aren’t overly handsome. However, there is something about them that causes trouble in a certain strata of female society that has a rather free approach to life.

So what is this charisma these men have? (And that my uncles did not have.)

Here is where I romanticize them. To most men, they seem no more intriguing than any other person, but to women, they are an irresistible banquet of masculine pheromones. Since they do a lot of traveling, this creates opportunities for mayhem. While writing the Tower of Bones series, I’ve had a lot of fun with that plot-line, especially when it came to Wynn Farmer in Mountains of the Moon.

For my other characters in various books, again we write what we know. In my mind, all my characters are exceedingly good-looking in their own different ways. I am of British Isles stock as is most of my family, but I live in a town filled with people of all races and origins. Throughout my life, my neighbors have been from such diverse places as Japan, Mexico, Alabama, Norway, Cambodia, Nigeria, India, and Minneapolis.

Thus, in my head, my characters are of all races, and all are attractive to me.

Huw the Bard is darkly handsome, blue-eyed with black curling hair, and has a roguish charm that women find irresistible. An incurable romantic and on the run, he loves many, but gives his heart only to a few.

Billy Ninefingers is exceptionally tall and strong, sandy-haired, with a boyish face. He’s competent and a strong leader with a firm sense of justice. He is in love with only one woman, but there are complications.

Reina Jacobs is a middle-aged woman, a retired pilot who has been conscripted back into active duty. She has short iron-grey hair and is a cyborg. She is attracted to Ladeaux, a pilot of her age, but while they are working together, she won’t fall into a romance.

Personally, I don’t find Prosperine as painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to my taste, although as a painting it is flawlessly executed. But millions of people find her beautiful, and he certainly did. His model, Jane Morris, was considered a great beauty in her day.

Yet the images of her, both painted and photographed, portray her as sulky-looking, which is not attractive to me at all.

I choose not to beat the reader over the head with my personal vision, other than the general description for the reader to hang their imagination on. I want the reader to see beauty and magnetism in the way that is most appealing to them. I hope that mannerisms, conversations, and other characters’ opinions convey the image the reader wants to see in a protagonist.

And this is the way it is for every author. We are painters who use words to show an image. We want to the reader to see what they believe is beauty.

Your vision of beauty is not what your readers see, and to force too many details on them ruins the flow of the tale.

A good general description, with hints or comments about their beauty or lack thereof, is all that is needed. If you provide the framework, the reader’s mind will supply the rest.

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Desires and Objectives #amwriting

Several conversations in an online writer’s group has inspired me to drag out a  post on the importance of identifying desires and objectives, which was first published in June of 2016. This post contrasts the works of two authors with unique and distinct literary styles: James Joyce and J.R.R. Tolkien.  Although they were contemporaries, born ten years apart, the two authors couldn’t be more dissimilar. And yet their works have one thing in common: the protagonists want something and are willing to to some lengths to gain it.

This is the core of any great novel.


When we sit down to write a story of any length, a novel or flash fiction, we often begin with an idea, and great characters, and little more. To make those things into a story, we must first ask what the protagonist wants, and we must know what she/he is willing to risk in their efforts to achieve it.

Objectives + Risk = Story

In The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien, Frodo is just an ordinary young hobbit, with no particular ambitions. On the same day as his older cousin Bilbo’s “eleventy-eleventh” (111th) birthday, Frodo (Bilbo’s heir) celebrates his thirty-third birthday.

At the lavish double-birthday party, Bilbo departs from the Shire for what he calls “a permanent holiday.” He does so by using the magic ring (that he had found on the journey detailed in The Hobbit) to disappear. He is aided in that by Gandalf with a flash and puff of smoke, leading many in the Shire to believe Bilbo has gone mad.

He leaves Frodo his remaining belongings, including his home, Bag End, and after some heavy-handed persuasion by the wizard Gandalf, he also leaves the Ring. Gandalf departs on his own business, warning Frodo to keep the Ring secret. Seventeen years or so pass, and then Gandalf returns to inform Frodo of the truth about Bilbo’s ring. It is the One Ring of Sauron the Dark Lord, and is evil. It forges a connection between the wearer and Sauron, and whoever bears it will be slowly corrupted, eventually becoming a Ringwraith.

From the moment of learning the truth about the Ring, Frodo’s goal is clear to the reader: he must get rid of the ring. In Rivendell, he learns the only way to do so is to carry it into the depths of Mordor and cast the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom.

Frodo wants to achieve this goal badly enough to walk into an active volcano and certain death to accomplish this.

At no point in the narrative is the objective unclear. The path is blocked many times, and each of the characters is tested by the evil ring, some beyond their ability to resist it.

The objective creates the tension, which drives the plot forward.

But what about a book where the goal is not so clear? Let’s talk about Ulysses, by James Joyce.

Ulysses chronicles the wandering appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin, taking place over the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904. Ulysses is the Latinized name of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Joyce established a series of parallels between the epic poem and his novel. This book has one of the best opening lines of all time:

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.

Structurally, there are strong correlations between the characters and experiences of Leopold Bloom with Odysseus, Molly Bloom with Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus with Odysseus’s son, Telemachus. It is set in early twentieth century Dublin with the events and political tempests of the time. Themes of antisemitism and the impact of Ireland’s rocky relationship with Britain as it was felt in those days are the underlying pins of this novel. It is highly allusive and filled with allegories.

There is no obvious quest, although many minor quests are completed in the course of living through the day. The book opens with Stephen Dedalus, the first protagonist, having breakfast with Buck Mulligan, who is perhaps a friend, or maybe a rival. Stephen is not Leopold’s biological son as Telemachus is Odysseus’, but he fulfills that role. Unconsciously Stephen wants a father.

But what do they want? It’s James Joyce, so it’s complicated.

Stephen shares his opinions about religion with Buck Mulligan, speaking of how they relate to the recent death of his mother, and Buck manages to offend him. They make plans to go drinking later that evening.

What does Leopold desire? He wants a son. In Episode 4, the narrative shifts abruptly. The time is again 8 am, but the action has moved across the city and to the second protagonist of the book, Leopold Bloom, a part-Jewish advertising canvasser. He and his wife have a daughter, Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography.  As the day unfolds, Bloom’s thoughts turn to the affair between his wife, Molly, and her manager.

He also thinks about the death of their infant son, Rudy Bloom, who died at the age of 11 days. The absence of a son is what leads him to form an attachment to Stephen, for whom he goes out of his way in the book’s latter episodes. He rescues him from a brothel, walks him back to his own home, and even offers him a place there to study and work.

Finally, we come to Molly. Within the city of Dublin, Molly is an opera singer of some renown. She is the mother of Milly Bloom, who, at the age of 15, has left home to study photography. She is also the mother of Rudy, the son who died at the age of eleven days. A significant difference between Molly and Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, is that while Penelope is eternally faithful, Molly is not. She is having an affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of her celibacy within her marriage.

The final chapter of Ulysses, often called “Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy,” is a long and unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness passage. During the monologue, Molly accepts Leopold into her bed, frets about his health, and then reminisces about their first meeting and about when she knew she was in love with him. It is comprised of some 20,0000 words of her thoughts as she lies in bed next to Bloom. What does Molly want? She wants to be loved.

In The Lord of the Rings, we have a clear and obvious quest, straightforward and seemingly impossible: Destroy the One Ring and save the world.

In Ulysses, we have a group of people who all want something, but just as in real life, what that may exactly be is not as clear as we would like it. But there is an objective: they just want to get through the day and in the process they find they are a family, thus achieving their individual goals.

Once we know what our protagonist wants and what he/she is willing to risk to achieve it, we have our plot.

How we dress it up is up to us—I admit James Joyce’s rambling is too daunting for me to read for pleasure. I had to read it in the environment of a college class to make it all the way through the novel with some understanding of it.

I am a huge fan of Joyce’s magnificent one-liners, though.

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

Ulysses, Episode 2


Credits and Attributions:

Desires and Objectives © 2016 – 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on June 13, 2016.

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First-person Point of View #amwriting

A month ago, I mentioned the problems I was having with a short story I had been working on. I couldn’t seem to get into my main character’s head. So, I rewrote it in the first-person present tense narrative mode, but because I was unused to that mode, it felt like I had written a walk-through for an RPG (geek-talk for role-playing game).

Apparently, it read that way too.

But after a lot of help from my writer friends, and a lot of rewriting, I got into the swing of things. Finally, the story drew me into my character’s mind, which was what I had wanted all along.

In traditional first-person POV, the protagonist is the narrator. One thing I had to keep in mind is that no one ever has complete knowledge of anything so the narrator cannot be omnipotent. At first, this was difficult for me. When I chose to have the reader experience the story as the protagonist does, I had made a fundamental change in my style of writing, and my finished product has required several rewrites.

After all, in real life, we aren’t all-seeing and all-knowing. Any lawyer will tell you, even eye-witnesses are notoriously unreliable.

We each see and interpret things from our own perspective. The human mind is hardwired to fill in the blanks—this is why eye-witness accounts of a single event will often vary so widely.

That lack of information is why I now love writing in this point of view for short stories.

What I had to figure out:

Who is the best person to tell the story? I could easily have told it in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story. It didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted it to be when written in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. She had to tell her own story.

What was the inciting incident? That was also difficult – deciding where the story actually began was the first step to getting it on track. Because this story is intended for submission to an anthology, I have a specific word count to fit the story into, and the anthology’s theme must be strongly present throughout. After reading the first draft, a writer friend pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

They were right. Thus, I had to scratch the first half of the story and begin at what I had thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What does she actually know? She isn’t omniscient, so she can only know what she has witnessed. That was also a problem for me, as I know everything. Just ask me. But I had to figure out what she really could have witnessed, and then work only with that information.

What does my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the truth is that her quest is to find herself as a human being, as much as it is to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line in this tale, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

I am once again approaching the finish line on rewriting this tale. The submission deadline is still several months out, so I’m not rushing. I still have to rework and condense a few things at the front end of it, but now I know what changes I want to make. Writing this story has been an awesome adventure for me, and once this is ready for an editor’s eyes, I might attempt writing another in the first-person point of view.

Sometimes writing a story with a finite word-count limit and a specific theme to adhere to is as time consuming as writing a novel. But finding ways to work within these constraints is making me a stronger writer, so even if this isn’t picked up by the publication I hope it will be, I will have a good marketable story.

I’m grateful to have the company of talented authors to help me brainstorm sticky problems.

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Creating Romance #amwriting

Normally people don’t look too romantic. On weekends they hang around the house in comfy clothes and only get cleaned up to go somewhere. Come Monday, they dress a certain way to go to work–dressing in whatever is suitable for their business.

However, no matter how they dress for work, people always dress in their fanciest clothes if they’re going out nightclubbing, or to dinner in a fancy restaurant, or going to a party. People want to look their best, especially if they are single and hoping to find love.

The point is, no one looks good all the time in real life. In many novels, the events and action leaves them dirty and disheveled for a large portion of the story, which in real life isn’t that pretty. But what if you want to give these unkempt, stinking heroes a romance? When it comes to injecting romance into an action adventure story, the author’s task is to make the protagonists ignore the dirt and seem attractive no matter what the circumstances. There is a bit of escapism in all readers. A grand adventure with a good romance is the sort of story I will gravitate to in a heartbeat.

I love an author who manages to take her heroes and heroines through rough adventures and still make the romance between them special. Sure, let them get dirty and sweaty, and make their lives hard. That makes them feel like real people.

Just please, make any romance between them a part of the story that advances the plot.

Writing romance into a scene and not going off the rails requires skill.  Do we keep it restrained or get graphic? Would my characters really get graphic? And how much graphic is too much graphic? When do we cross the line of writing fantasy and venture into erotica?

I don’t really see myself going into that area of writing, although I understand there is a large market for it.

As for what is too much, it depends on what story I am trying to tell. In my current work in progress, innuendo and allusion are the means to convey the deeper story. In my novel, Huw the Bard, a certain amount of graphic detail was required to advance the plot, although not as much as in many other authors’ books. Because these scenes were such a small part of the story but were defining moments in his life, the romance scenes of Huw’s book required many revisions to get right. They had to be important, but couldn’t overshadow the larger story.

For me as a reader, there is a fine line between enjoying an erotic scene and feeling like a voyeur. It’s easy to write graphic details, but are they romantic? Quite often they read like the assembly instructions for a set of bookshelves from IKEA—insert tab A into slot B.

Certain words repel me, especially if they are applied with no finesse, emerging from the prose with force of a jackhammer.

The lead up to romance is critical. Are you going to have them together forever? If so, make the road to happiness difficult. We must show longing, wondering, hoping, and there must be roadblocks to instant happiness. A trail of hints and innuendo creates a sense of growing connection between two characters. Each tiny connection between two characters raises the emotional stakes, and emotions are the key to a real romance. The chase is the story—‘happily ever after’ is the epilogue.

If the romance is a brief moment of respite in a sea of chaos, a long chase is not needed. With that said, the romance between two characters who are not destined for each other must be central to advancing the plot. Whether you choose the ‘fade to black’ method (which I usually do) or get graphic (which I have done on occasion) is up to you. You must consider your intended reader and what they will expect.

When I contemplate how to portray a love scene, I want the reader to feel like it was worth the time they took to read it. I want them to care about what happens next in that couple’s relationship—if anything does. Just as in real life, sometimes true love is not meant to be.

I want to be able to stretch myself as a writer and learn more skills at telling a good tale. I try to do that by finding the works of other writers that moved me and discovering what it was about a scene (regardless of whether it involved romance or not) that made me glad I had read it.

When I write, I’m like every other author—words fall out of my head, some good and some not so elegant. And if I have written something awkward, my beta readers will graciously (or bluntly) tell me so.

Being an author isn’t always roses and wine. Sometimes it’s weeds and pickle-juice.

Writing something worth reading is hard work. It’s striving to meet the expectations of people you’ve never met, which is not easy. By working closely with a circle of trusted author friends, I have gained a better ability to step back and see my work with a less prejudiced eye.

If they don’t see the charm that I do in a certain passage, I ask myself why. Sometimes, the answer lies in the fact they don’t enjoy the sort of work I do, but very often the answer is that what I wrote was not ready for someone else to read it.

That ‘proud child’ urge to display your work in its raw stage is one we all combat. Nevertheless, for me, having the opportunity to do this full time is living the dream.


Credits and Attributions:

Galadriel and Celeborn, by Araniart [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons|Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Araniart – Galadriel and Celeborn.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Araniart_-_Galadriel_and_Celeborn.jpg&oldid=262862472 (accessed April 1, 2018).

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Random Thoughts on Lazy Writing #amwriting

For me as an author, the easiest part of writing is inadvertently slipping some clumsy bit of phrasing into my narrative and having an action scene go hilariously (and impossibly) wrong. I don’t usually notice the awkwardness until my editor points it out.

As a reader, there are a few things that will pull me out of the narrative, and most of them are lazy writing habits. First up is the poorly researched “historical” novel. Lazy writers get some info from Wikipedia and fabricate the rest.

Research: Using real science requires research which is hard work and can be expensive—I have a friend who is writing a historical novel and has been working on it for nine years. She has made two trips to New Zealand to the town where her novel is set. While in New Zealand she visited the local libraries and interviewed people who knew witnesses to the shipwreck she is writing about.

I realize we can’t all visit New Zealand to research a book, but wow—that is what I call doing “due diligence.”

Writing true history, writing medical dramas, and using police and military procedures requires ACTUAL research from more sources than Wikipedia and watching old CSI episodes. Robert Dugoni is a lawyer, and interviews law enforcement professionals for his novels. He knows what he is writing about, and his thrillers sell quite well.

If you’re writing historical/medical/legal fiction, you must read many books on your subject. Make notes as you read each one, noting the book title, the author, and the page number where you found the info—you may need to know those things later. It’s work, but this is a job you can’t skimp on.

Even if you are writing speculative fiction, you will accumulate background info in your world building process. Keep your notes in a clearly labeled file, and back them up on a thumb-drive or file them in the cloud via Dropbox, OneDrive, or Google Docs. I use and work out of a file-saving service, so no matter what happens to my computer, my files won’t be lost. Turning those notes into your story is called research and is an important part of the writing process.

Lazy writers sometimes “write” work written by other people. When we first start out as bloggers, we don’t always realize what our legal obligations are when it comes to using images and information found on the internet. We may want to quote another blogger or use the information we have learned from them.

 Savvy bloggers cite their sources and only use images they have the legal right to use. 

If you are blogging, put it in quotes and include a link back to the site you found it. Then credit your source in footnotes at the bottom of your post. See my post on citing sources and images here: Citing Sources and Image Attribution

This is most important: do not ever copy lines from another person’s work and put them in your book or essay without their permission. That is plagiarism, and you never want to be accused of that. If you must quote someone verbatim in your work, contact their publisher and get their legal permission to do so and credit them by using proper footnotes. An excellent article on how to do this can be found here on Beard with a Blog: Cite Unseen: 3 Bits for a Better Bibliography

Random thoughts about strangely worded things I’ve read:

The awkward description: Sometimes we struggle to get too artful and it just doesn’t work. Please, don’t use a phrase like: “He felt his eyes roll over his host’s attire” and then follow it with a paragraph describing the host. Let me just say it now: If ever you feel your eyes roll over anything, pick them up and have a professional put them back in your head.

That unfortunately phrased sentence is one of the less obnoxious lines from a book I was unable to finish reading. I could see what the author was trying to say, but other than Professor Alastor (Mad Eye) Moody, most people’s eyes do not operate autonomously. Try to slip descriptions into the narrative in less obvious ways, with no clumsy lead in that announces a lengthy exposition is forthcoming.

Use of clichés. Speaking as a reader, please do a global search for the word alabaster. If you have used it to describe a woman’s skin, get rid of it, and find a different way to describe her. It’s an overused word that has become cliché. Find different ways to say what you want, unless you have a character who uses clichés—if so, she’d better have a good reason. Even then, don’t go overboard.

Use of obscure words. Sometimes we try too hard to bring variety to our prose. We need to change things up, but we should avoid technical words and jargon that only a professional in that field would know.

Events that occur for no reason: I loved “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series of books written by the late Douglas Adams. The books detail the adventures of Arthur Dent, a hapless Englishman traveling the galaxy in his pajamas. He and his friend are transported off the Earth just in time to miss the destruction of the planet by the Vogons, a race of unpleasant and bureaucratic aliens, to make way for an intergalactic bypass.

Don’t be afraid to be a little bit “out there” but there must be a point to having the protagonist leave his house wearing his pajamas. Otherwise, get rid of it. Adams used that opportunity to show the environment Arthur was about to be thrust out of. Adams understood he had to show Arthur in his happy home, and then he had to be quickly yanked out of there and placed on that Vogon Constructor Ship.

Books are my life—I read constantly, and often re-read my favorites. I learn just as much from the ones I don’t love as I do from the ones I like.

I haven’t had the time lately to write reviews, but I will have several reviews soon. I always try to review the books I loved, especially if the author is an indie. In fact, I’m several behind, so I need to stop chatting and get reviewing!

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Voice, passive or active? #amwriting

What is the passive voice? What is the active voice? In this case, we are talking about how a story is told.

Passive voice offers separation from the action. The reader becomes a witness to the events, rather than a participant. This voice can produce unclear, wordy sentences if an author isn’t careful. Using the active voice produces clearer, more concise sentences.

Consider the simple act of and elderly woman mailing a letter. Perhaps the letter tells her niece the truth about a family secret.

In the passive voice, the subject (the letter) is not active but is acted upon by the verb, or passive (dropped, was mailed). It is a telling mode: Georgia stopped at the mailbox on the corner. She opened the slot and dropped the letter in. Turning, she walked home. The letter was mailed—there was no changing it now. Georgia sat on the porch, contemplating the wisdom of having done so.

The letter was mailed–Georgia performs the only action, and her thoughts are the important part. In literary fiction, the author might want the reader’s attention on the Georgia’s internal journey. Passive delivery is less straightforward, leaning toward allegory and symbolism rather than action.

Georgia stopped at the mailbox on the corner. She opened the slot, watching as the letter fell in. Turning, she walked home and sat on the porch, unsure if she had done the right thing. Most readers of genre fiction, such as mysteries, romance, and sci-fi, want active prose as they want to be involved in the action. In the active voice, the attention is still on Georgia, but the letter is active–it falls in. It does something.

Sometimes we combine the two and don’t realize we’re doing so: Georgia stopped at the mailbox on the corner and opened the slot, watching as the letter fell in. Turning, she walked home, unsure if she had done the right thing. The letter was mailed—there was no changing it now.

How we combine active and passive phrasing is part of our signature, our voice. By mixing the two, we choose where to direct the reader’s attention.

We want to avoid wordiness. Overuse of forms of to be (is, are, was, were) leads to wordiness. Long, convoluted passages turn away most readers.

In a writer’s forum I frequent, a frustrated author said, “My editor keeps hijacking my manuscript. She won’t let me use ‘there was,’ but I don’t know how to tell my story without using it.”

She wasn’t trying to rewrite his story for him. What his editor was trying to do was encourage him to use an action verb in place of a form of to be.  Acted, as opposed to acted upon.

In my own work, I go on a search and destroy mission, looking for weak words and timid phrasing. Adverbs frequently contribute to excessive wordiness and passive phrasing, so I do a global search for the letters “ly.” Sometimes my manuscript will become a mass of words with yellow highlighted “ly’s.”

When it comes to adverbs, most often simply removing and replacing them with nothing strengthens the prose. But having said that, don’t be an idiot and remove every adverb—use common sense. It’s a daunting task, but I look at each adverb and see how they fit into that context.

These are the words to watch for and reconsider how you have used them:

Weak prose tells the story, holds the reader away from the immediacy of the experience. Passive voice also tells a story, but when done well, it isn’t weak–done well it can be beautiful and immersive.

Take Erin Morgenstern’s beautiful fantasy, The Night Circus. It’s a perfect example of passive voice blending with active. The novel is also a lightning rod of sorts, polarizing readers. Genre fantasy purists decry her lush, beautiful prose, and lack of direct conflict between the two magicians, while readers of literary fiction enjoy her lush, beautiful prose, and the deeper story that underlies the politely wage war between two magicians.

Poetry is often written in the Passive Voice. This gives the author the opportunity to apply rhythm and cadence to her words.

A good writing exercise is to take a short paragraph and write it in both the passive and active voices. You can learn a lot about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

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Semicolon; Comma Splice, Comma #amwriting

My previous post on the em dash brought up some interesting comments, so I thought we should review the rules for the punctuation that we use and abuse so regularly. I have covered all of these before, 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:

  1. 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.”

Alternatively 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, Grasshopper. 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 Houston 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 your prose feels wonky to you, and you know the punctuation is weird but think a reader won’t notice, you are wrong. Take the plunge and open the grammar book, and look up the rules. You will become more confident in your writing, and your work will go faster. Editing will certainly go faster!

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em dash, en dash #amwriting

Over the years, as I’ve become a professional writer, I have learned what I know about my craft by not only experiencing the editing process but by availing myself of the Chicago Manual of Style. I regularly attend seminars on writing craft and have invested in many books written by editors and famous authors.

I do write reviews for books I enjoyed, and in the course of reading for two review blogs, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes instead of proper punctuation when they are trying to emphasize a particular thought.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and that habit bleeds over into my first drafts.  It’s incredibly easy to rely on them too heavily. However, I find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph or even on every page. If we think about it, the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. It is useful to emphasize certain ideas but should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So how DO we use them?

Hyphens join certain compound words. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash. See my blogpost of February 12, 2018, on the subject of how to use Hyphens.

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways.

One is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ Another is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash serves as a comma, does the same task as parentheses, and also does the work of the colon. Used in these situations, the em dash creates a slightly less formal effect and is a useful tool in the author’s arsenal.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

They can be more emphatic than a comma and will really set apart any clause bracketed by them. In dialogue, we don’t use semicolons to join short related independent clauses. Instead, we use em dashes. Used sparingly, and not in every paragraph, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding.

Unfortunately, in the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, I tend to use them far too frequently, and in my hands, they lose their effectiveness.

I regularly find them sprinkled through my work, maniacally creating run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

Properly, an author should use a comma, a semi colon, or a period to create that dramatic break, because too many em dashes are like too many curse words: they lose their power when used too freely.  Lynn Truss, author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, has been quoted as saying “People use the em dash because they know you can’t use it wrongly—which for a punctuation mark, is an uncommon virtue.”  

So what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause?

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON = Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete sentences where the conjunction has been left out. Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) The sentences must be directly related to each other. If they are not related, use a period and make them stand alone.
  • COLON = Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list of items when introductory words(such as namelyfor example, or that is) do not appear. Here is the list of fruits: apples, oranges, and bananas.

Hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes are like any other drug. Authors and editors become addicted to using them. Perhaps this plague of dashes has occurred because they don’t understand the basic rules of the road regarding periods, colons, and semicolons. Get a copy of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation and crack it open; you will be amazed at what you find. The wise author will make use of this excellent tool.

I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.”  The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

That wonderful paragraph says it all. Em dashes have their place, but any easy crutch is to be avoided when it comes to writing a good narrative. As in all things, common sense is the rule of the day.

My personal writing goal is to find ways to set important phrases off within the framework of a sentence without relying so heavily on the em dash. This means I must write as creatively as possible, with intention and deliberate phrasing and I must make proper use of punctuation.

Wow. What a concept!


Credits and Attributions:

“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash”  by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynn Truss, Publisher: Avery April 2004.

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Subtext #amwriting

A good story is far more than a recounting of he said, and she said. It’s more than the action and events that form the arc of the story. A good story is all that, but without good subtext, the story never achieves its true potential.

Within our characters, underneath their dialogue, lurks conflict, anger, rivalry, desire, or pride. Joy, pleasure, fear–as the author, we know those emotions are there, but conveying them without beating the reader over the head is where artistry comes into play. The subtext is the hidden story, the hints and allegations; the secret reasoning. It is the content that supports the dialogue and gives private purpose to the personal events.

These are implicit ideas and emotions. These thoughts and feelings may or may not be verbalized, as subtext is most often shown as the unspoken thoughts and motives of characters — what they really think and believe. It also shows the larger picture. It can imply controversial subjects, or it can be a simple, direct depiction of motives. Metaphors and allegories are excellent tools for conveying provocative ideas.

Subtext can be a conscious thought or a gut reaction on the part of the characters. It imagery as conveyed by the author.

When it’s done right, subtext conveys backstory with a deft hand. When layered with symbolism and atmosphere, the reader absorbs the subtext on a subliminal level because it is unobtrusive.

An excellent book on this subject is Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger. On the back of this book, subtext is described as “a silent force bubbling up from below the surface of any screenplay or novel.” This book is an important source of information on how to discover and convey the deeper story that underpins the action.

Because subtext is so often shown as internal dialogue, some writers assume that heavy-handed info dumping is subtext.

It’s not. It’s description, opinions, gestures, imagery, and yes–subtext can be conveyed in dialogue but dialogue itself is just people talking.

When characters are constantly verbalizing their every thought you run into several problems:

  1. In genre fiction, the accepted method of conveying internal dialogue (thought) is with italics. A wall of italics is a daunting prospect to a reader, who may just put the book down.
  2. Verbalizing thoughts can become an opportunity for an info dump.

Nevertheless, thoughts (internal dialogue) have their place in the narrative and can be part of the subtext. The main problem I have with them is that when a writer is expressing some character’s most intimate thoughts, the current accepted practice for writing interior monologue in genre fiction is to use italics… lots and lots of italics… copious quantities of leaning letters that are small and difficult to decipher. I recommend going lightly with them.

A character’s backstory is subtext, their memories and the events that led them to where they are now. We use interior monologues to represent a character’s thoughts in real time, as they actually think them in their head, using the precise words they use. For that reason, italicized thoughts are always written in:

  • First Person: I’m the queen! After all, we don’t think about ourselves in the third person, even if we really are the queen. We are not amused.
  • Present Tense: Where are we going with this?

We think in the first person present tense because we are in the middle of events as they happen. Immediate actions and mental commentaries unfold in the present so they are written as the character experiences them.

But memories are different. Memories are subtext and reflect a moment in the past. If brief, they should be written in a past tense to reflect that. If it was a watershed moment, one that changed their life, consider writing it as a scene and have the character relive it.

This will avoid presenting the reader with a wall of italics and gives the event a sense of immediacy. Having the characters relive it brings home the emotion and power of the event and shows the reader why the event was so important to the character that they would remember it so clearly.

Subtext expressed as thoughts must fit as smoothly into the narrative as conversations. My recommendation is to only voice the most important thoughts via an internal monologue, and in this way, you will retain the readers’ interest. The rest can be presented in images that build the world around the characters as in this example:

Benny watched Charlotte as she left the office. Everyone knew she was rich. The gold watch, the sleek sports car she drove could have been owned by any well-employed girl, but something about her screamed confidence and money.

These are Benny’s impressions of Charlotte, and we could put all of that into Benny’s interior monologue, but why? This way, the reader is told all that they need to know about Charlotte, without resorting to an info dump, and we aren’t faced with a wall of italics.

Some things must be expressed as an interior monologue.

Benny looked down at his mop. I’m such an idiot.

The reader has  gained a whole lot of information, in only two sentences.  They think they know who Benny is, and they have a clue about his aspirations. What they don’t know yet, but will discover as the plot unfolds, is who Benny really is and why he is posing as a janitor. That too will emerge via subtext and through descriptions of the environment, conversations Benny has with his employer, his interior monologues, and his general impressions of the world around him.

Don’t forget the senses. Odors and ambient sounds, objects placed in a scene, sensations of wind or the feeling of heat when the sun shines through a window—these bits of background are subtext. Scenes require a certain amount of description. Let’s say we’re writing a short story about a grandfather fixing dinner for his grandson. He’s had to go out shopping, and now he carries his groceries home in a snowstorm, fearing he will slip and fall. How do you convey that in the least obtrusive fashion? I would write it this way:

Willard gazed at the icy stairs leading from the unshoveled walk to the front door, his bag of groceries growing heavier.

Sometimes we see the world and the larger issues through the protagonist’s eyes, and other times we see the protagonist through the setting—what is shown in the scene.

People read the subtext and make conclusions based on what they infer is important in that scene. If it is just there for looks or shock value, it becomes an instance of Chekhov’s Gun and should be removed. Everything that is remarkable (such as a gun) must be important to the scene or serve a later purpose.

The subtext must be organic, purposeful, and not just there to dump info or fluff the word count. I like books where the scenery is shown in brief impressions, and the reader sees only what needs to be there, so we aren’t distracted by unimportant things. Detail implies importance, so choose what you detail carefully.

Subtext—metaphor and allegory. Impressions and images that build the world around and within the characters are as fundamental to the story as the plot and the arc of the story. Getting it right takes a little work, but please, do make an effort to be subtle and deft in conveying it. As a reader, I’m always thrilled to read a novel where the subtext makes the narrative a voyage of discovery.


Credits and Attributions:

Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath by Dr. Linda Seger © published by Michael Wiese Productions; 2 edition (March 1, 2017) 

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Asking the right questions #amwriting

Sometimes we find ourselves  in the position of having to do research, even when a piece is not intended to be historically accurate. I write many things that are centered around Arthurian legends, and I am fortunate that a lot of tales still exist that were written during the Middle Ages. Nowadays much is being discovered about the real King Arthur through solid archaeology, and he is being discovered as a man of the 6th century.

But I am drawn to the popular legends, giving him a mythological place in our chivalric canon of romantic tales, written during the 11th through the 15th centuries. These accounts make him a man of their times, dressing him in their fashions and giving him their ideals and values.

The High Middle Ages were a golden period for historical writing in England, but the craft of researching history scientifically was not an academic subject taught in school. The gathering of historical tales was a hobby for educated men who had the time, social position, and the talents to pursue it.

As a result, the histories from this period are highly questionable–but are quite entertaining and are great fantasy reads. I’ve said this before: if J.R.R. Tolkien had been writing history in a monastery during the 7th and 8th century, The Lord of the Rings would have the same place in our historical narrative that the Arthurian Cycle has now, and Aragorn would have been the king who united all of Britain.

Nowadays Galahad is a minor knight, but he figures prominently in Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 work, Le Morte d’Arthura reworking of traditional tales that were hundreds of years old even in his day. Versions of Galahad appear regularly in my work. I studied Medieval Literature in college and found his story both diverse and fascinating. Many tales abound referencing him. But, what is the original story of Galahad that is bandied about most often? We know early Arthurian legend was highly influenced by the authors’ contemporaries, the Knights Templar.

Neither Arthur nor any of his knights could possibly have been Templars, but by modernizing and dressing his court in contemporary ideals, those medieval authors made Galahad into a superhero.

Traditionally, Sir Galahad, a Knight of the Round Table, finds the Holy Grail and immediately goes to heaven, raptured as a virgin – but was he? I mean raptured OR a virgin?  If he was not raptured, what could have happened to make medieval chroniclers think he was?

So, why was this notion of a virgin knight and being taken to heaven before death so important to medieval chroniclers that they would write it as though it was true history?

Well, they were writing some 300 to 400 years after the supposed event, during the final decades of the Crusades. Religion and belief in the Christian truths espoused by the Church were in the very air the people of the time breathed. All things of this world were bound up and explained in ways relating to the Christian traditions of the day.

Literature in those days was filled with religious allegories, the most popular of which were the virginity and holiness of the Saints—especially those Saints deemed holy enough to be raptured. These people did not have to experience death but instead were raised while still alive to heaven where they spent eternity in God’s presence.

A few years ago I was challenged to write an Arthurian tale with a steampunk twist. I accepted the task, but immediately wished I hadn’t, as it just seemed an impossible leap.

The first question I asked myself was: Where do Arthurian legend and steampunk connect well enough to make a story? The answer was—they don’t. I felt that block we all feel when the story will not reveal itself.

But, sitting on my back porch and letting my mind roam, I found myself wondering what Galahad and Gawain would have really been like. The people those characters were based on were men of the 5th or 6th century, ordinary men, and despite the heroic legends, they were made of flesh and blood.

And what if somehow Galahad got separated from Gawain through a door in time? How would Galahad get back to Gawain?  What if he was marooned in Edwardian England, with Merlin – can you say steampunk?

The title of that tale is Galahad HawkeThe main character is Galahad Du Lac, son of Lancelot Du Lac, illegitimate, some have said, but is he really? If he is, it implies the fifth century was a lot less concerned about the proprieties than we give them credit for. His line of work is that of a nobleman and hero. Thus, he goes on quests to find strange and magical objects such as Holy Grail.

The story was told in the first person point of view. I opened the story just after the Grail was found. Knowing that history and fantasy merge in the Early Middle Ages, I approached my story by asking these questions:

  1. What does Galahad have to say about his story?
  2. What if he and Gawain were lovers?
  3. How does he end up separated from Gawain?
  4. How does Galahad end up in Merlin’s company?
  5. Why are they unable to get back to Gawain?
  6. What is the reason the magic no longer works?
  7. What do they do to resolve the situation?
  8. How does the tale end – does Galahad get Gawain back or is he permanently adrift in time?

I wrote it two ways and picked the ending that moved me the most.

Often, I begin the process of creation by sitting down with a pencil and paper. I identify the core conflict, and then ask the five important “W” questions, (who, what, when, where, and why).

Asking questions and listing the answers is the key to unlocking the potential of any story idea. Through the experience of writing Galahad Hawke, I discovered that my characters can tell me a great deal if I let them.

Things got out of hand on the home front this last summer, most of which I spent caring for an injured son. My ability to write creatively was affected.  Somewhere along the line, I forgot how effective this crucial part of the process can be. I felt derailed at times, and what I was writing didn’t feel true. By returning to the basics and asking questions, I have given myself a new framework to hang my current stories on.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, the Quest for the Holy Grail, by Sir Arthur Hughes, 1870, PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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