Tag Archives: writing craft

Revisited: the Hyperlinked Table of Contents #amwriting

Every now and then we need to create a table of contents (TOC) for an eBook. Some readers like to have it hyperlinked for ease of negotiation in the book. Right now, I am creating the TOC for my new book, Julian Lackland, which will launch on September 22.

These instructions are for MS WORD, which is my preferred word-processing program. I assume the steps are similar in Google Docs but they will differ in ways I’m unfamiliar with.

I know of several high-end book-designing programs out there that will create the TOC and many other aspects of the finished product, but I have never used them. If you have the money and intend to publish a lot of books, one of those would be a good investment.

Also, before we begin, Draft2Digital can do this for you at no charge if your TOC is a straightforward thing. I heartily recommend their services for all aspects of creating a simple manuscript. Their end products look very nice and are easy to read.

However, if your book is divided into titled sections and has a map, you should either build the linked table of contents yourself or have your book-design service create it.

I have the skill, this costs me nothing, and while it is a time  consuming project, it’s not difficult.

The most serious thing to watch out for in this task is boredom. Inattentiveness will make a mess out of your manuscript, so stay alert and focus.

The first thing you want to do is create a plain list of what you want in your table of contents. A table of contents can take any form you want it to. Numbers or titled chapter headings – it’s your choice.

Make sure the finished list looks the way you want it to, and then insert it into the manuscript. I put the TOC in front, but some publishers put them as part of the back matter in eBooks.

The following sample images are from the article I wrote on this same subject and posted on August 31, 2016.

With that done, we create our first bookmark.

First, highlight the words  “Table of Contents” and then go to your ‘Insert’ tab.  Click on ‘Bookmark’ and when the pop-out menu opens, type in the words: ref_TOC

Then click “Add”.  In every manuscript it is important to name the Table of Contents bookmark exactly that, including the underscore: ref_TOC, because that’s what Smashwords looks for and it is simply a good practice to have a uniform system for naming files.  See the next picture for how it will look:

ref_TOC_screenshot2

Now it’s time to bookmark the first chapter, or the prologue if you have one. We’ll give this pretend book the title of Billy’s Revenge, in honor of Billy Ninefingers. Thus, the initials BR will be featured in all my bookmark names.

Scroll down to your prologue or first chapter and do it exactly the same way as you bookmarked the TOC, but for this manuscript I will name it BR_ch_1. (Billy’s Revenge chapter 1)

You will name yours with your manuscript’s initials and the word prologue or chapter 1: MS_chapter_1

See the picture below:

ref_TOC_screenshot3

As long as you have the chapter title highlighted, click “insert Hyperlink” on the “insert” tab of the ribbon.

On the left of the dropdown menu, you want to click Link to:  Place in this Document.  That will bring up your bookmarks.

Select ‘ref_TOC’  and click OK.  This will turn your heading blue, and is called a ‘hyperlinky’.

You will need to test it, so press control and click on the link. This will take you back to the table of contents heading. Once you have used the hyperlinky it will turn purple.

ref_TOC_screenshot5

Now that you are back at the Table of Contents, highlight either Prologue or Chapter 1, which ever you are starting your book with, and click “insert Hyperlink” on the ribbon.

Again, on the left of that menu, you want to click Link to: Place in this Document, which will will bring up your bookmarks.

Select the bookmark for your first section, either prologue or “MS_chapter_1” and click OK.  That will turn it blue.

Press control and click on the link. it will take you back to the heading of your prologue or the first chapter. Remember, once you’ve used a hyperlinky, it will turn purple.

Scroll down your manuscript to the next chapter, and highlight the chapter heading, just as you did the first time. Repeat the steps you did for the first section.

Do this for the entire table of contents, always remembering to link your chapter heading back to “ref_TOC”, and test each link as you go.

As I said earlier, creating your hyperlinked table of contents can be time consuming, and it requires you to pay attention. Even so, it is a simple process and makes your eBook a nicer experience for the reader.

ref_TOC_screenshot6

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Emotion: it’s complicated, part 2 #amwriting

 

Authors are regularly admonished to “show-don’t-tell.” Let’s ignore the know-it-all bludgeoning you with that rule for the moment, because nothing is worse than an unbalanced narrative.

If you have no idea how to begin showing the underlying emotions of your characters, a useful handbook that offers a jumping-off point is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

This book is quite affordable and is full of hints that you can use to give depth to your characters. They will offer nine or ten suggestions that are physical indications for each of a wide range of surface emotions.

Do your readers a favor. Choose only one physical indicator per emotion per scene.

Showing must be balanced with some telling, or it becomes all about eye-rolling and forehead creasing. Showing mixed with telling makes for a smoother narrative.

Some telling can be done in conversations, through internal thoughts, and the observations of others in a scene.

Writing emotions is a balancing act. Most times, you can get away without dragging the reader through five or six small facial changes in a scene, simply by giving their internal reactions a little thought.

If you only show the outward physical indicators of a particular emotion, you only wrote half the story.

When something “strikes home” with us, it happens on a visceral (physical) level. In other words, emotions that hit us hard evoke sudden feelings deep within our guts as well as in our hearts and minds.

Yes, these feelings can be reflected in our expressions. However, facial contortions alone don’t show what is going on inside the character.

Visceral reactions are involuntary.

We can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding.

We might be able to hide our reactions from others, but we can’t stop how these emotions feel.

This internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on. You must tell the reader the character’s face went hot, or their stomach knotted up.

One way to create a sympathetic response in the reader is to use a simple 1 – 2 – 3  trick of word order when describing the character’s experience.

  1. Start with the visceral response. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut punch, butterflies—what?
  2. Follow up with a ‘thought’ response. “Oh my god!” That is how it hits us, right? Gut punch then mental reaction as we process the event.
  3. Third, finish up with body language.

Severe emotional shock strikes us physically with a three-way punch:

  • disbelief—the OMG moment
  • knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!”
  • disassociation—a coping or defense mechanism meant to minimize or help a person tolerate stress.

When we write mild reactions, it’s not necessary to offer a lot of emotional description because ‘mild’ is boring. A raised eyebrow, a sideways glance—small gestures show the attitude and normal condition of the character.

However, strong emotions are compelling. Highly charged situations are strengthened by the way we write the emotional experience.

If you want to emphasize a particular chemistry between two characters, good or bad, employing their visceral reactions is the way to do so.

Most authors who have been in writing groups for any length of time become adept at writing emotions on a surface level.

They don’t merely write, “He smiled.” Their characters’ facial expressions are an ever-moving display of lips curving up or pulling down beneath twinkling, hard-eyed glares. Eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, shoulders slump and hands tremble, dimples pop, eyes spark—and so on and so on.

Taken individually and combined with other clues, some description is necessary.

However, nothing is more aggravating than trying to enjoy a narrative where facial expressions and body slumping take center stage.

This is why I feel as concerned with what is happening to my characters internally as I do about describing the outward display.

Combining the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the emotion (internal) requires thought. We struggle to balance showing the external with telling the internal so that the reader isn’t baldly told what to experience.

We write it, and sweat over it, searching for the right words to show what we intend. Many times, we come back later and rewrite it.

By using this twofold approach of mixing showing with telling, we hope the reader will become immersed in the lives of our characters.

Some emotions are complicated and deeply personal, difficult to show, and even more challenging to express internally. These are the gut-wrenching moments that make our work speak to the reader.

Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions, and so must our protagonist.

Writing genuine emotions requires practice and thought. Motivation is critical.

WHY does the character react in that way? Emotions without cause have no basis for existence, no foundation. They lack credibility and leave us, the reader, feeling as if the story is shallow, a lot of noise about nothing.

Timing and pacing are essential.

The emotion hits and the character is processing it.

That is the moment to slip in a brief mention of the backstory. That way, you avoid an info dump, but the reader can extrapolate the information needed to make the emotion real.

Simplicity has impact. When looking for words with visceral and emotional power, consonants are your friend. Verbs that begin with consonants are powerful.

Use forceful words, and you won’t have to resort to a great deal of description. Weak word choices separate the reader from the experience, dulling the emotional impact of what could be an intense scene.

A good exercise for writing deep emotions is to create character sketches for people you currently have no story for. Just as in all the many other skills necessary to the craft of writing a balanced narrative, practice is required.

The key is to practice writing emotions, and you may find a later use for these practice characters. The more we practice this aspect of the craft, the better we get at it.

And the more we write, the more individual and recognizable our writing-voice becomes.


Credits and Attributions:

Sir Galahad, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, 1881 via Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Schmalz galahad.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Schmalz_galahad.jpg&oldid=363278568 (accessed June 23, 2020).

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Choosing Words to add Depth #amwriting

Words with few alternatives become problems for me, as in certain circumstances, they can become repetitive. Sometimes, the thesaurus that comes with my word-processing program doesn’t offer me enough substitutes to make a good choice.

For that reason, I have both the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus near to hand. When I find myself searching for an alternative word, I refer to these books.

I find it saves time to refer to the hard copy book rather than the internet. However, that is a perfectly reasonable cost-free alternative. Having good reference books at hand keeps my attention on my work, rather than surfing the net.

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

Why do I say such a terrible thing? It’s true—there only a few basic plots from which all stories are derived, and we have only so many words in the English language with which to tell them.

Ian Chadwick offers us this observation in his article, Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots?

 Last summer, a story in The Atlantic told of university researchers who used software to parse through 2,000 works of literature to determine there are six basic plots:

  1. Rags to Riches (rise)
  2. Riches to Rags (fall)
  3. Man in a Hole (fall then rise)
  4. Icarus (rise then fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise then fall then rise)
  6. Oedipus (fall then rise then fall)

Which is one less than Christopher Booker lists in his lengthy 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Around the end of his book, Booker actually lists two more plots which are, historically speaking, not as common (by his assessment, they are late additions to our literary canon, although I think that could be argued against), so he discounts them as less important:

Rebellion Against ‘The One’

Mystery

So, yes, we are all telling the same stories, and we all must use words with the same meanings, but we sound different on the page.

Why is this?

The way we habitually write prose is our unique voice. The words I use might mean the same as those you use, but I might choose a different form of it.

Take the word loud:

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

These are only a few of the many options we have – www.PowerThesaurus.com  lists 1,992 alternatives for the word loud.

When we write, we are building a specific image for our readers. We select words intentionally for their nuances. We want to convey our idea of the mood and atmosphere as well as the information. What ambiance does the setting convey, and how can our word choices add depth to that feeling?

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

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

Don’t get too creative, though. Do your readers a favor and use words that are common enough that most people won’t need a dictionary to understand the narrative.

Would you choose the word obstreperous or the more common form, argumentative? They mean the same thing, but both begin with a vowel and feel passive. Hostile, confrontational, surly—many common words convey different shades of the meaning in a more straightforward, more powerful way.

This is not to say that less commonly used words should be ignored. Your prose should never be “dumbed-down.”

The point is, don’t use words that my Texan editor refers to as “ten-dollar words.” A ten-dollar word is a long obscure word used in place of one that is smaller and more well-known.

The origin of ten-dollar words dates back to the early 19th century when writers and speakers would use pretentious words to seem smarter than the average person. This obnoxious habit turns potential readers away, as no one likes to be talked down to.

When it comes to word selection, consider the image you want to convey as if you were an artist. Make an effort to find the right words to show the story.

Words are the paint you will use to draw the picture for the reader. Plot, no matter how well constructed, is only a framework for the story.

As a reader progresses through a narrative, their imaginations supply images about the people and the events. The real story happens inside the reader’s head.

The reader’s experience is made richer or poorer by the words you choose.

If you build your story out of words that evoke powerful images, they will get to know the characters, feel as if they live in that world, and absorb the events more quickly.

They will be compelled to keep turning the page.

As a reader, I live for those books written by authors who aren’t afraid to choose their words.


Credits and Attributions:

Three, six, seven, nine… how many basic plots? by Ian Chadwick © 2017 Scripturient. http://ianchadwick.com/blog/three-six-seven-nine-how-many-basic-plots/ (accessed 16 June 2020).

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On Poetry: Interview with Alan Shue, creator of the Bug Rhymes Stories

This is the fourth and final installment in my series of interviews on the craft of writing poetry. Today Alan Shue, author of the hilarious Bug Rhymes Stories series of children’s books, talks to us about his approach to the craft.

Writing for children is a bit different than for older readers, and Alan kindly explains why.


CJJ: When did you begin to write poetry?

AS: I began to write poetry in small amounts during the 1960s and 70s, mainly in the form of song writing (little of which I can find now). In the 80s I started writing poems mainly for Christmas, family birthdays and other events to send out with cards and found I really enjoyed it. After a while I branched out into writing just for fun, playing with alliteration and various rhyming patterns and broadening my mix of topics to include humorous, romantic, and more serious themes. When I retired in 2008 I also started writing rhyming stories for children.

CJJ: Your published work is primarily children’s books. When did you realize this was your calling as an author? Have you written in other genres?

AS: I’m not sure I’ve had a calling as an author per se – I more or less stumbled into writing children’s books. When I reached retirement I knew I wanted to spend more of my newfound free time writing poetry and maybe also take a shot at writing short stories or novels. One warm summer day in 2008 I lay on my back in a grassy area in a park, looked up into a clear blue sky, and casually thought about what kind of writing I’d like to do. Within moments a few rhyming lines and silly plot ideas about fleas and other bugs popped into my mind. They felt fun and funny enough that I decided to give rhyming children’s stories a try, to see if I could create something I liked. That impulse turned into a series I call Bug Rhymes stories.

I have tried a few other genres. In the poetry realm I have written lyrics for a set of “New Age” compositions whose melodies I loved so much I felt compelled to put words to them. In the past five years I have also tried my hand at adult prose in the form of a short story (more like a novelette) and a fiction novel currently in progress. I find writing prose for an adult audience to be far more difficult than writing goofy rhymes for kids.

CJJ: What do you enjoy most about your work?

AS: I like the creative process of trying to communicate ideas and stories via rhyme. I enjoy the challenge of finding unusual and clever rhymes, giving rhythm to poetic verse, and employing alliteration to make lines and quatrains “roll off the tongue” (although admittedly I sometimes create tongue twisters). I’m a member of a local writing group and like the learning process involved in receiving critiques of my work and making improvements to it. It also has been a pleasure to visit elementary schools to read my books aloud and talk to students about writing. My greatest enjoyment comes when I receive feedback from kids and adults who have had a good laugh or a nice feeling from my ditties and stories.

CJJ: What do you find easiest about writing for children, and conversely, what is most difficult?

AS: My children’s stories tend to “anthropomorphize” bugs, i.e. they put bugs into situations faced by humans. I think having bugs as characters allows me the freedom to make the stories as humorous or dramatic as I want while still appealing to a child’s sense of fun and fantasy. I can create my own culture and world, e.g. a pair of bedbug bicycle cops on the trail of a bedbug bed burglar.

My greatest difficulty is keeping my children’s stories as short as most publishers recommend. Many children’s books are just a few hundred words long. My stories sometimes creep up to around a thousand, plus or minus, which can exceed the attention span of some who are in my target 3 to 9 year age range.

CJJ: What advice would you give other authors who want to write for children and who may be just starting out?

AS: My books are all self-published, which is far easier to do now than it was in 2008, so I would suggest considering that approach as it is far quicker and easier than acquiring an agent or publisher. By all means join a good critique group where you can get constructive criticism from other authors. I was not academically trained as a writer and listening to other writers has resulted in far better finished work from me. Read as many children’s books as you can to see what is getting published, what the market is looking for, and what your niche could be. Think about your goals. My niche has been the adventures of bugs scorned or overlooked by most other children’s book writers (e.g. fleas, mosquitoes, bedbugs, gnats, etc., no butterflies) and my goal has been to write stories kids and adults will enjoy, not necessarily to achieve commercial success.

CJJ: Finally, what are you currently working on?

AS: I’m about 35,000 words into my first full length novel. I’ve discovered that it takes far more research and skill for this type of writing – to make it realistic and keep adults engaged – than for fantasy-based rhyming stories for children. Additionally, I have several more finished Bug Rhymes stories that need illustration to become books. Kudos to my wife Linda (creative director and colorist) and my illustrator Elisa Wilson for the three Bug Rhymes books completed so far. I’ve found my participation in the illustration process immensely interesting and rewarding, but expensive, so am not sure what the future holds for additional books. I am also still writing poetry as new ideas, events and holidays stimulate.


Thank you for allowing me to prevail upon you, Alan.

I highly recommend Alan’s books for the fun rhymes, the overall stories, and the wonderful, detailed art.

My 7-yr-old grandson, Byron, loves “Grant the Ant.” We had a long discussion on the phone about the redemption of Zeater and what a great ending the book has.  After all, in Byron’s mind, the best stories have fun words, a lot of action, and a certain amount of “ew!”

Also, Byron thinks I should add a glossary at the end of my books as he liked the one at the end of “Grant the Ant.” I’ve always listened to marketing advice from my grandsons, as they are rarely wrong.

This series of interviews with working poets/novelists has been fun. I’m always interested in how other authors work. In case you missed them, here are the links to the three previous interviews:

Stephen Swartz

Shaun Allan

Maria VA Johnson

Writing poems doesn’t stop us from writing novels, or vice versa. We can give ourselves permission to approach the craft of writing in whatever way makes us happy.

Beginning Monday, I’ll continue the series on poetry and short fiction with Drabbles (100 word stories).


About Alan Shue:

Raised in Las Vegas, Alan moved to the Pacific Northwest to attend Oregon State University and then made Olympia, WA his home. As a published author Alan has a not-so-secret love for the written word and rhymes in particular. In addition to writing children’s stories, over the years he has written a great deal of poetry for family, holidays, and just fun.

As a contrast, during his career Alan wrote thousands of pages of information systems analysis and technical design. So, a little right brain here … a little left brain there … add in some bugs, rhymes, goofiness and imagination, and you have the origins of his Bug Rhymes Books series.

Alan lives with his wife of 50+ years, Linda, who has been instrumental in the illustration of his books. His published works so far include: Chee the Flea, Tweeter and Jeeter, and Grant the Ant. Alan is coordinator for the 150+ member Olympia Writers Group.

To find out more about Alan’s books visit his web site: http://bugrhymesbooks.com/

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Poetry: Shape and form #amwriting

Poetry comes in many forms. In fact, Writer’s Digest University lists 100 of them: List of 100 Poetic Forms for Poets.

However enticing that rabbit trail may be, today’s post will cover only a few of the most common and well-known forms. The rhyming scheme of poetry is traditionally shown by using the first letters of the alphabet, such as: AABB

Another word to know is what we call a stanza, or how we divide our poem. Literary Devices says: In poetry, a stanza is a division of four or more lines having a fixed length, meter, or rhyming scheme.

A few of the most common poetic forms are:

Elegy  – a poem or song written to honor the life of someone deceased, such as W. H. Auden’s In Memory of W. B. Yeats, the opening lines which follow:

He disappeared in the dead of winter:

The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,

And snow disfigured the public statues;

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day,

What instruments we have agree

The day of his death was a cold dark day.

Epitaphs – poetic writings on tombstones, such as William Butler Yeats’ epitaph, taken from his poem, Under Ben Bulben:

Cast a cold Eye

On Life, on Death.

Horseman, pass by!

Haiku – short Japanese poem, 5 syllables, then seven syllables, then 5 syllables.

I write one Haiku

Five over seven and five

Five Seven Five done.

Limericks have 5 lines, with lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyming with each other, and lines 3 and 4 rhyming with each other. The cadence ends with a stressed syllable. Limericks have strong rhymes, and a recognizable rolling verse:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical

Into space that is quite economical.

But the good ones I’ve seen

So seldom are clean

And the clean ones so seldom are comical.

Odes are poetry that praise a person or an ideal, such as this excerpt from Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality:

Turn wheresoe’er I may,

By night or day,

The things which I have seen I now can see no more…

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

Hath had elsewhere its setting,

And cometh from afar:

Not in entire forgetfulness,

And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

From God, who is our home…

Prose poetry is written in prose form instead of verse form without the line breaks associated with poetry. However, it contains the imagery and makes use of rhyme, repetition, fragmentation (short sentences), and most other poetic devices.

Quatrain. A complete poem consisting of four lines. There are fifteen possible rhyme patterns, but the most traditional and common are: AAAA, ABAB, and ABBA. Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is ABAB:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Rondel -13 or 14 lines in 3 stanzas. Wikipedia says:

“There are several variations of the rondel, and some inconsistencies. For example, sometimes only the first line of the poem is repeated at the end, or the second refrain may return at the end of the last stanza.  Henry Austin Dobson provides the following example of a rondel:

    Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,

      The old, old Love that we knew of yore!

      We see him stand by the open door,

    With his great eyes sad, and his bosom swelling.

 

    He makes as though in our arms repelling

      He fain would lie as he lay before;

    Love comes back to his vacant dwelling,

      The old, old Love that we knew of yore!

 

    Ah! who shall help us from over-spelling

      That sweet, forgotten, forbidden lore?

      E’en as we doubt, in our hearts once more,

    With a rush of tears to our eyelids welling,

    Love comes back to his vacant dwelling.

The last form I’m going to show you is the Sonnet, which was a favorite medium for William Shakespeare.

Wikipedia says: The Petrarchan sonnet is a sonnet form not developed by Petrarch himself, but rather by a string of Renaissance poets. Because of the structure of Italian, the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet is more easily fulfilled in that language than in English. The original Italian sonnet form divides the poem’s fourteen lines into two parts, the first part being an octave and the second being a sestet.

On His Blindness by the English poet Milton, gives a sense of the Petrarchan rhyme scheme:

When I consider how my light is spent (A)

 Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, (B)

 And that one talent which is death to hide, (B)

 Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent (A)

To serve therewith my Maker, and present (A)

 My true account, lest he returning chide; (B)

 “Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?” (B)

 I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent (A)

That murmur, soon replies, “God doth not need (C)

 Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best (D)

 Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state (E)

Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed (C)

 And post o’er land and ocean without rest; (D)

 They also serve who only stand and wait.” (E)

I have experimented with writing in all of these forms, but I tend to lean most toward a kind of free verse or prose poem. On Wednesday, I will feature an interview with my good friend, Stephen Swartz. He writes novels and short stories in a wide variety of genres and often leaves comments for me in the form of silly rhymes.

Silliness aside, Stephen has been known to produce some beautiful prose poems and is always willing to talk about the craft.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Rondel (poem),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rondel_(poem)&oldid=925869026 (accessed May 17, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Sonnet,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Sonnet&oldid=951762201 (accessed May 17, 2020).

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Snares in the Depths #amwriting

Something lurks in the depths of the Word Pond that is our story, snares waiting to drown the unwary author.

An early trap is confusion: At first, we don’t know what to do with commas. Some frustrated authors will decide to do without them altogether.

This decision leads to chaos and an unreadable manuscript.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating:

Commas are to clauses what traffic signals are to streets. They govern the flow of traffic, although, in the case of sentences, the traffic is comprised of words, not cars.

  • Commas follow introductory words and clauses. Instead, they took a left turn.
  • Commas set off “asides.” Her sister, Sara, brought coffee.
  • Commas separate words in lists: We bought apples, oranges, and papayas for the salad.
  • Commas join two complete sentences, and once joined, they form one longer sentence. When used too freely, linked clauses can create run-on sentences.
  • Commas frequently precede conjunctions, but only when linking complete clauses. When connecting a dependent clause to a complete clause, don’t insert a comma. “I intended to go back to London but found myself here instead.”

Another early snare the new author must avoid is the long-winded sentence. How often do you link several clauses together with the word and? Conjunctions are the gateway to run-on sentence hell.

If you are deliberate in your use of conjunctions, em dashes, and hyphens, you will also use fewer commas. Craft your prose but use grammatical common sense. Brevity usually strengthens prose.

Another trap waiting for the unwary is descriptive TMItoo much information.

Don’t waste words describing every insignificant change of expression and mood. Consider this hot mess of fifty-one words that make no sense:

Eleanor looked at Gerard with concern. His voice changed so much in the telling of the story as his emotions came to the surface that it still seemed so raw, as if Timmy’s death had happened only days ago. In addition, his expressions also changed and his current one was akin to despair.

That waste of ink could be cut down to fourteen (14) words that convey the important parts of the sentence: Gerard’s raw despair concerned Eleanor, seeming as if Timmy’s death had happened only days before.

Using too many words mingled with catchphrases and acronyms to express simple concepts is a common requirement of corporate emails and documents for project managers. If you are coming from that environment, you must learn to write a lean narrative. Readers don’t want fluffy, meaningless prose littered with clichés and obscure words in their literature.

What does “Kill your darlings” really mean? All it means is don’t write self-indulgent drivel.

We all fall in love with our characters. Why make the point that people fall over themselves drooling at the beauty of the protagonist? Why make that point in every other paragraph? Is it that important to the narrative?

If it isn’t important to that scene, don’t include it. Gerard’s handsome visage and grace should be mentioned occasionally, but only where his god-like magnetism and charisma impacts the story.

Really–in real life, how often does that happen? However, if Gerard’s looks and charisma cause trouble wherever he goes, then it becomes a key part of the action and can be used to set up other scenes.

We write because we love words, but simplicity is usually best. Consider this morsel of “yuck.”

Delicious sounds captivated their eardrums.

Please, just say it sounded amazing. If music touches the protagonist’s soul, it’s good to say so.

We want to convey the fact the music was beautiful, and we don’t want to be boring. However, when we get too artful we are at risk of creating awkward visuals.

Odors and sounds are part of the background, the atmosphere of the piece, and while they need to be there, we don’t want them to be obtrusive, in-your-face.

This is an instance of prose working better when it isn’t fancy.

I hope these thoughts help get your writing week started.

Now, go! Write like the wind!

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Self-editing: ensuring consistency #amwriting

Today I’m continuing a series on self-editing that I began on February 12, Revisions: Self-Editing.

The revision process is where some of the worst errors that can mess up a manuscript are committed. This is because making changes on a large scale within your manuscript is a tricky job at best. Ensuring consistency requires focus, the ability to be meticulous, and an eye for detail.

Good editors have these qualities, but if the services of a good editor are out of your financial reach, you must find a way to self-edit and still come out with a literate manuscript that flows well and engages the reader.

A tool I have mentioned before in this series is the style sheet.

In 2012, after reading the first chapter of my raw manuscript, my editor asked me for a style sheet. She was disappointed but not surprised to find I didn’t know what she meant.

My work was so uneven that it was clear I had never listed my made-up names. Things evolved as I went along. I forgot how I spelled that one minor character’s name in the one scene where it was mentioned. However, at the midpoint of the novel, the character had an important role and a slightly different spelling.

This happens because fundamental things sometimes change as we are going along in our first draft:

  • Character names evolve.
  • Place names evolve.
  • A different character becomes the protagonist—it may be someone you initially thought was a sidekick.

These adjustments happen because we realize something isn’t logical, make the changes, and move on.

Unfortunately, we’re only human and don’t always catch all the places we needed to change.

Once my editor pointed this out to me, I put together a comprehensive list of how I wanted to spell the names of every person, place, and creature in my novel.

Even though I spent several days doing this, the editing process was slow and agonizing because I didn’t catch half the words.

What the style sheet should cover:

All names, created or not: Aeos, Aeolyn, Beryl, Carl, Edwin, etc.

Real and created animal names: alligator, stinkbear, thunder-cow, waterdemon

Created words that are hyphenated: fire-mage, thunder-cow

All place names, real or created: Seattle, Chicago, Ragat, Wister, Sevya, Arlen, Neveyah

Some authors use a program called Scrivener, which apparently assembles all that information for them and does magic tricks to boot.

I’m happy for those who have figured it out, but be warned, there is a large learning curve if you go that route.

Frankly, Scrivener was a waste of money for me because my mind doesn’t work the way Scrivener does, and I became quite frustrated with it.

For me, it’s simpler to copy and paste my words into a spreadsheet or document labeled with the book or series title and the words style sheet, such as Bleakbourne_style_sheet.xls.

You don’t have to be fancy unless you want to. Google docs, Open Office, and MS Office all offer perfectly good word processing programs with both documents and spreadsheets, and all you need is to keep a simple list of people, places, and things.

I keep this document open while I am writing a first draft and try to be scrupulous about listing every name, place, animal, and hyphenated word.

In cases where your characters are traveling, you might need a simple map. I get fancy because I’m a wannabe artist, but you don’t have to. All you need are lines with north and south listed, and the names of towns and other places that have parts in the story.

But how do we make these corrections in our manuscript? We do what is called a global search.

I open MS Word, which is my word processing program, and do it this way: With your mouse or stylus, highlight the word you want to find every occurrence of. On the far right of the home tab, click ‘find.’ This will open the navigation pane.

Or, on your keyboard, press the ‘ctrl’ key and the ‘f’ key at the same time. This is the keyboard shortcut to the navigation pane.

With that word automatically highlighted, you have a choice to make: is it a word you want to delete or replace?

First, you must understand that you are about to embark on a boring, time-consuming task.

If you get hasty and choose to “Replace All,” you can inadvertently ruin your entire manuscript. I’ve used the following example before, but it bears repeating:

Your writing group tells you that you overuse the word “very.” You decide to simply eliminate every instance of the word “very” because that seems like the most logical way to resolve the problem quickly.

So, you open the navigation pane and  the advanced search dialog box. In the “replace with” box, you don’t key anything, thinking this will eliminate the problem. You then hit “replace all.”

Don’t do it.

Please.

Every, everyone, everything—you get the idea.

Every word in the English language is made up of a selection of letters chosen from only 26 letters. These letters are used in many combinations, with different meanings. Before you click “replace all” consider how many common words have the letters h-a-s in their makeup:

  • hasty
  • chase
  • chastity

Trying to cut corners in the editing process can easily mess things up on an incredibly large scale. Looking for weak words and phrasing is a time-consuming task.

Things to look for and possibly delete or change:

  • Any kind of qualifier or quantifier: just, a little, a bit, somewhat—these are words that show indecision. Active prose should not be indecisive.
  • Action-stopping words: started to, began to— these are word combinations that slow and stall the action. They are passive, so if you want to write active prose, go lightly with them. Your characters shouldn’t begin to move. Have them move and be done with it.
  • words that end in the letters ly: probably, actually, sympathetically, magically … etc. These are weak, telling words. It takes thought and intention to show what you mean rather than telling it.

Examine the eight forms of the word be. Decide if they are useful or not in the context you are using them.

  1. be
  2. was
  3. were
  4. been
  5. being
  6. am
  7. are
  8. is

Weak combinations using forms of be that you should look twice at:

  1. was being,
  2. has been,
  3. had been,
  4. is being,
  5. am being

Why do we look at each instance of weak word combinations? Sometimes the words and combinations I’ve noted in this post have a purpose, which is why they remain currently in use.

We may need them to make a certain point in conversations, but in the narrative, your prose is often stronger without them. That and very can easily become crutch words, bloating and fluffing word count.

Once you see the magnitude of what the editing process involves, you realize that most editors don’t charge enough money for the amount of work involved in doing the job right. However, while the process of self-editing is time-consuming and requires diligence, it is doable.

Don’t underestimate how savvy and smart your readers are. You can’t cut corners, and you can’t let small things slide.

Passionate readers care about the quality of what they purchase. We should take pride in the quality of what we publish.

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The Author’s Voice: Word Choice and Placement #amwriting

We are drawn to the work of our favorite authors because we like their voice. An author’s voice is the unique, recognizable way they choose words and assemble them into sentences.

With practice, we become technically better at the mechanics (grammar and punctuation) but our natural speech habits shine through. Voice is how we bend the rules and is our authorly fingerprint.

When we begin the editing process with a professional editor, most will ignore the liberties we take with dialogue but will point out our habitual errors in the rest of the narrative.

Many times, what we want to say is not technically correct, but we want that visual pause in that place, in that sentence. Casual readers who leave reviews will have gained some understanding of grammar but if your voice is consistent, they will accept your choice. However, they will notice inconsistencies and illiterate writing.

This is why the process of editing is so important. Knowledge of the mechanics of writing is crucial. If you don’t understand the rules, you can’t break them with authority. (For the first part of this series, see my post Revisions: Self-Editing.)

Consider Raymond Chandler’s dismay when he discovered his grammar had been heavily edited by a line editor and then published without his input in the corrections:

“By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have.”  – Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Edward Weeks, Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, dated 18 January 1947. (Read the letter in its entirety here.)

When we self-edit, we don’t have to wrestle for control of our work, true. But I have to be honest—I have worked with many editors over the past ten years, and only one tried to hijack my manuscript.

What is the mood you want to convey with your prose? Where you place the words in the sentence greatly affects the mood. Active prose is Noun-Verb centric. Compare these sentences, two of which are actively phrased, and two are passive. All say the same thing, and none are “wrong.”

I run toward danger, never away.

I never run away from danger.

Danger approaches, and I run to meet it.

If it’s dangerous, I run to it.

Can you tell which are passive and which are active? Which phrasing resonates with you? Could you write that idea in a different way?

Where we choose to place the core words, I run to danger, changes their voice but not their meaning. The words we choose to surround them with changes the mood but not their meaning.

Other ways to use the core concept of I run to danger:

Danger draws me. I race to embrace it, to make it mine.

If it’s dangerous or stupid, I will find it.

Danger—who cares. Running away is stupid; it always finds you. Meet it, grab it, and make it yours.

I saw him, and in that moment, I knew I’d met my destiny. He was the embodiment of danger, and I wanted him.

We could riff for half an hour on just four words, I run to danger. Each of us will write that idea with our own brand of brilliance, and none of us will sound exactly alike.

One of the things we must look at in our work is consistency. Is our narrative comprised of a smooth pattern? We don’t want our work to be jarring, so we want to think push, glide, push, glide.

Once you have established the mood you are trying to convey, look at how you have placed your verbs in the majority of your sentences.

Some are: noun – verb – modifier – noun. I run to danger when I see it. (Active)

Some are: infinitive – noun – verb –  modifier – noun. When I see danger, I run toward it. (Passive)

NOTE: PASSIVE VOICE DOES NOT MEAN WRONG!

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

Some work you want to feel highly charged, action-packed. Genres such as scifi, political thrillers, and crime thrillers need to be verb forward in the way the words are presented. These books seek to immerse the reader so more sentences should lead off with Noun – Verb, followed by modifiers.

If you clicked on the link and read Raymond Chandler’s letter in full, you will see it is aggressive and verb-forward, just the way his prose was.

In other genres, like cozy mysteries, you want to create a sense of comfort and familiarity of place with the mood. Perhaps you want to slightly separate the reader from the action to convey a sense of safety, of being an interested observer. You want the reader to feel like they are the detective with the objective eye, yet you want them immersed in the romance of it. To do that, you balance the active and passive sentence construction, so it is leaning slightly more toward the passive than a thriller.

Weak prose makes free with all the many forms of to be (is, are, was, were).

  • He was happy.
  • They were mad.

Bald writing tells only part of the story. For the reader to see and believe the entire story, we must choose words that show the emotions that underpin the story.

To grow in the craft, we learn to convey what we see through words.

Passive voice balances Active voice. It is not weak, as weak prose holds the reader away from the immediacy of the experience, and when active prose is interspersed with passive, it does not.

Voice is defined by word choice, and Passive or Active prose is defined by word placement, not how many words are used.

Weak prose usually uses too many words to convey an idea. So, we want to avoid wordiness no matter what mood we are trying to convey.

  • One clue to look for is the overuse of forms of to be, which can lead to writing long, convoluted passages.

How many compound sentences do you use? How many words are in each sentence? Can you see ways to divide long sentences to make them more palatable?

A wall of words turns away most readers. Look at your style, as you work your way through your revisions, and see what positive changes you can make in how you consistently phrase things.

Take a short paragraph from a work in progress and rewrite it. Try to convey that thought in both passive and active voice. Then blend the two. You might learn something about how you think as a writer when you try to write in an unfamiliar style.

The following is a  list of words I habitually use in a first draft and then must look for in my own work. I look at each instance and decide if they work as they should or weaken the sentence. If they weaken the prose, I change or remove them.

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The path to becoming an author #amwriting

People often say they want to write a book. I used to say that too.

In 1985 I came across my first stumbling block on my path to becoming a writer. I didn’t know it, but to go from dreamer to storyteller is easy. Anyone can do it.

But if we choose to become an author, we’re taking a walk through an unknown landscape.

And the place where we go from dreamer to storyteller to author is the hardest part.

At first the path is gentle and easy to walk. As children, we invent stories and tell them to ourselves. As adults, we daydream about the stories we want to read, and we tell them to ourselves.

That part of the walk is easy. At some point, we become brave enough to sit down and put the story on paper.

The blank screen or paper is like an empty pond. All we have to do is add words, and the story will tell itself.

The first impedance that would-be authors come to on their way to filling the word-pond with words is a wide, deep river. It’s running high and fast with a flood of “what ifs” and partially visualized ideas.

If you truly want to become a writer, you must cross this river. If you don’t, the path ends here. While this river flows into the word-pond, the real path that takes us to a finished story is on the other side of this stream.

Fortunately, the river has several widely spaced steppingstones. Landing squarely on each one requires effort and a leap of faith, but the determined writer can do it.

The last thing you do before you step off the bank and begin crossing that river is this: visualize what your story is about.

The first stone you must leap to is the most difficult to reach. It is the one most writers who remain only dreamers falter at:

  • You must give yourself permission to write.

We have this perception that it is selfish to spend a portion of our free time writing. It is not self-indulgent. We all must earn a living because very few writers are able to live on their royalties. If writing is your true craft, you must carve the time around your day job to do it. All you need is one undisturbed hour a day.

The second stone is an easy leap:

  • Become literate. Educate yourself.

Buy books on the craft of writing. Buy and use the Chicago Manual of Style. You can usually find used copies on Amazon for around $10 – $15, passed on by those who couldn’t quite make the first leap.

I freely admit to using the internet for research, often on a daily basis, and I buy eBooks. However, my office bookshelves are filled with reference books on the craft of writing. I buy them as paper books because I am always looking things up. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of the most well-worn there.

Most professional editors rely on the CMOS because it’s the most comprehensive style guide—it has the answer for whatever your grammar question is. Best of all, it’s geared for writers of all streaks: essays, novels, all varieties of fiction, and nonfiction.

The third stone is the reason we decided to write in the first place:

  • Good writers never stop reading for pleasure.

We begin as avid readers. A book resonates with us, makes us buy the whole series, and we never want to leave that world.

We soon learn that books like that are few and far between.

The fourth stone is an easy leap from that:

  • We realize that we must write the book we want to read.

As we reach the far bank, we climb up and across the final hurdle:

  • We finish the work, whether it’s a novel or short story.

Over the years since I first began writing, I’ve labored under many misconceptions. It was a shock to me when I discovered that we who write aren’t really special.

Who knew?

We’re extremely common, as ordinary as programmers and software engineers. Everyone either wants to be a writer, is a writer, has a writer in the the family, or knows one.

Even my literary idols aren’t superhuman.

Because there are so many of us, it’s difficult to stand out. We must be highly professional, easy to work with, and literate.

Filling the pond with words and creating a story that hooks a reader is as easy as daydreaming and as difficult as giving birth.

Because writers are so numerous, every idea has been done. Popular tropes soon become stale and fall out of fashion.

A study by the University of Vermont says there are “six core trajectories which form the building blocks of complex narratives.” These are:

  1. Rags to riches (protagonist starts low and rises in happiness)
  2. Tragedy, or riches to rags (protagonist starts high and falls in happiness)
  3. Man in a hole (fall–rise)
  4. Icarus (rise–fall)
  5. Cinderella (rise–fall–rise)
  6. Oedipus” (fall–rise–fall)

No stale idea has ever been done your way.

We give that idea some thought. We apply a thick layer of our own brand of “what if.”

It’s our different approaches to these stories that make us each unique.

Sure, we’re writing an old story. But with a fresh angle, perseverance, and sheer hard work, we might be able to sell it.

And that is what makes the effort and agony of getting that book published and into the hands of prospective readers worthwhile.

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Write the Entire Book #amwriting

The end is nigh! NaNoWriMo 2019 is nearly over. Many books have been written, and many more are halfway done even though they have crossed the 50,000 word mark.

The truth is, ten times as many books were begun as made it to the 50,000 word mark. The reality sets in within the first week. Last year 70 writers in our region never got more than 5,000 words written.

Good first lines are critical. They have a singular duty, to involve the reader and kidnap them for the length of the book. But sometimes, the first lines are all an author has.

I know someone who began writing a novel they were exceedingly passionate about several years ago. But the first lines, introducing the characters, and the first few chapters were all that was ever written.

Yet the author of those few chapters speaks of their barely-begun book with enthusiasm as if they could pick it up and finish it any moment. When they talk about this book, it sounds so interesting; something I would love to read.

I confess I’ve become a little cynical when they talk about their plot and characters because I fear that talk is all that will ever happen. They have the entire book locked in their heads, and no one else will ever read it.

They have been stopped at the end of chapter three for five years. If they haven’t developed the discipline to dedicate an hour a day to writing by now, it’s very likely their book will never be completed.

Why does their book languish unwritten? Drama in their lives keeps them too busy to write. Once in a great while, when they’re bored and can’t find a book they want to read, they will open the file and read it. They will fall back in love with the words they have already written and talk about how they’re going to sit down and finish it someday.

But that won’t happen unless they make the time to do it.

We all have drama in our lives. For me, writing keeps the drama at arm’s length.

Participating in NaNoWriMo teaches authors discipline. You learn to write the entire book before you begin editing.

In your first draft, I recommend that you don’t spend too much time obsessing about the small things and the finer details as these will derail your work. You will never get past the first chapter if all you can focus on is writing a brilliant opener.

NaNoWriMo gives us the discipline to write the entire story as quickly as we can, at least 1,667 words a day. Once you have the entire structure of the novel laid down on paper, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

When the entire story has been written, that is the time to worry about prose and phrasing. The second draft is when we write the words we would want to read.  

The second draft is when you should obsess about the opening line and first paragraphs.

If you are serious about writing, it’s necessary to read, to see how other authors begin and complete their work. It is good to read works published in your chosen genre, but to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You might find books that surprise you. You will be amazed at how much some of what you read in these new genres resonates with you even if you didn’t like the book.

This education doesn’t have to be expensive. Don’t spend your precious book purchasing funds on books you believe you won’t enjoy. Do a little advance research via the internet and then borrow the books from the library.

Published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work. Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish the job.

Grand ideas about what you intend to write mean nothing if you don’t finish the job.

Do finish writing the story before you begin rewriting the first chapter.

If all you have ever written is the first chapter…over…and over…and over…, perhaps you need to set that idea aside. It may be that, at this point in your life, writing isn’t your passion, but reading is.

And without readers, there would be no need for authors.

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