Tag Archives: writing craft

Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open your eyes and look around.

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

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

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

 


The previous posts in this series can be found here:

Designing the Story (includes creating a stylesheet)

Worldbuilding Part1: Climate

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

This Post: Worldbuilding Part 3: Creating the Visual World

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

6 Comments

Filed under writing

Designing the story #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 2: First plot point: The inciting incident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

8 Comments

Filed under writing

Fundamentals of Writing: Project Management #amwriting

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

ProjectManagementLIRF05232021Then there is the marketing of the finished product, but that is NOT my area strength, so I won’t offer any advice on that score.

Even on the surface, writing fiction is complex.

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

For authors, the essential component we must not go cheaply on is grammar. The way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) adds to the feeling of depth. We must have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills as they are the rules of the road and prevent confusion:

  • Grammar
  • Punctuation

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

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

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

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

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

Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. All of them break the rules in one way or another, but they are deliberate and consistent. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work. Their prose is magnificent, and you never mistake their work for anyone else’s.

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

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

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

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

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

Some inventions are in development for years before they get to market. Others are complete and ready to market in a relatively short time. Regardless of your timeline, this is where project management skills really come into play.

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

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

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

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

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

10 Comments

Filed under writing

Writing the Short Story part 2: indirect speech #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

Author James Scott Bell says dialogue has five functions:

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

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

  • Delivering the backstory.

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

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

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

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

Wikipedia describes free indirect speech this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_Pacing

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

7 Comments

Filed under writing

Foreshadowing #nanowrimo2020 #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is when the narrative becomes unbelievable.

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

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

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

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

“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,

And the rank poison of the old will die.” 

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

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

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

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

This but begins the woe, others must end.”

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

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

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

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

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

It tantalizes a reader and keeps them turning the page.


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

9 Comments

Filed under writing

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

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

I may have a working title.

Or not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Semicolon; comma splice; comma (revisited) #amwriting

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


First up, the semicolon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do use commas to set off introductory clauses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Comments

Filed under writing

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

7 Comments

Filed under Self Publishing, writing

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).

5 Comments

Filed under writing

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).

10 Comments

Filed under writing