Tag Archives: writing craft

The Business Side of the Business: conferences and conventions #amwriting

If you are a regular here at Life in the Realm of Fantasy, you may have seen my two-part series on the business side of being an author. If not, and if you are interested, I will put the links to those articles at the bottom of this post.

Its a BusinessRegardless of your publishing path, you must budget for certain things. You can’t expect your royalties to pay for them early in your career – and many award-winning authors must still work at their day jobs to pay their bills.

But conferences and conventions are one way to meet agents and editors. Also, if you have a table at sci-fi and fantasy fan conventions (or whatever your genre), you will meet readers and create a fanbase for your work.

No author, indie or traditionally published, can live on their royalties at first, so attending conferences requires planning, possibly up to a year in advance. I suggest you work with your budget and set aside the money for conventions and seminars.

I do have some ways to keep your costs down.

First: Join the association offering the conference, as members get reduced conference fees and many other perks all year long. Take advantage of the early-bird discount if you can. I belong to three writers’ associations, and each one offers something I can use all year long.

Second: Does your library system offer occasional seminars by local authors? If it is a public library, these will likely be free.

Third: Use the internet – google “writers’ conferences in my area.” If you can find a local one, you can eat food that fits your dietary needs and sleep at home, which means you only pay for the conference itself.

Fourth: If you are planning to attend a large convention or conference where you will need to stay in a hotel, take simple foods that can be prepared without a stove, and which are filling. Being vegan, I tend to be an accomplished hotel-room chef, as most coffee bars don’t offer many plant-based options. While that bias is changing, I still go prepared.

road tripConferences are an extension of the self-education process. I have discovered so much about the craft of writing, the genres I write in, and the publishing industry as a whole—things I could only learn from other authors. I gained an extended professional network by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association in 2011 and going to their annual conferences.

This last weekend, I attended the first of three conferences I have budgeted for 2022. The Science-fiction & Fantasy Author’s Association held the 2022 Nebula Conference this last weekend. It was a virtual conference again this year, so my only cost was the conference fee itself. That cost was quite reasonable because I took advantage of both my membership discount and the early bird discount.

The Nebula Conference is normally held in Southern California, and I am not a happy flyer, so a virtual conference was optimal for me. I may not attend in person again. However, since SFWA is a global association of professional science fiction and fantasy authors, their conferences will also be available in virtual form from here on out.

The following two conferences I have scheduled will be in September and are in-person events. The first, Southwest Washington Writers Conference (SWWC), is local enough that I can commute from my home. The last one for this year is Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) in the Seattle area. It’s a 70-mile commute, so I will stay in the hotel. September is the start of virus season, so I expect many people (like me) will wear masks at both events.

Me working in a starbucks, through the fishbowl, copyright Dan Riffero 2013

Me writing in a Seattle Starbucks, taken through a fish tank. I was the big fish in that tank! Photo by Dan Riffero.

As a small fish in a very big ocean, attending these two local conferences puts me in contact with other authors and industry professionals. The attending authors are people I don’t usually come into contact with as they hail from all over Washington State, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia.

I always attend as many panels and workshops as I can fit into my schedule. I do this because the seminars offered at each of the three conferences have taught me as much about the craft as about the business of writing.

This weekend at the Nebula Conference, I attended many outstanding panel discussions by famous authors. All the authors on the panels were people who have achieved success, and they shared their insights on current trends in the publishing industry.

My favorite seminar out of all those stellar panels was the one discussing Speculative Fiction Poetry, which was held on Sunday morning. I have always written poetry and love reading it. Many spec fic poets are experimenting with sestinas, which (thanks to the pandemic) became my new favorite poetic form to write in during lockdown. Trying to adhere to a strict structural form challenges my creativity and forces me to grow in all areas of writing craft.

ICountMyself-FriendsSometimes I am invited to participate in panels or offer a workshop, and I can share my experiences with others. Either way, I learn things. In September, I will be on a panel with Lee French, Johanna Flynn, and Ellen King Rice at SWWC, talking about what we wished we had known when we first began writing professionally.

I feel honored (and a bit intimidated) to be a part of this group as they are award-winning writers. But more than that, they are women whose work I enjoy and respect. But facing your fear of public speaking is part of what growing your career entails – putting yourself out there, learning what you can, and sharing what you know.


Two previous posts on the Business side of the Business:

The Business Sequence for Writers, guest post by Ellen King Rice #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)

The Business Side of the Business, part 2: Inventory #writerlife | Life in the Realm of Fantasy (conniejjasperson.com)

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How the Written Universe Works – Warping Time #amwriting

In cosmology, the concept of space-time combines space and time into a single abstract universe. Apparently, we all move through time. Here on earth, time either passes us, or we pass the time. It’s all relative (Einstein humor) to how fast you are going and a lot of sub-atomic particle stuff I can’t really take the time to explain here, and you aren’t interested in anyway.

How the written universe works - warping time.Time interests me because I mostly write fantasy, although I write contemporary short fiction and poetry. Fantasy, and all speculative fiction, relies heavily on worldbuilding, and managing time is a facet of that skill.

But all genres, including contemporary and literary, require worldbuilding. Every story, true or fiction, is set SOMEWHERE, either in this world we are familiar with or in an alternate fantasy universe.

When I begin writing a book, I create a stylesheet in a spreadsheet program like Google Sheets or Excel for the universe, a workbook that has a page devoted to a glossary for that world, and a page for the calendar of events. A calendar is an essential tool that helps you with pacing and consistency.

  • Calendars are good for pacing, as they keep the events moving along the story arc.
  • They ensure you allow enough time to reasonably accomplish large tasks, enabling a reader to suspend their disbelief.
  • They ensure you don’t inadvertently jump from season to season in your visuals surrounding the characters.

So, for me, the calendar is a device that keeps the events happening logically.

Picture2HERE is where I confess my great regret: in 2008, a lunar calendar seemed like a good thing while creating my first world.

  • Thirteen months, twenty-eight days each,
  • one extra day at the end of the year,
  • a Holy Day on the winter solstice. They have two Holy Days and a big party every four years.

That arrangement of thirteen months is actually quite easy to work with. Where it becomes difficult is in the choices we made in naming things. You know how planning meetings are–ideas tossed at the wall like spaghetti and seeing what sticks.

We were just beginning to design the game, and while I had the plot and the synopsis, I didn’t have some details of the universe and the world figured out. So, in a burst of creative predictability, I went astrological in naming the months, to give the player a feeling of familiarity.

  • Caprica, Aquas, Piscus, (winter).
  • Arese, Taura, Geminis (spring)
  • Lunne, Leonid, Virga (summer)
  • Libre, Scorpius, Saggitus (harvest)
  • Holy Month (begins winter). Holy Day falls at the end of this thirteenth month, occurring on the winter solstice. The premise of the game was the War of the Gods, so religion is central.

strange thoughts 2In an even worse bout of predictability, I went with the names we currently use when I named the days, only I twisted them a bit and gave them the actual Norse god’s name. (The gods and goddesses of Neveyah are not Norse.)

That choice is an example of how what seems like a good idea at the time, may not be.

  1. Lunaday
  2. Tyrsday
  3. Odensday
  4. Torsday
  5. Frosday
  6. Sunnaday – this is the confusing day, as it falls where Saturday is in our normal calendar.
  7. Restday

One thing I did right was sticking to a twenty-four-hour day. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep things simple when we are worldbuilding. Simple things are less likely to add to the chaos when the plot gets complicated.

That game was never built for several reasons, but I retained the rights to my work. I took my maps and the storyline and wrote Mountains of the Moon, an epic portal fantasy. That story was the genesis of an entire series set at various points along the timeline of that universe.

I couldn’t get that story out of my head and onto paper fast enough—it obsessed me. As I wrote, the calendar I had invented for the RPG was incorporated into the world of Neveyah, and now it is canon.

Time can be an abstract thing when we are writing the first draft of a story where many events must occur. Things are accomplished in too short a period to be logical, or we take too long.

Calendars are maps of time. They turn the abstract concept into an image we can understand.

Even though I regret how I named the days in Mountains of the Moon, my characters progress through their space-time continuum at a rate I can comprehend. I can move events forward or back in time by looking at and updating their calendar. The sequence of events forming the plot arc remains believable.

calendarI LEARNED from my mistakes – the timeline for the Billy’s Revenge 3-book series, Huw the Bard, Billy Ninefingers, and Julian Lackland, uses the familiar calendar we use today.

I heartily suggest you stick to a simple calendar. That is the advice I would give any new writer—stick to something close to the calendar we’re familiar with and don’t get too fancy.

Next up: Time and Distance – how calendars and rudimentary maps work together to keep the plot moving and believable.

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When Good Novels go Bad #amreading

On Monday, I reviewed a lovely memoir by Judy Kiehart, a book I heartily enjoyed. Today I want to talk about a book by one of my favorite authors, who shall remain nameless. I don’t love every book that comes my way, but I don’t do negative reviews.

magicHowever, we can learn a great deal from books embodying poorly executed plots and badly scripted dialogue.

The book in question is the third installment in what may become a five-part subseries set in the early days of his 22-book universe. I have been a fan of this author’s work since the opening pages of book 1 in this epic series.

I immensely enjoy the way he explores the concept of good vs. evil and gives the side that began in the first five books as antagonists a role that makes them heroes. His protagonists are usually likable, easily relatable people. I care about their happiness and want them to succeed.

In his universe, neither side is good. Both sides manipulate events to make their case, and both are convinced of the purity of their motives. This author has devised a magic system where some people are born with the ability to manipulate certain kinds of subatomic particles.

scienceThe first books of the series establish a science of magic. One can either use chaotic magic or ordered magic. Although some mages can only use one side or the other, the most powerful mages can manipulate both sides of the magic. The entire series explores this concept well. It is a well-planned magic system, with good rules.

These books are military fantasies. Politics and the abuse of power are frequent themes in his novels, as are the age-old conflict between men and women. The overall lesson of the entire series is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Absolute order is death, and so is absolute chaos. Still, both are necessary for life, so maintaining the balance of order and chaos is crucial.

One of the crucial points of the 22-book series is that every great and powerful civilization begins with the purest of motives—to create a better place for humanity. Throughout the 22-book series, greed and an unquenchable lust for power eventually prove the ruin of the greatest empires.

So, let’s discuss what disappoints me about the subseries that begins with book 19. The protagonist is a naïve, untried young mage forced from his home. His uncle is a powerful chaos mage and raises him to use chaos, but our protagonist is bad at it. After the local ruler murders his uncle, our main character is forced into hiding and discovers he is an order mage.

This subseries deals with the origins of a city of mages, who in generations to come, will ultimately base their power on chaos magic. The twist the author explores in these books is that the city is founded by an order mage as a haven for all mages. It is a fact that future generations will choose to forget.

The prior subseries, books 17 and 18, was brilliant, two of my favorites. However, book 19 begins a decline in quality. The idea for the plot was strong in 19. However, the story arc weakened in 20 and was stretched too thin in 21.

DangerStructurally, the books in this subseries feel like he knew how to end it but struggled to fill in the arc. Past events and conversations get repeated verbatim to every new character. Long passages of remembering and agonizing over what is done and dusted fluffs up the narrative.

This is an author who has always championed both racial and gender equality. While he writes straight protagonists, he includes LGBTQ characters. Most of the time, he gets it right. But in book 19, he lost the way when it came to his female characters. We are supposed to think the women are strong and admire them, but they are two-dimensional, arrogant, and always have the last word.

I disliked the women intensely and felt that if a good editor had seen the work before it was published, the snidely superior way their dialogue reads could have been toned down. As it is now, they all come off as bitches.

And that is only the visible part of the iceberg that is sinking this subseries.

Unlikeable side characters don’t derail a book. However, the pacing stutters along, and that will ruin any novel.

The plots of the three books 19, 20, and 21 form one complete arc that would total around 300,000 words. However, the filler events feel forced, like the author would have set this project aside at several points but was contracted to churn out three books whether he was inspired to write or not.

The arc completely flattens in book 21. It feels like the author had the inspiration for one good book of a decent length but was required to peck out enough words to cut the manuscript into three novel-length sections.

ok to write garbage quote c j cherryhTo me, book 21 reads as if (while books 19 and 20 were in the publishing gauntlet) he still had to fluff up the ending to make book 21 long enough to be considered a novel. The evidence of a lack of genuine inspiration is the absurd “scar” the protagonist is left with after winning an unbelievable victory and nearly dying.

My disbelief refused to be suspended.

In the early days of this series, the author managed to put out one book a year, and they were well-structured. Line editing and proofreading in this author’s books have never been a strong point. I have always felt like he was the only one who saw his work before publication but was able to ignore the flaws.

This subseries is different. I suspect once he had plowed to the end of his first draft, my favorite author checked the manuscript for typos using Word’s ReadAloud function and ProWriting Aid or Grammarly and handed it in at the last minute.

Then, the Big Traditional Publisher published it as is, assuming the manuscript was clear of obvious flaws and gave it scant editorial input. They knew they could sell the series just on the author’s name.

That kind of arrogance irks me and does the author no favors. This could have been a brilliant subseries. The concept of an origin story allows for so much opportunity—and because of Big Traditional Publisher’s churn-and-burn policy, it just fell flat.

The Flaws:

  • Two-dimensional characters
  • Repetitive dialogue
  • Thin plot
  • Absurd events are inserted to justify previous actions and keep things moving
  • Did I mention the repetitive dialogue?

The Positives:

  • Great worldbuilding overall
  • A wonderful exploration of power and the lengths people will go to acquire it
  • A believable magic system.
  • Good exploration of the layers of society
  • Good historical explanation of future societal tensions

I wanted to love those three books. I really enjoyed books 17 and 18 and had hopes for a good, satisfying read. What I got instead was a hard lesson in the truth about writing:

f scott fitzgerald quoteEveryone, even your favorite author, writes a stinker now and then.

I’m ¼ of the way into book 22 in this series, which is a follow-up. It takes place fifteen years later, with the daughter of a side character as the protagonist. So far, she is more believable than the women in the prior three novels, and most of the dialogue is less annoying.

My inner editor is behaving herself, and it feels like we may enjoy this book.

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Proofreading vs. Editing #amwriting

I am in the middle of revisions, working with my editor on a large project involving merging old work with new. The difference in the quality of the older work vs. the way I write now is clear—and embarrassing.

keep clam and proofreadWhen I am finished with the revisions, I will format my manuscript as both ebooks and paper books. At that point, I will be looking for proofreaders.

At some point, we must draw the line and say, “this book is done. I want no more changes, no more fiddling with it.” So, when the manuscript is as polished as I can possibly get it, I will have one final step, one that will either ruin a formatted manuscript or make it great: proofreading.

I have said this before, and while some people will dispute this, proofreading is not editing.

Proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made. Hopefully, it is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things in an otherwise clean manuscript will stand out.

By the time the manuscript has come to this stage, we know it far too well. We have seen every sentence, every paragraph, every scene so many times we are sick of going through them. Our eye sees what it expects to see. We find many things, but we don’t catch it all.

This is where the final person in the process comes in–the proofreader.

they're their there cupIf you didn’t see it when I mentioned it above, I will repeat it: proofreading is not editing. We discussed self-editing in my previous post, the three-step process for successful self-editing. However, editing as done by a professional editor is a different process, one I will go into at length next week. All editing and revisions are completed, and the final manuscript has been approved by the time we get to the proofreading stage.

Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there may be places where the reader’s eye will stop. These errors are usually introduced in the process of making final revisions, so the author and editor have no idea they are there.

If it has been edited, why are there still errors?

When making revisions, we do a lot of cutting and pasting as we move passages to better places or even remove entire sections. In some places, words might inadvertently have been left out, or punctuation may be missing at the end of a sentence.

Any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur as we make revisions, and these small errors are what we are looking for.

At the outset, the proofreader must understand that no matter how tempting it may be, they have not been invited to edit the manuscript for content. That has already been done and done again, and the author is satisfied with their novel’s arc. 

Find another proofreader if the one you have can’t refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content.

What the Proofreader Should Look For:

Spelling—misspelled words and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These are words that spell-checker may or may not catch, so a human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong:  Bobby wont out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Right:  Bobby went out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Wrong: There cat ran, and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their cat ran, and he had to chase it.

Epic Fails meme2Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These happen when making revisions, even by the most meticulous of authors. The editor won’t see any mistakes you introduce after they have completed their work on the manuscript.

These are insidious and difficult to spot, and spell-checker won’t always find them. Sometimes these errors seem like unusually garbled sentences.

  • Wrong: First of all, all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted practice thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot thoughts.
  • Right: First of all, it is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Missing closed quotes at either end of the dialogue:

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man? asked Officer Shultz.
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area. What do you know about the dead man?” asked Officer Shultz.

Numbers that are digits:

  • Wrong: There will be 3000 guests at the reception. (It’s easy to inadvertently miss key digits.)
  • Right in certain circumstances: There will be 300 guests at the reception. (For notes and emails, we can use digits.)
  • Right: There will be three hundred guests at the reception. (In literature, we write it out.)

Dropped and missing words:

  • Wrong: Within minutes, the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table me gently while I made hot water for tea.
  • Right: Within minutes, the place was crawling with cops, and Officer Shultz was sitting at my kitchen table grilling me gently while I made hot water for tea.

Each time you (or a well-meaning editor) tweak the phrasing or create a new passage in your already edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error.

Do not ask an editor to proofread your manuscript, as they will be unable to resist tweaking the phrasing, asking for more changes. Editing is their nature and their job. This can go on forever, and you might iron the life out of your manuscript. You could lose the feeling of spontaneity, making your narrative feel contrived.

Conversely, you risk putting up a manuscript that looks unedited because of the flaws introduced in the proofing process.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Don’t allow someone else, even an editor, to make the changes for you. Editors are human and can inadvertently make mistakes. When they are too familiar with a manuscript, they might see what should be there rather than what is.

Any person who makes changes to the final product can inadvertently ruin it.

At some point, your manuscript is done. You have been through the editing process, and the content and structure are what you envisioned.

  • Have the manuscript proofread before you format it for print or publication.
  • Then, have the final product proofread before you press the publish button.

Those two final steps will ensure the body of the manuscript you upload to Amazon KDP or IngramSpark is as clean as you can make it.

oopsUnfortunately, my last book went live when I thought I was ordering a pre-publication proof.

I said a lot of naughty words because the paperback version and the Kindle version are two different things. There was no option to order a pre-publication copy, which would have helped me a great deal. You’re less likely to see the formatting flaws until you hold that paper book in your hand.

I don’t know if this policy of not offering pre-pub paperback proof copies has changed or not. If you are publishing to KDP for a paper or hardback, carefully go over the PDF proof that KDP offers you. Do this despite the fact it’s terribly difficult to see and understand the possible formatting errors on a PDF, unless you really know what you are doing.

That experience is why I will be hiring a professional to format my paper books in the future. I see that as money well spent.

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Write from the heart #amwriting

Writers are entertainers. We write books for people who want a diversion from the daily grind. No matter the subject or genre, we write escapes for people who need to just get away for a while.

MyWritingLife2021Our stories take the reader to exotic places and introduce them to other realities. When we publish a book, we hope it will find a reader on the day they were looking for just such an escape.

If it does, we hope we have written something reader will stay with to the end. We hope they see life and vitality in the narrative, the kind of energy we thought we were imparting when we wrote it.

No matter how well edited a manuscript is, readers will only stay with us if we allow ourselves to write from the heart. We must write what we believe is true even though the story is about people and events that never happened. If we believe in what we write, the prose will have power.

poetry-in-prose-word-cloud-4209005I wrote poetry and lyrics for a heavy metal band when I first started out. I was young, sincere, and convinced I had to impart a message with every word. I didn’t know until twenty years later when I came across my old notebook that my poems weren’t honest. Eighteen-year-old me was trying to make a point rather than offering ideas for further thought.

Paging through that notebook and looking back at my work, I could see the falseness clearly. My words were contrived – I was trying too hard to be the next Bob Dylan. The words that emerged hadn’t been good enough, so I went out of my way to be clever.

When I began writing stories for my children, I knew better than to get fancy. I still wrote crap but what I wrote then was honest crap because I no longer had anyone to impress.

my-books-cjjasp-own-workChildren are unimpressed by the fact their parents might write a story or play music or paint or do any of the creative arts.

They are also blunt when they tell you where a story or a song or a picture fails to impress them and are upfront about why. Thanks to the tough audience that my children were in those beginning years, I found ways to write fairy tales with truths that weren’t shaded by what I thought art should be.

These stories were better, but they weren’t written by an educated author.

As my children left home, I had more time to learn how to write a literate, well-plotted story. I made connections with other writers and joined writing groups. That was when I discovered that an author needs to be consistent with punctuation even when writing from the heart.

I had no idea I was uneducated because I had done well in writing and literature in school. I navigated college courses with no problem other than laziness. Alas, members of my writing group pointed out that I hadn’t retained much of what I was taught in elementary school.

steering the craft leguinAs Ursula K. LeGuin said in her excellent book, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, “If you aren’t interested in punctuation, or are afraid of it, you’re missing out on some of the most beautiful, elegant tools a writer has to work with.” [1]

So, I knew a lot of words but didn’t know a lot about how to shape them. I try to embrace what I fear, so I forced myself to re-learn the fundamentals of American English grammar. I’m not perfect, but I try to do as well as possible. My editor still finds habitual errors.

If you are a regular reader here, you know I enjoy reading books in every genre and style.  While the books I love are scattered all across the spectrum, they have one thing in common—they are all written by authors with an understanding of the basic rules of punctuation.

Often, these authors break other grammar rules with style and abandon, but they do pay attention to punctuation.

Punctuation matters because it is the traffic signal telling the reader to go, yield, go again, or stop. If an author gets the punctuation right in most places, the reader can suspend their disbelief.

Writers begin as readers. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King gives us permission to read for six hours achicago guide to grammar day, should we so desire. Reading is how we come to understand writing and the art of story. Mr. King also admonishes us to learn the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.

In my quest to understand the art of constructing a story, I have come across some pretty awful books. As a freelance editor, I have twice had work submitted to me by authors who believed a convoluted mess was ready for the publisher and just needed a bit of proofreading. No editor has the time or desire to completely rewrite a story for a client, and they will decline that project.

We all suffer agonies on hearing criticism until we have been at it for a while. At first, our skin is thin and delicate and bleeds copiously when flaws are found in the precious child that is our work.

storybyrobertmckeeEvery editor will tell you no amount of money is worth the time and effort it would take to teach an author how to write coherent, readable prose. That is what seminars, books on craft, and books on style and grammar are for.

I have said this before—I don’t consider something awful and hard to read if it is written in an old-fashioned style. However, I do think a book is awful when its author wastes my time by not learning how to construct a sentence.

And when it comes to the narrative, poetry can’t be forced, but good prose can be ruined by trying to make it poetic.

I learned the hard way that contrived prose is not poetic, nor does it prove you are talented. When poetry or good imagery emerges naturally, rejoice and keep writing. Let the imagery flow when it will, and don’t force it. Every word we write doesn’t have to be golden.

LarrysPostRapturePetSittingService_EllenKingRiceI want to read an honest story about people who seem real, who have the kind of problems we can all relate to on a human level. I want to read a story that comes from an author’s deepest soul. The setting doesn’t matter—it can be set on Mars or in Africa. Characters matter, and their story matters.

I read all genres and all settings. I will forgive the imperfections if the author has tried to be consistent and knows the fundamentals of punctuation and grammar.

I love nothing more than finding a great story that rings of truth and touches my heart. If it has passages that flow naturally and strike deep into my poetry-loving soul, all the better.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

[1] Quote: Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, ©1999 Ursula K. LeGuin, First Mariner Books Edition 2015, page 11.

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Creating Characters vs. Defamation of Character #amwriting

Real-life has moments that are far stranger than anything I could dream up. I’m not alone in this—everyone has a story. That story will have moments that are difficult to hear and others that are amazing.

DangerWriting fiction allows me to put reality into more palatable chunks. It’s easier to cope with that way.

One of the ways I design my worlds is by drawing on the real world to help develop the unreal. Reshaping and reusing the scenery and terrain around you are habits of good world-building.

However, crafting characters is different. We shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with for any reason. Don’t thinly disguise your hated boss or neighbor with a different name because they could recognize themselves and sue you.

This was made clear by the late Betty MacDonald’s situation. Her first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State.

Many members of my family were from that area of Puget Sound and still lived there during the post-WWII years, the time frame in which Betty’s book was set.

A wide disparity in education and social services existed between urban and rural communities at that time. Only a basic education was available to most families of loggers, brush pickers, and small farmers in Washington.

Thanks to the US government’s efforts, the indigenous people were in dire straits. Traditionally, Puget Sound tribes were mainly hunter/gatherers and now suffered extreme deprivation. They had lost access to their traditional hunting and fishing territories. They were losing the culture that had been their foundation for untold thousands of years.

Betty MacDonald’s book was a success in that era and moral climate, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

The Egg and I fell into disfavor in the 1970s because cultural awareness had changed the way we view indigenous people. Critics now saw a lack of understanding and cliched treatment of our local Native people in the book.

This post isn’t intended to address or pass judgment on a 1940’s treatment of cultural issues. These are things we avoid in our modern connected society, but which people took for granted in 1946 when the book was written. Instead, we need to focus on the moral and financial repercussions of writing fictional characters too close to life.

Betty’s book motivated several lawsuits against her and her publisher for defamation of character.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants. [1]

stoplightWe all draw inspiration from real life, whether consciously or not. However, if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people we are acquainted with, even if we change their names.

If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

However, we can and will draw impressions from the people around us.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. Now that the pandemic is winding down, many coffee shops offer indoor seating once again. Pick a place that is new to you and have your pen and notepad or laptop at the ready. Watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits, and their unconscious mannerisms. You can build an entire fantasy life for them.

Each character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

My Coffee Cup © cjjasp 2013The best thing is that you don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Hazelnut Latte. Peoples’ conversations are unguarded in coffee shops, openly talking about what moves them or holds them back. They are lovers or haters, quiet or loud, and most importantly, anonymous.

The moods and mannerisms, idiosyncrasies, and habitual quirks that you see can give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation. People-watching is a necessary habit for the author to develop.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=1050662692 (accessed February 8, 2022).

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Codewords and Mental Shorthand #amwriting

Many of us are in the revision process, working on the novels we wrote during November’s NaNoWriMo. These novels are disjointed and uneven, but they contain the essence of what can be a great book—with a lot of work.

depthPart1revisionsLIRF05252021On November 1st, when we began setting the first words on the blank page, our minds formed images, scenes we attempted to describe. In his book, The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker notes that we are not born with language, so we are NOT engineered to think in words alone. We also think in images.

For each author, certain words become a kind of mental shorthand, code words used with frequency in the first draft because they are efficient. Code words are small packets of letters that contain a world of images and meaning for us. These words help us get the story down more quickly when we are in the grip of creativity. Code words are a speedy way to convey a wide range of information.

Because we use them, we can get the first draft of a story written from beginning to end before we lose the fire for it.

I have mentioned before that one codeword I sometimes find in my first draft prose is the word “got.” It’s a word that my family used and is ingrained in my subconsciousness as a tool word.

It is a tool word because it serves numerous purposes and conveys many images with only three letters. “Got” is on my global search list of codewords. The words in the list are signals to me, indications that a scene needs to be reworded to express my true intent.

Got can signify understanding or comprehension, as in “she got it.” Some other instances where I might use “got” as a code word for my second draft:

  • He got the dog into the car. (put, placed)
  • He got the mail. (acquired)
  • He got (became) In an instance like this, an entire scene must be written, one I didn’t take the time to write during the rush of NaNoWriMo.

Codewords are the author’s multi-tool—a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One little word, one small packet of letters serves many purposes and conveys a myriad of mental images.

Every author thinks differently, so your codewords will be different from mine. One way to find your secret codewords is to have the Read Aloud tool read each section. I find most of my inadvertent crutch words that way. When you hear them read aloud, they really stand out.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusOnce you find them, you need to go to the thesaurus to find alternatives that better express your intent.

A first draft codeword high up my personal list is “felt.” Let’s go to Merriam-Webster’s Online Thesaurus:

  • Synonyms:
    • endured
    • experienced
    • knew
    • saw
    • suffered
    • tasted
    • underwent,
    • witnessed
  • Words Related to felt:
    • regarded
    • viewed
    • accepted
    • depended
    • trusted
    • assumed
    • presumed
    • presupposed
    • surmised

We all overuse certain words without realizing it. That is where revisions come in and is where writing takes effort. You’ll discover that some words have very few synonyms that work.

When you discover one of your first draft codewords, go to the thesaurus, find all the synonyms you can, and list them in a document for easy access. If it is a word like smile or shrug, you have your work cut out, but consider making a small list of visuals.

Consider the word “smile.” It’s a common code word, a five-letter packet of visualization. We can use it to show happiness, but also it can suggest so many other moods and unspoken emotions.

Synonyms for the word smile are few and usually don’t show what I mean. When I find that word, it sometimes requires a complete revisualization of the scene. What am I really trying to convey with the word smile? I look for a different way to express my intention, which can be frustrating.

Facial expressions are only one of the many ways to display happiness, anger, spite, and other emotions. We shouldn’t rely only on a character’s face to show their moods.

Yes, their eyebrows raise or draw together, foreheads crease, and eyes sometimes twinkle. However, posture conveys a great deal. Shoulders sometimes slump, and hands often tremble. Sometimes characters refuse to look at the person they are speaking with.

Sometimes the brief image of a smile is the best expression to convey your intention.

Nothing is more off-putting than reading a story where a person’s facial expressions take center stage. As a reader, I’m more concerned with what is happening inside the characters than about the melodramatic outward display.

Think about the body language an onlooker would see if a character were angry.

  • Crossed arms.
  • A stiff posture.
  • Narrowed eyes.

A little list of those mood indicators can keep you from losing your momentum and will readily give you the words you need to show all the vivid imagery you see in your mind.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alIf you don’t have it already, a book you might want to invest in is The Emotion Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Some of the visuals they list aren’t my cup of tea, but they know how to show what people are thinking.

The revision process is sometimes the most challenging aspect of writing because we are also looking at scene composition and framing (which was covered in my previous post). It takes time to revisualize each scene when we are also looking for codewords and rewriting entire paragraphs.

But codewords don’t always need changing—sometimes, a smile is a smile, and that is okay.

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The Surface of the Story #amwriting

One of my favorite places to walk is McLane Creek Nature Trail. Within that nature reserve is a large beaver pond, with several accessible, easy-to-walk trails that wind around the pond and through the woods.

McLaine_Pond_In_July_©_2018_ConnieJJapsersonStrolling along, watching the birds and animals that make their homes there grounds me. When we leave, I feel spiritually rested, more rooted in the earth, stronger and at peace with myself. It is a serene place, a place of stillness and calm.

The pond is always fascinating. When you watch the water, you can see the effects of the world around it reflected on its surface. On a windless day, the pool will be calm, still. The sky and any overhanging trees will be reflected in it.

When a storm blows in, things change. The waters move, and ripples and small waves stir things up. The waters turn dark, reflecting the stormy sky.

Just like the surface of a pond, the surface of a story is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get layer. It conceals what lurks in the depths but offers a few small clues as to what lies below.

This layer is comprised of

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

Genre determines the shelf in the bookstore: General Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Contemporary Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Young Adult, Children’s books—those labels tell the reader what sort of story to expect.

I see the surface of a story as if it were a picture. At first glance, we see something recognizable. The all-encompassing shell of a story is the setting. The setting is comprised of things such as:

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

The still, reflective surface of a pond is affected by the breeze that stirs it. In the case of our novel, the breeze that stirs things up is made of action and emotion. These are the structural events that form the arc of the story:

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

Depth_word_cloud (50 words)-page-001The components that form the visual layer appear to be the story. However, once a reader wades in, they discover unsuspected depths.

We shape this layer through world-building. We can add fantasy elements, or we can stick to as real an environment as is possible.

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll showed us how an author might play with the setting by incorporating an unusual juxtaposition of objects and animals. The characters behave and interact with their environment as if the bizarre things are normal. The setting has a slightly hallucinogenic feel, making the reader wonder if the characters are dreaming.

Yet, in the Alice stories, the placement of the unusual objects is deliberate, meant to convey a message or to poke fun at a social norm.

Most Sci-fi and some fantasy novels are set in recognizable worlds, very similar to where we live. The settings are familiar, so close to what we know, we could be in that world. That is where good world-building creates a literal layer that is immediately accepted by the reader.

Setting, action, interaction—these most obvious superficial components are the framework that supports the deeper aspects of the story.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543The real story is how our characters interact and react to stresses within the overall framework of the environment and plot. Depth is found in the lessons the characters learn as they live through the events. Depth manifests in the changes of viewpoint and evolving differences in how they see themselves and the world.

Creating depth in our story requires thought and rewriting, but in the last week of NaNoWriMo, we are just trying to get the world built and the events in order. The first draft gives us the surface. We have an idea of what lies below, but at this point, all we are concerned with is getting the structure of the story down, and the characters in place with their personalities.

The true depths and emotions are yet to be discovered but will begin to reveal themselves in the second draft, sometime in December or January. That is when the real writing begins.

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About foreshadowing #amwriting

Today marks the halfway point for NaNoWriMo 2021. Many writers are working on the first draft of a new manuscript. Others are revising last year’s novel and rearranging the story’s events and writing new scenes.

NaNoWriMoMemeForeshadowing is integral to a well-plotted story.

Those of us who have been working from an outline may have included some in the planning stage. For authors who wing it, this happens on a subconscious level, but it does happen.

But what is foreshadowing? It is the subtle warning that all is not what it seems, a few clues embedded in the first quarter of the story to subliminally alert the reader that things may not go well for the protagonist. We include small warning signs of future events, bait, if you will, to lure the reader and keep them reading.

In the first draft, we commit certain sins of craftsmanship, road signs for us to examine in the second draft:

  1. Clumsy foreshadowing, baldly stating what is going to happen later.
  2. Neglecting to foreshadow so that events arrive out of nowhere.

Recognizing those signals can be a challenge, but that is where writing craft comes into play.

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

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

If the narrative is well-written, readers will stick with it as they will want to see how it plays out.

We are subtle with foreshadowing because we want readers to feel surprised when all the pieces fall into place. We want to reward the reader with a moment when they can say, “I should have seen that coming.”

Now is an opportune time to hone our foreshadowing skills. This 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.

When an author suddenly realizes the evil his character faces isn’t evil enough, we may see the sudden introduction of an unexpected new event, character, ability, or weapon. The intent is to ensure things suddenly get much worse for the protagonists, but it falls flat.

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

A casual mention early on of the characters using or training that skill will resolve the situation. 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. Tastes evolve and change over the centuries.

In genre fiction today, a prologue 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.

DickseeRomeoandJulietI often refer to the way that Shakespeare used both exposition and foreshadowing. In his works, more significant events are foreshadowed through the smaller events that precede them.

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

“Take thou some new infection to thy eye,

And the rank poison of the old will die.” 

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

Benvolio’s advice proves correct because as soon as Romeo lays eyes on Juliet, he forgets his obsession with Rosaline and is fixated on his mortal enemy’s daughter.

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 predicts that Mercutio’s death is only the beginning, that disaster looms for everyone. He feels as if he is racing toward an unknown future.

William_Shakespeare_-_First_Folio_1623In 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 slight 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, and that is our goal.


Credits and Attributions

Romeo and Juliet, by Frank Bernard Dicksee, 1884 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

First Folio of William Shakespeare’s Plays, 1623 by William Shakespeare, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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#NaNoPrep: Signing up and getting started #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

AnounceYourProject2021You can play around with your personal page a little to get used to it. I use my NaNoWriMo avatar and name as my Discord name and avatar. This is because I only use Discord for NaNoWriMo and one other large organization of writers. (Next week, we’ll talk about Discord and why NaNoWriMo HQ wants us to use it for word sprints and virtual write-ins.)

While you are creating your profile, write a short bio, and with that done, you’re good to go. If you’re feeling really creative, add a header and make a placeholder book cover—have fun and go wild.

right dropdown menu buttonNext, check out the community tabs. If you are in full screen, the tabs will be across the top. If you have the screen minimized, the button for the dropdown menu will be in the upper right corner and will look like the blue/green and black square to the right of this paragraph.

When the button is clicked, the menu will be on the righthand side instead of across the top.

Your regional page will look different from ours because every region has a different idea of how they present themselves, but it will be there in the Community tab. And don’t forget to check out the national forums, also on the Community tab.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The #NaNoPrep series to date:

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

#NaNoPrep, Setting: Creating the Big Picture

#NaNoPrep, Building Characters

#NaNoPrep, More Character Building

#NaNoPrep, Creating Societies

#NaNoPrep, Designing Science, Magic, and the Paranormal

#NaNoPrep, Terrain and Geography

#NaNoPrep, Connections and Interconnections

#NaNoPrep, Construction and Deconstruction

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 1

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc Part 2

#NaNoPrep, The Story Arc part 3, the End

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