Tag Archives: writing

#amwriting: Drawing on Life Experience

Writers, even dedicated, passionate ones, have lives outside the confines of their craft, and while it frequently derails our ability to write, it is also where we find the realism we need to inject into our work. Life must come before writing because writing doesn’t pay the bills unless you are one of the fortunate few.

I have several family members with serious health issues. Sometimes, I must step away from the keyboard and be the wife, niece, mother, or grandmother they need and you know what? My writing is better for it.

I nursed my mother, with whom I had a complicated relationship, through the last year of her life. She had smoked until the age of 42, and was addicted to perfumes and air-fresheners. She was a self-described clothes-horse who loved expensive cologne and used it liberally.

Even after her death, after they had been laundered and dry cleaned, her clothes still smelled strongly of her brand of Estee Lauder’s cologne.  In her home, she had a Glade plug-in in every outlet, and the spray bottle of Febreze in her hand at all times.

She died of lung cancer.

During her last year, we spent four days a week at the cancer center, and the rest of our time with me caring for my frail mother as if she were my baby. It was difficult mostly because watching someone you love slowly die is the worst. My sanity during that difficult year was made possible because of writing. I wrote 260,000 words during that year, some of it good, some of it off the rails. Much of the experiences of that year are unconsciously referenced in my current writing. It is the part of me that goes into each tale.

It was a devastating year made more difficult by my brother’s mental illness and drug addiction. Yet, that same year was made richer by the strange friendship that developed between me and my mother. All the many things that had stood between us and which had seemed so important were set aside and never addressed. This was because, in the face of her final battle, the hurts of the past just did not seem that important to me. We began to enjoy being in each others’ company, enjoy the quiet of an afternoon, or the bustle of a Starbucks. The ‘F’ word that some of us find so hard to say, forgiveness, became such an easy thing, and when she died, I had lost a friend as well as a mother.

On this blog, I’ve discussed the way epilepsy has affected my two of my adult children, and how our lives are affected by witnessing their struggle. Many hours have been spent writing in hospitals, and this last weekend was no different. I am there when they need me, and when they are ready to stand on their own, I allow them the space they need to do just that.

I have also mentioned how having an eccentric father with battle related PTSD forged my need to escape into books and inspired my writing. Some of us have survived the alcoholic parents who did their best, but dealt with an addiction they denied having. Every writer deals with family issues and experiences, both good and bad, and we are a composite of all of them.

Every time our heart is broken, every time we feel that glorious rush of infatuation, and every time we stick our foot in our mouth or must eat humble pie—these moments should find their way into our work and emerge as characters with real emotions, people who live and breathe and feel real to the reader.

Life in all its glorious beauty and ugliness fuels my writing, and I am not alone. We authors take what we know and reformulate it into something we can live with. In some ways, hope drives my writing. The fact I have hope allows me to write about things that are painful. I find that the fullness of life and the occasional emptiness of despair are easier written about when I set them in an alternate universe, and wrap it in a story that embraces the emotions, even though the story doesn’t parallel my life directly.

I’m like the character in a long, brilliant and sometimes bad, novel. My life is a mix of great joy, romance, helpless sorrow, extreme anger, and faith in the future. I hope your life is balanced as well as mine is, with the good outweighing the bad. This maelstrom of life experience is the well we draw from when we are creating our characters.

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#amwriting: demystifying the semicolon

Semicolons are misunderstood and misused bits of punctuation. Some people believe they are extra-long pauses, halfway between a comma and a (full stop) period. With that in mind, they litter their work with instances of typographical madness.

Semicolons are NOT extra-firm pauses. When writing genre fantasy, em dashes (or hyphens if you are British) serve that function. Semicolons have a different place in the universe. So now we’re going to examine the semicolon and discover what it is that they actually do.

The proper use of a semicolon is to join two short sentences that are directly related to each other, turning them into a compound sentence.

No one enjoys reading a choppy narrative because too many short sentences can be distracting and hard to get into. The way we smooth the narrative is to join short sentences into longer, compound sentences. But frequently, that creates run-on sentences. (I am the queen of those.)

SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two complete, stand alone sentences where the conjunction has been left out. These sentences MUST be directly related to each other.

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; if it rains. (The semicolon is not needed because “if it rains” is not a stand alone sentence. This sentence should be written: Call me tomorrow, if it rains.)

Incorrect: Call me tomorrow; the car is running in the driveway. (Each clause can stand alone but they have no relation at all to each other. They are separate thoughts completely.)

Correct: Call me tomorrow; we’ll make the arrangements then. (The conjunction and has been replaced by the semicolon.)

The key to understanding semicolons is to understand what a stand alone sentence is. A stand alone sentence consists of a subject and a verb, and expresses a complete thought:

Vera walked carefully across the rough ground.

Dogs and their owners came from all over to play in that park.

If you have sentences that express complete thoughts but make the narrative choppy, you can connect them with a conjunction: Rain had fallen. The yard was flooded. We were trapped.

Rain had fallen, and the yard was flooded, so we were trapped.

Alternatively, we could rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy:

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard. We were trapped.

If you don’t want to use a conjunction and you absolutely must use a semicolon, or you will burst into flames, you have the legal right to do so.

Rain had fallen, flooding the yard; we were trapped.

Authors who truly believe in themselves and their work will go out of their way to learn the proper use of punctuation. Once we know the mechanics of the English language, we will use it in ways that define our vision for our work.

When we learn how punctuation functions in making our sentences flow for the reader, we begin to develop our sense of style. We begin to craft our work with intention.

As a result, our work ceases to be uneven, with occasional flashes of brilliance. It becomes engrossing, something our readers can get lost in.

However, there are some considerations for each author to ponder when it comes to the use of the infamous semicolon. For general fiction or literary fiction, semicolons are no big deal. Used properly, readers and reviewers won’t even notice them.

If you are writing in genres such as paranormal fantasy or hard science fiction, I suggest you use conjunctions or rewrite the sentences in such a way they aren’t choppy, rather than resorting to using semicolons. Some reviewers in those genres seem to despise semicolons, saying they are “archaic.” These reviewers will criticize work sprinkled with semicolons as being “too literary” (whatever that means).

Maybe they are archaic, but I doubt it. When I first began writing, I used to employ semicolons far too frequently and improperly. I had the good fortune of having an editor who was patient and happy to explain how they actually function. I bought a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and that book is what I refer back to when I have questions about how punctuation works.

While I rarely use them myself nowadays, the semicolon is a legitimate punctuation mark, and when used correctly, it has a specific task. I suspect the many haters of this little morsel of madness are simply confused by the proper use of it, and therefore they consider it unnecessary.

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#amwriting: getting lost in translation

The question about using foreign languages in dialogue recently arose again, so it seemed appropriate to revisit a situation from one of last year’s posts.

The quote that started it all was posted in a writers forum: “I have a main character in a fantasy novel who speaks no English. She speaks several other languages, though. Should I put the translations for her dialogue in italics or in parentheses?”

The answer to both options is a resounding no. We write in our native language for people who read in that language.

We can add a slightly foreign flair, but translations should not be necessary at all. We don’t put the reader through that kind of torture, wading through a language they don’t understand, and then giving them the translation in italics. (Or large chunks of whatever in parentheses.)

The writer whose question had begun this was writing a fantasy novel, and there are certain conventions readers expect authors to adhere to in this genre. When writing genre fantasy it’s a generally accepted practice that thoughts are set off with italics, not parentheses (aka Virginia Woolf), and so brackets have no place in the fantasy narrative.

Too many brackets clutter up the narrative just as much as large blocks of italics. In fantasy, the em dash or ellipsis has the function of setting portions of the narrative aside or giving it emphasis.

Italics, parentheses, and foreign dialogue are like cayenne—a little goes a long way. It’s all right to include an occasional foreign word or phrase, as long as it is done in such a way that the reader who most likely does not speak that language is not completely thrown out of the book.

My next thought when I was told about this particular conversation was, does the writer speak the languages she is writing, or is she getting her Russian (or Spanish or German) from Google Translate?

If that is the case, this author has a hot mess on her hands and her readers aren’t likely to finish her book.

Original sentence in English: “It appears as if my dog may have fleas.”

Google translation in French: “Il semble que si mon chien peut avoir des puces.”

Re-run that French phrase through Google translator: “It seems as if my dog can have fleas.”

Note the slight change in the translation—one word has been shifted, “may” becomes “can.” While these words are sometimes interchangeable in English, they don’t always mean the same thing:

  • May sometimes means might or perhaps; or sometimes may gives permission.
  • Can gives permission or enables.

That slight switching out of the word “can” for “may” changes the meaning of the sentence. The first sentence with “may” suggests it is possible the dog has fleas. The second translation to French assumes the word “may” is permission and gives the dog permission to have fleas.

These are two entirely different concepts.

English originally developed from a set of Anglo-Frisian or North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken by Germanic tribes traditionally known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes.  So, modern English is an offshoot of Frisian, as is Dutch. Basically, we speakers of English speak a version of Dutch.

I hear you now: “But I don’t understand Dutch!”

This is because even though we share the same roots, we have widely different syntax.  English is heavily influenced by Latin, thanks to the Roman Conquest of Britain. In linguistics, syntax is the set of rules, principles, and processes that govern the structure of sentences in a given language, specifically word order.

How do you know that the Google translator understands syntax? The answer is: it doesn’t.

Imagine this situation: Your character from Amsterdam has bent a spoke on his bicycle wheel. He speaks Dutch. Filtered through the translator, it goes like this:

English: “Oh no. My bicycle has a bent spoke. How can I fix it?”

1st Dutch translation: “Oh nee. Mijn fiets heeft een gebogen sprak. Hoe kan ik dat op?”

2nd English translation: “Oh no. My bike needs an bent. How can I fix it?”

Note the misplaced words: When we retranslate it back to  English, the second translation makes no sense.

Google Translate is an extremely useful tool, but it is not intended to be used to translate an entire book into a foreign language. You need to hire a translator for that.

So, now we know that texts translated via Google Translate often emerge slightly twisted and make no sense, which is not what we want. If you do use the occasional foreign word or phrase, it’s no big deal as long as it is used appropriately and in a context that will be understandable to readers who don’t speak that language. It lends a certain realism when done with a deft and sparing hand.

Just don’t rely on Google Translate to help you write your Russian spy novel’s love scene.

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#amwriting: action and introspection

All works of fiction, no matter what their genre have several commonalities. Protagonists and side characters begin in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray. This is the inciting incident.

Once they recover from the first stumbling block, our protagonist realizes they want or need something: an object or person that will resolve the situation they are in. This is a moment of truth, a point where the protagonist realizes they could lose everything.

To resolve their situation and acquire what they need,  the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances. They will flounder and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation.

In my own work there have been times where I was so busy setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost.

For a particular event to have a place in the narrative, it must fulfil several requirements:

  • It must entertain the reader.
  • It must enable new circumstances.
  • It must force growth on the character, for good or for ill.

We do not insert random incidents simply for the sake of action. The events the protagonist experiences must be there to facilitate change. The action must force personal growth or otherwise affect the characters involved in it.

When we are deep in the creative process, it’s easy to forget that characters must evolve. Morality, love, coming of age—these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.

Perhaps you are experiencing writer’s block. Inspiration has abandoned you, and you become desperate to get your narrative moving again.

It may be that you have lost track of what you originally imagined your story was about, and your characters no longer know what they are fighting for. Was it love? Was it destiny? Was it hope?

When you first imagined you had a story to write, you had an idea of what the characters would be like. Did you picture them fully formed? At the beginning, we must leave room for growth and change, for us to show the character evolving, growing to that finished state. This is how we involve the reader in the hero’s journey.

When an author becomes desperate and inserts outlandish events or conversations “just to show they are human” it disrupts the story arc. At that point, the author frequently loses interest in the story and believes they are suffering writer’s block.

Think about novels you may have read where the author became too focused on the action and neglected to devote a few sentences detailing the character’s introspection. Their protagonist went from one death defying incident to another, without a pause or a moment to catch their breath. The protagonist may as well have been a crash test dummy, ricocheting from one event to the next with no thought or feeling.

The constant onslaught of random action became a loud noise that didn’t make any sense because there was no chance to link the events together and put them in perspective. Events inserted for shock value  and with no pause for reflection don’t show personal growth. This can make an otherwise good character two-dimensional.

This need for pauses between the action has been referred to (by better educated people than me) as: writing the way a skater skates: “push  – glide – push – glide.” Action – reflection – action – reflection. These small pauses give the reader a chance to breathe and process what just happened.

What will the protagonist gain from the experience? Action, deeds, and accomplishments are necessary to force change and growth on the characters. When you write a scene, ask yourself, “How will their fundamental ethics and ideals be challenged by this event?” If there is no personal cost, the scene is a side trip to nowhere and should be removed.

Writing these blind alleys is not a waste of time. You never know when you will need those ideas, so don’t throw them away—always keep the things you cut in a separate file. Remember, just because that idea doesn’t work for this book, doesn’t mean it won’t work in another book.

I label that file “outtakes,” and believe me, it has come in handy when I need an idea to jump-start a new story.

In the greatest, most memorable novels, the reader experiences the characters’ lives as they react to the events and setbacks.

This is what we want to achieve in our own work. The genre and the setting in which these characters react to the wider concepts are just a backdrop. The world they are set in is the picture-frame, a stage upon which the themes of the story play out, and characters are shaped by a force beyond their control—the author.

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#Amwriting: The Coordinating Conjunction

In grammar, a conjunction is a connection: a part of speech that connects words, phrases, or clauses.

What are coordinating conjunctions and why should you care? For one thing, conjunctions are like any other essential part of English grammar. They have a particular use, and when they are used correctly, they blend into the background.

The Fount of All Knowledge, Wikipedia, says:

Coordinating conjunctions, also called coordinators, are conjunctions that join, or coordinate, two or more items (such as words, main clauses, or sentences) of equal syntactic importance. In English, the mnemonic acronym FANBOYS can be used to remember the coordinators for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. These are not the only coordinating conjunctions; various others are used, including “and nor” (British), “but nor” (British), “or nor” (British), “neither” (“They don’t gamble; neither do they smoke”), “no more” (“They don’t gamble; no more do they smoke”), and “only” (“I would go, only I don’t have time”). Types of coordinating conjunctions include cumulative conjunctions, adversative conjunctions, alternative conjunctions, and illative conjunctions.

Here are some examples of coordinating conjunctions in English and what they do:

For – presents rationale (“They do not gamble or smoke, for they are ascetics.”)

And – presents non-contrasting item(s) or idea(s) (“They gamble, and they smoke.”)

Nor – presents a non-contrasting negative idea (“They do not gamble, nor do they smoke.”)

But – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, but they don’t smoke.”)

Or – presents an alternative item or idea (“Every day they gamble, or they smoke.”)

Yet – presents a contrast or exception (“They gamble, yet they don’t smoke.”)

So – presents a consequence (“He gambled well last night, so he smoked a cigar to celebrate.”)

We use and, or, and but as connectors of words, phrases, clauses, or sentences of equal rank.

  • apples and oranges
  • apples or oranges
  • apples, but not oranges

In a sentence, we can use “and” and “or” to join strings of nouns or strings of verbs:

  • Apples and oranges and bananas (are tasty).
  • Wash and dry (the dishes).
  • Apples or bananas or oranges
  • Apples and oranges, but not bananas
  • I love cooking and my pets and my family.

I would prefer to use serial commas to connect my string rather than conjunctions:

  • Apples, bananas, or oranges
  • Apples, bananas, and oranges
  • I love cooking, my pets, and my family.

Yes, I said I would use a serial comma. I’ve seen people launch into rants against serial commas, claiming it’s too many and looks awful.

That argument is hogwash.

For whom are you writing? Are you writing only yourself or are you writing for an unknown reader who may one day buy your book? If you are writing for your own eyes only, do whatever you like. But if you expect others to enjoy your work, you need to think about the reader. Using serial commas will make your work easy for the reader to understand what you are saying. Other aspects of commas may escape me at times, but the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, is one I adhere to in my own work, and heartily wish other authors would too.

But enough about the commas–let’s get back to conjunctions.

The word “but” is a little different from “and” or “or.”  It is a coordinating conjunction, and we use “but” to join two words:”

  • (I want you to) sing, but loudly.

“But” is also a connector that indicates contrast.

  • I like black but not white.

“But” can connect just about any kind of word or phrase that “and” and “or” can connect, with one difference: it can’t connect nouns in phrases.

  • Consider Betty and Judy (went shopping). We wouldn’t say Betty but Judy (went shopping).

However, “but” can connect noun phrases to other phrases:

  • Betty and Judy (went shopping) but I don’t know who drove.

When I speak, I have a habit of beginning my sentences with the conjunctions “and,” “but,” “because,” and “so.” Because these words are conjunctions, connector words, some people will say this is wrong.  I disagree with them, for this reason: in this case, these conjunctions are connecting ideas.

On page 257, The Chicago Manual of Style says this rule has “no historical or grammatical foundation.” The CMOS further points out that William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and the authors of America’s Declaration of Independence freely began sentences with those four conjunctions.

These people were well educated, and we can assume they understood grammar as well as anyone. Consider the following sentence, written by Abraham Lincoln:

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.” (Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

As he was a lawyer as well as a respected public speaker, we know Abe was a well-educated man.

Get It Write Online says:

“Most likely, many people believe they should not start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction because their grammar teachers in grade school discouraged them from doing so. Yet such a rule is completely unjustifiable. When grammar teachers teach youngsters the essentials of sentence structure, they most likely explain that coordinating conjunctions are used to hold together elements within a sentence. Therefore, they may discourage students from starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions because they are trying not only to explain conjunctions but also to help their students learn to avoid sentence fragments like this one:

She was a nice girl. And smart, too.

In this example, using “and” after the period is wrong because the second “sentence” is not really a sentence at all: it has neither a subject nor a verb.

So, just like the ubiquitous (but often unnecessary) “comma before the word because” and the silly debate over the incredibly important serial comma, we will likely have this disagreement for many generations to come.


Sources and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Conjunction (grammar),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Conjunction_(grammar)&oldid=771179901  (accessed March 28, 2017).

Weird Coordinating Conjunctions: Yet, For, and So, © Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl, July 10, 2014, http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/weird-coordinating-conjunctions-yet-for-and-so, (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).

University of Chicago (2010). The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.). Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. p. 257. ISBN 978-0-226-10420-1.

Starting Sentences with “And” or “But,” © 03/26/2001 Nancy Tuten,  Get It Write, http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/032601startsentandbut.htm  (accessed Mar. 28, 2017).

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#amwriting: Update, and the Room of Shame

I work in a room officially designated as the Room of Shame. It is not a room of shame in a dark, Fifty Shades of Gray way.  No. That would be interesting, which this particular Room of Shame is not.

This room is a boring office that could be owned by hoarders. I’ve mentioned before that it’s haunted by the Ghost of my Feline (Past): Yum Yum (the demon-possessed cat). My little companion died died in 2009, and I’ve never had the heart to replace her. Despite my oft-repeated intention to clean this toxic waste dump out, her ghost still manifests in the fur that still lurks behind the sagging bookshelves and boxes of papers dating back to the Bronze Age. Plastic bins filled with my books, ready to take to a show or signing, are stacked atop dusty crates still bearing her furry imprint. The disgraceful carpet is proof that to clean the floor, one must be able to find it.

Somehow, despite the embarrassing chaos, I do manage to crank out the work.

Last month I finished the second draft of Billy Ninefingers. He has been through the beta reading process and is currently fermenting in a dark place while I wind up some other projects. I received excellent feedback and have a firm idea as to how I will structure the final draft.

I am making headway on the first draft of Eternity’s Gate, a new novel in the Tower of Bones series. This is the ‘how it began’ story, and it features Aelfrid Firesword, Edwin’s many time’s great-grandfather, and the unintentional founder of the College of Warcraft and Magic. Even though it is set in an established world (Neveyah), planning this novel presented an unusual problem in that the magic system had to be redesigned as much of what is canon in the later books doesn’t exist during the time this story is set. New maps have been drawn. Alf is a Barbarian, so I have learned a great deal about his culture in the process of creating this early, far wilder version of world of Neveyah.

Knight’s Redemption, a novella featuring Julian Lackland, Golden Beau Baker, and Huw the Bard, is in the final stage of the revision process.

As always, I am working on flash-fiction and poems as the mood strikes, some weeks more than others. Flash-fiction usually happens when I’m at a stopping point on my other projects and my mind just wants to roam free. This is always a good time to think about possible blog posts.

And finally, I’m in the process of rewriting a short story for an editor who likes the overall premise, the protagonist, and the way the story ends, but wants me to make some fundamental changes to the way I am telling the tale. In my opinion, any interest from an editor should be celebrated, and their requests and suggestions should be given my full, immediate attention, so that will be an ongoing project over the next few weeks.

Not being rejected out-of-hand is good, in my opinion. I see this type of interaction as an encouraging thing. The door is open to an opportunity I might not have again, so I try to make whatever changes they request. The trick is to make the changes with your own flair so that you don’t lose what they liked about the piece in the first place. Either way, whether they ultimately reject it or not, I will gain something out of this.

Also, I have been cooking. I’ve found some more wonderful food ideas to take along when I am on the road. Traveling as a vegan can be quite dicey, unless you carry your own food. Once I leave the Northwest, restaurants don’t offer vegan options. Rather than go hungry, I make my meals ahead. I’m always looking for tasty treats that travel well, and are satisfying.

Today is a good day to write. I intend to make the most of it, working on whichever project is inspiring me. Having more than one project going at a time allows me to stay productive because when I can’t think what to do next in one manuscript, I’ll know exactly what I need to do in another.

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#amwriting: worldbuilding: a framework to hang a story on

I write in many different worlds with widely varying levels of technology and forms of government, some set in fantasy worlds and some set in contemporary real-world environments. When I first began writing I had been reading and studying the works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, and the many other pioneering sci-fi and fantasy writers of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

This was long before eBooks, and I had discovered the joys of the secondhand book store. Every payday I had several new books to add to my collection. In fact, it became hard to find people to help me move whenever my work took me to a different place, because of my large collection of secondhand books.

Many times the actual details of the society and the infrastructure didn’t matter and didn’t come into their stories at all. But the authors knew them, and their visualization of each character, each setting, and the other elements of the scene came across clearly in their writing.

These are subjects that arise my mind in the second draft because after the story has been laid down in its raw form, the answers to these questions matter. And in truth, the answers to these questions are only important in a peripheral way, an invisible framework to hang your story on. The answers ensure continuity and prevent inadvertent contradictions from arising within your manuscript.

Social Organization: What place does your character occupy in her society? That will determine how she interacts with others. Society is always composed of many layers and classes. How is your society divided? Who has the wealth? Are there

  • Nobility?
  • A servant class?
  • A merchant class
  • A large middle class?
  • Who makes up the poorest class?
  • Who has the power, men, women—or is it a society based on mutual respect?

Language, the written word, and accounting: Do they have a written language? This is really important if you are setting your people in a medieval world or in a really low-tech society because access to a written language determines how knowledge is passed on.

Is there a system for communicating knowledge across generations? How does historic information get passed along? How do they communicate knowledge over long distances? Books? Songs? Messengers? Subspace Communication?

Some ideas to consider:

  • How are people educated?
  • Who is allowed to learn to read and write?
  • How are bards, storytellers, teachers, and other disseminators of knowledge looked upon?

Ethics and Values: We currently live in a world where ethics and values are hot topics, and morality in government is a mushy concept. This especially true if a politician has enough plausible deniability or enough bravado to tell and maintain a bald-faced lie despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. In your fictional society, what constitutes morality? What constitutes immorality?

  • Is marriage required?
  • How are women treated? How are men treated?
  • How are same-sex relationships viewed?
  • How are unmarried sexual relationships seen in the eyes of society?
  • How important is it to be seen as honest and trustworthy?
  • How important is it to only tell the truth?
  • What level of deceitful dealings is acceptable?

Crime and the Legal System: What constitutes criminal behavior and how are criminals treated?

  • How important is human life? How is murder punished?
  • How are thieves viewed? What place in society do professional thieves have?
  • How are treachery, hypocrisy, envy, and avarice looked upon?
  • What about drunkenness/drug abuse?

Level of Technology: What tools and amenities do people have available to them? What about transport? Low technology generally can begin with an oral tradition and have some written languages. But low-tech means it takes time to pass along messages, and information can get lost or skewed over generations. Low technology in my books ends with the invention of the printing press and widespread access to Roman-style plumbing.

In my work, high levels of technology begin with the invention of the telephone, steam engines, blimps, and other motorized transport, and the use of radio communication. It grows from there to include cyborg technology for instantaneous communication, warp engines, and all manner of nanotechnology.

  • Hunter/Gatherers?
  • Agrarian/farming
  • Greco-Roman metallurgy and technology?
  • Medieval metallurgy and technology?
  • Pre-industrial revolution or late Victorian?
  • modern day?
  • How do we get around and how do we transport goods? On foot, by horse & wagon, by train, or by space shuttle?

 Do they have the use of magic or a magic-based technology? First you must consider who has magic? What kind of magic–healing or offensive or both? What are the rules for using that magic and why do those rules exist? Magic is an intriguing tool in fantasy, but it should only be used if certain conditions have been met:

  1. if the number of people who can use it is limited
  2. if the ways in which it can be used are limited
  3. if not every mage can use every kind of magic
  4. if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  5. if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work
  6. if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal

Government: There will be a government somewhere, even if it is just the local warlord. Someone is always in charge because it’s easier for the rest of us that way:

  • Is it a monarchy, theocracy, or a democratic form of government?
  • How does the government fund itself?
  • How are taxes levied?
  • Is it a feudal society?
  • Is it a tribal clan-based society?
  • Warlord, President, or King/Queen?
  • How does the government use and share the available wealth?
  • How is the government viewed by the citizens?

Religion and the Gods: How important is religion in this tale? Feel free to skip this section if religion plays no role in your tale. If religion is central, ask yourself: Is there one god/goddess or many? If the worship of a deity is a key part of your tale, you must design the entire theology. You must know the rituals and know how their deity holds their hearts. You must know how that deity considers his/her worshipers.

  • What sort of political power does the priestly class wield?
  • What is the internal hierarchy of the priesthood?
  • Who has the power?
  • Is this religion a benevolent entity or all-powerful, demanding, harsh?
  • How does the priesthood interact with the community?
  • Who can join the priesthood
  • Do people want to join the priesthood or do they fear it? How is the priesthood trained?

Foreign Relations: Does your country coexist well with its neighbors?

  • If not, why? What causes the tension?
  • Can people freely cross borders?

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu is part of a collection at the University of California, Riverside.

Waging War: This is another area where we have to consider the level of technology. It is critical for you as the author to understand what sort of weapons your characters will bring to the front, and also what the enemy will be packing. Do the research and choose weaponry that fits your established level of technology.

  • What kind of weaponry will they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • Who goes to battle? Men, women, or both?
  • How does social status affect your ability to gain rank in the military?

When you have cemented the world in your mind,  you will leave enough clues in your writing that the environments your characters inhabit will flow naturally, and your protagonists will fit into them organically. Your fantasy society will be visually real to the reader, even if the world it evokes in their minds isn’t exactly your vision of it. You will have done your job, by giving them a solid framework to imagine the story around.


Attributions:

First Edition cover of A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin, Illustrator, Ruth Robbins, published 1968 by Parnassus Press.

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, image by vlasta2, bluefootedbooby on flickr.com [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#amwriting: publishing overview, Indie vs. Traditional

Who are youThe publishing industry is in a state of growth. According to the annual report of the Association of American Publishers, published July 11, 2016, the  U.S. publishing industry’s annual survey revealed earnings of nearly $28 billion in 2015. The market showed an increased return to print purchases, and a significant growth in audiobook sales while the growth of eBooks sales lagged compared to previous years.

“The area of largest growth for the trade category was Adult Books, which grew by 6.0% from $9.87 billion in 2014 to $10.47 billion in revenue in 2015. For the second consecutive year, Adult non-fiction books, which includes adult coloring books, was the category that sold the most units and provided the most revenue in the trade category. Within the Adult Books category, the fastest growing formats in terms of units sold were downloaded audio (up 45.9%), hardback (up 15.1%) and paperback (up 9.1%).” Ebooks still comprised 17.3% of the market.

In this publishing world, what share of the market is claimed by Indie book sales? In October 2016 Author Earnings reported that overall, Indie sales were down. In my view, this is to be expected, because eBook sales were down, and most Indie sales are in eBook format. It is the availability factor—Indies have trouble getting their work into places like Walmart and Target, which are the big booksellers in America, right behind Amazon.

Author Earnings reported:

Amazon’s 2016 online print book sales are nearly 18% higher than they were in 2015.

When we integrate the area under the two curves, we find that:

Amazon sold over 255 million print books in the US in 2015.

Amazon is on track to sell well over 300 million print books in the US in 2016.

The above totals include at least 13 million annual print sales of non-expanded-distribution CreateSpace POD books by self-published authors, which Amazon does not include in the numbers they report to Nielsen Bookscan.

The implications are numerous:

In 2015, more than 40% of Nielsen Bookscan’s 652 million total reported annual US print sales–and the majority of Nielsen’s Retail & Club sector–were online print sales from Amazon.com, rather than brick-and-mortar bookstore sales.

The fact that Nielsen Bookscan reports only 5% growth in the “Retail & Club” sector, when Amazon’s half of those “Retail & Club” numbers is up 18%, can only mean one thing:

The other half of the Bookscan Retail & Club sector, US physical bookstore sales, must be down by at least 8%.

What do these numbers mean when you are trying to decide whether to self-publish or attempt to go the traditional route? In my opinion, they really mean nothing. Authors, either Indie or traditionally published, rarely earn enough in royalties to support their families. Publishers, large and small, don’t waste budgets promoting work by unknown authors the way they do the few who have risen to the ranks of their guaranteed bestseller lists.

This means you will be doing the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not. What are the perks of going traditional if you’re an unknown? Why go to the trouble of wooing an agent and trying to court a publisher?

  • The traditional publishing industry offers many valid perks to those who get their foot in the door.
  • Once you are in their flock, you have an editor who works with you personally. Most of the time you can forge a good working relationship with this editor. If you go Indie, you must hire a copy editor, which is not cheap. (And should not be.)
  • While they may not treat a new author the way they do Stephen King, traditional publishers will dedicate a small budget to marketing your work for its launch, and it will be more money than you might be able to pony up as an Indie.
  • Traditional publishers can get your work into markets like Target, Walmart, Costco, airports, and grocery stores. That is a huge thing, assuming your publisher considers your work worthy of such a commitment on their part. Their confidence will have to be earned. You must expect to find your work on the slow track for a while as the publisher tests the water and sees how well your work is received at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
  • Once you are an established author, you will have a wider distribution, make far more sales. With those sales, your work will meet the criteria to be considered for industry honors and awards, which will help sell your books.
  • There is an air of ‘respectability’ that still clings to being able to claim you’re traditionally published.

These are all extremely valid reasons for attempting to go the traditional route.

However, there are equally valid reasons for going Indie:

  1. Your book will be published. If you seek a legacy book contract, you must pass a gauntlet of gatekeepers: literary agents, acquisition editors, editorial committees, and publishing-house CEOs. These people must answer to the international conglomerates that actually own the majority of American publishing companies. This is why you are most likely to be stopped by a rejection letter. It’s not the quality of your work, it’s their perception of what the reading market will purchase and what it means to the accountants, who in turn must answer to their share-holders.
  2. You may not become a bestseller, but you’ll make more money on what you do sell. In most standard book contracts, royalty terms for authors are terrible, and this is especially true for eBook sales. Most eBooks are sold through online retailers like Amazon. If you’re a traditionally published author, and your publisher priced your eBook at $9.99, this is how the Amazon numbers break out (and remember, Amazon is still the Big Fish in the Publishing and Bookselling Pond):
  • Amazon takes 30% of the list price, leaving about $7.00 for the publisher, agent, and you to split.
  • The publisher will keep 75% of that $7.00, or $5.25.
  • The publisher will pay you 25% of that $7.00—just $1.75.
  • You then must pay your agent his 15% commission—or 26 cents.
  • You net just $1.49 on each $9.99 eBook sale. This is assuming your publisher honestly reports your sales and royalties and in my personal experience, some do not.

If you self-publish your eBook at that same price, for each sale of your $9.99 eBook, Amazon takes its 30%, leaving you $7.00. I don’t recommend such a high eBook price, but at  $4.99 or even $2.99, you stand to sell books and make a decent profit.

  1. You’ll get paid quickly. When a publisher accepts your book, he offers you an advance against sales. These are often paid in installments stretched out over long periods and are tied directly to how well or how poorly your book is doing in real market time. Publishers report sales and pay royalties slowly, as royalty statements are usually issued semiannually. Your royalty checks arrive later, so you can’t rely on this income until you have become an established author in their world.

Conversely, most eBook distributors like Kindle Direct Publishing and Barnes and Noble’s Pubit, and print-on-demand services such as Amazon’s CreateSpace, report your sales virtually in real time. Best of all, they pay your royalties monthly, with just a sixty-day lag from the time sales began.

Finally, and from my point of view, most importantly:

  1. Quill_pen smallYou retain all rights to your work. Legacy book contracts are a terrible danger zone for the author. The sheer complexity of negotiating a contract can be confusing and intimidating. You must hire a lawyer specializing in literary contracts, or risk unwittingly signing away secondary and subsidiary rights to your own work forever.

Quote from the Authors Guild post of July 28, 2015

Diamonds may be forever, but book contracts should not be. There’s no good reason why a book should be held hostage by a publisher for the lifetime of the copyright, the life of the author plus seventy years—essentially forever. Yet that’s precisely what happens today. A publisher may go bankrupt or be bought by a conglomerate, the editors who championed the author may go on to other companies, the sales force may fail to establish the title in the marketplace and ignore it thereafter, but no matter how badly the publisher mishandles the book, the author’s agreement with the original publisher is likely to remain in effect for many decades.

As I said before, you must do the work of getting your name out there regardless of whether you choose the traditional route or not. You must still work your day job to feed your family either way. Both paths are valid, and both have positive reasons for choosing that direction, as well as negatives. This is a critical choice for an author to make and is one that deserves deep consideration of all the many pros and cons.


CREDITS & ATTRIBUTIONS:

Annual Report, Marissa Bluestone © Copyright 2016, The Association of American Publishers http://newsroom.publishers.org/us-publishing-industrys-annual-survey-reveals-nearly-28-billion-in-revenue-in-2015, accessed March 5, 2017

A Publishing Contract Should Not Be Forever, The Authors Guild, © 2015 https://www.authorsguild.org/industry-advocacy/a-publishing-contract-should-not-be-forever/, accessed March 5, 2017

Do I Really Need A Literary Attorney, Arielle Ford, © 2011 Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arielle-ford/do-i-really-need-a-litera_b_927120.html

Image: Quill Pen, PD|by author, BWCNY at English Wikipedia.

Image: Who Are You © Connie J. Jasperson 2011-2017 Life in the Realm of Fantasy

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#amwriting: Hyphens are the Devil

Book- onstruction-sign copyAs it is March and is that month known as National Novel Editing Month, or NaNoEdMo, I will be be revisiting some of my posts on the craft of writing. Today we are looking at that most abused morsel of punctuation, the Hyphen. In my own work I will be looking at each hyphen and deciding if it stays or if it goes. Much of the time, they must go. 


Most authors know that a compound word is a combination of two or more words that function as a single unit of meaning. Most of us even know that there are two types of compounds: those written as single words, with no hyphenation and which are called “closed compounds”– such as the word “bedspread,”  AND  the “hyphenated compounds,” such as “jack-in-the-box” and “self-worth.”

But there is a third group, and they are the bane of my life–those mysterious, ephemeral denizens of the deepest corner of writer’s hell, called open compounds. These seemingly innocent instruments of torture are written as separate words–the nouns “school bus” and “decision making,” for example.

But how do I tell if  it’s one word, two words or a hyphenated word?  

Do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or, as with many psychological terms, its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary. For example:

  • covert learning techniques,
  • health care reform,
  • day treatment program,
  • sex role differences,
  • grade point average

Do use one in a temporary compound that is used as an adjective before a noun, use a hyphen if the term can be misread or if the term expresses a single thought:

For example:

“the children resided in two parent homes” means that two homes served as residences, whereas if the children resided in “two-parent homes,” they each would live in a household headed by two parents.  In that case, a properly placed hyphen helps the reader understand the intended meaning.

We also use hyphens for compound words that fall into these catagories:

  • the base word is capitalized: pro-African
  • numbers: post-1910, twenty-two
  • an abbreviation: pre-ABNA manuscript
  • more than one word: non-achievement-oriented students
  • All “self-” compounds whether they are adjectives or nouns such as self-report, self-esteem,  self-paced.

We hyphenate words that could be misunderstood if they’re unhyphenated:

  • re-pair (to pair again) as opposed to repair (to mend)
  • re-form  (to form again) as opposed to reform (to improve)

We hyphenate words in which the prefix ends and the base word begins with the same vowel:

  • metaanalysis, antiintellectual

But really, unless you are a technical writer, how often are we going to use these terms? Hence, the confusion when we DO use them.

Get It Write online dot com says, “One way to decide if a hyphen is necessary is to see if the phrase might be ambiguous without it. For example, “large-print paper” might be unclear written as “large print paper” because the reader might combine “print” and “paper” as a single idea rather than combining “large” and “print.” Another such example is “English-language learners.” Without the hyphen, a reader might think we are talking about English people who are learning any language rather than people who are learners of the English language.”

Write most words formed with prefixes and suffixes as one word with NO hyphen.

  • Prefixes: Afterglow, extracurricular, multiphase, socioeconomic
  • Suffixes: Arachnophobia, wavelike, angiogram

APPROACHING HELL © cjjasperson 2012 Lif In the Realm of FantasyHooray for Merriam-Webster! One can also look the word up in an online dictionary, to see the various different ways it can be combined. Just go to: http://www.merriam-webster.com

Now the real point of all this is that no matter how much I know when I am editing for another author, I always manage to screw up my own work amazingly well. It’s like my finger has a twitch that absolutely MUST add a hyphen. Thank god for good editors.


Credits:

Get It Write Online, Writing Tip Compound Words: When To Hyphenate © 2003, http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/042703compwdshyph.htm, accessed Feb 28, 2017

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#amwriting: theme

ofmiceandmenTheme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end, binding the elements of characters, conversations, actions, and reactions. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes theme as:

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.

Often we can visualize a complex theme but we can’t explain it. If we can’t can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common emotion that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level.

Perhaps you have a story about a woman who has just lost her husband to a preventable accident. Her grief is the main theme. When you learn the accident that killed him was preventable, you know the subtheme: anger. The protagonist’s goal in this story is to prevent such accidents from happening again–perhaps she must battle a corporation or take on a government agency. Rage is the motivator that forces her to wake up each day and take on the Goliaths, but at the root of the story it is her grief that is the driving force behind her subsequent actions.

But the main theme of grief is an extremely complex experience, as anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one will tell you. It is a fundamental emotion, chaotic and weighing heavy in the heart of one who grieves. It is experienced in many identifiable stages with elements of loneliness, anger, guilt, and deep suffering. It is sometimes accompanied by thoughts of suicide.

Everything your character sees and experiences in the opening pages underscores and represents her sense of loss and inspires the accompanying emotions of anger, futility, and depression. As her story progresses and she begins live despite her loss, she will still be affected on many levels and to a certain extent, driven by those complex emotions. While she is interacting with others who are happy and who believe she has gotten past her pain, you can employ allegories and symbolism to paint the deeper picture of her mental state to show how she is deeply depressed and possibly suicidal.

Once your protagonist has beaten the enemy, what is her reaction? Without the battle to sustain her rage, does she learn to accept her loss begin to find happiness? Or does she allow herself to spiral into ever worsening depression?

Perhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people faces terrible challenges in a war. On the surface, this looks like it is all about the action, but in reality, it is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is brotherhood: the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together, creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

allegoryScience Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.


Credits:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed February 22, 2017).

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