Tag Archives: writing

Identifying Genre #amwriting

If you have taken my advice and written several short stories, you now have something to enter in contests and submit to various publications. However, it can be hard to know what publication to send your work to.

This is where you must learn to identify the genre of what you have written.

When I sit down and begin writing a short story, sometimes I don’t have a particular theme or plot in mind. I key the first lines with an open mind, and random ideas begin to flow. Because I am working within the limits of 3000 to 7000 words, these are the stories that stretch my writing skills.

These “orphan” short stories are widely different from my normal work and aren’t always written in a genre that is easily identified.

Mainstream (general) fiction–Mainstream fiction is a general term that publishers and booksellers use to describe works that will appeal to a broad range of readers and will have some chance of commercial success. Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction.

It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either. The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and action that force the characters to grow.

Literary Fiction–Literary fiction tends to be more adventurous with the narrative, with the style of the prose taking a prominent place. Stylistic writing and the exploration of themes and ideas form the substance of the piece.

Writer’s Relief Author’s Submission Service defines literary fiction as “…fiction of ideas. While the story must be good, emphasis on action is not often as important as emphasis on the ideas, themes, and concerns of the book. Literary fiction tackles “big” issues that are often controversial, difficult, and complex.”  (end quoted text)

Literary fiction is frequently challenging to read, which is why certain readers search it out. They want to savor every word and turn of phrase. Sometimes literary fiction is experimental, wordy, and goes off topic, but the journey is the important thing to those of us who enjoy the works of David Foster Wallace, John McPhee, and George Saunders.

Science fiction–Science Fiction features futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes, and extraterrestrial life.

If you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi, so don’t bother submitting it to a publisher who only wants science fiction.

Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in the physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible. Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.

Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is that Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction.

The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy: Fantasy commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting. Many works are set within imaginary worlds, environments where magic and magical creatures are common. Epic and high fantasy generally avoid scientific and macabre themes, although in some fantasy subgenres there can be a great deal of overlap between fantasy and horror, and fantasy mixed with science.

I’ve said it before, but every genre has its share of snobs and idiot purists, people who will argue your choice of sub-genre no matter what you choose.

High fantasy–High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real world. It commonly features elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narrative. Often the prose is more literary, and the primary plot is slowed by many side quests. Think Mervyn Peake, William Morris, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Epic Fantasy–These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces. Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy and can include elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes. These also come in multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s series, Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.

Paranormal Fantasy–Paranormal fantasy often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and supernatural.

Urban Fantasy– can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

Horror–Horror fiction, horror literature, and also horror fantasy are narratives written specifically to frighten, scare, or startle their readers by inducing feelings of horror and terror. Sometime these stories detail the experience of purely mental terror, other times they are rife with sudden graphic violence.

Romance– Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on developing a relationship despite many roadblocks, and in the end, the characters find true romantic love. These stories must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending, or they are not romance.

Choose carefully what publications, anthologies, and contests you submit your work to. Read and follow their submission guidelines. Read one or two back issues so that you only submit the kind of work they publish.

Never submit anything that is not your best work, and do not assume they will edit it, because they won’t. No publisher will buy work that is poorly written, sloppily formatted, and generally unreadable.


Credits and Attributions:

How Do You Know If Your Novel Is Literary Or Mainstream Fiction? How Long Is A General Fiction Book? By Writer’s Relief Staff, Writer’s Relief Author Submission Services Blog, posted July 22, 2009. (Accessed August 14, 2018.)

Cover of The New Yorker (first issue) in 1925 with illustration depicting iconic character Eustace Tilley,  drawn by Rea Irvin. Fair Use.

First Cover of Astounding Stories of Super Science (Analog Science Fiction and Fact) art by H. W. Wesso,  January 1930, Fair Use. Via Wikipedia.

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Things to check for before submitting to a beta reader #amwriting

When we finish writing a story, an article, or a novel, we feel a rush of pride. The urge to immediately send it to a magazine or contest is strong, but the wise author must overcome it.

Don’t even show it to your writing group at this stage, because you are too involved in it, and there may be some awkward flaws that were introduced into the narrative during the rush of creation. You want their feedback to be constructive and not focused on the editable flaws.

Set your manuscript aside for a week or so then come back to it and look for

  1. Dropped or missing words.
  2. Words that spell check won’t find because they are spelled correctly but are wrong: They went their for breakfast.
  3. Extra spaces in odd places, and after sentences. Editors want one (1) space after each sentence.
  4. The paragraphs are indented, NOT WITH TABS, but by formatting the paragraphs correctly.

Tabs >.< I feel it’s important to revisit this subject, as I have recently seen two manuscripts where authors used the tab key to indent their paragraphs.

That is a huge no-no, and screams “never done this before.” Ninety percent of publications and publishing houses want electronic submissions. Too many spaces messes up the final formatting. For this reason, make sure you have removed the tabs. You may have to do it by hand which is a daunting task no publisher or editor has time for.

You want your work to look professional, even if you are only submitting it to your writing group for a critique. Always format the paragraphs by either opening the home tab and choosing ‘normal’ from the styles tab on the ribbon OR format by using the simple formatting tool:

Step 1: On the home tab, look in the group labeled ‘Paragraph.’ On the lower right-hand side of that group is a small grey square. Click on it.  A pop-out menu will appear, and this is where you format your paragraphs.

Step 2: On the indents and spacing tab of the menu: Use standard alignment, align LEFT. The reason we use this format is we are not looking at a finished product here. We are looking at a rough draft that will be sliced, diced, and otherwise mutilated many times before we get to the final product.

Step 3: Indentation: leave that alone or reset both numbers to ‘0’ if you have inadvertently altered it.

Step 4: Where it says ‘Special’: on the drop-down menu select ‘first line.’ On the ‘By’ menu, select ‘0.5.’ (Some publishers will specify a different number, 0.3 or 0.2, but 0.5 is standard.)

Step 5: ‘Spacing’: set both before and after to ‘0.’

Step 6: ‘Line Spacing’: set to ‘double.’

To summarize, standard paragraph format has:

  • margins of 1 inch all the way around
  • indented paragraphs with no extra space between
  • double-spaced text
  • Align Left. This is critical.

Do not justify the text. In justified text, the spaces between words, and letters (known as “tracking”) are stretched or compressed. Justified text aligns with both the left and right margins. It gives you straight margins on both sides, but this type of alignment only comes into play when a manuscript is published, and at that point, the publisher will handle the formatting.

Also, I have two things for you to look for before you submit your work to a beta reader or writing group, much less a prospective agent or publisher.

First up: Dialogue.

  1. Make sure every spoken sentence is enclosed in double quotes. All punctuation goes INSIDE the closed quotes, and quoted dialogue is enclosed in single quotes, ALSO inside the closed quotes.

Good: “I’m sorry, Mary. Your punctuation is horrific. Jake said, ‘I won’t accept it,’” said Helen.

When using dialogue tags, the spoken sentence ends in a comma, inside the closed quotes, followed by the dialogue tag which is NOT CAPITALIZED.

Bad: “I’m sorry, Mary. Your punctuation is horrific. Jake said, ‘I won’t accept it.’” Said Helen.

Good: “I’m sorry, Mary. Your punctuation is horrific. Jake said, ‘I won’t accept it,’” said Helen.

Next up: Commas. If you have a basic grip on commas, perfection is not needed. But commas separate clauses and act as traffic signals for our words.

  1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by any of these seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.

Good: My dog has fleas, and he needs to go to the vet.

Do not join dependent clauses to independent clauses with commas.

Good: My dog has fleas and needs to go to the vet.

Avoid comma splices at all cost. Use conjunctions or semicolons to join related independent clauses, not commas.

Bad: My dog has fleas, he needs to go to the vet.

Good: My dog has fleas, and he needs to go to the vet. OR if you absolutely must use a semicolon, write it as, My dog has fleas; he needs to go to the vet.

By searching for these simple errors before you submit your work,there’s a good chance that an editor will read beyond the first page.

Even if you intend to hire an editor, if you have these sorts of major amateurish flaws in your work, the editor will most likely refuse to take on the task of editing your work, as it would be too difficult to complete in a reasonable amount of time.

If I receive a request from a prospective client to edit a manuscript, and a glance through the first few chapters shows a clear lack of knowledge of how to write, my policy is to refuse it. The author owes it to herself, and the craft in general, to learn how to write.

In these instances, I am always gentle, but firm. I usually suggest the author join a writing group and invest in some books on writing craft. Many times, I see wonderful, amazing stories that are so poorly written no editor would take them.

It’s important to remember that we all begin at that place. With practice and feedback from others, we grow. These first drafts of our writing life are the beginner stories, the ones that come from the heart and which we learn from. I have a desk full of examples of “What was I thinking?” Each one of those stories had great bones. They are the foundation of all my work.

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How I became an author #amwriting

I have always been a writer, and a lover of music and art. Music was important in our house, as my parents had a large collection of vinyl records and the stereo was always cranking. Whether it was classical, jazz, or rock and roll, music was played loud enough to hear outside.

In an afternoon, you might hear the Beatles, followed by Vivaldi, Dean Martin, Herman’s Hermits, Loretta Lynn, the Monkees, and capping the evening—Mozart. Simon and Garfunkle, The Who, The Rolling Stones, 101 Strings, Electric Light Orchestra, Eddy Arnold, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder—you name it, the music was always played at a high volume in our home.

The books in our home were just as eclectic. My parents were prolific readers and were members of both Doubleday Book Club and Science Fiction Book Club. They also purchased two to four paperbacks a week at the drugstore and subscribed to Analog and several other magazines.

There was always something new and wonderful to read around our house, and most of it was literary fiction or speculative fiction, although we had the entire 54 volume leather-bound set of the Great Books of the Western World, and our father insisted we attempt to read and discuss what we could.

Some of those books were mostly understandable, such as William Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys.

Plato, not so much, and yet his work did influence me.

At the age of fourteen, I didn’t understand Pepys, but I read him, and while we were bass fishing on a Saturday morning, Dad would talk about the differences and commonalities between life and morality in Pepys’ London and our life in suburban America in 1968. His thought was that I should learn about the 17th century and the Great Fire in London from an eyewitness, just as I had learned about the war in the Pacific from John F. Kennedy‘s autobiographical novel, PT 109.

But Pepys’ London of 1666 was so different from the ‘Mod’ subculture of the London of 1968 (and the Beatles) that I was familiar with thanks to Life magazine. To me, it was almost like speculative fiction. In many ways, it was more difficult for me to believe in historical London than Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Everything I knew about sex, I learned from the books I stole from my mother’s nightstand.

When I married and left home, I still read every sci-fi or fantasy novel that came out in paperback, budgeting for books the way others of my acquaintance budgeted for beer. I read the classics for my irregular college classes and learned to love Chaucer and James Joyce. For a variety of reasons I never earned a college degree, but I’ve never stopped reading and researching great literature.

But reading for entertainment was still my “drug.” I jonesed for new books by the great ones, Anne McCaffreyJack Chalker, and Roger Zelazny, reading and rereading them until they were shreds held together with duct tape.

As a married student attending college in Bellingham Washington, purchasing books for pleasure became a luxury. I found a secondhand bookstore where I could get a brown paper shopping bag full of novels in too poor a condition to sell on their shelves for $2.00 a bag if you had a bag of better books to trade in.

As a college drop-out I went through a full shopping bag of books every week, and within a year, I had read every book they had.

Thus, out of desperation, I discovered a whole new (to me) genre: regency romances written by Georgette Heyer, and other romance writers of that generation. Those books, along with beat up copies of bestsellers by Jack KerouacJames Michener, and Jacqueline Susann began to show up in the pile beside my bed.

So at least some of my literary influences can be traced back to dragons, booze, morality, and England’s romantic Regency—lived vicariously through these authors’ eyes.

Always when the budget permitted, I returned to Tolkien, Zelazny, McCaffrey, AsimovBradbury, and as time passed, Piers AnthonyDavid EddingsTad WilliamsL.E. Modesitt Jr., and Robert Jordan to name only a few.

And there were so many, many others whose works I enjoyed. By the 1990s, the genres of fantasy and sci-fi were growing authors like a field grows weeds, and I loved it.

All of the books I read as a child and young adult have influenced my writing. They still inspire me.

Nowadays I rarely am able to read more than a chapter or two before falling asleep. My Kindle is full of books, and I haven’t got the time to read them because I have to write my own stories. Having the luxury to spend a day wallowing in a book is a treat to be treasured.

But it is because of the uncountable authors whose works I have been privileged to read that I was inspired to think that my own scribbles might be worth pursuing.

Writing has always been necessary for me, as natural as breathing. In the beginning, my writing was unformed, a reflection of whatever I was reading at the moment. As I matured and gained confidence, I found my own ideas and stories, and they took over my life.

Once that happened, I became a keyboard-wielding writing junkie.

Some days I write well, and others not so much, but every day I write something.

And every day I find myself looking for the new book that will rock my universe, a new “drug” to satisfy my craving, even if I know I won’t have time to read it.

I’m addicted to dreams and the people who write about them. Reading is my form of mind expanding inspiration. Without the authors whose books formed my world, I would never have dared to write.


Credits and Attributions

Potions of this article have appeared previously here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy in the post, The Genesis of an Author, © Connie J. Jasperson 2016, posted Jan 27, 2016

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logic, objective, and circumstance #amwriting

We begin any writing project with an idea, a flash of “What if….” Sometimes, that “what if” is inspired by an idea for a character, or perhaps a setting. Maybe it was the idea for the plot that had your wheels turning. Whatever the inspiration, a little pre-planning and a bit of an outline are beneficial in getting the manuscript started.

If you work at a day job and using the note-taking app on your cellphone to take down notes during work hours is frowned on, do as I still do. Carry a pocket-sized notebook and pen and write those ideas down. This is old-school but will enable you to discreetly make notes whenever you have an idea that would work well in your story, and you don’t appear to be distracted or off-task.

Once you have assembled your random ideas, and maybe even written a chapter or two, it’s time to think about where you are going with your story.

At the outset of the story, we find our protagonist and see him/her in their normal surroundings. Once we have met them and seen them in their comfort zone, an event occurs which is the inciting incident. This is the first point of no return.

Pretend we are writing a mystery/thriller: On page one, Dave, an unmarried accountant, sees a woman from across a cafe, and through a series of innocuous actions on his part, he is caught up in thwarting a spy ring.

  • What could possibly entice him out of his comfort zone? What would he spontaneously do that is out of character for him? Perhaps he buys a stranger lunch. You must show him as a shy person not given to buying lunch for strange women. This act must change his life.

Because he suddenly decided to “pay it forward” and paid for her lunch on his way out, he draws the attention of people who were following her. They suddenly think he is more than a simple accountant, that the act of buying her lunch was a secret code, making him a suspect.

Now, he is thrown out of his comfort zone and into the situation which is the core idea of your plot.

  • On his way back to his office, a white limousine pulls up alongside him, and four men in black suits hustle him into the backseat. He is forced at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Oslo, Norway, handcuffed to a suitcase. The only other key that can remove the handcuffs is at the American Embassy in the custody of a mysterious woman, Jeanne Delamont.

This is the circumstance in which your protagonist finds himself at the beginning of the story.

  • How will the next phase of the story start? Who is Ms. Delamont?
  • What is the hero’s personal condition (strength, health) at the beginning?
  • How will that condition be changed, for better or worse, by the hero himself or by the antagonistic force?

Now we come to the next part of the core of your plot: objective.

In every class I’ve taken on plotting, the instructors have said that if your main character doesn’t want something badly enough to do just about anything to achieve it over the next couple hundred pages, then he/she doesn’t deserve to have a story told about them.

  • At this point, our hero just wants to get rid of the suitcase and go back to his job. He wants that desperately.
  • What does the woman at the café for whom he bought lunch have to do with the whole mess?

Everything you will write from the point of the inciting incident to the last page will detail that quest and answer that question. Your protagonist must desire nothing more than to achieve that objective. Every scene and conversation will push the protagonist closer to either achieving that goal or failing, so if you make it a deeply personal quest, the reader will become as invested in it as you are.

I find it helps to have a broad outline of my intended story arc. Speaking as a reader, at some point near the outset of their manuscript authors need to have an idea of how it will end, so the story flows smoothly to the best conclusion.

It’s okay to have several possible endings in mind, as long as each fits logically to the events that led up to them.

Try them all and choose the one that you like best.

If you try to wing it through the whole book, you might end up with a mushy plot that wanders all over the place and a story that may not be commercially viable.

  • What will be your inciting incident?
  • What is the goal/objective?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want that pushes him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the midpoint to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?

I write fantasy novels, but I also write literary fiction. Writing fantasy does require a certain amount of planning because so much goes into world building and creating magic systems. Literary fiction must also have a logical arc or the characters won’t evolve.

In any novel, when you are winging it through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

You don’t have to go into detail in that little framework, but if you give yourself a rough outline, you will know what you must do to accomplish each task within the storyline.

I always feel it’s necessary to have an outline of the story arc even if my novel has multiple possibilities for endings, as was the case in The Wayward Son. Winging it in short bursts can be exhilarating, but my years of experience with NaNoWriMo has taught me that when we are winging it for extended lengths of time, we sometimes run out of fresh ideas of what to do next.

With a simple outline, you won’t become desperate and resort to killing off characters just to stir things up once the real work of writing starts.

Readers become frustrated with authors who randomly kill off characters they have grown to like.

Besides, you might need that character later.


Credits and Attributions

Cover of the original novel “The Maltese Falcon” 1930, by Dashiel Hammett, published by Alfred A Knopf, Fair Use. Wikipedia contributors, “The Maltese Falcon (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Maltese_Falcon_(novel)&oldid=851535327 (accessed July 25, 2018).

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Disagreement, Dispute, and Combat #amwriting

In many books, the characters are forced to do a certain amount of fighting, whether it is a marital dispute, neighborhood quarrel, war, or a kickboxing tournament. Unfortunately, some authors don’t understand how important it is to choreograph the scenes of disagreement and disputes.

These scenes are crucial to the advancement of the story. They should be carefully planned and inserted into the novel as if one were staging a pivotal scene in a film.

Scenes involving physical action can be a morass of mindless mayhem, if  not well-choreographed to begin with. It takes time, but over the course of several hours, you can put the skeleton of your fight scene on paper. What is physically possible and what is not? The next step, after the action is laid down, is fine tuning it, so the reactions and responses of your characters are natural and real.

But there is a larger consideration for your battle: Scenes involving fighting are controlled chaos—controlled on the part of the author. The battle must advance the story.  Why did it happen? What is the purpose of injecting that conflict into the narrative?

I mentioned this in my last post on literary violence: In Billy Ninefingers, besides the obvious fact that he is seriously injured in the fight, which is the core plot point of the book, I had two other goals with that fight scene:

  1. I needed to show how the Bastard is jealous and acts on any thought that passes through his alcohol-soaked mind.
  2. In the resolution of that scene, I demonstrated that Billy, even with his life in ruins, has a sense of fair-play.

There are two sorts of fights, verbal and physical. Both have commonalities, although words are the weapons  in the verbal dispute.

Many authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight—how they were dressed, who hit who with what words or weapons, and so on.

Just as if the physical dispute were a verbal dispute, we map the violence out as we would a journey, with every slap, curse word, and gunshot occurring at its proper point in the melee. If physical violence is involved and you are not a martial arts aficionado or a weapons specialist, these are necessary elements of the combat scene that good, responsible research and an author’s diligence can resolve.

What we have to consider in each quarrel is that each character in the fight is, and must remain, a unique individual. There should be no blurring of personalities, which can happen when an author focuses too intently on the action of the fight scene, writing it as if they lived it. For the author, acting out the action ensures that the moves are reasonable and make sense, but you aren’t done writing that scene just because the hacking, slashing, and gunshots are on paper. It’s far too easy for the author’s voice to intrude in these scenes, as the author is so wrapped up in the emotion of the event they don’t see that the characters have fallen silent, and he is the one doing all the shouting.

If the dispute is verbal, the words hurled back and forth must be the words that character would use. Each character has habitual mannerisms. In real life, they wouldn’t all react the same way, so they can’t all be superheroes in your fight scene. You must go back to the first part of that section, and make sure you haven’t lost the individuality of the characters in the chaos. Each character’s reactions must be portrayed in the action sequence in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

I try to show this in small, unobtrusive ways by sitting back and visualizing the scene after the choreography is laid on paper. I replay it in my mind as if I were a witness to the events and look for the facial expressions and reactions of each combatant.

The most important reactions get briefly mentioned in the story, the reactions that push the plot forward. The others are witnessed but given less prominence, becoming part of the scenery.

When I choreograph a fight, I think of it as choreographing a conversation. In real life, people miss a few beats when they are speaking. They gather their thoughts and speak in short bursts. They shift in their chair, or stand up, or wave a hand to emphasize a point. They turn and sometimes mumble. In our literary conversations, we want to paint the impression of their individuality without boring the reader with minute details.

We must approach the fight scene the same way. When it comes to fighting, I keep it concise and linear, as drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears. Just the facts, the immediate emotional impact, and we move on to the recovery scene.

In so many novels, battle scenes are long, drawn out, convoluted passages detailing blood and guts, but which make no sense. I don’t like books where the fights are senseless and too chaotic to follow, because I know that isn’t true to life. Violence is orderly and happens in a sequence of actions, within a fundamental framework of order.

I have been married four times, so trust me, I understand disputes and how they can escalate out of control. But I also have personal experience with physical violence. I played hockey for four years as a young woman, and I also took martial arts as a young adult. From my personal experience, I know that each fight is comprised of a specific sequence of events, despite the fact it appears to be chaotic. 

  1. the inciting incident – what triggers it
  2. the response – what each combatant does and how the opponent responds
  3. the resolution – how does it end?
  4. the aftermath

It is the swiftness of the event and the emotional impact of the violence that conveys the overwhelming sense of chaos.

Once you have the order of events, who did what and what the result of that action was, you must add the emotion, the sense of fear, the feeling that things are happening too swiftly that is the true chaos of the battle.

Every character’s emotions and reactions are individual, uniquely theirs. You, as the author, visualize them this way, but the difference between success and failure as an author is the ability to commit their uniqueness to paper. Many authors don’t succeed at this—they either fail to give enough subtle clues to the reader, or they are too specific. The fine line between enough and too much is where the author’s artistry comes in.

This has also been said before, but it bears mentioning again. Through physical actions and conversational interactions, we make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be).

Their actions as they interact with their environment and each other illustrate the world they exist in. Each scene, especially a fight scene, is your opportunity to convey the setting and the mood of your characters without resorting to an info dump.

We are painters with words. We give the impression of detail, offering the reader a framework to hang his imagination on. We use our words sparingly and with intention, giving the reader the idea and the atmosphere of the conflict as if painting the scene in the style of the impressionists.


Credits and Attributions:

Dutch: De dood is fel en snel: Ruzie in een pub, English: Death is Violent and Fast: Quarrel in a Pub, painting by Joos van Craesbeeck, ca. 1630 – 1635 PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Information and Misinformation #amwriting

This week, I am involved in editing for clients, hosting a writing meetup, and working hard on a first draft.

Over the weekend I made good headway with new material, and now I am putting much of what we have previously discussed into action as I expand on those chapters.

I’m ensuring that within the larger story, I have a structure of smaller arcs,  scenes that will come together to create this all-encompassing two-volume drama. If I do this right, I will keep my readers’ hearts invested in the narrative until the end of the second book.

I’ve talked before about the arc of the scene vs. the overall arc of the novel.

The end of the scene is the platform from which your next scene launches. This means each scene begins at a slightly higher point on the novel’s narrative arc than the previous scene did, driving the narrative. That pulse is critical to creating the necessary tension.

At this point, I’m still fine-tuning the plot, deciding who has the critical knowledge. The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension, a concept known as asymmetric information. This a situation in which one party has more or superior information compared to another. In business, this can prevent other companies from effectively entering and competing in an industry or market. The company with the information has a monopoly.

In real life, a monopoly of information creates a crisis. In the novel, it creates tension. A conversation scene should be driven by the fact that one person has knowledge the others need to know at that moment. Whether or not they receive the information in time is up to you in the plotting stage.

So, this is what I am doing now, making sure the information is divided up disproportionately. No one ever has all the knowledge, and what my protagonist doesn’t know at the beginning is central to the plot and the final confrontation at the end of the second half.

The reader must get answers at the same time as the other characters, gradually over the first 3/4 of each novel. Book one has the first half of the story line and a satisfying conclusion, and book two is the protagonists’ ultimate destination and final meeting with the enemy. Dispersing small but necessary bits of info at just the right moment so there are no info dumps is tricky but by the final draft of both books, all will have been smoothed out.

As I said, I am creating small arcs, scenes that pose questions, but also provide answers to previously posed questions. Large and small events occur but are linked by conversations because events don’t happen randomly. Sometimes an incident is self-explanatory, but action alone wouldn’t be enlightening.

My characters are charismatic, as they exist in my head. My task in this first draft is to show them in such a way that the reader sees the magic in them that I see. I have to create a pulse of each character’s desires and objectives, laced with information and misinformation. I am creating a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the first conclusion at the end of book one.

Book one’s final confrontation has to be good and resolve the first conflict. I hate cliff-hanger endings so there will be none of that in my work.

I will finish both books before I publish book one, with book two in the final editing stage when book one goes to press. By planning out my production schedule like this, I hope I can achieve what I envision, an epic fantasy that hooks the reader with small rewards of emotional satisfaction along the way to the big event.

My trusty beta readers will “politely” inform me (with a brick to my head) if I don’t somehow accomplish just that.

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De-junking #amwriting

Fifteen years ago, my husband and I bought a house and gradually filled it with furniture. We weren’t rich, but we got the most durable pieces we could afford.

Alas, the recliners were the first to fall victim to old age, with my husband’s obnoxiously big (but incredibly comfy) chair failing first. Not sure what to do with it as it was the size of a dinosaur, the broken corpse sat in a corner for four years serving as an “overflow coat-rack” when we had a lot of company.

The nice recliner with the fabric I liked so much, and which was purchased for me, became “the captain’s chair.” I had written Huw the Bard, Tower of Bones, and Forbidden Road in that chair, but it was still in perfect condition.

I didn’t mind sitting on the sofa, but I never was able to get too comfy with my laptop there. For the most part, I found myself hanging out my office, playing RPGs and writing rather than watching TV.

However, that chair too went the way of all things, falling apart and looking worse than Martin Crane’s hideous recliner on the old TV show, “Frasier.”

In the process of shopping for new chairs, we decided to go with a smaller dining room table, as the two of us don’t need a nine foot long dining room table. When we have large family gatherings, we have the Costco folding table that I use for book signing events and several card tables.

When we got rid of the broken chairs, we also trashed several other large pieces that had begun to show their age, not unlike their owners:

  • The wobbly sofa table on which we proudly displayed our dead houseplants.
  • The backless cabinet that held my dried-up art supplies.
  • The broken bar stool that we dropped our empty shopping bags on instead of putting them away.

After all the broken furniture was gone, I looked around in shock, faced with the glaring evidence of my crummy housekeeping habits.

Grandma went on a cleaning rampage.

So, the house is a bit empty today, but cleaner. It looks rather like it did the day we moved in. I had forgotten how big the place is but seeing it half empty reminded us of why we loved this house in the first place.

New furniture is coming to my house on Tuesday. This time we have modern Scandinavian-style lounge-chairs, with separate footstools. These won’t fail the way the recliners did. The new round dining table will seat four comfortably, and six if they like each other.

And that brings me to the strangest side note to all of this: In the midst of getting rid of the unwanted debris collected over fifteen years, I wrote two full chapters in my first draft, totaling around 6,000 new words. These are good chapters that broke through one of the worst sticking points in plotting that book. What I wrote yesterday advances the story and take it to the midpoint crisis.

Cleaning house seems to have cleared my mind.

Maybe I should clean my house more often.

Nah, probably not gonna happen.

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The Paragraph #amwriting

This post pertains to the paragraphs in a literary narrative, whether the genre is contemporary, sci fi, fantasy, mystery, romance—or any kind of writing that is fiction.

Paragraphs are not just short blocks of randomly assembled sentences. A paragraph is a group of sentences that fleshes out a single idea. That means that only one thought or speaker is featured in each paragraph.

This rule is cast in stone and is especially critical if you are writing a technical piece. I have edited work for people who are pursuing literary degrees. That is a different kind of writing and requires strict adherence to style policies as set down by the professor at the beginning of the semester.

In scholastic and technical writing, a good paragraph begins with a topic sentence and is comprised of sentences that support the main idea. In writing for literature, we don’t begin with a topic sentence as such, but we do explore and expand on only one idea in each paragraph.

The rules are simple:

  • Present a single idea per paragraph.
  • Present the dialogue and reactions of only one person per paragraph.
  • Present the viewpoint of one character per paragraph.

I have used this example of a paragraph gone wrong before, but it is a good one:

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.” Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.” He spat, “You disgust me.”

That is a confusing passage, but it doesn’t have to be. Three ideas are explored there: Jamie’s accusation, Kerry’s guilt and fear of losing him, and finally his disgust.

Jamie said, “You cheated on me.”

Kerry cringed and wept. “I don’t want to lose you.”

He spat, “You disgust me.”

While it makes for short paragraphs, you must break out Kerry’s reaction. One thought, one point of view per paragraph, no matter how short that makes it.

A good paragraph agrees with itself, is logical, and the central idea it contains is developed. Sometimes, this creates long paragraphs.

With that said, some considerations must be given to manuscripts intended for publication as an eBook. If you are self-publishing, I highly recommend you format at least two manuscripts for your book, three if you are planning an epub as well as a Kindle version.

One manuscript will be for the print version, which will be the version you send to Ingram Sparks, KDP, or CreateSpace. The other manuscripts will be the mobi (kindle) and epub (other ebook sellers) manuscripts. I use Draft2Digital to create both types of eBook manuscripts—it is free, and the simple instructions make it incredibly easy. You can also format your paper book there, also for free.

In a paper book, paragraph length isn’t as much of a problem as in an eBook. I’ve noticed that versions of eBook novels containing long paragraphs tend to appear as page after page of an unbroken wall of words. That can be confusing, and the reader may decide to move on to a different book.

Thus, for a manuscript that you intend to publish as an eBook, you will want to divide long passages at logical places, using two paragraphs to explore the idea. This is especially a problem when the paragraph contains a long section of internal dialogue, which is frequently written in italics.

In any type of writing, emails, literature, or scholastic, when a new idea comes into your writing, or a different character speaks, you must begin a new paragraph.

No matter what, you must have an amazing opening paragraph. One of the greatest hooks in literature is the following one by French author, Albert Camus, which opens the 1942 novel, The Stranger.

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from the home: ‘Mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely.’ That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

One idea is explored here in ten short sentences, which combine to offer up a wealth of information. Put bluntly, Meursault received a telegram, possibly from an old-folks home, informing him his mother was dead and when the funeral was.

These first paragraphs are where Camus shows his skill. He takes a simple idea and presents it in deliberately crafted prose that feels loose, almost indifferent. Rather than a plain statement of fact, the few sentences exploring that one thought makes us curious about the protagonist and his state of mind.

Authors, please present only one central idea per paragraph. However, you are free to offer up that idea with your own flair and style.


Credits and Attributions

Quote from The Stranger, by Albert Camus, Original title L’Étranger © 1942 (Gallimard, French) © 1946 (Hamish Hamilton, English)

Wikipedia contributors, “The Stranger (novel),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stranger_(novel)&oldid=796803119 (accessed August 30, 2017).

The Paragraph by Connie J. Jasperson was first published on Aug 30, 2017, and has been edited and updated with new material for this post.

 

 

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Thoughts on revisions and self-editing #amwriting

New and beginning authors often (loudly) assert their ability to edit their own work. If you are “editing” your own manuscript, you have a fool for a client. There is no such thing as self-editing—the best you can do is make revisions and admire your work. For that reason, we need other eyes on our work.

As authors, we see what we intended to write rather than what was written. We misread clumsy sentences and overlook words that are missing or are included twice in a row.  If you are in a critique group, you have a great resource in your fellow authors—they will spot things you have overlooked your work just as you do in theirs.

The first draft of any manuscript is the story as it flowed out of your mind and onto the paper. Yes, there is life and energy in your words, but your manuscript is not publishable at this stage, no matter how many times you go over it.

You need an unbiased eye upon your work, or your book will be published with typos, awkward sentences, dropped words—the list of inadvertent errors goes on.

Every author needs someone to read their work before it is published. Just because I can see six instances of the word ‘long’ in one paragraph of someone else’s work does not mean that I will spot it in my own.

To the author in the first flush of victory, the completed first draft of his manuscript is a thing of beauty, a flawless diamond to be cherished and adored.  It is the child of their creative muse and is perfect in every way.

Let us consider the word ‘that.’ The following passage is from one of my original manuscripts as it emerged from the first draft in 2008, ten years ago.

 Jeanne was not upset over something that he had not done or not said. Now he sensed that it was a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt that she was feeling.

In just two sentences, my stream-of-consciousness writing included 3 instances of the word ‘that’ and 3 of ‘not.’  Yet, in my own mind, it was as good as I could make it. I didn’t see those unnecessary words.

This is how that paragraph read in my mind and is how I would write it now, ten years on:

Jeanne wasn’t upset over something he had done or said. He sensed she felt a mixture of anger, hurt, and guilt.

I began working with an editor in 2012, and that is when I truly began to grow as an author. Each time they showed me where I had gone wrong, I learned from it and gradually, my stream-of-consciousness writing improved. I use fewer unnecessary words, and my prose is leaner.

Better writing habits are learned over time by writing regularly and by consciously applying the tricks and tips you learn from other authors.

Once your writing/critique group has given you their best opinions on your manuscript and you have revised it to your best ability, you need an editor. Ask other authors who they might recommend as an editor and see if you can work well with that person.

Your editor will likely point some things out that you didn’t see, but that a reader will.  At that point, you might be slightly shocked and hurt, but if you’re smart you’ll consider each comment and make your revisions accordingly.

Once you see your work through someone else’s unbiased eyes, you will be able to take your story to the next level.

The fact is, unless you can accept criticism, your work will never be what you want it to be. You must be open to viewing your work the way the reader will see it. You’re not obligated to follow every suggestion an editor makes, but 9 times out of 10 I make changes along the lines they suggest because when I look at the problem area, I can see exactly what they meant.

Writing seems like a solitary craft, and much of the time it is. However, joining a local writing support group or a critique group will give you a sounding board that costs you nothing, but from which you will reap many benefits.

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Conflict, the core of the story #amwriting

cuckoo_definition_thefreedictionary_lirfI began my current project with an idea for a character, and I knew what the ultimate end of the story is because it is already canon in the Tower of Bones series. The difficulty I have had was devising a completely different culture, the pre-culture if you will.

In the time of the Tower of Bones series, the Temple of Aeos is a finely-tuned machine that serves to distribute food and medical care to the poorer communities, provides education to everyone, provides military protection when needed, and maintains the roads that connect the communities. Mages are sworn to serve the goddess Aeos, and the people of Neveyah, even at the cost of their lives. Although it’s not bandied about, the Temple’s primary function is to find mage-gifted children before their untrained gift wreaks havoc in their communities. Untrained mages have a high chance of becoming the tool of the Bull God, Tauron.

In the current work-in-progress the Temple doesn’t exist. It is born into existence because of the struggles of two larger-than-life characters and the events of these two books.

When I decided to write this story, I had to ask myself three questions. The answers to these questions are what shapes the story arc.

1: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

My protagonist and antagonist are each chosen as champions of their deities. The one who wins decides which deity rules Neveyah, the usurper or the rightful goddess. There is more than simply a world at stake here—the balance of the worlds is threatened as there must be one world for each living god, and even though he is imprisoned, Ariend still lives.

One deity, the mad god Tauron, is the cuckoo in their nest. He was not born a child of the Mother of All as were the others, but simply appeared one day and was taken in, which upset the balance of the universe.  When no new goddess appeared to be his mate, Tauron’s loneliness caused his descent into madness.

Angry at being denied a wife, Tauron desires to rule the universe and began his quest by assaulting his brother Ariend to claim Aeos as his wife. This was the apocalyptic “Sundering of the Worlds” and nearly destroyed the societies of three worlds.

He has claimed half of Ariend’s world and intends to have the rest. He will take Aeos and her world, believing it is his due.

However, with the imprisonment of Ariend, the gods can no longer interact directly with each other, but must instead act through their champions, who have free will. Religion features strongly in this series, and the concepts of good and evil, moral right and wrong.

2: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Each man desires to unite Neveyah under the banner of his deity. Alf follows Aeos, Goddess of Hearth and Home, who created the world of Neveyah.

Daryk follows Tauron, the Bull God, who created the world of Serende and who imprisoned Aeos’s husband, Ariend the Mountain God, in his effort to force Aeos to become his wife.

Map of the North and the Barbarian Towns, in the time of AelfridAlf’s best friend has triggered a mage trap and fallen to the Dark God. His wife has left him and dumped their sick child on him, and he has been chosen for a task he doesn’t want—that of Shaman. He believes that the Barbarian Tribes are the key to defeating Tauron because their culture is strongly rooted in the concept of community. Each member of the community can defend themselves against raiders, something the people living in the citadels of the south have forgotten.

With the triggering of the trap, Daryk has shed the weakness that was his life as a follower of Aeos. He now understands that only the strong deserve to survive and rule Neveyah, and he believes the Barbarian Tribes are the key to defeating Aeos, as they are trained in war craft.

 

3: What will they do to get it? How far will each go to achieve their desire?

At times, the line between what is moral and immoral is blurred, as both societies are fundamentally flawed. Both men will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, although of the two, only Alf is burdened with regrets for the choices he makes.

This is the core conflict. How my characters deal with it is the story.


Credits and Attributions:

Cuckoo in the nest definition, The Free Dictionary,

https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/a+cuckoo+in+the+nest, accessed June 12, 2018.

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