Tag Archives: writing

Theme part 2 #amwriting

Not every anthology is themed, but many are. Most will also be restricted to one genre (romance, sci-fi, fantasy, crime) or a particular location, like a city or a place such as a coffee shop, etc. This is because theme alone isn’t enough to unify a book encompassing ten or more stories that are widely divergent in genre.

The concept of how to create a cohesive anthology was explained to me this way:

Consider a community art project where you ask five local artists to paint murals of cats to be displayed in the local community center. You will get five wildly divergent styles, and clashing colors, and cats that don’t go together well. But, if you ask them to paint black cats (or orange or red), your community wall art will have a consistency that celebrates the variety of the artists’ different styles rather than an eye-bleeding jumble of cats.

Therefore, when planning a story for a particular anthology, you must take the theme and any other setting or genre restrictions and run with it.

The first thing I do is research all the synonyms for that word. I recently wrote for an anthology with the theme of Escape, and it had to be set in the Pacific Northwest. I set my story in Olympia, Washington, in the area I grew up in. With my setting established, I went online and looked up every synonym for the word “escape.”

The above list is an image and not text, but feel free to copy it for your files.

Then after I had all the synonyms, I looked for the antonyms, the opposites.

Capture. Imprisonment. Confront.

Once I had a full understanding of all the many nuances of the theme, I asked myself how I could write a fantasy set in my real-world environment. My solution was to set it in a historical time, the late 1950s. I was a very small child then so anything I know about that era is a fantasy that I learned from television.

Then, I began plotting. I asked what my character needed most in her effort to escape. My gut answer was courage.

Sometimes, it helps if I use polarities (opposites, contrasts) to flesh out a character. These polarities helped me in fleshing out a protagonist and also the antagonist:

  • courage – cowardice
  • crooked – honorable
  • cruel – kind

As an editor, when I begin reading a short story, I want the first paragraphs to hook me. Those opening sentences establish three vital things:

  1. They introduce the problem.
  2. They introduce the characters and show us how they see themselves.
  3. They introduce the theme.

When writing a short story, it helps to know how it will end. I suggest you put together a broad outline of your intended story arc. I’m a retired bookkeeper, so I have a mathematical approach to this. Divide your story arc into quarters, so you have the essential events in place and occurring at the right time.

Assume you have a 4,000 word limit for your short story.

The Setup: The first 250 words are the setup and hook. You must have a compelling hook. In some cases, the first line is the clincher, but especially in a short story, by the end of the first page, you must have your reader hooked and ready to be enthralled.

The next 750 words take your characters out of their comfortable existence and launch them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not? What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution. What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme? How did the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, subplots should not be introduced into the short story.

Word Count: Many times, publications and anthologies will have strict limits on the word count, such as no more than 4,000 or less than 2,000. For this reason, when writing short stories, we keep the cast of characters to a minimum.

When you’re only allowed 4,000 words, you must make each one count. You want that story to be the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

We also keep the setting narrow: one place, one environment, be it a cruise ship, a restaurant, or a gas station—the location shouldn’t be epic in scale.

In a novel, side-quests and subthemes help keep the story interesting. This should go without saying, but you would be surprised at how often it doesn’t: you have no room to introduce side-quests in a short story.

When your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes. It helps to remind myself of the elements that really drive a plot.

Allegory is an essential tool for the author who wants to underline a theme and express crucial ideas with the least number of words. Using allegory and symbolism in the objects in the environment is a way to subtly underscore your theme. It allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Consider a scene where you want to convey a sense of danger. Go to the “D” section of the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms and look up “danger”:

  • danger – safety

Just past danger, we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

All of the above polarities would play well to the theme and would give your characters depth.

In any work, novel or short story, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

One final suggestion: Don’t think you can pull out some old story you have in a drawer, dust it off and tack on the theme word in a few places. No editor will be fooled.

Editors will look for many things when they are reading submissions. But no matter how brilliant the story is, if it doesn’t explore the theme well enough, they won’t accept it.

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Theme part 1 #amwriting

As an editor, one aspect of a story that I look at is theme. It is the invisible backbone of your story, a thread connecting disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can emerge, creating opportunities for adding depth.

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 detail how large events shape, and sometimes skew, the protagonists’ morals and ethics.

A common theme in fantasy is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability (or order). Good versus evil is a trope of the speculative fiction genre. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.

Riffing on 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 personally, 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; instead, 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? That commonality is probably the theme.

A crucial consideration in planning a short story is plot structure or how the story is arranged. The underlying theme is introduced with the first paragraph and supports the plot through to the end.

Theme is rarely stated baldly. Even if it isn’t overtly stated, it’s a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

When an author is new to writing short stories, limiting the background information, and sticking to the theme can be the most challenging part. In my own early drafts, I often have a lot of information that doesn’t advance the story.

Still, I have found that writing backstory is a form of mind-wandering, an exercise that helps to cement the story in my mind. For this reason, I write the backstory in a separate document.

In the final draft, that 2000 words of background information I so lavishly laid down is not needed. Nor is any background on the setting required unless the location is a core plot point.

You must focus on one idea in a short story and riff on it until you reach the end. If you are writing for a themed anthology or magazine, you are fortunate! The editors have given you a framework on which to hang your plot.

So, what is theme actually? It’s different from the subject of a work. An example that most people know of, is the Star Wars series and franchise. The subject is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.” The themes are “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.”

At some point, serious writers become brave enough to submit their work to a magazine or anthology. Most anthologies and many magazines are themed.

When you choose to submit to an open call for themed work, your manuscript must demonstrate your understanding of what is meant by the word ‘theme’ as well as your ability to craft compelling prose and produce a clean, well-edited manuscript.

I write and submit many short stories. It’s always intriguing how some find good homes in anthologies and other publications, and others don’t. When the story is good enough but “lacking something” indefinable, even our writing group members may not see why a particular story doesn’t work.

Possibly, there is no unifying theme to give events and conversations meaning.

The next installment in this series will go further into building a plot around a theme, or conversely, identifying and expanding on the theme in your already-written story.

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Do the research before you do the murder #amwriting

I recently began reading a murder mystery where the author used a mushroom to kill the first victim. That’s where this book fell apart—the idea was good, but the facts and execution weren’t.

Using a mushroom stroganoff to poison him was a poor choice because fungi is an undependable weapon unless you are an expert. Also, individually, one mushroom may be more or less poisonous than another of the same kind, rather like people are. Judging how many one would need to kill a three-hundred-pound man takes more thought than I am capable of plotting out.

Also, it was stroganoff, which is basically beef and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce. This author danced over the fact that serving the food at this dinner party would have been a tactical nightmare. It would have been nearly impossible to ensure the intended victim got the poison mushrooms and no one else did, which is how this murder was written.

Agatha Christie knew that and regularly poisoned entire dinner parties, literarily speaking. Her murderers made everyone at the table sick but only the intended victim actually died.

This particular mystery was set in Scotland, and I don’t know how poisonous their mushrooms are, but I think that logic would hold true there as well as it does here in the Pacific Northwest.

If I hadn’t been on several nature walks with Ellen King Rice, a wildlife biologist and amateur mycologist who writes well-plotted mushroom thrillers, I would have accepted the slightly contrived fatal dinner as written and focused on the other failings of this novel.

This experience reinforced my belief that readers are often more knowledgeable than we authors are. E-readers can do the research just by highlighting the word and hitting search.

For this reason, having a solid base of information to back up what we are writing is critical.

My disappointment as a reader could have been avoided if the author had gone out to several mushroom hunter websites or even if she had found a local person to talk with. With only a small amount of effort, she could have made her plot a little less flimsy.

Targeted research is essential if you want your fiction to convey a feeling of truth. Identify what you want to know, use the internet, ask an expert, and create a searchable file or database of information that backs up your assertions.

Once you establish the technological era you are writing in, you know what you need to research and how theoretical you may have to get.

Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

If you seek information about low-tech societies (the past) :

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian (farm) life and culture comes from a book I found at a second-hand book store in Olympia in the mid-to-late-1980s. Lost Country Life by Dorothy Hartley is still available as a second-hand book and can be found on Amazon. This textbook was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who personally knew the people she wrote about.

I also find a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  Under the heading  Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830), you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters, artists living in what is now The Netherlands.

These painters created accurate records of ordinary people going about everyday life. Their genre art depicts how they dressed, and what was important to them.

Talk to police, talk to doctors, talk to lawyers–many are willing to help you with your quest for accuracy about their professions. Also, you can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there.

Looking things up on the internet can suck up an enormous amount of your writing time. Do yourself a favor and bookmark your resources so all you have to do is click on a link to get the information you want. Then you can quickly get back to writing.

Resources to bookmark in general:

www.Thesaurus.Com (What’s another word that means the same as this but isn’t repetitive?)

Oxford Dictionary (What does this word mean? Am I using it correctly?)

Wikipedia (The font of all knowledge. I did not know that.)

TED Talks are a fantastic resource for information on current and cutting edge technology.

ZDNet Innovation is an excellent source of current tech and future tech that may become current in 25 years.

Tech Times is also a great source of ideas.

Nerds on Earth has useful information about swords and how they were used historically.

If you want to know what interests the people in the many different layers of our society, go to the magazine rack at your grocery store or the local Big Name Bookstore, and look at the many publications available to the reading public. You can find everything from mushroom hunting, to culinary, to survivalist, to organic gardening. If people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

We can only extrapolate how societies will look in the future by taking what we know is possible today and mixing it with a heavy dose of what we wish were possible.

SpaceX

NASA

Digital Trends

If you write sci-fi, you must read sci-fi as that is where the ideas are. Much of what was considered highly futuristic in the era of classic science fiction is today’s current tech.

Ion drive, space stations—these are our reality but were only a dream when science fiction was in its infancy.

Think about it: your Star Trek communicator is never far from your side, and your teenagers won’t put theirs down long enough to eat dinner.

MAPS: If you are writing a story set in our real world and your characters will be traveling, walking a particular city, or visiting landmarks, bookmark google maps for that area and refer back to it regularly to make sure you are writing it correctly.

USE GOOGLE EARTH!

If you are writing about a fantasy world and your characters will be traveling, quickly sketch a rough map. Refer back to it to ensure the town names and places remain the same from the first page to the last. Update it as new locations are added.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the many bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing. And for the love of Agatha Christie, make sure your literary murders are done in a way that doesn’t fly in the face of logic.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Jan Steen, Dutch (active Leiden, Haarlem, and The Hague) – Rhetoricians at a Window – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Jan_Steen,_Dutch_(active_Leiden,_Haarlem,_and_The_Hague)_-_Rhetoricians_at_a_Window_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=355150081 (accessed September 10, 2020).

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Chapter Length #amwriting

I was recently asked in an online group what length a chapter should be. I’ve discussed this before here, but I’m always happy to repeat myself. In my opinion, there is no hard and fast rule.

When we commit to writing daily, our writing style grows and changes. Fifteen years ago, I wrote long chapters, some over 4,000 words.

However, as time has passed, my writing style has evolved. Chapters have become shorter, averaging between 1,500 to 2,250. Some will be much shorter, for reasons I will go into further on down this article. Some might be longer if the story demands it.

However, it’s a good idea to consider comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length, a personal choice.

I’ve read and enjoyed many books where the authors made each scene a chapter, even if it was only two or three hundred words long. They ended up with over 100 chapters in their books, but the chapter-length went unnoticed by me when I read it.

L.E. Modesitt Jr. sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each point-of-view character’s storyline separate and flows well.

For me as a reader, books work best when each chapter details the events of one large scene or several related events.

Chapters are like paragraphs. Packing too many unrelated ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected. In the end, you must decide what your style is going to be.

The key to a smooth, seamless narrative is how an author handles transitions.

This could be a conversation that moves the story forward to the next scene within a chapter.

Conversely, the transition conversation could end a chapter by offering a tidbit of information that compels the reader to turn the page—the hook.

Information is crucial but should be given only as the reader requires it.

A good conversation is about something one or more characters don’t know. It builds toward something they’re only beginning to understand. A conversation is an opportunity to close a scene or chapter with a hook.

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. Each should reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown. If a scene is there to fluff the word count, I suggest removing it.

Fade-to-black: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black in the middle of a chapter makes the story feel mushy.

Hard scene breaks: When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to use the old 1-2-3:

  1. Wind it up with a firm finish
  2. Leave the reader with a hook that makes them want to turn the page
  3. Start a new chapter.

Short stories are different. If you are writing a short story, dividing it into chapters isn’t an option. At the end of a scene, you may find that a hard break is required. Editors with open calls for short stories will often ask that you insert an asterisk or hashtag to indicate a hard scene break.

Pacing is deeply intertwined with chapter length. Most readers find it easier to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the narrative.

Some editors suggest you change chapters, no matter how short, when you switch to a different character’s point of view. That is my choice also, as a hard transition between characters is the best way to avoid head-hopping.

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult.

Sometimes an event occurs where more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown. How you navigate this will significantly affect the readability of the narrative.

If you switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you either change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs, or consider ending the chapter.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the complaints some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is how he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was.

Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime storylines.

I’m a dedicated Wheel of Time fan, but I was halfway through reading the series when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do. At that point, I kept reading because the world, the characters, and the events were so intriguing.

As very few of us are writers at Robert Jordan’s level, I suggest you concentrate on developing a single compelling, well-rounded main character, with the side characters well-developed but not upstaging the star.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers or give each chapter a name? The authors I am acquainted with seem divided by this question.

What is your gut feeling for how you want to construct this book or series? If good titles pop up in your mind for each chapter, by all means, go for it. Otherwise, numbered chapters are perfectly fine and don’t throw the reader out of the book.

Whether you choose numbered or titled chapter headings, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

Limit point of view characters to one per scene.

Each chapter should detail scenes and events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated happenings.

In regard to chapter length, you as the author must decide what the right word count is.

End your chapters at a logical place, but do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

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#AudiobookReview: The Hope Store by @DwightOkita #amreading

Today I am reviewing an audiobook version of a book I read in the digital form several years ago, The Hope Store by poet and playwright, Dwight Okita.

His debut novel, The Prospect of My Arrival,  was one of the more absorbing sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. So, I was quite intrigued when he first published the The Hope Store.

And how amazing it was to discover that Dwight Okita himself has narrated the audiobook! Okita’s narration of  The Hope Store is perfect, as is the music he has chosen for each chapter break, bringing this wonderful book to life. Wow, where to begin… I was up all night listening to this book.

But, as always, my reviews begin with THE BLURB:
Two Asian American men who are lovers, Luke and Kazu, discover a bold new procedure to import hope into the hopeless. They vow to open the world’s first Hope Store. Their slogan: “We don’t just instill hope. We install it.”

The media descend. Customer Jada Upshaw arrives at the store with a hidden agenda, but what happens next, no one could have predicted. Meanwhile, an activist group called The Natural Hopers emerges, warning that hope installations are a risky, Frankenstein-like procedure and vow to shut down the store. Luke comes to care about Jada, and marvels at her super-responder status.

But in dreams begin responsibilities, and unimaginable nightmares follow. If science can’t save Jada, can she save herself – or will she wind up as collateral damage?

MY REVIEW:

I love Okita’s cerebral yet poetic prose. The narrative feels gentle and approachable, even when depicting the harsher realities of his world, and Okita’s voice is perfect for the tone of the book.

Set in a Chicago of the future, the story opens with Jada Upshaw, a memorable, multidimensional character. A well-educated woman, Jada is, at the outset, intent on killing herself. Her despair and confused emotional state are laid bare, shown with the delicacy and respect Okita brings to all his characters.

Luke Nagano describes himself as “a boy with a big heart but no idea where to put it.” This holds true throughout the entire novel, as Luke himself is the embodiment of hope. Of Japanese descent, Luke is a native of Chicago and is deeply rooted in Midwestern American culture. He is deeply in love with Kazu Mori, a rock-star scientist from Tsukuba, Japan. Luke’s thoroughly American blundering through life causes him to make occasional missteps, inadvertent cross-cultural clashes, which create tension. Kazu is forgiving but is wholly dedicated to his work. Their love/work relationship drives the plot, also creating tension.

The relationships and thoughts of both Jada and Luke are shown throughout the narrative. However, they still have secrets from the reader, keeping me turning the pages.

Okita shows the actual science behind the Hope installation with masterful strokes. Instead of devolving into a drawn-out explanation, he offers just enough information about the key elements, a framework for the reader to hang their imagination on.

Beyond the great characters and the futuristic setting is the deeper story.

Belief and disbelief, hope and the lack of it, the desire for it, and the lengths we will go to acquire it is what drives this tale. Intrigues, private agendas, and in some cases, desperation drive the story to a satisfying, logical, yet surprising finish.

I highly recommend the audio version of The Hope Store, as much as do the kindle and paper book. I found it cerebral, sexy, and thought-provoking, as all Okita’s work is. His narration takes this novel to a new level. If you are looking for a good winter’s read or an audiobook to take your mind off the end-of-the-year doldrums, this is one I can recommend with no reservations.

Definitely five stars.

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Winding up 2020: Random Thoughts on the Industry #amwriting

2020 has been a horror show in many ways. If I had written a novel based on a sketchy, random plot like this year gave us, no one would read it.

My review of 2020 is one star. The pacing was completely off. Just about the time I would begin to enjoy the year, some element of random weirdness was inserted just for shock-value. Overall, 2020 lacked believability. I found it difficult to sympathize with the main characters, possibly because they portrayed themselves as such outrageous caricatures.

All that aside, it’s been a good reading year for me. Being in lockdown for much of it has meant I had a lot of free time to devote to expanding my digital library.

I always review the books I enjoyed. I have mentioned before that for every book I feel good about recommending, I may have to read six that are just plain awful. I’m not only talking Indies here—large publishing houses publish many novels every year that are a waste of paper and digital space.

The problem goes beyond my not caring for the style or voice of the piece. Lack of proofreading and garbled sentences are problems in some. Two weeks ago, I read a traditionally published book where the editor didn’t catch a confusion between the words affect and effect, which meant the sentences the word affect was used in made no sense, “affectively speaking.”

Maybe a casual reader wouldn’t be bothered by that, but it jarred me out of the story.

I suggest looking at the first pages of a book by using the “look inside” option at Amazon and the other large online booksellers. The opening pages often show how awful or great a novel will be, so use that tool and don’t buy a book that you haven’t had a look at first.

Rushing to publish a poorly edited book isn’t limited to Indies. It happens all the time with traditionally published books, especially when the first novel in a series has had good success.

Some big publishers set impossible deadlines for the next book and race to launch what they hope will be a follow-up bestseller. However, because the authors were pushed to cough up a book prematurely, the resulting novels sometimes fail to live up to the hype.

The current state of traditionally published books is proof that the system is flawed. This last year, I read several books written by bestselling authors and published by the large publishing houses. These were novels I had anticipated and looked forward to enjoying but didn’t.

By the time I was halfway through them, it was clear the manuscripts were given a quick once over and pushed out the door, in a hurry to hit a hot market.

We have to consider our readers, who deserve the best you can give them. If you are just beginning in this craft, I have some suggestions, things I wish I had known thirty years ago.

Learn the mechanics of how to write in your native language. Grammar and punctuation are the traffic signals that keep your sentences and paragraphs from becoming traffic jams. This is a foundational skill every author must have, no matter what genre you write in.

Join a writing group and meet other authors, either in your local area or online. We grow and learn by talking to others in the industry.

Develop a thick hide. You must find an unbiased eye among your trusted acquaintances to read your work as you are writing it so you can make changes more effectively at an early stage. This way, you won’t be overwhelmed at the prospect of rewriting an entire manuscript from scratch.

Lose your ego. Your ego gets in the way of your writing.  Are you writing for yourself or for others to read and enjoy your work? There are hidden aspects to every great book, and they are all centered around knowledge of the craft.

An external eye is essential to the production of a good book. Find a good, professional editor.

  • Always check the references of anyone you engage for professional services.
  • When you do engage their services, do not take their observations personally—editorial comments are intended only to make a manuscript readable.
  • This editor must be someone you can work closely with, who makes suggestions and is patient.
  • If you disagree with a suggestion, discuss it with the editor and find out why they don’t understand what you intended to convey. Sometimes all you need to do is rephrase an idea.

If you have a symbiotic relationship with a knowledgeable editor, you will turn out a professional-looking manuscript.

Don’t give up your day job. Very few traditionally published authors receive hefty advances. Even well-known authors struggle to make ends meet.

To write well, you must read widely, no matter what your favorite genre is. You may have to read a few books you wish you hadn’t on your way to finding the book that sweeps you away.

Over the years, I have read many brilliant books by talented authors in all genres. These authors were writing on both the indie and traditional sides of the industry.

For me, finding the gems in the library makes wading through the lemons worthwhile. I especially love it when an indie book hits all the right chords.


Credits and Attributions:

IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis (Self-photographed) [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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Christmas at the Drunken Sasquatch #merrychristmas

Today’s offering is a short story that was written and first posted here in 2016, Christmas at the Drunken Sasquatch. It features one of my favorite characters, Dan Dragonsworthy, a man who has taken on a life of his own and who found romance in my short story, the Elevator Pitch. (Available at Amazon for $ .99).

So now, live from the Other Side of Seattle, I bring you everyone’s favorite were-dragon and Christmas at the Drunken Sasquatch. As always, no vampires were harmed in the making of this tale.


Vampires have a sick sense of humor, especially Alfredo, although he pretends to be cultured. Just over a year ago he got me banned from the Drunken Sasquatch, by switching my orange juice for an orange soda… that dirty trick was more than embarrassing. Covering the cost of the damages to the scorched floor, replacing the furniture, and buying Sylvia Wannamaker a new coat ate into my hoard quite heavily.

Worst of all, I was banned from participating in November’s pool tournament.

However, I’m a were-dragon. We like our revenge served up cold and well calculated.

The anniversary of my disgrace has passed, which would have been the obvious day for me to seek retribution. Most people have forgotten the whole incident.

But not me.

I know I look like any other old has-been reporter. I’m still hanging in there, digging up the political dirt in Seattle with the best of them, and I know I tend to go on and on about the glory days. While that observation isn’t real flattering, it’s true. I drink more orange juice than is good for either of my livers, and I hang out here at the Drunken Sasquatch because I have nowhere else to go.

I don’t discuss it for obvious reasons, but during my years in the Middle East, Dan Dragonsworthy was far more than just a flying battle wagon. I spent a lot of time on covert missions, and one thing I learned was how to be patient, and how to spot the chinks in your opponent’s armor.

I’ve been watching Alfredo since New Year’s Eve when Bloody Bill finally lifted my punishment and allowed me back. I don’t intend to harm the old blood-sucker, but I’m going to give him a taste of his own medicine. I’m a reporter—I know for a fact there are substances vampires shouldn’t ingest, and Alfredo may have forgotten that.

A vampire tripping on chocolate is bad for everyone. I’d never do that, especially to Alfredo. Fortunately, they don’t like the flavor of it.

However, they do have a passion for maraschino cherries, which can cause problems for the weaker willed vampire since those fruity morsels of goodness are frequently found wrapped in dark chocolate.

With one exception, the smart ones don’t succumb to temptation inside the Drunken Sasquatch, because Bloody Bill won’t tolerate that sort of behavior.

Most importantly for my purposes, vampires can’t tolerate coffee. On tiny amounts, they tend to pee themselves copiously, which the rest of us find hilarious. Vampires get quite huffy when their vampiric dignity is besmirched.

As if MY dignity meant nothing to me.

When you want to impress Alfredo, you buy him a jar of the special maraschino cherries from Italy, made with the best cherry liqueur. He can smell maraschino liqueur from anywhere in the room and, being a vampire, he lacks a conscience.

No maraschino is safe from Alfredo.

The annual Christmas party and the gift exchange drives him mad. Every witch, wizard, or elf has a recipe for that most wonderful of traditional holiday treats, maraschino chocolate cordials. These kind friends are always generous with their gifts to those of us who lack their magical culinary skills.

It’s more than his old vampire heart can stand, and despite having received his own jars of cherries sans-chocolate, he takes incredible risks.

I’ll give Alfredo credit—he’s good. I’ve watched him sneak up behind Grandma and suck the cherries out of a box of cordials without getting his fangs dirty. She suspected it was him, but could never prove it. Fangs do leave holes, but it could have been any vampire.

It takes a brave (or desperate) vampire to mess with Grandma. I’d tell you to ask the Big Bad Wolf, but you can’t.

She’s wearing him.

So, anyway, last week, Grandma and I had a chat. I got on the internet and ordered the finest ingredients. They were delivered the day before yesterday, and she immediately got busy in the kitchen.

This year, one unattended box of cordials under the tree at the Drunken Sasquatch will have cherries in liqueur with unique centers. This particular batch will be vampire safe—no chance of accidental hallucinations here. Grandma created white-chocolate shells filled with Cherry brandy, with a maraschino cherry floating in the middle.

However, each cherry will be filled with a special coffee liqueur .

It will be a joy to watch Alfredo try to deny his culpability in this year’s draining of the maraschinos as the evidence spreads around his feet.

I hope vampire pee isn’t too acidic, although I’ve heard the stench is an excellent Zombie repellent, and no matter how you scrub, it’s impossible to get rid of the odor. Sylvia Wannamaker swears by it in a diluted form as a slug repellent in the garden, as using it there will turn your hydrangeas the brightest blue. They don’t make good cut flowers though, as they smell too bad to keep in the house.

I’m sure a pool of vampire urine won’t be as dangerous for the innocent bystanders as when he caused me to inadvertently belch fire in close quarters.

Come the day after this year’s Christmas party at the Drunken Sasquatch (even though his cash outlay won’t come near matching the damages I had to pay when he slipped me the Mickey) at least Alfredo will be out the cost of a new pair of boots.

And if he can’t find a good dry cleaner, he’ll be out the cost of replacing that gaudy, lace-trimmed, purple velvet suit he thinks is so stylish.

Grandma and I are both looking forward to this year’s party. Christmas could just become my favorite holiday.


Credits and Attributions:

Christmas at the Drunken Sasquatch, © 2016-2020 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved. Originally published 02 December 2016, on  Life in the Realm of Fantasy, and reprised on 26 December 2018.

For more of Dan’s adventures, The Elevator Pitch is Available at Amazon for $ .99.

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The Author’s Website #amwriting

One of the comments authors make most often when explaining why they don’t keep their blogs updated is that they don’t know what to write about.

Oh, the irony!

I know a great many authors who think their lives are uninteresting. They can be found chugging out tweets or Instagram posts, but a short update on their website is a wall they fear to climb.

If you want people to find your books, you must make your author name searchable. Your website is your storefront and is what comes up when fans Google you. Updating it regularly with short posts keeps it interesting.

Most authors use Facebook as a medium for connecting with readers. Any Tweet, Instagram post, or Facebook post could easily be turned into a short blog post.

If you fall into that category, a bi-monthly update on your works in progress and where you will be signing books is a good option and will keep your fans engaged. Think of it as a long tweet or Facebook post, and you’ll have three to five paragraphs written in no time.

Many of my friends use their blogs as an opportunity to quickly dash off a flash-fiction, a drabble, or a haiku. For me, writing a post keeps the creative juices flowing when I’m having a lull in other areas.

Since writing craft is my obsession, I have no trouble talking about that subject for 1000 or so words at a time.

However, I sometimes write about the challenges life hands us. I have written about how having two adult children who developed adult-onset epilepsy affects our family.

I also talk about how being vegan adds adventure to traveling. I love to talk about conferences and conventions I might have attended, and these days, virtual conferences are happening all over the internet. Sharing what I glean from writers’ conferences has generated many good discussions here.

Hilarious career advice from my grandchildren has provided fodder for some of my favorite posts.

However, I get most of my inspiration from conversations in the writing groups I visit on Facebook. Questions that arise, and how they relate to my own works-in-progress usually make good topics for a post.

I normally write for this website on Sundays, and I write the entire week’s posts that day. Sometimes, I don’t get them all written on that day, but I NEVER write and publish a post without setting it aside for a while first. This is so I can proofread my work with fresh eyes before it’s published.

If you only update once a week or twice a month, it won’t take an hour to put together a post if you write in a word document, spell check it, and paste it into the body. This allows you to make better corrections than if it’s keyed into the WordPress Editor.

We all know that proofreading our own work is dicey at best, but I do make the effort. I spell-check and self-edit my posts as well as possible using ProWriting Aid. I also have my word processor’s Read-Aloud function read the article back to me. And still, I miss a few bloopers.

Spelling is important, and some things are hard to spot, so I’m always on the lookout for words that sound the same but are spelled differently. (There, their, they’re.) (Too, to, two.) Sometimes the algorithms in the editing software miss them.

When blogging, our grammar doesn’t have to be perfect, but we don’t want to publish a mess.  Our website is the face we present to the internet. People meet us here and see what kind of work we do.

Sometimes research is involved, and I need to quote other websites. If that’s the case, I make footnotes at the bottom of my composition document as I go.

Footnotes or attributions should note the original publication that you quoted from, who wrote it, their copyright, and the date you accessed it. Wikipedia makes it easy with their “cite this page” option.

Wikipedia contributors, “Gallows humor,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gallows_humor&oldid=759474185 (accessed January 30, 2017).

To use images or quotes found on the web, only publish those you have the legal right to use. To find out more on that subject, see my article of January 8, 2020, Using Pictures and Quotes.

After my post is written in a document, I open WordPress or Blogger (if I am working on one of my other sites). This is a WordPress site. When I go to make a post, I follow these steps:

  1. Open the My Sites menu in the upper left-hand corner
  2. Scroll down to click on WP Admin, and
  3. Click on Posts, and then
  4. Click on All Posts.
  5. When the dashboard comes up, I click on the dropdown menu beside Add New and choose Classic Editor. I despise their new block editor system, as I find it useless. I use a lot of images, and in that dashboard you can’t insert attributions in an image.

I put together a composite of screenshots detailing these steps for you:

Before I do anything else, I give my post a title and schedule the publication date. Prescheduling allows me to post a new article three times a week at 06:00 am my time (on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday), which is 09:00 US Eastern time. It updates without my having to babysit it.

I do have to be observant when I schedule my posts. Occasionally, I accidentally hit the “publish immediately” button, which means I end up with an extra post that week, whether I meant to or not.

Don’t forget to select the categories and tags. Those labels are how people find the articles they are interested in.

Make use of the preview function and read your post. It looks different there than it does in a word doc, so you will find many things you want to change and can make any adjustments needed before the blog is actually posted.

If you’re an author, you need a place where you can show off your books, discuss what books you are reading, or just talk about life in general.

Updating your blog once or twice a month ensures that your author name is searchable. After all, your website is where people will go if they want to find your books. They are your guests, so make it interesting for them.

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Dissecting the Scene: plot points #amwriting

Scenes are the Legos, the building blocks of the story. We all loved building things with our Legos, but readers are impatient. For that reason, no scene can be wasted, written just to entertain us, the writer. All of those scenes are background and world building, and should be saved in a separate file.

We want to ensure that each scene has a function. When I am writing the first or even the second draft, I can find myself at a loss as to what needs to happen next to advance the story.

I keep a list of plot points that could be explored and try to nudge my plot forward by exploring one of these actions:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Reunion
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Deep emotions

Exploring each of these plot points alters the characters’ view of their world. Every change in a character’s awareness directly impacts the direction of the story and doles out information the reader and/or the characters require to advance.

I like to use a watershed scene from the book, the Fellowship of the Ring, as an example of this. If you have only seen the movie, the version you know is quite different. You haven’t seen the real story as J.R.R. himself told it.

So, toward the end of book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series, we come to The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each character attending the Council has arrived there on a separate errand. Each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their various agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the ring of power. Each wants to protect their people from Sauron’s depredations if he were to regain possession of it.

This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond conveys information to both the protagonists and the reader.

It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy necessary information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have critical knowledge.

The fact that some characters are working with limited information is what creates the tension. At the Council of Elrond, many things are discussed, and the full story of the One Ring is explained, with each character offering a new piece of the puzzle. The reader and the characters receive the information at the same time at this point in the novel.

Inter-racial bigotry and confrontation: A well-placed verbal confrontation gives the reader the context they need to understand why the action occurs.

At the Council of Elrond, long-simmering racial tensions between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf surface. Each is possessed of a confrontational nature, and it isn’t clear whether they will be able to work together or not.

Thus, we have action/confrontation in this vignette, followed by conversation, followed by the characters’ reactions.

The conversation and reaction give the scene context, which is critical. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context.

Other conflicts are explored, and heated exchanges occur between Aragorn and Boromir.

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated.

First, Tom Bombadil is mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see Sauron as a problem.

Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another.

Each justification Gandalf and Elrond offer for why these characters are wrong for the job deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

Turning Point: After much discussion, many revelations, and bitter arguments, Frodo declares that he will go to Mordor and dispose of the ring, giving up his chance to live his remaining life in the comfort and safety of Rivendell. Sam emerges from his hiding place and demands to be allowed to accompany Frodo. This moment is the turning point of the story.

(The movie portrays this scene differently, with Pip and Merry hiding in the shadows. Also, in the book, the decision about who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to one day.)

The arc of the story is supported by smaller arcs. These arcs of conflict and reflection are scenes.

The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it started, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions; the scene ends, and with it, so does that chapter.

Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. This rhythm of action – reaction – action – reaction is how we adjust the pacing. Pacing is how we affect the reader’s emotions.

With each scene, we push the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist is shaped by experiencing events and receiving needed information through action and conversation.

All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel.

By creating small arcs, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel at the same time as the protagonist does. This is how we give the reader a sense of immediacy.


Credits and Attributions:

Facade of the Cathedral of Milan, Italy, in February 2009, after its cleaning.  MarkusMark, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

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Finish the job #amwriting

This year’s NaNoWriMo saw a large increase in the number of writers who managed to cross the 50,000-word line. This is probably due to the pandemic—we’re all locked up at home with nothing else to do. People who have been dabbling in writing for several years at last committed to the challenge. After all, why not write that space opera or elvish romance that has been rolling around in the back of their mind? It’s not like they had anywhere to go.

In our region, we had 235 participants sign up. Of those, 27 didn’t understand how to use the website, so their data didn’t get counted. Of the 208 participants who did manage to sign up correctly, 33 created their profiles but chose not to participate.

On November 1, 175 writers began updating their word count. To me, the most interesting statistics are found in the lower word counts, the places where people stopped writing.

# of Writers:     Ending Word Count:

15 between 10,000 and 14,999
17 between 5,000 and 9,999
12 between 2,500 and 4,999
19 Between 1,000 and 2,499
11 Between 1 and 999

 

One statistic I won’t see (but would love to) is how many of this year’s NaNo novels, winner or not, actually get finished. And of those that are completed, how many will be published? Far fewer authors publish than I would wish.

Many people in my region admit that they quit writing the day after NaNoWriMo ended, even those with their books nearly complete. I suspect that if that is true in my pocket of the universe, it is true everywhere.

Will they rediscover their passion and continue on? I hope so, but odds are, they won’t.

235 people in our region signed up. 33 people created projects but didn’t participate. 175 participants signed up correctly and updated their wordcount at least once. Out of those participants, 74 logged in and updated their word count daily, and wrote 50,000 or more words.

The reality sets in within the first week. A strange, coincidental statistic is this: We had 74 winners, but we also had 74 writers in our region who never got more than 15,000 words written.

This is an example of what I think of  as “First Line Syndrome.” Sometimes, the first lines are all an author has.

I have a dear friend who began writing a novel they are exceedingly passionate about several years ago. But the first lines, introducing the characters, and the first few chapters are all that has ever been written.

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

Truthfully, I fear that talk about this novel is all that will ever materialize. A writer must dedicate a short amount of time each day to writing, or their book will never be completed. An hour, thirty minutes–all it takes is a little pocket of time that is only for writing.

Why do prospective books languish unwritten?

These writers are passionate about the idea of writing, but not the real work of it. They aren’t obsessive enough about their vision to ignore the drama that keeps them too busy to write.

Once in a great while, when they’re bored and can’t find a book they want to read, they will open that old file and read what they wrote. They will talk about how they’re going to sit down and finish it someday.

But that won’t happen unless they become obsessed, sit their backside in front of the keyboard, and do it.

We all have drama in our lives. For me, writing keeps the drama at arm’s length, makes it manageable. Things crop up, health issues, family emergencies, needs that I can help fill. I wrote much of Forbidden Road and The Wayward Son while sitting in various hospitals. As my son recovered from a variety of life-threatening injuries incurred because of his seizure disorder, my laptop and my work kept me grounded when everything else was out of control.

I wrote a novel during the year I had my mother living with me. She was dying, and we knew it, but we made daily trips to Olympia for chemo, a fifty mile round trip every day. Still, she was failing and we knew it.

When it became clear that nothing was working, we acquired all the things that come with hospice, turning our home into a place where we could care for her more easily. Oxygen tanks, hospital bed, you name it, we had it as part of our décor. A nurse came for an hour every day to help me with bathing Mama and to see that she wasn’t suffering any pain, but I was the primary care giver.

During that time, I also worked part-time as a bookkeeper for a landscape company, dealt with health problems of my own, and had a daughter and son with health issues.

Mama passed away in 2009, but other challenges have arisen to fill that vacuum. Life still affects us.

Writing keeps me sane. Other people discover that writing is too stressful, but reading keeps them sane.

Participating in NaNoWriMo encourages discipline. When you must write 1,667 new words every day, you force yourself to write the entire book before you begin editing.

Once you have the novel’s arc written from beginning to end, you won’t be left wondering where to go next, writing and rewriting the same first chapter.

You can’t edit a book that hasn’t been written, but you can rewrite the same opening lines over and over, until they mean nothing to you.

I encourage writers to read for pleasure. How else will you learn the tricks, the many ways professional authors begin and complete their work?

If you want to write a novel, you must read what is already published in your genre. There is no other way to understand what readers of that kind of book expect and want to see.

But, to become an educated reader/author, you should look outside your favorite genre. You will find books that surprise you, challenge your biased perceptions. Even if you don’t like the book, something will stick with you.

War and Peace, ninth draft, Leo Tolstoy 1864

Published authors, whether Indie or traditionally published, have finished their work.

Maybe they didn’t do as great a job as some people think they could have done, but they did finish writing the book.

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

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

If writing isn’t your obsession, keep reading. Don’t stop searching for the one book to end all books.

And it is here that we come to a fundamental truth, one for which I am profoundly grateful.

Without readers, there would be no need for authors.


Credits and Attributions:

Image: Power of Words by Antonio Litterio |Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Power of Words by Antonio Litterio.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Power_of_Words_by_Antonio_Litterio.jpg&oldid=503150259 (accessed December 12, 2020).

Лев Николаевич Толстой, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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