Tag Archives: writing

5 things I’ve learned #amwriting

I’ve been writing for all of my adult life, but for most of it, not professionally. For the majority of my writing life, I was new, untutored in the craft, writing words that shouldn’t have been shown to anyone. I didn’t have the information I needed to make my work readable and didn’t know how to get it.

I felt embarrassed for even thinking that I could be an author.

One day in 1990, I stumbled upon a book that was offered in the Science Fiction Book Club catalog: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card. The day that book arrived in my mailbox changed my life. It was possible for me to become a writer, and one of my favorite authors was going to tell me how to do it.

In the years since that book, I have amassed a library of books on the craft. Some are brilliant, some not so much, but I always learn something from them. However, personal experience is a great teacher, and I’ve learned many things by trial and error.

So here in no particular order are five things I would like to pass on to you:

Make a style-sheet as you go, a glossary of words and spellings unique to your story, and be sure to list names especially. I use an Excel spreadsheet, but use anything you like, and that will help you stay consistent in your spellings.

Develop a good system for naming your files and save regularly. Save each version of your manuscript with a different name so you can go back and retrieve bits you may need later. I use a system like this:

Heavens_Altar_V5.docx

That stands for Heaven’s Altar version five, and I work out of Word, so the extension is automatically a docx.

Find a local group of writers to meet with and talk about the craft. Critique groups are great, but they are only one small part of the picture. Authors need to network with other authors because we need to discuss the craft with someone who doesn’t look at you with glazed eyes. I gained my extended author network for by joining The Pacific Northwest Writers Association and going to their conferences. This is how we educate ourselves. I also gained a local support group through attending Write Ins for NaNoWriMo.

Don’t even consider signing with any slick-talking publisher that contacts you out of the blue, saying they want your work if you haven’t submitted your work to them. How can they possibly want work they haven’t seen?

Make use of SFWA’s Writer Beware site. These predators want your work all right—and want to sell you publishing services you can do for yourself. You won’t benefit from the publisher’s “services,” but they will benefit from your desperation to be published. They will publish your work unedited, and your payment is the glory of having it published, as you will never see any royalties. They will expect you to market their product and offer you all manner of for-payment services that are dubious at best. Worst of all, you will have signed away the rights to your work for nothing.

Even though you are writing that novel, write short stories. Short stories are a training ground, a way to hone your developing skills. They’re also the best way to get your name out there. My advice is to build a backlog of work in lengths from 2000 to 5000 words ready to submit to magazines, anthologies, and contests. All those fabulous scenes and vignettes that roll though your head can be made into short pieces. Get the Submittable App and see who is asking for what sort of work, and start submitting.

These are five things that I wish I had known in 2010 but didn’t.

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The Functions of the Scene revisited #amwriting

We are at mid-month for NaNoWriMo, and I am not writing my novel. Instead, I am trying to write short stories, but my mind won’t cooperate. I keep waking up with new scenes filling my head, scenes that demand to be written for all my works in progress.

Scenes are what I want to talk about today, but I just discovered that I wrote a perfectly good post on them last year and can’t think of anything to add to it. So, we may as well revisit last year’s post on The Functions of the Scene. I hope you find it useful as your writing journey continues.

Keep writing, update your word count every day if you are participating in NaNoWriMo, and happy writing to you, whether you participate in that merry month of madness or not!


A great story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, and is made of scenes. We have action, emotion, ups and downs, a plot all sewn together by the thread that is the theme. But the entire structure of the novel is built scene-by-scene, connected by transitions.

Scenes may consist of conversations, or they may be action sequences, but put them together in the right order, link them with a plot featuring a good protagonist and a worthy antagonist, they combine to form a story.

I perceive the scene as a small area of focus within a larger story with an arc of its own, small arcs holding up a larger arc: the chapter. So, scenes are the building blocks of the story. Strong scenes make for a memorable novel, and we all strive to make each scene as important as we can. Therefore, no scene can be wasted. Each scene must have a function, or the story fails to hold the reader’s interest.

Some things a scene can show:

  • Information
  • Confrontation
  • Revelation
  • Negotiation
  • Decision
  • Capitulation
  • Catalyst
  • Contemplation/Reflection
  • Turning Point
  • Resolution
  • Myriad deep emotions

Make one or more of these functions the core of the scene, and you will have a compelling story.

Let’s examine a watershed scene that occurs in the Fellowship of the Ring, book one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Ring series: The Council of Elrond. The scene is set in Rivendell, Elrond’s remote mountain citadel.

Each of those characters attending the Council has arrived there on separate errands, and each has different hopes for what will ultimately come from the meeting. Despite their different agendas, each is ultimately concerned with the Ring and protecting the people of Middle-earth from the depredations of Sauron, if he were to regain possession of it. This scene serves several functions:

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying 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 needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the 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.

Confrontation: Action/confrontation, conversation, reaction. A scene that is all action can be confusing if it has no context. A properly placed confrontational conversation (an argument/dispute) gives the reader the context needed to understand the reason for the action.

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.

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. Tom Bombadil is at first 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 the conflict with 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 reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond 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 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 as to who will accompany Frodo, other than Sam, is not made for several days, while the movie shortens it to the one day.)

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by 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 began, 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. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

That is true of every aspect of a scene—it must reveal something and push the story forward toward something.

With each scene we are also pushing the character arc, raising the stakes a little. Our protagonist grows and is shaped by receiving needed information through action and conversation, followed by reaction and regrouping. This allows the reader to experience the story as the protagonist does, and then to reflect and absorb the information gained before moving on to the next scene.

All the arcs together form a cathedral-like structure: the novel. By creating small arcs in the form of scenes, we offer the reader the chance to experience the rise and fall of tension, the life-breath of the novel.


Credits and Attributions:

The Functions of the Scene, ©2017 by Connie J. Jasperson, first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy on November 22, 2017.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Reissue edition (February 15, 2012) Fair Use.

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About Dialogue #amwriting #nanowrimo

We who write must be able to visualize and describe conversations. We must do it in such a way that the reader forgets they’re reading a book and becomes engrossed in the discussion.

However, we don’t want to be completely accurate. How many people have mannerisms that impede their speech, uhhhhmming and aaahhhhing their way through each thought? And yet others may have a lisp or stutter that makes you have to listen more closely to them. These are normal parts of our lives but are things we don’t include in our written descriptions of conversations.

So how do we get the conversation down so the reader will enjoy it?

First of all, there are certain fundamental rules of the road that readers will expect authors to be educated in. When authors don’t obey these rules, readers put the book down, unfinished. The rules are clearly listed in the Chicago Manual of Style but can also be found in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner. These are two books authors should own and refer back to whenever they have questions about grammar.

On a side note, I was lurking in a writers’ forum when a new member boldly commented, “Why are you so concerned about this? Who the hell cares about grammar? We write what we want and to hell with rules.”

Wisely, I stayed out of that poo-storm. It is good for us to remember that “grammar-nazis” are not the only people who care about sentence construction and the mechanics of good writing.

Readers care. Words have intersections, and punctuation acts as a traffic signal, preventing jam-ups and wrecks. Authors who care take the time to learn a few basic rules, things that signal stop, go, slow down, and “someone is talking.”

Much of what follows has been written here before. So, if you have already seen this, thank you for stopping by!

Here are the rules of how to write readable dialogue:

  1. Always begin what is actually spoken (dialogue) with a capitalized word, no matter where in the sentence it begins.
  • Gemma glanced over her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you.” 

However, interrupted dialogue, when it resumes, is not capped, although the rules of punctuation and quotation marks still apply.

  • “I’m sorry to tell you,” said Gemma, “but I can’t go with you.”
  1. Direct dialogue is someone speaking to you or someone else and requires quotation marks.
  • “I’m sorry. I can’t go with you,” said Gemma.

I’m a US author, so I used double quotes, also called closed quotes. The UK usage is different and often uses apostrophes, or what they call inverted commas.

Regardless of whether you are a UK or US author, be consistent and make sure ALL punctuation goes inside the quote marks.

Yes, I did say All punctuation.

  1. How does one set off a quote from someone else within dialogue?

Set it apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes. You can do this in two ways:

  • Jason said, “When I asked her, Gemma replied ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
  • Jason said, “When I asked, Gemma replied ‘I can’t go.’”

Note that in the second sentence 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): 1 apostrophe and 1 double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

  1. Indirect dialogue is a recapping of dialogue that someone previously spoke.
  • When asked, Jason said Gemma couldn’t go.

Note there are no quotes used in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, the word that is implied between said and Gemma.

Dialogue tags, or attributions (said, replied) can come before the dialogue, especially if you want the dialogue tag to be noticed. To make them less noticeable put them in the middle or at the end of sentences. In my own work, I want the dialogue and not the attribution to stand out. However, when more than two people are involved in a conversation, I move the dialogue tags further to the front, so the reader isn’t left wondering who is speaking.

  1. You can skip using dialogue tags altogether for a back-and-forth or two, but
  • not if there are more than two speakers in the scene, and
  • not for more than a few exchanges.

Readers want to be able to track who is saying what.

Sometimes it’s okay to miss a few beats. Beats are what screen-writers call the little bits of physical action that is inserted into dialogue. Small actions showing the mood of a character are often best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, as they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. They’re an effective tool and are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it.

If your characters are shifting in their chair, gazing into the distance, or opening their laptops between every second line of conversation, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact is diluted or lost entirely.

When we add gestures and actions to the conversation, we want them to be meaningful.  Otherwise, just use a simple dialogue tag, like said, or replied.

Please don’t get rid of attributions entirely because the verbal exchanges become confusing and the action takes over, making the dialogue fade into the background noise of foot shuffling and paper rattling.

I’ve mentioned before that I prefer simple attributions such as said, replied, and answered because they are not as likely to stop the reader’s eye. Some things to consider:

  1. People don’t
  • snort,
  • smirk,
  • smile,
  • or frown dialogue as it is physically impossible.

They can say it with a smile, a frown, a smirk, or a snort, but while facial expressions convey emotion, they do not speak. Simple attributions in combination with lean, descriptive narrative are all you need.

  • “Oh, that looks nice.” Jenny snorted. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in it.”

Sometimes we have two ideas that we think are one, and we connect them with commas. But closer examination shows they are not.

  • “Hello, sir, we bathed your dog,” she said.

The above dialogue contains a run-on sentence, despite its shortness. We may actually speak it in this fashion, words run together, but for a reader, punctuation clarifies ideas.

The dialogue contains two separate ideas. “Hello, sir,” is an acknowledgment and a greeting. “We bathed your dog,” indicates an action was taken regarding his dog. It should be:

  • “Hello, sir. We bathed your dog,” she said.
  • “Hello sir,” she said. “We bathed your dog.”

To wind this up, authors can take some style and voice liberties with dialogue but must use common sense. Adhering to the accepted standard rules of punctuation makes your work readable by anyone who speaks or reads English.


Credits and Attributions:

Portions of this post have previously appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as The Mechanics of Writing Dialogue, posted December 14, 2016

Traffic Light, © Free Clip Art Now https://www.freeclipartnow.com/transportation/traffic-lights/

Researched Source: Section 13.13, Quotations and Punctuation, page 719: The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, University of Chicago Press, © 2017

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Many will begin, few will succeed #amwriting

Every year, many writers begin writing on November 1st, fully intending to get their 1,667 words (or more) written every day, to get their 50,000 words by November 30th. In my region last year, 245 writers created profiles and began an official manuscript at www.nanowrimo.org.

The reality sets in within the first week. Last year 64 writers in our region never got more than 5,000 words written.

Some are young people just out of school who “always wanted to write a book.” They usually don’t have any idea of what they want to write, and no clue of how to be disciplined enough to spend two hours a day writing any words, much less the number of words it takes to make a novel.

They start, get 30 to 1,000 words in, and realize they have nothing to say. But 34 people made it to the 10,000 word mark before they stopped writing. That is almost a novella.

Others do well for a week, or even two, and then, at the 20,000 word mark, they take a day off. Somehow, they never get back to it. Someday, they may actually succeed in finishing that book. Just not this year.

Even seasoned writers may find the commitment to sit and write 1,667 words every day is not doable for them. Things come up—life happens.

But 78 writers out of the 245 in our region made it to the 50,000 word mark, and 5 exceeded 100,000 words.

It takes personal discipline to write 1,667 new words every day. This is not revising old work—this is writing something new, not looking at what you wrote yesterday. This is starting where you left off and moving forward.

For me, having the outline keeps me on track.

I’m not a good typist. The words that fall out of my head during this month are not all golden, just so you know. Some words will be garbled and miskeyed. This means I sometimes have a lot of revising of the work I intend to keep.

Some of what I write will be worth keeping, and some not at all. But even among the weeds, some passages and scenes  will be found that could make a story work. I will keep and use them because they say what I mean to say, and the others I will revise.

One flash fiction that came out of November 2015 fully formed and required little in the way of revisions is The Iron Dragon. The story wanted to be told, and I wrote it in two hours one morning.

Yet another very short story came out of NaNoWriMo 2015, The Cat, the Jeweler, and the Thief. That story remained very much as it began, and also was written in one morning.

I had the prompts and basic ideas of what I intended to write when I sat down. The words fell out of my mind, and the stories told themselves.

For me, as a NaNo Rebel, this is my little vacation from the serious novels that take up most of my time. I don’t accept any editing clients during November or December—my attention is on writing in November and cooking in December.

It’s a matter of getting the ideas down and putting the words on paper. If you don’t get those ideas out of your head and onto paper, you can’t revise and reshape them into something worth reading.

How do we develop the discipline to write every day? This is my list of suggestions for how to have a successful NaNoWriMo, and end November with that winner’s certificate:

  1. Write at least 1,670 words every day (three more than is required) This takes me about 2 hours – I’m not fast at this.
  2. Write every day, no matter if you have an idea worth writing about or not. Do it even if you have to get up at 4:00 am to find the time and don’t let anything derail you.
  3. If you are stuck, write about how your day went and how you are feeling about things that are happening in your life, or write that grocery list. Just write and think about where you want to take your real story. Write about what you would like to have happen in that story. Soon, you will be writing that story.
  4. Check in on the national threads and your regional thread to keep in contact with other writers.
  5. Attend a write-in if your region is having any or join a virtual write-in at NaNoWriMo on Facebook. This will keep you enthused about your project.
  6. Delete nothing. Passages you want to delete later can be highlighted, and the font turned to red or blue, so you can easily separate them out later.
  7. Remember, not every story is a novel. If your story comes to an end, start a new story in the same manuscript. Use a different font or a different color of font, and you can always separate the stories later. That way you won’t lose your word count.
  8. Validate your word count every day.

These suggestions require you to actually sit in a chair and write. Talking about what you intend to write isn’t getting the book written—for that you must sit your backside down and write.

That is what NaNoWriMo is all about. Writing, and developing discipline.

Authors write. Authors have finished manuscripts to show for their efforts, whether they are good or bad.

If you don’t actually have time to write, you may be a dreamer and a story teller, but you aren’t an author – yet.

Set aside the time to write, develop a habit of writing, and don’t let anything get in the way of your writing time. Don’t allow your writing time to be infringed upon, but also, don’t let it eat into your family time. In 1989, as a single parent with one child still at home, I found myself writing on the bus as I rode to work. I hadn’t ever had the thought that someone would want to read my work, but I had one hour of peace and quiet each way in the morning and evening, and so I wrote in a notebook.

Find the least intrusive block of time for you to have to yourself. What would happen if you dedicated two hours an evening to writing your novel instead of watching TV? What if you got up an hour early and wrote before you went to work every day? Make it your rule, your daily habit to use that time to write 1,667 new words a day for the month of November.

That is how you can get your first draft of a novel written in 30 days and still have time for your family.


Credits and Attributions:

Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Notebooks, by L.Marie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lenore-m/2812598573/) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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#NaNoWriMo2018 pre-planning

When I begin penning a story, the working title is usually just a handle, something to carry it by for the time being, and which will be changed when I rewrite it anyway. While the title might not actually exist, the story does, in the form of an idea, a prompt.

So, before I sit down to write anything, I answer a short list of questions about the overall story arc of my intended tale.

I mentioned a few post’s back that I keep a document pinned to my desktop, one that I write down topics and ideas for stories on. This list is crucial, and now, as part of my preparations for next month’s madness, I am taking each idea, and answering eight questions, and making a separate file folder for each story.

I have a master folder in my writing folder that is titled: NaNoWriMo2018. Within that folder are my small files, one for each story I plan to write.

For a novel, you only need two files: your work-in-progress document, and a document to keep all the back story in.

But I am a NaNo Rebel and so for me, at this point, there are fifteen file folders in that file. I will probably only get ten of them written at 4,000 to 10,000 words per story.

I title each story folder with a working-title, such as Mitzi.

The file contains two documents. The first one is blank except for one line, which is the prompt, the  premise of the story. It is labeled MITZIdraft1. That stands for Mitzi first draft. This document will be the manuscript for that story. Any subsequent revisions will be labeled title_draft2, etc.

At 12:01 a.m. in November 1st, I will open this document and begin writing Mitzi’s story. I think her tale will top out at about 4,000 words. Then I will open the next file: Doors. I’ll begin working on that short story, which I expect will top out at 5,000 words.

I doubt I’ll keep the title of Mitzi, but it’s about a dog who “lives” at about six different homes, who answers to six different names, and the people who think they own her.

I got the idea for that story from “Rufus,” the name I gave the cat who sleeps on my back porch all day, but who actually belongs to one of our neighbors. We don’t know his real name, or which neighbor owns him. We never have to feed him, and his vet bills are not an issue for us. We just get to enjoy his orange and white fur, all over our outdoor furniture.

I mentioned there were two documents in each file. The other document is the basic premise of the story, answered in eight questions. Each answer is simply one or two lines telling me what to write.

  1. Who are the players?
  2. Who is the POV character?
  3. Where does the story open?
  4. What does the protagonist have to say about their story?
  5. How did they arrive at the point of no return?
  6. What do they want and what are they willing to do to get it?
  7. What hinders them?
  8. How does the story end? Is there more than one way this could go?

The answers to these questions make writing the actual story go faster because I know what happened, what the goal is, why the goal is difficult to achieve, and how the story ends.

Once you have answered questions one and two, you know who you are writing about and which character has the most compelling story.

At that point, you must decide what will be your inciting incident. An event happens that throws them into the action. Now, what is their goal/objective?

At the beginning of the story, what does our protagonist want that causes them to risk everything to acquire it? How badly do they want it and why? The answer to that question must be that they want whatever it is desperately.

Question number six is an important thought to consider. What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in their attempt to overcome the odds and achieve their objective?

Many final objectives are not issues of morality, but all final objectives should have consequences and should involve a struggle.

The answer to question number seven is vitally important because the story hinges on how the protagonist overcomes adversity. What hinders them? Is there an antagonist? If so, who are they and why are they the villain of the piece?

Answering question eight is crucial if I want to complete my short story during November. Endings are frequently difficult to write because I can see so many different outcomes. Because it is NaNoWriMo, and every new word I write counts toward my goal, I write as many endings as I need to.

This is where making use of scene breaks can be your friend. For a short story, an ending is usually only 500 words or so. I simply head that section (in bolded front) with the words Possible Ending 1 or 2, or however many endings I have come up with.

Once I have finished my short story, I save that file, close it, and move on to the next. I have to keep that story factory working, because during the rest of the year, whatever novel I am writing takes priority in the writing queue.

But I always have time to revise something that is already written, especially if I have come to a stopping place in my novel.

Every evening, I copy and paste each day’s work into my NaNo Master Manuscript, which is also in my NaNoWriMo2018 file. This gives me the satisfaction of seeing my total word count growing day by day.  I upload that manuscript every night to the www.nanowrimo.org website so that my work is validated and my writing buddies can see I am meeting my daily word count goals.

November is the only time I can dedicate to exploring the many topics and wild ideas that come to me over the course of a year. On December 1st, I will go back to my usual routine, editing for clients in the morning and working on my novel after editing is done.

When I need a break and something new to work on, I will pull out my short story file, and begin revisions. The work I have planned for selected anthologies will be revised first, as they will have deadlines early in 2019.

This keeps me working and ensures I am being productive even when my novel is stranded in the desert of “Now What?”.

Pre-planning means I have a good system established for version control for my revisions, as each story has its own file and I don’t have to waste time dealing with that on the front end. As I say, this is my system, and it works for me. I use this system for all my work.

Develop your system, lay the groundwork for your novel. Create the master file, and in that file, include any sub-files that pertain to your novel. Do it now, well in advance of November 1st, so that all you have to do is write and save your work.

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October 22, 2018 · 6:00 am

Layers of a scene: Action #amwriting

Scenes are often comprised of people talking, a little action, and then more talking. Sometimes the action is minor, taking the characters from one place to another. Two characters talking in a coffee shop would have minimal action, but a lot of dialogue.

Other times the dialogue is minimal, and the action is violence. It can be sudden, as in a car wreck, or planned as in a battle.

At the outset of any story, our characters are in a comfortable place. An incident/event occurs, throwing them out of what they know and into disarray, beginning the real story.

Once they recover from the first obstacle, they realize they must do or find something important. Only a certain object or person will resolve the situation. To acquire what they need, the protagonist and their companions must enter unfamiliar circumstances.

They must struggle and make mistakes until they become accustomed to their new situation. This is where the action comes into the story.

I have read books were the author was so involved in setting traps and roadblocks for the protagonist and their nemesis that the story line wandered off and got lost. The author failed to entertain me.

Action scenes must fulfil several requirements:

  • They must entertain the reader.
  • They must create new circumstances.
  • They must force the character to grow and change.

The events the protagonist experiences must push the plot forward. In the process, the action should force the characters involved in it to become greater than they were, to find something within themselves they didn’t know existed.

I’m just going to get this out into the open: long, drawn-out fight scenes bore me to tears.

So many authors get hung up on the technical side of the fight—how the combatants were dressed, who hacked, who slashed, and so on. Scenes involving fighting should be written as controlled chaos. They must be logical and real and must give the impression of a chaotic event. Just as if the physical dispute were a dance, we choreograph it.

We all know the common fundamentals of the fight scene:

  1. Physical violence/weapons
  2. Shouting/screaming/other loud noises
  3. Damage to the immediate environment
  4. Injuries/death

Those are part of the elements that comprise the “push” of the action—the chaos. 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?

But what of a non-violent action scene? Perhaps the characters are sneaking into a room or attempting to board a crowded train. What furnishings does the immediate environment contain, and how does that affect their movements? What hinders the characters moving within their space? What aids them?

For much of the morning they rode in silence. The path climbed more steeply than Alf had imagined a fully laden cart or wagon could manage. The vertical wall of the Escarpment on the left side of the trail and a waist-high stone barrier with a terrible drop on the right made him jittery. It occurred to him that the low wall was little more than a robust fence, knee high to his horse.

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. If the scene is about dialogue, insert the action so it is minimal. It can be a slight buzz in the background that serves as a speech tag:

He forced himself to loosen his grip on the reins. “I suspect the little barrier is there mainly to keep the wagons from sliding over the edge in the winter. It does provide some comfort to know that, while I would be launched amazingly far, my horse would likely be saved.”

Dex looked at him sharply. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid of heights. This is nothing compared to what we’ll deal with when we leave Hemsteck.”

After the push, comes the “glide” where the characters assess what just happened, tend to their injuries, and decide what to do next. They must catch their breath and figure out where they went wrong.

Every now and then a manuscript comes to me that is impossible to navigate because the author is afraid to let their characters rest and regroup, and it basically becomes a nonstop beating for the protagonist. The author may fear that the reader will find it boring if he pauses the action for any reason. That continual pressure on the protagonist is exhausting to me as a reader.

If you don’t allow your characters to process the violence they just experienced, the story gets lost in the chaos. Once the reader can no longer suspend their disbelief, you have lost them.

Most of us understand verbal disputes and how they are constructed. But if physical violence is involved and you are not a martial arts aficionado or a weapons specialist, you may wish to consult someone who is and have them look at your scene. They will tell you what is physically possible and what is not.

Once I have a fight scene choreographed, I run it past my writing friends, Dave and Lee, both of whom will point out the areas where it is no longer believable.

To wind this post up, a constant assault of random action, scene after scene, makes no sense unless you allow the reader to put the events into perspective. Scenes inserted for shock value and with no pause for rest and reflection don’t allow the protagonist to demonstrate personal growth.

As a reader, I will put that book down, unfinished.


Credits and Attributions:

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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Layers of a Scene—Immediate Environment #amwriting

While you are reading this post, you are probably sitting in a room, or perhaps sitting in some form of public transportation and reading on your phone. Wherever you currently are physically, you are reading a blog post. Because you are reading this post, your attention is in my room. The sounds of your environment have faded, and you are here with me, observing as I write about writing.

It’s 05:38 am, and my house is quiet, but not quite silent. It’s not a dark place, as the nightlight in the living room casts a warm glow, and the ceiling light in the room I call my “office” keeps me hitting the right keys, mostly. The furnace has come on, and the vents are making that familiar soft wooshing sound.

A cat once lived in this room, but she is gone, nine years now. Still, her spirit lingers among the dusty books and boxes of the storeroom that is my Room of Shame—a room no one is allowed to see when they visit. A sign on the door clearly warns, if you’re not in my book, keep out.

I wear a blue robe and ratty pink slippers. My feet are propped on a folding chair from Costco and the keyboard rests on my lap. Filing cabinets, boxes, shelves, dusty books, my husband’s citronella plants in the window, boxes and more boxes—this room is a cacophony of visual noise.

And yet this room is my haven, my quiet space, my room to write.

My keyboard has a certain rattle to it, a few keystrokes forward and the backspace key is pressed several times, then we go forward again. The end of a sentence arrives, and the punctuation is firmly added.

The aroma of fresh-brewed coffee calls to me. I set my work aside and go to the kitchen, the room that, despite its location in the rear corner of the house, is the center of my home. As I pour my first cup of coffee, my plan is to make a Sunday breakfast, bake bread, and maybe make oatmeal cookies with dried cranberries and walnuts.

But perhaps not. Perhaps after breakfast, I’ll return to the Room of Shame and write.

This is my immediate environment.

Our characters also occupy a particular environment at any given moment of their story. Whether they live in a condo, a house, or a caravan, their immediate environment reflects their personality.

The larger world is comprised of sound and scent as much as it is physical objects. The out-of-doors has a certain smell, perhaps of damp grass, or fresh-turned earth. In the city, smog has a scent all its own.

The smaller world, the immediate environment can be shown with brief strokes. My room has sounds that are unique to it: the furnace vents, the keyboard, the sound of the TV in another room. But some things are universal–coffee cups, small appliances, etc. We all have an idea of what a kitchen looks like. Place your character in a room with certain common props and the reader’s imagination will supply the rest of the scene:

Rick closed the drapes, which smelled faintly of cigarettes. He switched the TV on—for light or companionship? Maybe both. The hotel’s movie selection was minimal, but The Maltese Falcon seemed appropriate. Unable to relax, he sat on the worn sofa, waiting, his gun at the ready.

Whenever you mention an object in a scene, it becomes important. When you mention odors, they become important, as do sounds. This is why using your character’s senses is a part of world building. What they see, hear, and smell shapes the world the reader experiences.

As an exercise, picture your immediate environment. What are your impressions of the place where you are now? Write a brief word picture of those impressions. For me, the impressions of my immediate space are: Glow of monitor, rattle of keyboard, looming boxes, cooling coffee.

Those four things show my environment.

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Ideas to jump-start #NaNoWriMo2018 #amwriting

I have been a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo since 2012. I started participating in this annual writing rumble in 2010. I  found myself taking the lead as the unofficial ML for my region in 2011 when our previous ML didn’t return, and we didn’t have one that year. Organizing write-ins, cheering on my fellow writers–I didn’t really know a lot about how it all worked, but it was a lot of fun and I met so many wonderful people.

Over the years I have learned a lot of little tricks to help people get a jump on their NaNoWriMo project.

Some people continue writing the first draft of an unfinished work-in-progress but on November first, they write all the new work in a separate manuscript that is only for NaNoWriMo validation purposes.

Most will start an entirely new project, which is what I do. Actually,  since 2012, I have started a bunch of new projects, an attempt to amass a collection of short stories to submit to magazines and contests.

Many times, I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do until 12:01 a.m. on November 1st.

But that lack of a finite plan doesn’t mean I have no ideas. I am always prepared to write something new.

One of my favorite tools is the prepared list of one-liners that I keep on hand, little ideas to open a story with.

You must write every day, even when you are only writing for yourself. When you write every day, you keep your “writing mind” in top condition–you are training yourself the way an athlete trains for a big event.

For this reason, I have a document saved to my desktop that I use to write down ideas as they hit my brain.

Everyday I pick a prompt out of my list and start writing. I write new words on that idea for fifteen minutes.

Often, I end up with a good drabble to show for my fifteen minutes. Other times, what I produce is not worth much, but the act of writing new words is important.

On November first I will pick one that will be the first short story I write, giving me a jumping off point to riff on.

1 – Leonard always said there was no place for pansies in this war. His preferred weapon was a dahlia.

2 – Dogs and little children hated Eldon. The rest of us merely despised him.

3 – Death is the one thing you can take with you, and Harvey Milton was packed up and ready to go.

4 – No dogs or cats for Mrs. G—she had pygmy goats.

5 – The body in the trunk of Edna’s car had become a real inconvenience.

6  – “Technically, it’s not my cow. It’s my stepdad’s cow. Anyway, we aren’t going to harm her. She’s just going to school for a day.”

And what about essays, those wonderful commentaries and literary pieces for various magazines? I’m stricken every day with ideas that would make such good essays, and November is my month to write them.

  • Impressions of a spring day at the Olympia Farmer’s Market (one of the largest on the west coast).
  • The story of a mentally ill homeless woman whom I met on a rainy day.
  • A road trip down Washington State Route 105 from Westport to Raymond, and the ghostly, nearly abandoned coastal towns of rural Washington State.

So many random ideas and so little time to write those stories! That is why November has become so precious to me—it is my time to make use of my flashes of inspiration.

Another trick to both jump-starting and finishing a NaNo Novel is to write the last chapter first and set it aside in a separate document from the NaNo Manuscript.

Yes–its true. I wrote my first complete novel by writing the last chapter first and then wondering how the characters had gotten to that point, that place.

Once I knew how the book ended, I was easily able to write 60,000 to 70,000 words to connect up to that final denouement.

The original premise: An old man returns to a town that was the scene of his most treasured memories.

The book opens when he is a young man of barely twenty and takes him through grand love affairs and miserable failures, a Don Quixote-like story of madness and bravery. My brain was on fire with that book.

I still love that book and one day I will republish it.

Maybe.

That wasn’t my first novel, but it was the first one I had completed—and if you don’t complete your projects, you can’t really lay claim to being an author.

We all have false starts—it’s part of writing. My first novel was begun in 1994 on an old Macintosh Performa. The original manuscript was lost when I switched to a PC in 1998, but I rewrote it. Over the next ten years, that version evolved to over 250,000 rambling words, ten different story lines, and it was still nowhere near the finish line.

I promise you, that is one book that will never see the light of day.

NaNoWriMo has shown me that writing prompts are a wonderful tool that we can use to jump-start our imaginations. The Writer’s Digest website has an excellent post dedicated to writing prompts:

Creative Writing Prompts

If you want to practice writing something but can’t think of what, take a look and see if something interests you.  No two people are alike, so don’t be afraid to use a prompt from a popular site like Writer’s Digest. The way you go with it will be as unique and individual as you are.

In the meantime, start keeping a list of ideas, prompts that you think would make great stories. Save it to your desktop so it is always available with just a click. Great novels all begin with a random idea, a “what if.” Don’t let your ideas slip into oblivion–write them down and use them.

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Layers of a Scene #amwriting

I try to approach writing each dialogue scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. I think of each conversation as an event that must advance the story, so dialogue must do at least one (if not all) of these things:

  1. Offer information the characters are only now learning.
  2. Show the state of mind the characters are experiencing.
  3. Show the relationship of the characters to each other.
  4. Show the relationship of the characters to their world.

In the first stage of the rough draft, with those goals in mind, I sit down and picture the characters and their relationship. Then, I write just the dialogue for several back-and-forth exchanges. No speech tags, just the exchange. I do this in short bursts, to get the basic words down. It’s a two stage process—the scenery and background get filled in after the dialogue has been written.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Once I know what they are talking about and have the rudimentary dialogue straight, I add in the scenery and attributions, and the dialogue grows with each layer. This is because the scene has become sharper in my mind and I know more of the mental state my characters are in.

The next morning, when his stepmother came down for coffee, John was once again working on something in his notebook. He stood, gathering his pens.

“What are you doing?” Ann’s clipped tones cut the silence.

“Oh, just drawing.” The peace he’d sought had gone, earlier than he hoped.

“Drawing what?”

John’s normally open features were closed, inscrutable. “You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, he attempted to leave but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me. Now.” When Ann repeated her demand, he reluctantly opened the book. Page after page was covered in stylized dragons, leafy vines, and runes. “Why do you waste your time with this crap? You could be brilliant, but no! People want real art, not this drivel.”

“This is how I earn my living.”

Ann poured herself a cup of coffee, pausing only to sneer. “You don’t have a pot to—”

“Stop.” John reclaimed the sketchbook. “Coming back here was a mistake. I did it because Dad asked me to, and because it’s Christmas.” He crossed toward the dining room. “Enjoy your breakfast.” The kitchen door closed behind him, cutting off his stepmother’s rant.

We know the characters’ relationship to each other, and what their place in this environment is. The layers that form this scene are:

  1. Action: She comes down for coffee. He holds a notebook, gathers pens, and stands.
  2. Dialogue: shows long-simmering resentment between the two players and gives us a time reference—it’s Christmas.
  3. Environment: a kitchen, closed off from the rest of the house. In this story, the woman’s closed off kitchen is symbolic of her closed off personality. The place that is the heart of a home is closed off. She is at odds with her own son, as well as her stepchildren.

We work with layers to create each scene. With these layers, we show the reader everything they need to know about that moment in time.

In many ways, each scene is a story-within-a-story, with a beginning, middle, and end. Every scene should have an arc, leading us to the next scene. We link the mini-stories together to form the larger story, pushing the characters to the final confrontation that ends the novel.

By beginning with the dialogue in each scene, I can get the words down and then concentrate on visualizing the setting where the conversation takes place. Over the course of a book, conversations take place in different settings, so readers are eventually shown the entire world these characters live in. They will see that world without our having to dump a floor-plan or itinerary on the reader. Remember our basic conversation?

“What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?”

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.”

Let’s put that dialogue and the notebook into a fantasy setting and change how the characters are related to each other:

At the end of her watch the next morning, Ann warmed the flatbread from the day before and filled it with goat cheese for breakfast. Traveling alone with John was different without the others, more difficult in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. 

Clearly surprised at waking to a hot meal, John thanked her but remained on his side of the fire. He opened his journal and made an entry, then with his breakfast eaten, he began drawing something in his sketch book.

This time she decided to see what was so absorbing. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, just drawing.”

“Drawing what?” Ann couldn’t read his expression, and normally she could.

“You’ll laugh or find a reason to mock me for it.” Closing his sketchbook, John attempted to rise but stopped when she put her hand on his shoulder.

“Show me,” she commanded. “I promise I won’t mock you. I’m just curious.”

Now the look in his eyes confused her. It was guarded yet had the same quality he did after praying. Clearly against his better judgement, he opened his notebook.

Page after page was covered with portraits of all the members of their tribe, including her, all looking as full of life as if they could step off the page. Every messenger they had ever been sent was there, and people she didn’t know whom he must have met on his travels. She nearly wept on seeing the many portraits of her brother, handsome and laughing.

“These… they’re amazing. You’ve detailed our life for the last three years. And David… it’s the way I want to remember him. Thank you.”

John seemed confused by her approval. His gaze was far away when he answered. “I dream all night long, and then I have to draw. I don’t know why.”

We began with the same words and a notebook, and used the same names. But with different relationships, we ended up with different characters. They have a different quest, and their story is written for a different genre. However, the layers in this fantasy do the same work as in the contemporary piece. The layers that form this scene are:

Action: Ann prepares breakfast, something John is surprised to find her doing. He opens a notebook.

Dialogue: shows a wary interaction between two people who know each other well, and who may be entering a different stage in their relationship.

Environment: a campsite, an open fire. It is set in the wide outdoors, yet it is intimate.

The words are the same, the notebook is there, but the direction the conversation takes is different because the story is different.

By beginning with the conversation and envisioning it as if it were a scene in a movie, I can flesh it out and show everything the reader needs to hang their imagination on. Readers are smart and don’t want to be told what to think. The reader’s mind will supply the details of a kitchen or a campsite, depending on the clues I give.

How will you add the layers to your conversations? The possibilities are endless.

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World building: what was, what is, and what may be #amwriting

All novels are set in one of three time periods: the past, the present, or the future.

Readers are much smarter than we are, so knowing what you write about is critical no matter what the level of technology. Even when setting a novel in the present day, the actual technology available is an unknown quantity to most of us.

However, targeted research can shed some light on what was once possible, what is possible, and what will one day be possible. Here are some of my go-to sources of information:

The Past:

My best source of information on low-tech agrarian 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 book was meticulously researched and illustrated by a historian who knew the people she was writing about.

What I find absolutely charming is the way the author used excerpts from medieval rhymes and literature to put their lives into context, forming a picture of how we really lived before the industrial revolution. In fact, many rural communities were still living this kind of life in the early twentieth century. The author knew and interviewed farmers whose lives had been spent working the fields and raising animals the old way.

Best of all, even though the book makes no apologies for being a textbook, Hartley’s prose is so enjoyable I found myself reading it with the sort of enjoyment one gets from a novel.

I also get a lot of information on how people lived from Wikimedia Commons.  There, 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. In the course of their work these painters created accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, how they dressed, and what was important to them.

The Present:

You can Google just about anything. Fads, fashion, phone tech, current robotics tech, automobile tech—it’s all out there. If you need to know how many bodies you can fit into the trunk of a Mini Cooper, don’t guess. Look it up and write with authority. (The answer is NONE—Mini Coopers have no trunk.)

Available on the internet today:

TED Talks are a wonderful 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.

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 Barnes & Noble and look at the many publications that are available to the reading public. You can find everything from culinary to survivalist, to organic gardening—if people are interested in it, there is a magazine for it.

Know what your community is interested in, and your setting will have depth.

The Future:

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.

But many business people and scientists have incredible imaginations, and their life’s work is making the future knowable, and a reality.

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 classic science fiction is now 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.

Do the right research, target it to your needs, and don’t allow yourself to be sidetracked by the amazing bunny trails that lead you away from actually writing.

Above all, enjoy the act of creating a world that a reader will want to live in, whether it is set in the past, the present, or the future.


Credits and Attributions:

Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley, © 1981 by Pantheon, cover illustrated by Beatrice Fassell, fair use.

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