Tag Archives: writing

Creating Mood and Atmosphere #amwriting

Today marks the final day of NaNoWriMo 2022. I achieved my goal and exceeded it, which was a surprise. The month has been crazy busy here at Casa del Jasperson, but I still managed at least 2000 new words each day and sometimes more.

creating impactNow that I have most of the foundation built for my novel (the ending is not written), I find myself going back and looking at places where I inserted notes to myself, using red fonts. These are messages like: Build tension between the factions here. Show how it affects the group’s mood. Or another note: Need an atmosphere of fear.

When writing those notes to myself, I didn’t stop to fine-tune the story. My personal quest was to get the story laid out from beginning to end and write at least 2000 words each day. At this point the novel is mostly talking heads. The world is there but barely. It’s still at the one-dimensional stage.

I’m still about 30,000 words from the end, but now I find myself relaxing, not worried about getting word count. I will still write new words every day, but I can also look back and add atmosphere.

I love to read. When an author uses mood and atmosphere well, they can elevate their novel from “not bad” to “memorable.” The way Emily Brontë employed atmosphere in Wuthering Heights is stellar. I would love to achieve that level of world building.

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020I know how I want the story to affect a reader’s emotions—it’s perfectly shaped in my head. The trick is making that vision come true in writing. It may take a year or more to get the mood and atmosphere to feel the way I envision it.

Mood and atmosphere are two separate but entwined forces. They form subliminal impressions in the reader’s awareness, sub currents that affect our mood.

Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere are best discussed together when we talk about instilling depth into a narrative.

Which is more important, atmosphere or mood? The answer is both and neither.

Characters’ emotions affect the overall mood of a story. In turn, the atmosphere of a particular environment may affect the characters’ personal mood. Their individual moods affect the emotional state of the group.

Emotion is the experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again. Experiencing emotion changes a character’s values, and they grow as people. Whether they grow positively or negatively is determined by the requirements of the narrative.

This is part of the inferential layer of a story. The audience must infer (deduce, understand, fathom, grasp, recognize) the experience, and it must feel personal.

Setting can contribute to atmosphere, but the setting is only a place, not atmosphere. Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as it is by the characters’ moods and emotions.

While mood and atmosphere work together, there are differences in what they do:

  • Mood describes the internal emotions of an individual or group.
  • Atmosphere is connected to the setting

Mood and atmosphere are created by phrasing, conversations, descriptive narrative, tone, and setting.

High_Sunderland_Hall_1818

High Sunderland Hall in 1818, shortly before Emily Brontë saw the building. Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Some narratives use world building to create an overall atmosphere and affect the characters’ emotional mood. In Wuthering Heights, Brontë uses the environment and setting to manipulate the characters’ moods on a personal level. She then widens the view using the architecture, the landscape, and the gloomy weather to darken the general mood and atmosphere of the entire story. This creates a feeling of insecurity, raising tension in the reader, a sense of the unknown hidden in the shadows.

She begins with seriously flawed characters, instills them with dread and uncertainty, sets their intertwined stories in an isolated environment, and wraps the entire novel in a cocoon of despair, dark skies, and barren moorlands.

Atmosphere is foundational to world building. Will I get it right? I don’t know, but as I write toward the end of this proto-novel, I won’t stop trying.

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The Author’s Toolbox – Stylesheets #amwriting

We are approaching the last days of NaNoWriMo 2022. If you haven’t already, now is an excellent time to think about creating what I think is the most helpful tool in my toolbox—the stylesheet.

toolsWhen a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a stylesheet.

The stylesheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until needed. Some editors refer to it as a “bible.” Sometimes it will be called a storyboard if it also contains plot ideas or an outline.

Nowadays, I make a new stylesheet at the outset of each writing project, even for short stories. I copy and paste every new word or name onto my list, doing this the first time they appear in the manuscript. This is an essential tool because if each name, place name, and made-up word is listed the way I originally intended, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

Some people use a program called Scrivener, which is not too expensive, but which has a tricky learning curve. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it and found it quite frustrating. Nevertheless, I understand that it works well for many people, and you might find it works for you.

Myself, I don’t want a fancy word-processing program. I use MS Office because I have been using the programs that come with that software since 1993, and I’ve been able to adapt to each upgrade they have made. It’s affordable, so I use Word to write and edit in and Excel to create stylesheets.

Mac ComputerFor short stories, the stylesheet will probably be a Word document. I have written them out by hand on occasion. You can create them in Google Sheets or Docs, which is free.

And free is good! Everyone thinks differently, so there is no single perfect way that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

When I have an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory. For most publications, you must keep strictly within their word count requirements.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.

Column B: About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

Column E: What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

IBM_Selectric (1)Page Two:  The projected story arc will be on page two of the workbook. I list each chapter by the events that need to be resolved at various points in the manuscript.

Page three of the workbook is the most important—the Glossary. This list of made-up words, names, and places is crucial for the finished product. The way words appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I lay down prose in the first draft.

I update the glossary page whenever a word or name is added or changed. I do this even in my non-fantasy work, as it helps to have a quick, easy-to-access reminder of how real-world names and places are spelled.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central tool that keeps the events happening logically.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009. It has grown since this screenshot was taken.

neveyah stylesheetWe never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. We will probably deviate some from the original outline. Usually, for me, the major events will remain as they were plotted in advance, even though side themes will evolve. The outline keeps me on track with length and ensures the action doesn’t stall.

When I know the length of a book or story I intend to write, I know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters I need to devote to that section. I like to keep my chapters at around 1600 – 2000 words. Sometimes they go longer, and other times shorter.

PinocchioThe plot usually evolves as I write each event and connect the dots. In one instance, it was completely changed. The original plot didn’t work at all, so drastic measures had to be taken.

Making that course correction was less work because I had the stylesheet with the outline. Events were easy to cut and replace or move along the timeline.

As we near the end of NaNoWriMo, we are beginning to dig deeper into all aspects of the story. We’re still writing the basic first draft, but emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, are growing more apparent.

Secrets characters have withheld from us emerge now as we write. Perhaps some ugly truths have been discovered. These details arise as I write, reshaping how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions can alter the plot.

Even though each manuscript starts out linearly, I work “back and forth” when writing rather than in a linear fashion. I work from an outline, but each section of my novel is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale.

The central plot points get written first. Then, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete, like assembling a quilt.

A detailed outline ensures I won’t get lost in the weeds of wacky side quests.

Book- onstruction-sign copyOnce the first draft is finished, revisions will mean updating the stylesheet, but that’s part of the job. This ensures my editor will have less work when we get to the final draft.

In the process of editing for me, Irene will find things that didn’t get listed but should have been and will update the stylesheet.

Writing a novel is a process of growth and development. It doesn’t stop until you sign off on the proof copies and the book is on sale.

And even then, you will think of things you could have done differently.

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How Gerunds can be Action’s Kryptonite #amwriting

Today’s post focuses on word choice. I’ve just finished reading a mystery novel, and while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the editor in my soul says I can’t recommend it. Therefore, I will not name the book or the author.

transitive verbThis novel was meticulously self-edited. I could see it was run through the author’s writer’s group many times, and the major flaws were ironed out. There were few typos, and the formatting was done well.

Self-editing is a struggle. The eye is biased when it comes to the structural flaws of our own work. This is why the smart author runs things past their writing group. The problem I see most often is that writing group members are not usually editors. They are acquainted with the basics of grammar but aren’t familiar with some advanced functions. They may have been taught grammar in school but have forgotten some as they had no use for it until they began writing.

And some never understood it because of the way it was presented in the first place. When something is boring, we don’t pay attention.

chicago guide to grammarLet’s be real—style and grammar guides are tedious and hard to understand. We may own them but we hate to crack them open. Trust me, researching grammar gets easier and more interesting as you advance in writing craft.

Unfortunately, the novel I wanted to enjoy was ruined by the opening line of the first paragraph on page one. That flaw interested me, so the editor in my head continued reading, analyzing why such a promising book failed.

Positives: The characters were engaging, and the plot was an original, well-conceived premise. The mystery was intriguing, and the setting was shown well.

Negatives: The author’s penchant for beginning sentences with gerunds – “ing” words – and peppering them throughout the narrative soured me on what could have been a strong novel. The opening paragraph ran similarly to this 29-word sample, with gerunds at the front of three sentences in a row:

Moving along quickly, we hurried through the store. Huddling behind the shelves, we waited until Mason had passed. Moving quickly again, we made it safely out the door.

The rest of the book was written in that style.

If I had been in her writing group, I would have suggested (gently) that she either move the gerunds to the final clause of each sentence or eliminate them. I know it’s frustrating to hear an editor suggest you completely reword prose you have already shaped and reshaped. But trust me, a reader will appreciate it.

We hurried through the store, huddling behind the shelves until Mason had passed, then slipped out the door.

Ten words were removed from the first example, but the scene’s intention isn’t altered.

This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.

  1. Moving the verbs to the front of the sentence makes it stronger.
  2. Nouns are inherently inert but feel active when followed by verbs.

Words ending in “ing” fall into the family of gerunds. They are often used as verbs that have been turned into nouns, such as running and dancing. They are usually intransitive verbs (but sometimes they are transitive) and are necessary for good writing. But used improperly and too freely, gerunds are action’s kryptonite. (Edited 11-23-2022 for clarity.)

We followed the river, running alongside it until we could go no farther.

5 kinds of words

Writers who use gerunds too freely mean well. After all, a gerund began life as a verb but underwent an identity change, becoming a noun by adding the “ing” suffix.

Authors who lead sentences off with them are trying to get their prose moving.

So now we know a new truth: when we lead off our sentences with “ing” words, we are opening with a verb that wants to be a noun and behaves like one. This word choice separates the reader from the action, so while a gerund is a verb form, it is a word with a supporting role.

The abundance of gerunds we put into the first draft are an aspect of passive phrasing, the mental shorthand we use to first tell the story.

In most first drafts, the passive phrasing is a code. The author’s “subconscious writer” embeds signals in the first draft. It tells the author that the characters are transitioning from one scene to the next. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. This change is something the reader must know.

toolsIn this regard, gerunds and other passive code words are the author’s first draft-multi-tool. They are a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters that serves many purposes and conveys multiple mental images to the author.

At some point, we will finish the first draft, giving our novel a finite ending. When we begin revising that first draft, gerunds and passive phrasing, these code words and clues we left ourselves, will tell us what we must expand on. They show us the scene, and we rewrite it so the reader can see it too.

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no internet, no happy, #amwriting

The internet has been out here at Casa del Jasperson since Friday.

I have been surfing the internet on my phone, which has been interesting. My word count is still on track, but I have gone wide of what was originally plotted.

This little update is coming to you from my cellphone – a first for me. So, no images or graphics today.

We should have the internet fixed this afternoon. In the meantime, write what you feel passion for and be happy.

I hope to have a post on Wednesday.

Peace, and happy writing.

Connie

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Side Characters – Someone Must Die #amwriting

We who write live inside our imaginations. The story unfolds before us when we are laying down the first draft, and the characters reveal themselves as we write. The side characters make themselves known to us, and gradually, we come to understand who they are and why they are willing to endure the hardships and support our protagonists in their efforts.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergySometimes, the story demands a death, and 99% of the time, it can’t be the protagonist. But death must mean something, wring emotion from us as we write it. Since the character we have invested most of our time into is the protagonist, we must allow a beloved side character to die.

Killing a side character should not be a means of livening up a stale plot. It must be an organic part of the storyline, move the other characters, force them to continue despite the struggle.

But who is Character B as a person? When the first draft is done, side characters can seem two-dimensional. The second draft is where we inject emotion into the narrative. We must make Character B’s sacrifice feel like the tragedy it is.

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This chemistry happens on multiple levels.

First, it occurs within the story as the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the chemistry happens within the reader who is immersed and living the story. The reader begins to consider the characters as friends.

That emotional attachment is why every sacrifice our characters make must have meaning. It must advance the plot, or your reader will hate you.

As I write my first draft, I uncover hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style. I begin to see a person with values and discover their boundaries. I begin to know what they will (or will not) do.

At the outset, my characters have secrets they believe no one knows, secrets they will take with them to the grave. As I write, these secrets unfold before me, and I feel such love for them, for all their flaws and insecurities.

Before I became a writer, I was a reader. I am still a reader and go through one or two books a week. I seek out stories in all genres featuring characters I can empathize with. I want to meet characters who behave and respond to the inciting incident naturally, in a way that makes me say, “Yes, this is exactly how they would react.” As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

If Character B must die, I want to feel as if I have lost a dear friend. Character B’s motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how Character B thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Next, ask what would inspire this person to sacrifice themselves for others?

We have designed the plot, so we know the magnitude of the obstacles our characters face. The choices they make in those situations can change the story. Character B’s decisions are as crucial to the plot as are those of the protagonist.

In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path.

When we allow the protagonist/antagonist agency, they will make choices that surprise us. When we are writing the first draft, our characters will make decisions that might take the narrative in a new direction. I love it when that happens.

Character B dies. Why? What purpose does that death serve?

The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of a person who would and did sacrifice themselves. In The Wrath of Khan (via Wikipedia):

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_KhanMortally wounded, the antagonist, Khan, activates a “rebirth” weapon called Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula, including Enterprise. Though Kirk’s crew detects the activation and attempts to move out of range, they will not be able to escape the nebula in time without the ship’s inoperable warp drive. Spock goes to restore warp power in the engine room, which is flooded with radiation. When McCoy tries to prevent Spock’s entry, Spock incapacitates him with a Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a mind meld, telling him to “remember.” Spock repairs the warp drive, and Enterprise escapes the explosion, which forms a new planet. Before dying of radiation poisoning, Spock urges Kirk not to grieve, as his decision to sacrifice himself to save the ship’s crew was a logical one. An epilogue shows Spock’s space burial and reveals that his coffin is on the surface of the Genesis planet, foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. [1]

Spock explains his decision by saying, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”

It becomes easy to give our characters an active role in choosing their fate when they have unique personalities.

When I first began writing, allowing my characters to grow their own way was difficult. I had this notion that the original plot was engraved in stone. Eventually, I learned to relax and let them do as they would.

And yet, they harbor secrets to the end, things that surprise and shock me.

StarWarsMoviePoster1977You, as the author, must understand what drives and motivates even the walk-on, disposable characters. Are they “a red shirt,” that iconic Star Trek symbol of the throw-away character? Or are they a “Spock,” the beloved friend who offers themselves up to save others?

Why should we care if they die? Your job is to make us care.

When a character has history, has agency, and chooses to sacrifice themselves as Obi-Wan did for Luke or Spock for the Enterprise crew, you see their decision is not out of character.

The death of a character must raise the emotional stakes for both the protagonist and the reader. A complex, memorable novel rewards the reader for their investment of time by making the story feel personal.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan&oldid=1015970109 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures: 1982); art by illustrator Bob Peak. © 1982 Paramount Pictures; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox: 1977), art by illustrator Tom Jung. © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd; Fair use under United States copyright law.

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Drawing on the Momentum of the Dark Side #amwriting

We’re halfway through November, and some writers participating in NaNoWriMo already know how their novels will end. But just because we might have an ending, the story isn’t finished. Work must be done to fill in the gaps and add depth.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergyOne character archetype that is critical to any story is the villain. Yet the negative energy of a story is often less developed, two-dimensional.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler discusses how the villain of a piece represents the shadow. The villain provides the momentum of the dark side, and their influence on the protagonist must be fully explored.

The shadow character serves several purposes.

  • He/she/it is usually the main antagonist and represents darkness (evil) against which light (good) is shown more clearly.
  • The shadow, whether a person, place, or thing, provides the roadblocks, the reason the protagonist must struggle.

I believe the villains we write into our stories represent humanity’s darker side, whether they are a person, a dangerous animal, or a natural disaster. They bring ethical and moral dilemmas to the story, offering food for thought.

Through that struggle, heroes must recognize and confront the darkness within themselves. They must choose their own path—will they fight to uphold the light? Or will they take the easier way, following the shadow?

When the protagonist must face and overcome the shadow on a profoundly personal level, they are placed in true danger. If they stray from the light, they may have unknowingly offered up their souls.

The best shadow characters are multidimensional. They are charismatic because we can relate to their struggle.

Characters portrayed as evil for the sake of drama can be cartoonish. Layers must support their actions, or the villain is not believable.

I think of these two-dimensional villains as little “Skeletors.”

Skeletor-spooSkeletor is a cartoon villain with one of the least believable storylines in the history of cartoons. He has great passion and drive as a villain, but it’s all noise and show. His ostensible quest is to conquer Castle Grayskull and acquire its ancient secrets. Possession of these would make him unstoppable, allowing him to rule the world of Eternia.

But his character is hollow, and his storyline is simply one long declaration of his villainy. In reality, Skeletor’s sole purpose is to give He-Man a reason to draw his mighty sword and proclaim, “I have the power!”

It was a fun cartoon, but these characters were initially conceived as a means of selling toys.

What is your goal? Maybe a token villain serves the purpose. However, if you hope to write a memorable story, you need Evil With History.

Truly fearsome villains have deep stories. Sure, they may have begun life as unpleasant people and may even be sociopaths. But no one wakes up one morning and says, “I am evil. I will now go out, gather some minions, and do evil things. Muah-hah-hah!”

Look at one of the most talked-about villains of all time, a character who represents the worst humanity can offer: Hannibal Lector:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Frederick Chilton, claims that Lecter is a “pure sociopath” (“pure psychopath” in the film adaptation). In the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, protagonist Clarice Starling says of Lecter, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”

Lecter’s history is explored in greater detail in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. These books explain how, as a child in Lithuania in 1944, he witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his beloved sister, Mischa, by a group of deserting Lithuanian Hilfswillige. One of the killers claimed that Lecter unwittingly ate his sister as well.

Believable villains must have a back story that explains and supports their logical reasons for what we think of as villainy. If it’s a quest, the bad guy/girl must have a plausible explanation for going to the lengths they do to acquire the Golden McGuffin.

In my work, light and dark (good and evil) are represented through two different theologies. Both societies believe in the righteousness of their gods. Both have rituals they perform to appease their deities. The people of both worlds firmly believe that their way and their deity is the only true way.

Imogen_-_Herbert_Gustave_SchmalzWhen we write a story, we want the protagonist’s struggle to mean something to the reader. We put them through hell and make their lives miserable. But we must remember that the characters in our stories aren’t going through these horrible trials alone. The moment we begin writing the story, we are dragging the reader along for the ride.

We who write novels can’t offer the reader hollow, cartoonish characters. We have failed if we don’t give the shadow hints of depth, of history. We owe it to our readers to provide rounded, believable characters, whether they are heroes or villains.

Ask what made the villain turn to the darkness? What events gave them the strength and courage to rise above the past, twisted though they are? What drives their agenda? What do they hope to achieve?

We must make the hero’s ultimate victory evoke great relief in the reader and fill them with the sure knowledge that all is made right.

The reader has survived, and the victory belongs to them as much as it does the hero.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

Image: Skeletor-spoo: Fair Use, for identification of and critical commentary on the television program and its contents. DVD screen capture from the She-Ra: Princess of Power episode “Gateway to Trouble,” where Skeletor is offered a bowl of Spoo. Wikipedia contributors, “He-Man,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=He-Man&oldid=916702029 (accessed November 12, 2022).

Image: Imogen by Herbert Gustav Schmalz PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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Idea to book – Project Management #amwriting

Authors who want to take their books from idea to paperback must become project managers. Like any other endeavor, writing and successfully taking your novel to publication has many steps, from “what if” to proto product, and from there to completion. It doesn’t matter if you are going indie or sticking to the traditional route.

project managementThen there is the marketing of the finished product, but that is NOT my area strength, so I won’t offer any advice on that score.

Even on the surface, writing fiction is complex.

We all know a high-quality product when we see one. The manufacturer didn’t make it out of cheap components. They put their best effort and the finest materials they could acquire into creating it. Because the manufacturer cared about their product, we are proud to own it.

For authors, the essential component we must not go cheaply on is grammar. We don’t have to be perfect—after all, the way we habitually structure our prose (our voice) adds to the feeling of depth.

to err is human to edit divineHowever, we must have a fundamental understanding of basic mechanical skills. These rules are the law of the road, and readers expect to see them. Knowledge of standard grammar and punctuation rules prevents confusion. Readers who become confused will set the book aside and give it a one-star review.

If you have limited knowledge of grammar, your first obligation is to resolve that. The internet has many easy-to-follow self-education websites to help you gain a good understanding of basic grammar in whatever your chosen language is. One site that I like is https://grammarist.com/.

If you are writing in US English, I recommend getting a copy of the Chicago Guide to Punctuation and Grammar. If you write in UK English, purchase the Oxford A – Z of Grammar and Punctuation.

Authors who are just starting out often write erratic prose. They will be inconsistent with capitalizations, insert random commas where they think it should pause, and use exclamation points instead of allowing the narrative to show excitement. They don’t know how to punctuate dialogue, which leads to confusion and garbled prose.

We must know the rules of grammar to break them with style and consistency. How you break the rules is your unique voice.

Readers expect words to flow in a certain way. If you choose to break a grammatical rule, you must be consistent.

Tenth_of_DecemberErnest Hemingway, Alexander Chee, and George Saunders all have unique voices in their writing. They all break the rules in one way or another, but they are deliberate and consistent. Each of these writers has written highly acclaimed work.  You never mistake their work for anyone else’s.

Alexander Chee employs run-on sentences and dispenses with quotation marks (which I find excruciating to read).

George Saunders writes as if he is speaking to you and is sometimes choppy in his delivery. But his work is wonderful to read.

We who write need a broad vocabulary, but we also need to be careful not to get too fancy. To be successful, we need an understanding of the tropes readers expect to find in our chosen genre. We must employ those tropes to satisfy the general expectations of our readers. How we do that is our twist, the flavor that is our unique “secret sauce.”

We don’t consciously think about this, but organizational skills are critical because we want the story to flow easily from scene to scene. This is why successful authors are project managers, even if they don’t realize it.

Identify your Project Goals. Your story is your invention. Your effort, your ideas, and the skills you have developed will determine the quality of the finished novel.

Queen of the Night alexander cheeEach author is different, and the length of time they take on a book varies. Some authors are slow—their books are in development for years before they get to the finish line. Others are fast—their novels complete and ready to be published in a relatively short time. Regardless of your timeline, this is where project management skills really come into play.

I use a phased (or staged) approach to project management. This method breaks down and manages the work through a series of distinct steps to be completed.

Concept: You have a brilliant idea. Make a note of it so you don’t forget it.

The Planning Phase: creating the outline. Some people don’t need this step, but I do.

The Construction Phasewriting the first draft from beginning to end. Take it though as many revisions as you need in order to get it the way you envision it.

Monitoring and Controlling—This is where you build quality into your product.

  • Creating a style sheet as you go. See my post on style sheets here: Self-editing: Ensuring Consistency.
  • Finding beta readers and heeding their concerns in the rewrites.
  • Taking the manuscript through as many drafts as you must to have the novel you envisioned.
  • Employing a good line editor to ensure consistency in the quality of your product.
  • Finding reliable proofreaders. (Your writing group is an invaluable resource.)

Completion—things we don’t have to worry about just yet while we are in the construction phase. But they will come up later.

  • Employing a cover designer if you are going indie.
  • Finding an agent if you are taking the traditional route.
  • Employing a professional formatter for the print version if you are going indie.
  • Courting a publisher if you are taking the traditional route.

After that comes marketing, something you must do whether you are going indie or traditional. Both paths will require serious effort on your part. 

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusBut as I said earlier, I have no skills in the area of marketing and no advice worth offering.

What I do know is this: write the basic story. Take your characters all the way from the beginning through the middle and see that they make it to the end.

Once you have completed the story and have it written from beginning to end, you can concentrate on the next level of the construction phase: revisions. This is where we flesh out scenes and add depth to the bones of our story.

Over the next few posts, I will work on some of the sublayers of depth in our next series on the craft of writing. First up, we will think about why a story isn’t finished just because it has an ending.

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The Story is in the Drama #amwriting

Drama and disaster can and will happen on a wide scale in our real lives. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanoes, droughts—the path of a natural disaster is erratic. Sometimes they miss you, and other times, your home is in their way.

modesitt quote the times we live LIRF11012022Lesser dramas might only touch us on a peripheral level, yet they can affect our sense of security and challenge our values.

On May 18th, 1980, my friends and I watched the eruption of Mt. St. Helens from atop a hill in the middle of nowhere. My children had visited their father for the weekend, so my friends and I planned a fishing trip to a beaver pond in the next county. It was a long drive on narrow, dirt logging roads, but the possibility of trout for supper was just an excuse for a day spent in the deep forest.

We loaded our gear into my boyfriend’s Land Rover and set off at about 5:00 am, all five of us laughing and having a great time. The radio never worked, but the cassette deck played Led Zeppelin, Robin Trower, Genesis, and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow as the soundtrack to our trek through the gorgeous country.

At about 09:00, we came up over the top of a treeless hill. The view was breathtaking, as if all of Lewis County lay before us in springtime glory.

Above it all towered a sight I will never forget, turning the blue sky black.

MSH80_eruption_mount_st_helens_05-18-80-dramatic-edit

Eruption of Mt. St. Helens May 18, 1980 Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Conversations suddenly silenced, and we stopped, turning the engine off. We got out and stared, first at the raging column of dust, rocks, and lightning that dwarfed the mountain and then at each other. Helicopters and airplanes from news agencies and the USGS circled like so many carrion birds. What so many people had thought was just hysteria was true—the mountain had blown.

We never did make it to the beaver pond. The only fish we caught that day were the tuna sandwiches we had packed. Conversations were sober as we picnicked on that hilltop and watched the incredible show.

We had no way of hearing the news, but we knew it was terrible, that some people had died and others had lost everything. We had no idea just how bad it was, that one of our favorite places to fish, the Mount St. Helens Lodge at Spirit Lake, had disappeared along with its cantankerous owner. Harry R. Truman had become famous in the weeks before the eruption for refusing to evacuate.

Toward midafternoon, we returned to Olympia, all of us grateful to have homes to go to. When I turned on the television and found that more than fifty people had lost their lives, I felt devastated for them.

The true story of that day in my life is in disaster contrasted against calm and tranquility.

The story is in the hectic start to the morning, of five friends off on a day trip to go fishing. It is in the peace of the deep woods along those old dirt roads.

640px-St_Helens_before_1980_eruption_horizon_fixedThe camera zooms out and now we see the idyllic serenity of a clear sunny morning on Spirit Lake and Harry doing his morning chores.

This allows us to see what will be lost.

Then disaster strikes. The side of the mountain gives way, and the eruption is on.

Contrast that catastrophe against five people serenely picnicking on a hill, observing the apocalypse as it happens. The drama is in old Harry R. Truman’s stubborn end, and how it didn’t occur to us who watched from a distant hill that we would never rent a boat from him or fish in that lake again.

The bad juxtaposed against the good is the plot, but the experiences of those who witnessed it is the story. Contrast provides drama and texture, turning a wall of “bland” into something worth reading.

Stories of apocalyptic catastrophes resonate because disaster drives humanity to bigger and better things, and those who survive and rise above it become heroes. Readers love the drama of it all.

Disaster isn’t always apocalyptic, though. Dramas regularly happen on what seems an unimportant level to people who have resources. Not everyone has money, and not everyone can surmount the odds. The story is in the battle.

Think about those small daily tragedies people face, deeply personal catastrophes, which only they are experiencing. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal are the eternal themes of tragedy and resolution. These are the seeds of a good story.

30 days 50000 wordsWe writers must make our words count. We must show our characters in their comfort zone in the moments leading up to the disaster. Not too much of a lead in, but just enough to show what will soon be lost.

Then, we bring on the disaster and attempt to write it logically, so it makes sense.

Contrast is a crucial aspect of worldbuilding and storytelling. In the end, we want readers to think about the story and those characters long after the last paragraph has been read. Drama and resolution are the keys to a great story.

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 7: Resources #amwriting

We are in the last week of prepping for NaNoWriMo 2022. Today we’re going to look at affordable resources for developing writing craft and sourcing information pertinent to your project.

orson_scott_card_write_scifi_fantasyLet’s start with craft. If you are at the beginning stage of your writing life, it’s hard to know where to find help in shaping your work into a coherent story. For many years, I didn’t even know books on the craft of writing existed.

One day in 1990, I stumbled upon a book 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. That was the day I gave myself permission to be a writer.

I recommend checking out the NaNoWriMo Store, as it offers several books to help you get started. These books have good advice for beginners, whether you participate in November’s writing rumble or want to write at your own pace.

Brave the Page

Are you a first-time writer or a young author? While it is written for middle graders, adults just starting out will find good information in this book.

From the official Blurb: Partly a how-to guide on the nitty-gritty of writing, partly a collection of inspiration to set (and meet) ambitious goals, Brave the Page is the go-to resource for middle-grade writers. Narrated in a fun, refreshingly kid-friendly voice, it champions NaNoWriMo’s central mission that everyone’s stories deserve to be told. The volume includes chapters on character, plot, setting, and the like; motivating essays from popular authors; advice on how to commit to your goals; a detailed plan for writing a novel or story in a month; and more!

Ready, Set, Memoir!

Are you writing a memoir but don’t know how to get started?

From the official Blurb: Written by former NaNoWriMo Program Director Lindsey Grant, Ready, Set, Memoir! is full of helpful lists, exercises, inspiring quotes from famous memoirists, advice, lessons, and humor to help walk you through the writing process. This guided journal will inspire and motivate you to write—and finish!—your memoir.

no plot no problem_mainFinishing off the resources from the official NaNoWriMo store is the handbook, No Plot, No Problem!

This book is a resource for people who want to write but don’t know where to start.

From the official Blurb: When you add No Plot? No Problem! to your personal library, it’ll give you a run for your lexical money! It’s a writing heavyweight, muscled with advice, activities, pep talks, and prompts that are sure to match your brain swing for swing in a literary tussle. Challenge this guide, and win, and you’ll have written a champ of a novel that can hold its own in the ring!

What if you are ready to move beyond the beginning stages and need more advanced information? My personal library of books on craft is huge. I can’t stop buying them. But what are the books I refer back to most frequently?

emotion-thesaurus-et-alThe following is the list of books that are the pillars of my reference library:

How do we source information that pertains to our story? What about the internet?

activateWe usually start our online hunt for information by “googling” a question, no matter what browser you use. Be wary and read several articles to get a broader view of what you are looking for. I also check dates to ensure the information is current and bookmark it if it is relevant to my story. Note: Your browsing history may look a little … unusual … after a while.

Some libraries have a service where one can submit a question and have it answered by email. If that isn’t an option and we’re feeling ambitious, we can check out books on any subject.

Resources for authors to bookmark in general:

my-books-cjjasp-own-workwww.Thesaurus.Com This is good for when I need to know, “What’s another word that means the same as this word but isn’t weird or repetitive?”

Oxford Dictionary online is brilliant for when I need to know, “Does this word mean what I think it means? Am I using it correctly?”

Wikipedia – The font of all knowledge, or so I hear. My go-to source of info is often Wikipedia. This resource is created and edited by volunteers. All articles must provide proper citations and reference links to outside sources to support every statement. Articles that don’t meet specific criteria are flagged. Some opinions may be presented as facts when discussing art or literature. But overall, I always find something useful by looking at the links in their footnotes and going directly to those sources.

You can learn just about anything on YouTube. That’s where I learned how to make a glass orb and is where I learned how medieval swords were made.

conflict thesaurusSo, let’s talk about writers’ groups. A good group is the best way to learn about this craft. Your area may have established writers’ groups, and some may be able to accept new members. The best way to find out is to google writer’s groups in your town and make inquiries.

Attend a few meetings as an observer to see if this group is a good fit for you.

If you don’t feel comfortable meeting in person or via Zoom, see what online writers’ forums might fit your needs. I participated in an excellent online group, Critters Workshop, for several years while testing the waters of the writing community.

In 2010, I gained a wonderful local group through attending write-ins for NaNoWriMo. Nowadays, we meet weekly via zoom. My fellow writers are a never-ending source of support and information about both the craft and the industry. We write in a wide diversity of genres and gladly help each other bring new books into the world. But more than that, we are good, close friends.

So this is my short list of resources for the beleaguered author. Monday will be the final post in this NaNoWriMo Prep series and will focus on how to find time to write when life wants to derail you.

Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 6: How the Story Begins #amwriting

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#NaNoWriMo prep part 6: How the Story Begins #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to prep for NaNoWriMo by thinking about the plot and the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we intend to write—novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, personal essays, etc.

Post two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), giving us an idea of who they are and what they do. Post three explored the setting, so we know where they are and their circumstances. Post four detailed creating the skeleton of a plot. Post five jumped to the end, giving us a finite event to write to.

beginnings are endingsToday, we will pinpoint the moment in our protagonist(s) life where the story starts. We’re locating the point where this particular memoir, poem, novel, or short story begins.

The day that changed everything should open the story.

We see the protagonists in their familiar environment. By evening, a chain of events has begun. A tiny, insignificant stone rolls downhill, the first incident that will soon precipitate an avalanche of problems our protagonist must solve.

When we are new in this craft, we have a burning desire to front-load the history of our characters into the story, so the reader will know who they are and what the story is about.

I am the queen of front-loading. Fortunately, my writer’s group is made up of industry professionals and one in particular, Lee French, has an unerring eye for where the story a reader wants to know begins.

I have to remind myself that the first draft is the thinking draft. It’s where we build worlds and flesh out characters and relationships. It’s also where the story grows as we add to it.

We need a finite starting point, a place of interest. Have faith—the backstory will emerge as the story progresses. If we have our world solidly in our heads as we write, the reader will visualize a version of it that works for them, without our info dumping the history.

Let’s plot the beginning of a medieval fantasy:

Act 1: the beginning:

lute-clip-artSetting: Venice in the year 1430.The weather is unseasonably cold. A bard is concealed amongst the filth and shadows in a dark, narrow alley. Sebastian hides from the soldiers of a prince he has unwisely humiliated in a comic song.

Opening plot point–the hook: the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian, and he is hauled before the angry prince. The trial is brief and painful. Beaten and bloody, Sebastian is thrown into prison and sentenced to be beheaded at dawn.

That moment of despair is the end of chapter one.

You have done some prep work for character creation, so Sebastian is your friend. You know his backstory, who he is attracted to (men, women, none, or both), how handsome he is, and his personal history.

You know who he will meet in prison, someone who will help him escape. Depending on Sebastian’s romantic preference, Chance (an assassin’s professional name) will be male or female and dislikes the bard on sight. Still, Chance needs Sebastian’s help to escape as he/she/they will also die at dawn.

You have decided that the prince is a dark-path warlock. His brother is a highly placed cardinal who intends to become pope, protects him.

You have designed Sebastian and Chance’s escape, which is the first pinch point— the place where what they learn from each other fuels a quest: that of killing the Warlock Prince. Each has different reasons for this, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.

But now they are on the run and have no idea how to accomplish that task. Circumstances force them to work together despite their clash of personalities.

And we all know how friction heats things up. Romance or no romance, this tension is crucial.

We (the author) know the Warlock Prince must die if they are to save Venice, but who will be willing to help them, and what roadblocks stand in their way? These people will emerge as you write the first draft.

You’ve written down some ideas for the ending, so you have a goal to write to. At this point, the middle of the story is murky, but it will come to you as you write toward the ending. Every event and roadblock that happens to Sebastian between his arrest and the final moments of his victory will emerge from your imagination as you write your way through this first draft.

Mardi_Gras_mask_cateyes_iconBut the opening moment, the scene showing a lowly bard hiding behind a rubbish heap, is the moment in Sebastian’s life where the story the reader wants to hear starts. That scene is where this story begins regardless of how interesting Sebastian’s story, Venice’s story, or the Warlock Prince’s story was before that day. It is the beginning because this is the point where all the essential characters are in one place and are introduced:

  • The reader meets the villain and sees him in all his power
  • Sebastian knows one thing—the Warlock Prince must be stopped. He can sink no lower—he has hit bottom, and from there he can only go up.
  • Chance is in the same low emotional place, but he/she/they have an escape plan.

The story kicks into gear at this pinch point because the assassin is at risk on two fronts, which means Sebastian is too. Chance’s original task of killing the prince has failed, so now they must avoid both the prince’s soldiers and the mysterious employer‘s goons. For Chance, it’s a matter of pride that the original commission must be fulfilled despite the fact there will be no payment. Sebastian agrees to help ensure it happens because he has a conscience and wants to protect the people of Venice from the prince and his brother.

Attraction often grows in the most unlikely of places. Will it blossom into romance? It’s Venice, a city filled with romance and intrigue. But you’re the author, so only you know how their relationship grows as you write their adventure.

What else will emerge over the following 40,000 or more words (lots more in my case)?

  • Who is the assassin’s mysterious employer and what is their agenda?
  • Who is Chance really, what is their true name, and how did he/she/they become an assassin?

Sebastian will find this information out as the story progresses and only when he needs to know it. With that knowledge, he will realize his fate is sealed—he’s doomed no matter what. But it fires him with the determination that if he goes down, he will take the Warlock Prince and his corrupt brother with him.

If you dump the history at the beginning, the reader has no reason to go any further. You have wasted words on something that doesn’t advance the plot, doesn’t intrigue the reader.

Finding the beginning of the story

The people who will help our hapless protagonist will enter the story as he needs them. Each person will add information the reader wants, but only when Sebastian requires it. Some characters, people who can offer the most help will be held back until the final half of the story.

By the end of the novel, the reader will have acquired the important history of Sebastian, Chance, the mysterious employer, and the Warlock Prince. With the last bits of information, the final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.

Gaining all that knowledge is the carrot that keeps the reader involved in the book.

Next up, in post 7, we will talk about resources for beleaguered writers. Memoirs, poems, essays, novels–every author needs handy resources to bookmark.

The final post in this 8-part series will be on how to carve out time for writing whether you are participating in NaNoWriMo or just writing for fun.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

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