Tag Archives: writing

Acceptance, Rejection, and Naked Came a Fungus #amwriting

We all know what it’s like to have our work rejected. When I first began sending my work out, I would feel crushed upon receiving a rejection.

However, when I look back at those efforts, I can clearly see that I had no idea what a finished manuscript should look like. The internet wasn’t a thing yet, and I hadn’t heard of William Shunn or his instructions for how to properly format a manuscript. I knew my finished story had some problems, but I didn’t understand what those problems were or how to resolve them.

I naively assumed an editor would fix them because that’s what editors do, right?

I soon discovered that few editors have the time to teach you how to write literate prose. You must educate yourself, and so I did just that.

Nowadays, my work is as clean as I can make it. Sometimes my work is accepted, and when that happens, I celebrate. Most of the time it is rejected, and not because it is bad.

Editors usually have a certain kind of story in mind when they put out an open call, and often, less than ten of those in  that landslide of submissions will be accepted. Those that are accepted are the few that perfectly fit the editor’s original concept.

When you read the email/letter of acceptance, you go through several stages of emotional reaction:

  • shocked disbelief
  • OMG
  • Woo Hoo!

So how an author should react when their work is accepted? If you have been wise, you’ll be able to promptly reply with a simple thank you, mentioning how pleased you are to be featured in their publication.

Hopefully, you have not submitted the piece simultaneously to competing publications.

If by chance, you did send it to two publications and it was accepted at both, you must promptly reply to the other publication and formally withdraw your submission.

I keep a spreadsheet listing the date a piece was submitted, the website of who it was submitted to, and the status of that submission so I can avoid simultaneous submissions. This spreadsheet goes back to 2015 and contains these details:

  • Title of Short Story
  • Genre
  • Date submitted
  • Name of publication submitted to
  • Website address or editor’s email address
  • Date rejected or accepted
  • Comment from the editor, if any

If you submitted the piece through Submittable, all this is easily handled. Nevertheless, this record is your way to avoid looking unprofessional. This is an example of how I keep track of my work:

If it has been more than six months since you submitted a piece, and you can’t find any record of a response from them (check the junk mail of your email service), go to the publication’s website and look at their submissions page. They will usually have a paragraph detailing their normal response time and whether or not they respond to authors whose work they reject.

Contests and anthologies with large numbers of entries may not issue rejection notices.

Take the time to calm yourself and re-read the email. Promptly write a professional reply. I recommend you write your reply in a word document, proofread it, and then paste it into the body of the email, so you don’t accidentally send an illiterate mess to this editor.

Be sure to attach any information the editor/publisher may have requested:

  1. Your signed contract/or form granting them permission to publish. Use your legal name if you write under a pen name. It’s a good idea to make copies and keep them on file. If they are paper, I scan them into my desktop computer and save them in my cloud storage. (I use Dropbox, but Google Drive or One Drive are both free and excellent.)
  2. Your contact information if requested:
  3. Mailing address
  4. Phone number
  5. Legal name (if you are using a pen name)
  6. Your press kit (only if requested):

If you don’t have a press kit, go to Brian Klems’ excellent post on how to put one together: How to Create a Professional Press Kit in 8 Easy Steps.

Sometimes authors go into panic mode and immediately try to send revisions. Don’t do it. Your work was accepted as it was, so have faith that it was what the editor for that publication wanted.

If the editor wants changes, they will make clear what they want you to do. This may happen in an anthology. Remember, this editor knows what the readers of that publication want, and you want those readers to like your work. Behave like an adult and make whatever changes they request.

Never be less than gracious to the editor when you communicate with them. The world is full of great authors who want to sell their work. We can’t afford to have a reputation as being difficult to work with, as editors can get good work anywhere, not just from us. No one likes to work with divas.

Always be prompt in answering communications with the editors and publishers. Put whatever else you’re doing aside to answer emails from them. You want the editors to know you are easy to work with and willing to go the extra mile for them.

You have one final task in this process: You must make sure your readers know this piece is being published and where they can go to purchase that magazine/anthology.

On the day it hits the market, tweet about it, add it to your social media pages, and post it on your website. Tell the world to buy that publication.

And in that vein, if you would like to read a flash fiction I was invited to write for Ellen King Rice’s Naked Came A Fungus Project, click on this link: Edna’s Patio. This is a wonderful literary “progressive dinner” that Ellen devised to benefit Feline Friends.

Knowing that someone you respect likes your work enough to publish it is a feeling that is impossible to describe, even for an author.

Woo Hoo!


Click here for my review of Ellen King Rice’s Lichenwald.

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Chapter Length and Point of View #amwriting

Authors just starting out often wonder how long a chapter should be. A good rule of thumb is to consider the comfort of your reader. Many readers want to finish a chapter in one sitting. With that said, you must decide what your style is going to be.

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

I’ve attended seminars given by authors who say they have a specific word-count limit for their chapter length. One keeps them at 1,500. One of my favorite authors sometimes has chapters of only five or six-hundred words, which keeps each character’s storyline separate and flows well. I personally have found that for my style of storytelling, 2,500 to 3,000 words is a good length.

In a book, each chapter should detail the events of one scene or several related scenes. Chapters are like paragraphs, in that cramming too many disparate ideas into one place makes them feel erratic and disconnected.

One of my forthcoming books has longer chapters, as it is really a collection of short stories that take place over forty years of one character’s life. It follows the chronological order of his life and the chapters are vignettes detailing large events that changed him profoundly. These long chapters do contain hard breaks.

Conversations make good transitions to propel the story forward to the next scene, and they also offer ways to end a chapter with a tidbit of information that will compel the reader to turn the page. Information is crucial but should be offered only as the reader requires it.

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

That is true of every aspect of a scene or chapter. They reveal something new and push the story forward toward the final showdown.

Fade-to-black and hard scene breaks: I don’t like fade-to-black transitions except as a finish to a chapter. Fading-to-black at the end of a scene can make the story feel mushy if there is no finite transition.

When a length of time has passed between the end of one scene and the beginning of the next, it makes sense to wind it up with a firm finish and a hook and start a new chapter.

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

With each scene, we push 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.

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

Head-hopping: first you’re in his head, then you’re in hers, then you’re back in his—it gives the reader “tennis neck” and makes following the storyline difficult. Sometimes more than one character has a point of view that needs to be shown but readers will thank you if you limit point of view changes.

One of the problems some readers have with Robert Jordan’s brilliant Wheel of Time Series is the way he wandered around between storylines as if he couldn’t decide who the main character was. Rand Al Thor begins as the protagonist, but Matrim, Perrin, Nynaeve, and Egwene are also given prime story lines.

I’m a dedicated WoT fan, but even I found that exceedingly annoying long about book eight, Path of Daggers. I was halfway through reading that book when I realized there was a good chance that we were never going to see Rand do what he was reborn to do.

At that point, I kept reading because the world and the events were so intriguing.

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

It’s easier for the reader to follow the story when they are only in one character’s mind for the majority of the story. If you do switch POV characters, I strongly suggest that you change scenes with a hard, visual break such as two blank spaces between paragraphs or end the chapter.

Now we come to a commonly asked question: Should I use numbers, or give each chapter a name?

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

Whichever style of chapter heading you choose, numbered or titled, be consistent and stay with that choice for the entire book.

To wind this up: Limit your point of view characters to one per scene. Limit each chapter to show events that are related, rather than a jumble of unrelated events.

When it comes to chapter length, you must make the decision as to the right length and end chapters at a logical place. But do end each chapter with a hook that begs the reader to continue on to the next chapter.

5 Comments

Filed under writing

Using Pictures and Quotes #amwriting

Quoting other authors verbatim and including it in your book is opening a REAL can of worms. I will touch on that subject further down this post.

First, we’ll talk about blog posts, and why citing sources and crediting images is important.

When we first begin blogging, finding great images seems like no big deal. You google what you want, see what images pop up, right click, copy, and use them, right?

Don’t do it.

You can get into NO END of trouble that way, as is made clear in this article, The $7,500 Blogging Mistake That Every Blogger Needs to Avoid!

I use Wikimedia Commons and Public Domain images. Wikimedia makes it easy for you to get the attributions and licensing for each image. An excellent article on using Creative Commons Images can be found here:

What Is Creative Commons, And Should You Use It?

Another good source is Allthefreestock.com, where you can find hundreds of free stock photos, music, and many other things for your blog and other projects. Make sure you credit the artist!

Sometimes I need images I can only get by paying a small fee for.

I go to Dreamstime or Canstock, and several other reputable sources. For a few dollars, usually only two or three, I then have the right to use the image of my choice, and it’s properly licensed. The proper legal attribution is also there on the seller’s website, clearly written out with the copyright and artist name, so all you need to do is copy and paste it to your footnotes.

I also insert the attribution into the image details on my website so that when a mouse hovers over the image, curious readers can go to the source. (In WordPress, you must be on the WP Admin dashboard. Click on the image and go to ‘edit details’).

If you can do this, you won’t have to credit them in your footnotes.

We may want to quote another blogger or use the information we have learned from them. However, you will notice that I generally only quote directly from Wikipedia in those posts.

There is a reason, and we will get to that later.

If there is research involved, you should make notes at the bottom of your composition document about the title and URL of the website/article, the author, and what day you accessed it.

Properly citing your sources is your legal obligation, but there is a moral one here too: if some blogger quoted you verbatim, wouldn’t you want to be credited?

Some people will say that blogging isn’t really writing, so WHY bother with footnotes?

First of all, if blogging isn’t writing, what is it?

The footnotes at the bottom of every post tell me where my images are sourced, who created them, and what I used them in.

In my Fine Art Friday posts on art history, I do as wide as search as possible for information on a particular artist and painting. I only use images available from Wikimedia Commons with the share-alike copyright.

Citing sources:

First, I open a document in my word-processing program (I use Word), save it as whatever the title of the post is in that blog’s file folder, and compose my post the way I would write a story.

Composing the body of my post in a document rather than the content area of the blog-template allows me to spellcheck and edit my work before it is posted. Even so, I miss some typos and errors. The truth is, I feel more comfortable writing in a document rather than the content-window.

At the bottom of the page, I list what website I quoted, who the author was, the date of publication, and the date I accessed it. I have found the simplest method is the Chicago Manual of Style method, which looks like this:

Purdue OWL Online Writing Lab,  General Model for Citing Books in the Chicago Notes and Bibliography System, Copyright ©1995-2017 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved.

Website: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/717/03 Accessed Jan 10, 2017

When you quote from Wikipedia, you can click on the ‘cite this page’ link in the left-hand column, which is a menu of items pertaining to Wikipedia in general and to that article. ‘Cite this page’ is listed under ‘tools.’ Clicking on this link takes you to a page offering citations for that page in CMoS, APA, or MLA style, whichever suits your needs. All you need to do is copy and paste the one you prefer into your footnotes, and your due diligence has been done.

All this information for your footnotes should be inserted at the BOTTOM of your current document, so everything you need for your blog post is all in one place. When my blog article is complete and ready to post, I will insert a line to separate the body of the post from the credits and attribution notes.

When readers view my blog, if my post were one that I did research for, they would see this at the bottom of the post:

Warning! To use copyrighted material in your book, you MUST contact the publisher.

Follow their guidelines to obtain the right to quote from a published book. This is NOT a simple process, but you must do it if you plan to quote anyone whose work is NOT in the Public Domain.

Chances are, you will be denied, so be prepared to do without that material.

That is why I quote from Wikipedia when it is applicable and when the copyright is Share-Alike.

Plagiarism and quoting are two different things. Plagiarism is lifting entire sections and publishing it as yours. For more on last year’s scandal in the world of “fast-track” publishing, read this article at the Fussy Librarian. Romance authors discover they’ve been plagiarized.

About the share-alike copyright, via Wikipedia:

Share-alike is a copyright licensing term, originally used by the Creative Commons project, to describe works or licences that require copies or adaptations of the work to be released under the same or similar licence as the original.[1] Copyleft licences are free content or free software licences with a share-alike condition.

Two currently-supported Creative Commons licences have the ShareAlike condition: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (a copyleftfree content licence) and Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (a proprietary licence).

To wind this rant up – bloggers, photographers and artists are just like those who write novels. They are proud of their work and want to be credited for it. Protect yourself and your work by responsibly sourcing images and giving credit to the authors and artists whose work you use.


Credits and Attributions

Wikipedia contributors, “Share-alike,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Share-alike&oldid=929200583 (accessed January 7, 2020).

Share alike icon, Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Cc-sa.svg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Cc-sa.svg&oldid=362413897 (accessed January 7, 2020).

Portions of this article and the screenshots first appeared on the Northwest Independent Writers’ Association  Blog in January of 2017, written by Connie J. Jasperson, © 2017 All Rights Reserved.

Comments Off on Using Pictures and Quotes #amwriting

Filed under writing

Superpowers, Super Weapons, and Magic #amwriting

I am a born skeptic. I gravitate to reading fantasy but find both superpowers and magic to be an area hack authors regularly make least believable.

Many of my own books feature characters who can use magic of one sort or another. In my worlds, all magic is limited by strict parameters and requires both governing and training.

My approach to designing magic and worlds was shaped by my love of early Final Fantasy style RPG games. Everything was logical and believable. The political and religious systems were concrete, as were the technology and magic systems. The enemies were powerful, but no one had unlimited power. If you worked to build your strength and abilities and acquired the best weapons and armor you could get, you grew strong enough to prevail in the ultimate battle.

Later, I used those principles in writing a storyline, world building, and designing magic for an anime-based RPG. The company folded before the game went into full production, but the experience taught me to look at these aspects of genre fiction with a “God’s Eye.”

Anyone who has raised children knows they are born with a sense of self and an instinct for self-preservation. We come into the world aware only of how we feel and what we want. Those two things are the primary drivers of infancy.

Awareness that others also have feelings, needs, and wants comes later. Each human develops compassion for others at a different stage of childhood.

Some children are bullies while still in diapers. They will push and take toys from the weaker member of a group if they aren’t guided in the right direction or severely limited in what they can do. They quickly learn who they can get away with bullying, and that child gets picked on mercilessly.

These little bullies are strong-willed and could become leaders, so guiding them to learn and understand compassion is crucial for the welfare of society.

Some people, even those raised in good families, never develop the ability to care about others.

Most insensitive people aren’t sociopaths. But if a self-centered person has a superpower or a gift for using magic, could you guarantee they won’t use it solely for selfish purposes?

Thus, laws and a school system that trains them in both the use of these powers and what constitutes abuse is essential. There should be consequences for abuse, especially if others are harmed.

In designing a story where superpowers, super weapons, or magic are key elements, you must understand several things.

  1. Super weapons are science based.

Science is not magic. It is logical, rooted in the realm of real theoretical physics. The writer of true science fiction must know the difference, especially when creating possible weapons.

  1. Magic is not science.

However, it should be logical and rooted in solid theories. For me, as a reader, magic should only be possible if certain conditions have been met. This means the author has created a system that regulates what is possible. Magic works

  • if the number of people who can use it is limited.
  • if the ways in which it can be used are limited.
  • if the majority of mages are limited to one or two kinds of magic and only certain mages can use every kind of magic.
  • if there are strict, inviolable rules regarding what each kind of magic can do and the conditions under which it will work.
  • if there are some conditions under which the magic will not work.
  • if the damage it can do as a weapon or the healing it can perform is limited.
  • if the mage or healer pays a physical/emotional price for the use.
  • if the mage or healer pays a hefty price for abusing it.
  • if the learning curve is steep and sometimes lethal.

Satisfying these conditions sets the stage for you to create the Science of Magic. This is an underlying, invisible layer of the world. By creating and following the arbitrary rules of this “science,” your story won’t contradict itself.

  1. Superpowers are both science and something that may seem like magic, but is not.

What challenges does your character have to overcome when learning to wield their magic/superpower or super weapon?

  • Are they unable to fully use their abilities?
  • If not, why?
  • How does their inability affect their companions?
  • How is their self-confidence affected by this inability?
  • Do the companions face learning curves too?
  • What has to happen before your hero can fully realize their abilities?

Magic and superpowers share common ground in one area–genesis, or how the ability occurs:

Is the character born with the ability to use the superpower or was it imposed on them by a scientific means?

Is your magic spell-based or imposed by artifacts and relics? Or is it a biological/empathic ability? Is it a trait children can inherit?

  • If magic is spell-based, can any reasonably intelligent person learn it if they find a teacher or are accepted into a school?

Personal Power and the desire for dominance is where the concepts of science and magic converge.

In all my favorite science fiction and fantasy novels, the enemy has access to equal or better Science/Magic. How the characters overcome the limitations of their science/magic/superpower is the story.

“Struggle” forces the characters out of their comfortable environment. The roadblocks you put up force them to be creative, and through that creativity, your characters become more than they believe they are.

I do suggest that in regard to magic, you take the time to create the rules and write a document for yourself that clearly defines what limits characters face when using their magic.

This means that if the protagonist and their enemy are not from the same “school” of magic or science, you might have written two systems into that story. You should take the time to write out what makes them different and why they don’t converge.

You must also clearly state the limits of science for both the protagonist and antagonist. Take the time to write it out and be sure the logic has no hidden flaws.

In creating science technologies and magic systems, you are creating a hidden framework that will support and advance your plot. Within either system, there can be an occasional exception to a rule, but there must be a good reason for it, and it must be clear to the reader why that exception is acceptable.

An important thing to consider whether using magic or technology: the only time the reader needs to know these systems exist is when it affects the characters and their actions. Write it as a natural part of the environment rather than discussing it in an info dump.

Science and magic are two sides of the personal-power coin. We who write the two radically divergent sides of speculative fiction give this coin to our characters in varying amounts.

My favorite authors explore ambition, the drive to acquire more personal power, and the lengths characters will go to in their efforts to gain an edge over their opponents. They delve deeply into the societal consequences of their characters’ struggle.

How does the emotional toll of seeing that collateral damage affect your characters? Guilt might play a role.

The fundamental tropes of science, magic, or superpowers offer your characters opportunities for success. But to be believable, those opportunities must not be free and unlimited.

Every successful author teaching a seminar will tell you that when writing genre fiction, the struggle is the story. Make your characters work for their successes. Make them and the reader understand the personal cost of acquiring power and the dangers of unbridled ambition.

Use magic, science, or superpowers only as a means to tell a powerful story.

Strong, charismatic characters, powerful struggles, serious consequences for failure–these are the stories I want to read.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dommersen Gothic cathedral in a medieval city.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dommersen_Gothic_cathedral_in_a_medieval_city.jpg&oldid=319795786 (accessed May 29, 2019).

The Green Knight, by N.C,Wyeth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Boys King Arthur – N. C. Wyeth – p82.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Boys_King_Arthur_-_N._C._Wyeth_-_p82.jpg&oldid=304597062  (accessed December 9, 2018).

 

Comments Off on Superpowers, Super Weapons, and Magic #amwriting

Filed under writing

Muffins and Mayhem #amwriting

Friday morning, I took one of my current works in progress back to 12,000 words. (From 90,000.) I’ve been fighting this thing since that point. I hated to admit that I took a wrong turn so early on, but the story was going in completely the wrong direction.

Never one to quit as long as one foot remains un-shot, I still tried to force it, until Friday morning when I finally admitted I had written myself into a corner.

However, what I accomplished with the 3 months of work I just trashed is this: I have the world solidly built. I have the characters firmly in my head. Much of what was cut will be recycled back into the new version, but it is simply easier to begin at the place where it went awry.

I now know why the story arc was flatlined, AND I don’t need to murder anyone or add a dragon.

It feels like mayhem when it’s happening but it isn’t the end of the world. It’s just a detour.

This sort of thing happens to me all the time, which is why it takes me so long to write a novel.

For the coming year, I have one novel at the proofreading stage, one novel at the “needs two more chapters and then we’re done but first I have to think them up” stage, and two novels are at the beginning stage.

Short stories will continue to flow from my keyboard, although I haven’t had as much luck with selling them lately as I did last year. Some years are better for sales than others. I always think it’s a matter of the story hitting an editor’s inbox at the moment they are craving that sort of tale, so if your timing is off or you have sent it to the wrong magazine, it won’t sell.

Here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy, 2020 will find us delving into the depths of the Word-Pond again, focusing on specific aspects of storytelling. Exploring all the many nuances of writing craft is my hobby. I love it when I learn something new.

And as always, I will continue looking at Art History with my Fine Art Friday posts. I think Friday is my favorite day of the week—I’m a confirmed Rembrandt fangirl. I find inspiration and knowledge in the archives of Wikimedia Commons.

Since this is the final week of the year and we’re all busy going here and there, you probably aren’t into a long-winded blogpost. I leave you with a quote from L. E. Modesitt Jr., one that, in my mind, can be applied to writing and publishing novels:

“Everything takes longer than you’d think … except disaster and failure.”  ~~ L.E. Modesitt Jr. “The Mongrel Mage.”

And I will also leave you with this quote from Erin Morgenstern, one that applies to life in general:

“A quality muffin is just a cupcake without frosting.” ~~Erin Morgenstern, “The Starless Sea.”

2019 was a year blessed with an abundance of quality muffins, so no complaints there. My disasters were few, and each one resulted in a positive change of some sort, so perhaps they weren’t failures.

Perhaps they were opportunities for growth.


Credits and Attributions:

Blueberry Muffin, National Cancer Institute, Renee Comet (photographer) [Public domain]

NCI Visuals Food Muffins, Unknown photographer/artist [Public domain]

Comments Off on Muffins and Mayhem #amwriting

Filed under writing

Writing Violence #amwriting

I don’t write horror, but some of my novels contain certain elements of that genre. These shocking, violent scenes were moments that changed my characters’ lives.

Violence is an aspect of depth that is difficult for some authors to write well.

I dislike graphic violence that is there for the shock value. If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

Understanding how to design certain action scenes and where they fit into a narrative is a critical skill we must develop if we want our readers to love our work. When you raise the specter of failure, you also raise the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.

Random carnage has no place in the well-crafted novel, no matter the genre. The key word here is random.

When it comes to writing scenes that involve violence, ask yourself three questions:

  1. Will this event profoundly change my protagonist’s life?
  2. What does this event accomplish that advances my plot?
  3. Why is this event unavoidable?

Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives. Those passages were difficult to read but were the events that changed everything.

When you read Stephen King’s work, you find shocking events and horror. But more importantly, you see a narrative that was carefully thought out. Every event pushes the protagonist’s story to its conclusion.

They were the moments that changed the protagonists for good or ill. These scenes were crafted seamlessly into the narrative.

Violence in the horror novel is all the more frightening when it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. It is not random, not inserted for shock value or just to liven things up.

This means you must plan your horror novel with an eye to ratcheting up the fear and tension in every scene. The threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution held just out of reach.

At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, and often the protagonist believes he can resolve the situation if he can just achieve one thing.

In the process of experiencing these events, the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now.

Within the overall story arc, you must insert scenes that illuminate the motives of all the characters, including those of the antagonist. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

These scenes allow the reader to learn things as the protagonist does. They offer clues that the characters don’t know, information that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.

  1. The first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. Because the best stories are about good people solving terrible problems, this incident has a domino effect: more actions ensue that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety.
  2. At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act, and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.
  3. Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act. This final event is where someone who was previously safe may die.
  4. Each violent event should be worse than the previous. They begin relatively minor as compared to the final event and grow progressively more difficult. As the narrative moves on, the reader must fear the protagonist will fail.

What are the consequences of failure? Fear is powerful motivator, so raise the stakes and the tension as the story progresses.

Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. What will their long term reaction be?

Also, you must remember to give both the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping and planning.

Action, aftermath, action, aftermath—often compared to the way a skater crosses the ice: push, glide, push, glide.

Writing violence well requires planning on the part of the author. It requires us to sit back and consider what events will be unavoidable and will change the characters for good or ill.

Then we must insert them into the narrative in the right order, subtly foreshadowed, and all consequences must be both logical and advance the story.

THAT is where writing becomes work, but when done well, you can end up with a great novel.

A novel that I wish I had written is Dean Frank Lappi’s Black Numbers, the first novel in his Aleph Null series. This a deep, violent novel with great characters and intentional plotting, and kicks off a brilliant series. Nothing that happens in that novel is random. Every event serves a purpose, that of pushing the protagonist to his destiny.

We learn from the masters. If you must write violence into your work, you must study the works of other writers. Stephen King’s early work is an excellent place to start and is available in the public library.


Credits and Attributions:

Portions of this post were previously published on the Northwest Independent Writers Association blog as Crafting Violence, © Connie J. Jasperson, October 15, 2017.

3 Comments

Filed under writing

The pros and cons of using editing programs #amwriting

A number of people have asked me about editing programs, and if I use them in my own work. I do–but also, I don’t.

I rely on my knowledge of grammar and what I intend to convey more than I do editing programs, which are not as useful as we wish they were.

You may have found that your word processing program has spellcheck and some minor editing assists. Spellcheck is notorious for both helping and hindering you.

Spellcheck doesn’t understand context, so if a word is misused but spelled correctly, it may not alert you to an obvious error.

  • There, their, they’re.
  • To, too, two.
  • Its, it’s

Grammarly is an editing program I use for checking my own work, in tandem with Pro Writing Aid. I pay a monthly fee for the professional versions of these two programs. Each one has strengths and weaknesses.

For me, especially in my first draft, some words are like tics—they fall out of my fingers and into my keyboard randomly and out of my voluntary control. I don’t self-edit as I go because, at that point, I’m just trying to get the story down. The second and third drafts are where I shape my grammar and phrasing.

I want to write active prose, so I don’t want to use words with no power behind them.

Often removing an adjective or adverb strengthens the prose. They’re easy to find because these words frequently end with the letters ‘ly.’

You could do a global search for the letters ‘ly,’ and a list will pop up in the left margin of your manuscript.

It’s ridiculous to tell someone to remove all adverbs from a narrative. Words like “later,” or “everywhere,” or “never” or “alone” are also adverbs.

That sort of wrong-headed advice survives because it is based on a writing truth: unnecessary adverbs and adjectives fluff up the prose. Worse, they sometimes fail to tell us something that we need to know.

In other words, use adverbs and adjectives when they are necessary and cut them when they aren’t.

In my own work, I seek out adverbs, descriptors, qualifiers, and “weed words.” I look at how they are placed in the context of the sentence and decide if they will stay or go. Many will go, but some must stay.

A good program to help point out when certain passages are passive and need to be “made active” is Pro Writing Aid. I use the professional version for my own work, but they do have a free version that will show you some limited problems in your prose.

The BIG problem for those who don’t understand the basics of grammar is, these programs are unable to see the context of the work they are analyzing:

“The tea was cool and sweet, quenching her thirst.”

Grammarly suggested replacing quenching with quenched.

Pro Writing Aid made the same suggestion.

I have no idea why they make that suggestion, but you can see how a person blindly following mechanical advice could go wildly astray.

Context is defined as the parts of a written or spoken statement that precede or follow a specific word or passage, usually influencing its meaning or effect.

A person with no knowledge of grammar will not benefit from relying on Grammarly or any other editing program for advice. There is no way to bypass learning the craft of writing.

This is because these programs operate on algorithms defined by finite rules and will often strongly suggest you insert an unneeded article or change a word to one that is clearly not the right one for that situation.

New writers should invest in the Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and learn how grammar works. If you don’t understand grammar or how to construct a sentence, a paragraph, or write dialogue, editing programs will just confuse and mislead you.

To get the best out of editing software, you must know the basics of how to write.

Currently, at this stage in our technology, understanding context is solely a human function.

Because context is so important, I am wary of relying on these editing programs for anything other than alerting you to possible comma and spelling malfunctions.

You might not agree with the program’s suggestions. You, the author, have control and can disregard suggested changes if, as illustrated above, they make no sense. I regularly reject weird suggestions.

However, when the editing program highlights something, I look at the problem sentence carefully. Just knowing that the way I phrased a sentence tripped the program’s algorithms encourages me to look at that passage with a critical eye.

I may not use the program’s suggestion, but something triggered the algorithm. That means my phrasing might need work. I may need to find a better way to get my idea across.

Even editors must have their work seen by other eyes—my blog posts are proof of this. I am the only one who sees them, and even though I write them in advance and go over them with two editing programs, and then look at them again before each post goes live, I still find silly errors two or three days later.

A good editing program is not cheap, but I feel it is a worthwhile investment. If you don’t have an editing program, you can find these words on your own.

If you are hasty or impatient, a global search can be dangerous and can mess up an otherwise good manuscript. I warn you, this is a boring, time-consuming task, but it is a crucial part of the job.

You can’t take shortcuts. If you are too impatient and choose to “Replace All” without carefully thinking things through, you run the risk of making a gigantic mess of your work. Some weed words are parts of other words, for example:

  • very—every
  • has—hasten, chasten

If you have decided something is a “crutch word,” examine the context. Inadvertent repetitions of certain words are easy to eliminate once we see them with a fresh eye.

Context is everything.

I can’t stress this enough: take the time to look at each example of the offending words individually.

It’s unfortunate, but there is no speedy way to do this. Every aspect of getting your book ready for the reading public must be done with the human eye, patience, and attention to detail.

11 Comments

Filed under writing

Theme and Depth Through Polarity #amwriting

In writing, theme is the backbone of your story. It is an idea thread that connects disparate events that would otherwise appear random. Themes are often polarized, and multiple themes can appear, creating opportunities for adding depth.

Polarity is a fundamental aspect of the inferential layer of the word-pond.

For example, a large theme that drives the action can be be something as common and subtle as family dynamics across generations. Those subtle tensions and interactions may not look like they are the story, but beneath the surface, families are fraught with emotions that create conflict.

In any story that explores the relationships within a family as part of the larger narrative, we begin with the circle of life – a theme that explores birth, growth, degeneration, and death.

Consider the first three installments in the epic film series, “Star Wars.” It’s an ambitious action adventure set in a science fiction universe, and Luke Skywalker must save the world. But fundamentally, it’s the story of a family.

George Lucas conceived the tale by exploring the circle of life in the fractured relationship of Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and how each man affected those people whom they came into contact with. Luke was a catalyst—his presence made things happen. Anakin embodied self-deception.

The same is true of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones book. It begins with a family and follows the circle of life and death.

If we learn anything from comparing these two epic series, it is that inside that overarching theme of the circle of life lies many common polarities.

Nowhere do we find more opportunities for conflict than within a family. Both sides of this age-old conflict tend to be arrogant and sure of their position in each skirmish.

Sub-themes in the family saga will be:

Good vs. evil

Illusions vs. reality

Jealous vs. trusting

Justice vs. injustice

Love vs. hate

Order vs. chaos

Truth vs. falsehoods

Wealth vs. poverty

Young vs. old

These same themes that we employ in the small story of one family can easily be applied to a larger, more epic saga, such as in Tolstoy’s War and Peace – the “family” is an entire nation.

Looking beyond the obvious, we find the subtle polarities to instill into our work. Small subliminal conflicts highlight and support the theme. When you add texture to the narrative, you add depth.

Take pain—in my personal experience, the absence of pain was only appreciated once I had experienced true physical pain.

It’s like everything else we take for granted: we don’t think about pain if we have never felt it.

I find inspiration in the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. When I am looking for a way to add a particular emotion to a scene, I look up the word I want to convey and see what the opposites are. This is an affordable resource for the cash-strapped author because it can be purchased in paperback for between $9.00 and $12.00 USD.

Here are some polarities we can apply when fleshing out a character:

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

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

  • danger – safety

Just past danger we find

  • dark – light

And just beyond dark, we find

  • despair – hope

Those are three “D” words that have great opposites. In one dark scene, we can convey peril, and the feeling of hopelessness a character might feel. The light and hope we offer at the end of the story shine brighter when they are contrasted against darkness and despair.

Think of Frodo and Sam on Mt. Doom after Gollum and the ring are destroyed. Darkness and sure peril are followed by light and salvation.

Polarity is an essential tool of world building. Small polarities in the interactions your characters have with each other add to the atmosphere and serve to show their world in subtle ways.

If you can’t afford to buy the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms, the internet is your friend. A large, comprehensive list of common antonyms can be found at Enchanted Learning. This is a free resource.

I try to find ways to add depth by employing polarity. Each small polarity creates conflict, pushes my characters a bit further.

If I’m smart with the way I write it, small polarities will support and define my larger theme without beating the reader over the head.

As I say, this requires me to be skillful in the writing process, which is sometimes easier said than done.

4 Comments

Filed under writing

Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel Part 2 Word Choices #amwriting

No one writes perfect prose every time. Occasionally, even award-winning authors write an awkward description in the middle of an otherwise gripping passage. Consider this pearl, a quote from one of my favorite books dropped in the middle of an otherwise powerful, well-conceived battle scene:

A screaming black arrow knocks down yet another attacker. [1]

The narrative is written in an unusual mode, one this particular author, L.E. Modesitt Jr., uses in many of his books: Third person present tense. I have read this book several times, and there are several proofing errors, but that line in the final battle has always tripped my eye.

It’s a “first draft” telling line, a signal to the author indicating an intensity of emotion he wanted to convey in a ship-to-ship battle. I suspect he was in the zone and writing as quickly as he could. The many proofing errors in this book, much as I love it, told me that editors, even those working for a publishing giant like Tor, are fallible human beings. When an author is pushed to become a book producing machine, proofing and editing can suffer.

So how could we write a scene about a hazardous inanimate object and convey a sense of imminent danger without resorting to words that don’t quite fit? First, we must understand that these are the places where getting the prose right takes time, and sometimes, many attempts.

In a conversation, it’s easy to convey a sense of fear and peril. Danger seen through a character’s eyes is easily done—describe the shock and gut reactions and move on.

Danger described from an outside view (third person) is more difficult. In a fight or battle, sounds, visuals, and smells must be employed.

And this is where it gets tricky: for me as a reader, the best fight or battle scenes have both personal witness and third person narrative.

Hollywood has been quite good at portraying battle scenes with some degree of accuracy, although not always. In the movies, arrows arc, rain down and sometimes flash. They whiz past, and sometimes they appear in the victim’s back, seemingly out of nowhere. In the movies, they travel slowly.

But, in real life the arrow strikes the target nearly immediately after leaving the bow, even at a longer distance. An arrow is not as fast as a bullet, but they are fast.

My friend Michael, who is an archer, tells me that arrows, both ancient and modern, do make a sound, depending on how they are fletched (the feathers). The hissing sound as it passes the human ear varies from nearly inaudible to soft, depending on who fletched them and what style of fletching they used.

What you will hear is the snapping sound the bow makes when the archer lets the arrow fly, followed closely by the sound the arrow makes when striking a hard target. An arrow striking a soft target like a human or animal would make a sickening sound, but one that is not loud.

In my opinion, screaming is the wrong sound for arrows.

But it is an appropriate sound for the victim that was shot by the arrow.

There must be a certain amount of telling. What is the balance between telling and showing?

In describing, we must choose our words carefully. Examine the logic of your descriptions. How do we both show and tell in a balanced way?

In War and Peace, Tolstoy conveyed the feeling of each cannon ball hitting the ground and exploding, without resorting to clichés and awkward descriptors. Andrew Kaufman is the author of Understanding Tolstoy and Give War And Peace A Chance says:

“You see, hear, and feel everything in Tolstoy’s world: glistening sunrises, whining cannonballs, exhilarating troika races, glorious births, brutal deaths, and everything in between.” [2]

Good, immersive prose requires showing in such a way that the reader isn’t blown out of the scene. This means a small amount of telling is required. For that, we’ll go to Tolstoy’s War and Peace again. This quote, written in the same third person present tense as Modesitt’s quote, is an observation, a way of both telling and showing the reader what is goes on in the subconscious mind.

“When a man sees a dying animal, horror comes over him: that which he himself is, his essence, is obviously being annihilated before his eyes — is ceasing to be.” [3]

In that one sentence, Tolstoy shows us that in Napoleon’s time, soldiers weren’t the only casualties of war. A cavalry is made up of soldiers on horses. This means that living animals went to battle and were killed too.

Tolstoy gives us the visceral experience of witnessing a horse’s death but allows us to contemplate what death means on a human level. He uses powerful words that evoke deep emotion: dying, horror, essence, annihilated.

Witnessing the death of a horse brings us closer to understanding how frail a soldier’s grasp on life is when in the midst of a battle.

Modern writers would cut the words obviously being, but despite having been written 160 years ago, the sentence has power.

Word choices are especially important in action adventures. Strong, powerful words can make or break a sentence. To revise properly, we must step back from the manuscript for several days or even weeks.

Then we come back to the manuscript and consider the visual logic of our descriptions.

We move verbs to the front of sentences, placing them before the nouns so that most sentences lead off with action words.

In the second draft, we eliminate the many insidious forms of was and to be. They’re insidious because they’re signals to the author, saying that something needs to be made active. But they can slide under the radar in the editing process and end up in the final product.

It takes work and perseverance, to find the words that correctly evoke the emotions we want to convey.

But that is what good writing is about.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Quote from The Magic Engineer, by L.E. Modesitt Jr., 1994; A Tor Book, Published by Tom Doherty and Associates, LLC. Fair Use.

[2] Quote from Andrew Kaufman, The Only Classic Needed for Modern Times © 2014 Off the Shelf, Simon and Schuster, Inc. Fair Use.

[3] Quote from War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, PD|100. First published by The Russian Messenger (serial).

2 Comments

Filed under writing

Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel #amwriting

Many new authors are basking in the glow of not only having met their hoped-for word count of 50,000 words in the month of November but exceeding it.

A large number of new authors have emerged from this manic writing rumble with a finished novel—something they never thought possible. But now, what do they do with it?

NOW is the time to go back and look at what you have written.

First, protect your work.

Create a new file folder in your writing files for all the background documents you will need as you get down to the real work of writing your novel. These include the original manuscript as it emerged from your head and any research. This file is where you will save future versions and also any cut scenes. I title my background file this way: Book_Title_Background

In this background file, save a copy of your original manuscript in its bloody, raw form with a file name that denotes exactly what it is.

  1. If you are using MS Word, your manuscript title will look like this: Book_Title.docx

Saving the original draft in a separate file on a thumb drive or in a file storage service such as Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive means you have a fallback manuscript in case something happens to your working files.

Now that we have Version Control out of the way let’s move on to rewriting.

In the rush of laying down the ideas in the first draft, we will have written some scenes that will need to be moved to a more logical place in the story arc or cut completely. Still others don’t yet exist and will need to be written so that the ultimate outcome makes sense.

This is a good time to draw up a brief outline that shows you at a glance what you have written. The act of writing this outline will take the better part of a day but will speed the revision process up by a month or so.

The outline allows you to cut and paste events, moving and rearranging scenes. Making the decisions first on a small, easily manageable scale rather than the larger manuscript ensures that you don’t get confused when you begin cutting and moving scenes forward or back along the timeline in the second draft.

  1. Timeline: Make a list of all the decisions your protagonist made on their way to the final scene. Don’t omit any—you need to see her/his actions at a glance.
  2. Now, if these choices don’t seem to follow a logical path, rearrange the order to ensure these decisions follow a logical connective evolution. Randomness is not good plotting.
  3. Timeline: List the new order of decisions. Are they all necessary to achieve the final goal? Or are some fluff—scenes you wrote just for wordcount that don’t advance the plot and which the reader won’t care about?
  4. Consider cutting each fluff scene. Your readers will be grateful.

Now, look at the outline of your story structure again. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Who is the story about now? Is the main character still the original protagonist or has a side character stolen the show? If so, you need to choose and expand on the character that best serves the story.
  • What is the core conflict? Is it still the same conflict as when you started?
  • How high are the stakes if the protagonist fails?
  • What does the protagonist want most now?
  • Did the protagonist grow and evolve as a person? If not, why not? Or did they devolve, becoming an antihero or an antagonist? Is there a new hero?
  • Where are the pivotal places where something important to the logic is missing?
  • Again, examine what doesn’t need to be included. Remove all the scenes that impart no important information to the reader and the protagonist.

Ask yourself what would make the ultimate ending feel more logical. Insert the idea for the new scene into the outline and re-examine the logic of the story arc.

Many stories are not ultimately told in chronological order. The plot should still be the same logical chain, but the story might contain flashbacks or memories. Make a note of where these occur.

Some authors use “flash forwards,” which can easily make the story arc feel clumsy and unbelievable. Inserting a flash forward requires good planning, which is where the brief outline comes in handy. The same goes for daydreams or prophetic dreams a character might have.

Many authors reject the outline process in the first draft because they prefer to “wing it.” When I write the first draft without an outline, my story will have flashes and moments of inspired writing but will wander and skip its way to the conclusion.

For me, a manuscript that I wrote “by the seat of my pants” will always require more work than a piece written to an outline. Taking a day to write a brief summary of the entire first draft in an outline form makes the second version easier for my beta readers to read and follow.

At the end of the second draft, because I have taken the time to examine the logic of my storyline, the plot and my character’s actions will make sense to my beta readers.

They, in turn, will have good suggestions for minor changes that I will consider when I write the final version.

Next up: prose, and how your writing style shapes the narrative in the revision process.

Comments Off on Revising the NaNoWriMo Novel #amwriting

Filed under writing