Tag Archives: writing

Sound-alike words #amwriting

The large number of common homonyms, or sound-alike words, in our everyday usage are what makes English so tricky to learn as a second language. But even those of us who claim it as our native language get confused. Authors must learn how to recognize and use them properly.

Consider whether or not you want to use the word “ensure.” This word is so commonly abused that many native speakers don’t know which word to use in what context.

Three words could work, and they are quite similar to each other. Even worse, they have similar but different meanings.  This is when we go to the dictionary for a little research. All you have to do is use the dictionary that comes with your word processing program. (In Word, you type the word, right click on it, and when the menu opens, click on ‘look up.’)

Assure: promise, as in I assure you the house is clean.

Ensure: confirm, as in Ensure that you have set the burglar alarm before going on a long trip.

Insure: protect with an insurance policy, as in Insure your home for your peace of mind.

One of the worst failings for new authors is the word “it.” If problems appear in a manuscript, this word will likely be a major culprit. In my own work, I try to do a global search for every instance, and make sure the word is correctly used:

  • The texture of the wall—it’s rough. (It is rough.)
  • I scratched myself on its surface. (The wall’s surface.)

Its… it’s… which is what and when to use it?

The trouble here can be found in the apostrophe. In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession, but once in a while, it indicates a contraction.

  1. It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  2. Its denotes possession: It owns it

Some words jump right out at you as a reader:

  • they’re,
  • their,
  • there.

But others are more sneaky:

  • accept
  • except

Accept and except are so frequently confused and misused in our modern dialect that, if you doubt yourself, it is best to simply look it up. If you search for these now, you will save your editor having to do this for you, and your edit will be much more productive.

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Naming Characters #amwriting

I have mentioned (several times) one of my mistakes in naming characters. In the Tower of Bones Series, I have a main character named Marya. She is central to the series. Also, in the first book, a side character was important enough to have a name. My mind was in a rut when I thought that one up because I named her Marta.

You can see why this is bad—the two names are nearly identical.

To really confuse things, halfway through the first draft of the second book in the series, Marta suddenly was a protagonist with a major storyline. She actually becomes Marya’s mother-in-law in the third book. Fortunately, I was in the final stage of editing book one, Tower of Bones, for publication, and immediately realized I had to make a major correction: Marta was renamed Halee.

In my family, “Robert” is a name with a great deal of repetition. My father was named Robert, my two brothers are both named Robert (with different middle names), and my mother’s younger brother is named Robert. My younger brother’s son is named Robert, as is his son. We have a Bob, a Little Bob, a Rob, a Bobby, a Robby, and a Quatro.

I took this absurdity to an extreme in Billy Ninefingers. In Waldeyn, every third boy is named William, which is why Billy MacNess embraces the name his mercenaries give him after the injury. In that novel, “Williams” generally go by their last names.

Other than Billy Ninefingers where it was intentional and integral to the story, my personal rule is to NEVER name two characters in such a way that the first and last letters of their names are the same. To avoid that circumstance, I try to never have two that even begin with the same letter.

But who should go and who should stay? What is the optimal number of characters for a book? Some say only four, others fifteen.

I feel an author should introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but should also use common sense.

A name implies a character is an important part of the story. Ask yourself if the character is an example of “Chekhov’s Gun.” Does the person return later in the story or does he or she act as part of the setting, showing the scenery of, say, a coffee shop, or a store? Is it someone the reader should remember? Even if this character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Some throw-away characters will give us clues to help our protagonist complete his/her quest or show us something about the protagonist. Their comments could offer us a clue into the protagonist’s personality or past. Other random people are in the scene purely for the ambiance, part of the world-building. A woman smoking in an alley outside the back door to an office needs no name, but she serves as a visible clue about the world the main character is walking in.

Even if they do speak a few lines, if they are just part of the scenery, they don’t need a name.

In an excellent article on screenwriting, Christina Hamlett of the Writer’s Store writes:

In a screenplay, the rhythm you’re attempting to establish–along with the emotional investment you’re asking a reader to make–is disrupted whenever you devote more than two lines of introduction to a character who is simply there to take up space. In order to justify their existence, each player in your script should perform a unique function or deliver a specific line that:

  1. Advances the plot,
  2. Thwarts the hero’s objectives,
  3. Provides crucial background, and/or
  4. Contributes to the mood of the scene.

If you’ve included characters who don’t fulfill one or more of these jobs, they’re probably not critical to the storyline and can be deleted.

While she is speaking of screenplays, this is true of a novel or short story.

We want the reader to stay focused on the protagonist(s) and their story. The desire to make every character a memorable person must be ignored. When we begin revising second draft of our manuscript, we must find and resolve the distractions we inadvertently introduced in our first draft.

My current work in progress has a passage that takes place in an inn and involves a conversation overheard from a table adjacent to my two protagonists and their sidekicks. Despite the fact the merchant and his sons give my protagonists information they needed, they are in that scene for only one purpose. They are to be overheard and don’t appear again. For this reason, only my main characters are named in the full transcript of this scene.

Finding that we have too many named characters is an easy one to fix, once we decide how important that character is to the story. If they don’t appear again, the reader will move on and forget about them. The information they imparted will remain.

I have found that a great use for my extra walk-on characters is the short story. The world is already built, and they have a story, albeit a short one. Use them to your advantage.

I now keep in mind simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation when I name my characters. How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? You may not want to get too fancy with the spelling, so that the narrator can easily read that name aloud. You may not think this is important, but it is.

My advice is to keep it simple. Don’t confuse your readers by giving unimportant walk-on characters names. Be vigilant when choosing names—don’t give two characters names that are nearly identical.

Do make your spellings of names and places easily pronounceable. You may decide to have your book made into an audio book, and the process will go more smoothly if you’ve considered this in advance. I only have one book that is an Audio book and the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply.


Credits and Attributions:

Minor Characters Don’t Need Major Introductions, Christina Hamlett, Copyright © 1982 – 2017 The Writers Store ® Incorporated, accessed Mar. 11, 2017.

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The sound of the narrative #amwriting

Reading aloud is a great way to quickly discover the places I want to revise. I have always read portions of my work aloud, a page or two at a time. The places where I stumble are usually always the places that need ironing, so to speak.

In the past, I have only gone to this trouble with sections that I felt had some indefinable thing wrong with them. But lately, I’ve been printing out each chapter in its entirety a day or two after I finish writing it, trying to hear where the prose doesn’t work. I use a yellow highlighter on the places that feel rough.

I’m a slow writer, but I have several looming deadlines for contests and anthologies. This seemed like a good way to speed up development, getting short stories from rough draft to finished in a timely fashion.

As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, I rarely have a piece that is perfectly clean. I am the only eye that sees it before posting. Despite my best efforts, I catch many things the day after something was posted. I always check through my work on the computer screen, and I catch a lot there, but the eye sees what I intended to write.

This bleeds over into my other work. But if I wait a day or two and then read the paper printout with fresher eyes, I find repeated words, dropped words, and all sorts of typos. Even better, reading the printout aloud exposes the rough areas, the places where the words “fight with each other.”

When you are trying to pronounce the words, run-on sentences really stand out, and clunky prose won’t flow well. The narrative reads well for a long stretch, and then it hits a stumbling point.

That yellow highlighter of mine really gets a work out—maybe I’ll have to buy a case of them.

Another thing I have discovered by reading the entire chapter rather than just a page here and there—I can see where I am repeating entire ideas. This is a common problem for me in the first draft.

Having Natural Reader or another reading program do the reading for you helps, and I have made use of that many times. But this experience has shown me that while these wonderful programs are incredibly useful, they don’t do the job quite as well as a human voice does. They often mispronounce words that are heteronyms—words that are spelled the same as another word, but which are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

  • Read (pronounced reed) as in the act of reading
  • Read (pronounced red) as in having already finished reading the book.

Natural Reader rarely guesses those sorts of words correctly. The cadence and rhythm of the narrative is not as clearly heard when the mechanical voice does the reading, even if you are reading along silently. It tends to be rather flat, a monotone.

I’m not talking poetry here, but good prose has movement when it is read out loud. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes slow, but it should have no rough spots for the reader to stumble over.

What I love about listening to audio books is the way prose sounds when it’s read aloud by an experienced narrator. Some narratives are beautiful when read aloud, and some are not.

If you intend to have your work made into an audio book, you want to make your work easy for the narrator to read without faltering.

So, now I will add ‘printing out and reading entire chapters aloud and marking places that need correction with a yellow highlighter’ as a regular tool in my writer’s toolbox. As long as the old printer keeps limping along, doing its job, this should speed things up.

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The Proofreader #amwriting

I see the process of getting a manuscript ready for publication as a four-part process.

  1. Writing the first draft.
  2. Beta Reading and revising the manuscript to your satisfaction.
  3. Sending it to the editor and making suggested revisions.
  4. Having the edited manuscript proofread.

Proofreading is done after the final revisions have been made. Even though an editor has combed your manuscript and you have made thousands of corrections, both large and small, there will be places where the reader’s eye will stop.

It is best if this task is done by someone who has not seen the manuscript before. That way, they will see it through new eyes, and the small things hiding in your otherwise-perfect manuscript will stand out.

Some things your proofreader must understand:

  • The proofreader should not try to hijack the process and derail an author’s launch date by nitpicking his/her genrestyle, and phrasing.
  • The proofreader must understand that the author has been through the process with a professional line editor. At this point, they are satisfied that the story arc is what they envisioned, and the characters are believable with unique personalities. The author worked with an editor to ensure the overall tone, voice, and mood of the piece is what the author envisioned.

You will note that I have used the word envisioned twice in the above list. If a proofreader can’t restrain their unasked-for editorial comments, you should find a different reader.

The edited manuscript is the author’s creation, a product of his/her vision, and by the time we arrive at the proofing stage, it is intentional in the form it is in.

This is why a professional proofreader is a good investment. The proofreader must realize that the author and his/her editor have considered the age level of the intended audience. A proofreader does not go through a manuscript with a red pen and mark it up with editorial comments. They do not critique the author’s voice or content because that is not their job.

A proofreader does highlight places where typos and other proofing errors exist and ruin the narrative.

A proofreader understands that every typo and error is different. These little landmines are insidious and may not leap out at first glance, which is why they aren’t always caught during the editorial process. Any number of small, hard-to-detect things can occur during the process of making even minor revisions.

In case you didn’t see it when I mentioned it above, I will say it again: proofreading is not editingEditing is a process that I have discussed at length elsewhere.

At the outset, the proofreader must understand that no matter how tempting it may be, they have not been invited to edit the manuscript for content. If they cannot refrain from asking for large revisions regarding your style and content, find another proofreader.

The proofreader should look for misspelled words, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Spell-checker may or may not catch these words, so a human eye is critical for this.

  • Wrong:  Cissy wint out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Right:  Cissy went out the door, slamming the screen.
  • Wrong: There dog escaped, and he had to chase it
  • Right: Their dog escaped, and he had to chase it.

The proofreader must also look for repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are the kind of error frequently introduced into a manuscript when a tired author is making revisions. When we are pushing ourselves, even the most meticulous of authors unknowingly introduce errors when cutting and moving entire sections, rearranging portions of the narrative for a more logical flow.

You must rememberthe editor won’t see any errors you introduce when you implement their editorial suggestions. Once an editor has made their recommendations and returned your manuscript to you, they are done and won’t see the book again until it is published. You will have to make those revisions, and that is where many typos and errors occur.

Cut and paste errors are insidious and difficult to spot, and spell-checker won’t always find them. But a proofreader will notice them because the prose will contain unusually garbled sentences, and sometimes, two periods (full stops) at the end of a sentence.

  • Wrong: It is is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.
  • Wrong: Itis accepted practice to thoughts.
  • Wrong: First of all, it is accepted to ot thoughts..
  • Right: It is accepted practice to italicize thoughts.

Dialogue that is missing quotes can be a problem for many authors. When they are in a hurry, they sometimes don’t hit the quote key at the end of a sentence. Also, for US authors, they must be closed (double) quotes rather than single quotes.

  • Wrong: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area,’ said Officer Shultz. “What do you know about the dead man?
  • Right: “Doctor Mendel, you’re new to the area,” said Officer Shultz. “What do you know about the dead man?”

Numbers that are digits are acceptable to use when writing notes and emails. They can also be used if you are writing a blogpost, but ask any bookkeeper – digits are as easy to accidentally mess up as words.

  • Wrong: There will be 3000 guests at the reception.
  • Wrong: There will be 003 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be 300 guests at the reception.
  • Right: There will be three hundred guests at the reception. (In literature, we write it out.)

Dropped and missing words will make the prose seem garbled and hard to follow.

  • Wrong: Officer Shultz sat at my table, me gently.
  • Right: Officer Shultz sat at my table, grilling me gently.

Something you must be aware of if you have paid for someone to proofread for you—each time you tweak the phrasing or create a new passage in your edited manuscript, you run the risk of creating another undetected error. Never make revisions when you are tired or not fully on your toes.

If you are happy with the way your manuscript was edited, I suggest you do not ask a different editor to proofread your manuscript, as they may be unable to resist suggesting larger changes. Each editor sees things differently and editing is their nature and their job.

The problem is that this can go on forever, and you run the risk of ironing the life out of your manuscript and losing the feeling of spontaneity, making it feel contrived. You also risk publishing a manuscript that looks unedited because of the flaws that were introduced in the proofing process.

Before you publish your book, do yourself a favor and have it proofread by an intelligent reader. Find someone who understands what you are asking them to do and who is willing to do only that. If you are a member of a writing group, you have a good resource of readers there.

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Update and Resolutions for 2019 #amwriting

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the year of 2018 is enjoying its last hurrah. People are getting ready for parties and counting both their successes and failures. It has been an eventful year for both my family and my writing life, so I am looking forward to what 2019 will bring.

My quest to complete the three-book literary fantasy series, Billy’s Revenge, will finally come to an end. Julian Lackland is on the home stretch and will go to the editor on February 1st. Depending on how quickly that goes, he will be published in June. Julian began life as my first NaNoWriMo Novel in 2010 and was picked up by a small press. Unfortunately, that didn’t go well.

It has taken me eight years to undo the damage they did and get this manuscript into proper shape. Julian Lackland is why I have been on this quest to educate myself about the craft of writing. I wanted to give Julian the kind of book he deserves, and judging by my beta readers’ comments, the effort has been worth it.

I am also closing in on finishing the first draft of a new duology set in Neveyah, the Tower of Bones world. One of the things I learned when I was trying to finish Valley of Sorrows, is that readers who begin a series want the next book in a timely fashion. They might wait a year, but after that, they will forget about it. It takes me four years to get a book from concept to publication, which can be a problem.

What I am doing differently with Alf’s story is this: I’m writing the first draft of the entire story arc before I begin revisions on the first book. So, this means I am writing a 250,000 word manuscript. Only when the entire first draft is finished will I begin the editing process. The manuscript will be broken in half and published as a duology, hopefully six months apart, assuming that editing goes smoothly when we get to that stage.

I am also finishing the stand-alone book that was begun as a serial in 2015, Bleakbourne on Heath. I have approximately 20,000 words left to write before it goes to the editor. Leryn’s story was so much fun to write. I had never done a serial, and unfortunately, I soon discovered I couldn’t keep up the daunting schedule I had set for getting my installments published. It was like “live television.” Whenever I sat down to write a chapter, I had no idea what was going to happen next.

One day I realized I had reached a creative plateau and had no idea how to finish the damned thing. Some people consider that writer’s block, but not me. When I can’t think of a way to advance a particular story, it’s time to rein it in and put it aside for a while to work on something else. So, I wrote a wedding scene, and ended the serial on a happy note, winding up most of the threads, but with the main quest still unfinished.

Last year was a good year for short stories, some of which found good homes in forthcoming anthologies. Also, two of my poems were selected for publication in the I Hear Olympia Singing poetry anthology and were chosen as the opening verses. I survived my first live poetry reading and met some amazing people in the process. Yay for that!

Despite cutting back on my professional editing schedule, I was privileged to edit several wonderful books for my clients—what a joy that aspect of my life is. I can’t completely drop out of that part of this business, as I love working with my clients, helping them to realize the vision they originally had for their book.

My resolutions for 2019 are to publish at least one novel, have a second one either published by the end of the year or ready to go in 2020, finish the first draft of my duology, and continue to write short stories and poetry, and continue to edit for my private clients.

I will keep writing new words every day, and I will remain involved in the local writing community. That connection with other writers feeds my creativity, offers me a sounding board, and keeps me working with good people who will read for me and show me what needs to be rewritten.

Thank you for being a part of my writing life. May the new year bring you good fortune, good food, and good friends. May the new year bring us all inspiration and determination—the two most important gifts a writer could have.


Credits and Attributions

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Dirck Hals – Musicians – WGA11043.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Dirck_Hals_-_Musicians_-_WGA11043.jpg&oldid=253948561 (accessed December 31, 2018).

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Stormy Weather #amwriting

Today is one of the darkest days so far this winter. As I write this, it’s noon, but the sun struggles to penetrate the gloom. Wind-driven rain bullets pound at the windows and all I want to do is hibernate. The wind howls around my house, seeming like a living thing.

I am warm and snug and wrapped in a cozy, fleece-lined blanket, with a cup of hot tea in my hands. I sit with my eyes closed, imagining warmer places, lands where the sun shines every day, and a gentle rain only falls in the small hours before dawn.

Yep. I write fantasy.

This post was supposed to be about world building. I could probably look out my window and tell you what my world looks and feels like. I’d intended to show you how the rain and murkiness make the world seem two-dimensional, a study in shades of gray. I wanted you to feel the cold and damp working its way inside your hood, making walking to the store a misery. I should  warn you, though. Today is a bad day to walk anywhere. Flying branches and airborne trashcans might make your walk…an adventure.

Had we gone through the exercise that was planned, I would have asked you to talk to the friendly golden Labrador who lives inside the fenced yard on the corner and reassure him that his owner will indeed come home after work. The poor dog is doubtful, awash with separation anxiety despite the fact his owner has never failed to return.

But no.

I don’t think I will write a blog post today. Instead, I’m going to sit in my favorite chair and read. And when I put the book down for a moment, I will remember how warm the breezes of Oahu were, how different from my cold, dark, inland home. I’m going to think of Waikiki and mojitos at Duke’s Canoe Club. Sitting on the beach afterward and feeling the softness of golden sand against my bare feet. How gentle the surf seemed during our stay there, as compared to the chill of the wild North Pacific as it crashes into the Washington coast.

I’m going to remember the exhilaration of snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. The pictures didn’t do it justice, but it shines in my memory. And the next day? How do I show you the incredulous joy of sitting on a North Shore beach and being visited by giant tortoises?

Instead of being visited by thunder and lighting.

The storms may swirl and rage outside my house, but I am warm and cozy. I have orange spice tea to keep me warm and the memories of warmer places and gentler breezes to keep me company.


Credits and Attributions:

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Waikiki Beach by Helen Whitney Kelley, c. 1900 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Logic and the Deus Ex Machina #amwriting

I write fantasy novels, but I also write contemporary fiction.  All fiction, literary as well as fantasy, requires world building and a certain amount of planning as any novel or short story must have a logical story arc. Without a fundamental logic to the events, the reader can’t suspend their disbelief.

NaNoWriMo is prime “pantsing it” time. For those who don’t know that term, “pantsing” is writer-speak for “flying by the seat of your pants.” I always begin by writing to an outline, but in the mad rush to the finish, my story goes in directions I never planned for.

I outline in advance because (when writing in any genre) if you are pantsing your way through a story that encompasses 75,000 to 100,000 words, it is easy to get involved in large info dumps and bunny trails to nowhere. A loose outline will tell you what must happen next to arrive at the end of the book with a logical story set in a solidly designed world.

However, I’ve never yet written a story that stuck strictly to the original outline.

Characters develop lives and personalities of their own, and stuff happens that wasn’t planned for. When I finish the first draft, it always makes sense in my head, and I usually feel confident it can pass the logic test.

So, what is the logic test? Once you have the first draft written, let it sit for a few weeks, then come back to it. If I was smart, during my writing process I made notes where the scenes began deviating from the outline.

Screen writers have it right, so the layout of my outline is divided into acts and beats, the same as a screenplay would be listed with a brief description.

Act One

  • Opening scene–characters in “normal” environment–/ Hook
  • Inciting Incident–characters thrown out of “normal” and into new circumstances.
  • End of the Beginning

Act Two takes up 50% of the novel—it is the second quarter and third quarter combined.

  • Pinch Point #1
  • Midpoint
  • Pinch Point #2
  • Crisis

Act Three

  • Climax
  • Final resolution

Each section has a brief description of what occurs there, such as:

Act Three, scene 1

  • Leave Hemsteck
  • First campsite, Alf /Ronan talk. Dex overhears.

If I have made notes of my changes to the story line, I have a guide showing me what those changes were. I know where to go back and check to make sure the events are foreshadowed logically, and not a clumsy Deus Ex Machina. (Pronounced: Day-us ex Mah-kee-nah.) (God from the Machine.)

This is a plot twist that is used to miraculously resolve an issue. (Miraculous is the key word.) A Deus Ex Machina occurs when, toward the end of the narrative, an author inserts a new event, character, ability, or otherwise resolves a seemingly insoluble problem in a sudden, unexpected way.

So, let’s consider an indie novel I tried to read a week ago and didn’t finish. I was in the mood for a trashy  adventure/romance, and for the first few chapters, I was able to overlook some technical annoyances because the characters were hilarious. After thinking about it, I doubt the author intended it to be such a hilarious mockery of 19th century upper class mores, as everything was written so earnestly, so faux Charlotte Bronte.

The setting for the final incident that threw me out of the book completely is a grand ball at a Buckingham Palace. The main character, whom we just spent a chapter dressing in an excessive amount of detail, becomes involved in a quarrel. She draws her sword, and the fight is on.

Where did that weapon come from? Swords aren’t easy to conceal. It wasn’t part of the highly detailed scene where her maid was dressing her one layer at a time. Why was she wearing a sword at a formal event? Do all the ladies go armed at these events? If so, it should have been made a part of the choosing-the-gown scene. Give her a fancy scabbard to keep that handy  rival-stabber in, something that looks all bejeweled and goes with the outfit.

In late Regency/early Victorian times, officers wore ceremonial swords to formal events. Women were never armed openly. Any weapons they had would have been knives, poison, or pistols and would have been concealed, not hanging from their waist in a long scabbard. A pistol in her bodice would have almost logical. So, if you intend for her to draw her sword, there must be a logical reason for these men and women to be armed.

When I look back at my story’s outline, starting from the ending and working forward, does the characters’ journey to the final page make sense? If my characters must show up to a grand ball fully armed, it must be logical, a part of their culture.

Good writers don’t rely on miracles to ensure things work out to the main character’s advantage. They use logic and insert small clues and hints into the narrative, so the reader doesn’t feel cheated. To that end, I suggest keeping an updated outline of what happens in each scene.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt – Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_-_Rembrandt_and_Saskia_in_the_Scene_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=302686497 (accessed December 16, 2018).

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5 things I’ve learned #amwriting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavens_Altar_V5.docx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Functions of the Scene revisited #amwriting

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

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

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


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

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

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

Some things a scene can show:

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

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

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

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

Information/Revelation: The Council of Elrond serves the purpose of conveying information to both the protagonists and the reader. It is a conversation scene, driven by the fact that each person in the meeting has knowledge the others need. Conversations are an excellent way to deploy needed information. Remember, plot points are driven by the characters who have the critical knowledge.

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

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

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

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

Negotiation: What concessions will have to be made to achieve the final goal? These concessions must be negotiated. Tom Bombadil is at first mentioned as one who could safely take the ring to Mordor as it has no power over him. Gandalf feels he would simply lose the ring, or give it away because Tom lives in a reality of his own and doesn’t see the conflict with Sauron as a problem. Bilbo volunteers, but he is too old and frail. Others offer, but none are accepted as good candidates for the job of ring-bearer for one reason or another. Each reason offered for why these characters are found to be less than satisfactory by Gandalf and Elrond deploys a small bit of information the reader needs.

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

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

So, within the arc of the story are smaller arcs, arcs of conflict and reflection, each created by scenes. The arc of the scene is like any other: it begins, rises to a peak, and ebbs, ending on a slightly higher point of the overall story arc than when it began, leading to the brief transition scene.

Transitions can be as simple as a change of setting, one character leaving the room for a breath of air. They can be hard transitions, the scene ends and with it, so does that chapter. Within a chapter, conversations can serve as good transitions that propel the story forward to the next scene, offering a chance to absorb what just happened. If using a conversation as a transition, it’s important you don’t have your characters engage in idle chit-chat. In literary terms, a good conversation is about something we didn’t know and builds toward something we are only beginning to understand.

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

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About Dialogue #amwriting #nanowrimo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the rules of how to write readable dialogue:

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I did say All punctuation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credits and Attributions:

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

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

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

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