Tag Archives: writing

Gaining strength through rejection #amwriting

We who are authors and artists are notoriously thin-skinned. When we are young in the profession and still consider our works to be the equivalent of our perfect children, we bleed profusely when you admit you didn’t really enjoy what we wrote (or sang, or painted). Some of us handle this kind of conversation with grace and dignity, and others not so well.

But what if the unloved thing was the best thing we ever wrote?

It does happen.

I get ten rejections at least for every one acceptance, but usually many more. I get so many that I hardly even notice them nowadays. I just keep the revolving door revolving. After all, if you don’t submit your work, you won’t get any acceptances.

When I first began shopping my work out, I would feel crushed upon receiving a rejection. However, when I look back at those efforts, I can clearly see why those particular pieces weren’t accepted.

First, 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?

Wrong.

I wasn’t as well educated as I thought I was. Typos, dropped and missing words, long, convoluted sentences, and hokey dialogue—all found their way into my first efforts.

I began to get past that stage when I found Orson Scott Card’s book, “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.”

I still didn’t understand everything, or even most of anything. But I was on the road to learning more about what I didn’t know. Books on the craft of writing began to fill my shelves, and I took classes and went to seminars.

Nowadays my work is submission ready and as clean as I can make it. Sometimes my work is accepted, and believe me, I celebrate. Most of the time it is rejected, and not because it is bad. Most of the time, rejection means that I submitted something that wasn’t what the editor was looking for.

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

What I’m going to say next has been said before, many times. Sometimes we receive a form letter rejection that boils down to “Sorry, but no.” It isn’t personal, so don’t brood over it. Those kinds of rejections are bad only because they don’t tell us why the piece wasn’t acceptable.

Sometimes we receive a little encouragement: “Try us again.” That means exactly what it says, so the next time you have something you think will fit in that anthology or magazine, send them a submission.

I know this makes no sense, but when an editor explains their reasoning in a letter, it is very likely that some phrase will be like a knife to the chest for the author. This is because it’s a rejection and may contain detailed criticism.

I once got a rejection from an anthology along with a note that said the subject of my quest had been done before. I was a little surprised and hurt because I felt that comment was vague and meant they didn’t even bother to read the story.

I could have responded childishly, but that would have been foolish and self-defeating. The truth was the type of quest it involves has been done before. I felt that my story was original in its presentation, but it didn’t ring that editor’s bells.

I hauled myself off to a corner and licked my wounds. Then, I sent that editor a response thanking them for their time. An editor’s bluntness is valuable, so I will someday rework that tale with a different twist.

We live in a world that is always observing us. We are judged by the way we act and react in every professional interaction. If you’re in a writing group and your work isn’t as well received as you thought it would be, don’t respond to a peer’s criticism without thinking it through.

Even worse, if you fly off and send a flame mail to an editor, you risk doing irreparable damage to your career—you will be put on that editor’s “no way in hell” list.

Also, please don’t go bad-mouthing that editor on Twitter or Facebook. All that drama is just plain embarrassing, and unprofessional.

It’s easy to forget that editors are also authors. They are involved with the same forums in all the many social platforms you are, so be careful of what you say online. Editors are just like the rest of us, and they’ve experienced their share of rejection.

When an author has a public tantrum, the innocent bystanders remember it. Snide tweets about other authors, awkward Instagram photos, or Facebook rants don’t show a person in a good light.

I shouldn’t have to remind anyone of this, considering all the noise about Facebook and our personal information, but how we interact online with others is public information and is visible to the world.

We must always consider what an interested reader will find when they  Google our author name. Our online interactions at Goodreads, Twitter, and in every other public forum will be available for eternity.

What should you do if your work is accepted, but the editor would like a few revisions?

If the editor wants changes, they will make clear what they want you to do. This happens most often for submissions to an anthology. Editors know what their intended audience wants.  Trust that the editor knows their business.

Make whatever changes they request.

Never be less than gracious to any of the people at a publication when you communicate with them, whether they are the senior editor or the newest intern. Be a team player and work with them.

Negative feedback is a necessary part of growth. I keep a file of my rejection letters/emails. Most are simple: “We are not interested in this piece at this time.” Some have short notes attached with the words, “Try us again in the future.” Some contain the details of why a piece was rejected, and while those comments are sometimes painful, they are the ones I learn from.

Rejection is the most common kind of response an author will receive, sometimes for years. How we react to it is where each of us has the opportunity to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. My next post will be on making your short-story manuscript “submission ready.”

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The Short Story: Need, Limits, and Theme #amwritng

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

Assume you have a 4000 word limit for your short story.

You have less than three paragraphs before a prospective editor sets your work aside. If those paragraphs don’t grab her, she won’t buy your story. Pay attention: you absolutely must have a good opening paragraph.

The first 250 words are the setup and hook. The next 750 words takes your character out of their comfortable existence and launches them into “the situation” –will they succeed or not?

The next 2,500 words detail how the protagonist arrives at a resolution.

The final 500 words of your story are the wind-up. You might end on a happy note or not—it’s your story, but no matter what else you do, in a short story, nothing should be left unresolved. For this reason, I feel subplots should not be introduced into the short story unless they directly advance the larger story. You need to use every word you are allowed to make that story the one the publication’s editor can’t put down.

I am a plotter, so I write my short works to an outline. However, I will deviate from my original plot if I have an idea that works. I need that structure when I begin writing, or my plot will stall, and the story will never be completed. When I don’t know how the story will end, the plot wanders all over the place, and I have a story that will garner a pile of rejections.

Theme is an essential tool for writing a coherent short story, and many anthologies are themed. When you assemble your outline, ask yourself these questions:

  • What will be your inciting incident? How does it relate to the theme?
  • What is the goal/objective? How does it relate to the theme?
  • At the beginning of the story, what could the hero possibly want to cause him to risk everything to acquire it?
  • How badly does he want it and why?
  • Who is the antagonist?
  • What moral (or immoral) choice is the protagonist going to have to make in his attempt to gain that objective?
  • What happens at the first pinch point?
  • In what condition do we find the group at the midpoint?
  • Why does the antagonist have the upper hand? What happens at the turning point to change everything for the worse?
  • At the ¾ point, your protagonist should have gathered his resources and companions and should be ready to face the antagonist. How will you choreograph that meeting?
  • How does the underlying theme affect every aspect of the protagonists’ evolution in this story?

What narrative mode will you use? Who is the best person to tell the story? One of my favorite short stories to write, Thorn Girl, is in the forthcoming anthology, Swords, Sorcery, and Self-rescuing Damsels. I could easily have told her story in third omniscient POV, but I had a compelling main character with a real, gut-wrenching story.

Originally, I tried to write her tale in my usual narrative mode of Third Person. As I worked, that mode didn’t feel as close, as intimate as I wanted.

My MC had to tell her own story.

The theme was a good theme, but it was a challenge to write something original and not overdone. It was an excellent opportunity to think wide.

In the first draft, there were several places that I thought were the beginning. As always, I had difficulty deciding where the story actually began. After reading that first draft, my writing group pointed out that the narrative had to begin at the point of no return, as there is no room for backstory.

I tossed out the first half of the original story and begin at what I had originally thought was the middle. That was when things began to fall together.

What did my character actually know? Realistically, she could only know what she witnessed.

I spent some time figuring out what she really could have witnessed or overheard, and then worked only with that information.

What did my protagonist want? At first glance, it seemed obvious, but the purported quest was only an impetus, a prod to move her down the path she needed to travel. Her true quest was to find herself as a human being, as much as it was to honor a promise made and quickly regretted.

What was she willing to do to achieve it? I didn’t know. She didn’t know either, and until I wrote the last line, I didn’t know what she was capable of or if she had the backbone to accomplish it.

Short stories are a real training ground for authors because words must be rationed. Writing short stories forces me to consider how my limited number of words can be used to their best advantage. It requires me to tell a large story using a limited number of words carefully chosen for their impact. Word choice and sentence structure must convey a massive amount of information: mood, atmosphere, setting, hints of backstory – all packed into a finite space that is already occupied by knowable characters, a coherent plot, and an ingenious resolution.

I try to keep conciseness and creative word choice in mind when writing longer works.

To wind this rant up, need drives the short story, theme stitches it together, and word-count limits force concise storytelling.

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The Author’s Superpower #amwriting

The world around you is filled with ordinary people, each going about their ordinary business, working ordinary jobs. When you meet these accountants, homemakers, engineers, programmers, and baristas, you would never know that among them are a few with a dark secret—they are possessed of dual superpowers.

What incredible feats are they capable of? Unfortunately, unless they are Doctors,  First Responders, Firefighters, or Astronauts, their dual powers are not likely to visibly shake the world.

But their powers do bring change, working subtly, opening minds to possibilities hitherto unconsidered.

They are authors. When no one is looking, they create entire worlds, fill them with people, cultures, political systems, religions, and with each paragraph they write, they start these worlds spinning.

The first superpower is the gift of “what if.” What if” is an ability latent in all sentient creatures, but only storytellers seem able to tap into it at will. This is the author’s first superpower, but it is useless without the second gift.

A moment of “what if” was the spark that started the fire in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

What if” started Bilbo Baggins down the road to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit.

Many people have that nagging idea, that moment of “what if,” but few also have the other gift, the “power of perseverance.” While many will imagine, and many will begin to write, few will go to the trouble of finishing their book.

Imagination and perseverance are the author’s superpowers.

They are the gifts of the few who have the determination, the will to learn the craft of writing so that their moment of “what if” can become a reader’s moment of “You have to read this book!”

So, you have the imagination, and you believe you might also have the perseverance. You have a book about to burst from you, and you want to get it right. What do you do? Every superpower must be trained, or who knows what havoc you could wreak?

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR SUPERPOWERS:

  1. Write new words every day. Revise old words as needed.
  2. Read books that inspire you.
  3. Read books you hate.
  4. Dissect books to discover what makes them great or awful.
  5. Write new words every day. Revise old words as needed.
  6. Go to writers’ conferences if you can.
  7. Attend writers’ seminars if you can.
  8. Join a local writers’ group.
  9. Buy and read books on the craft of writing.
  10. Write new words every day. Revise old words as needed.

Superheroes must work at training their powers, or they become flabby and useless.

Suggestion 9 is the most affordable of the suggestions.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. No one style guide will fit every purpose. I use Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar and Punctuation to answer my questions about grammar and punctuation.

The following is the list of books that are the pillars of my reference library:

My reference library grows daily. I talk to writers every day about the craft, about their lives, about their approaches to what they do. I want to know what inspires them, what books they got advice from, what books they read as children that lit the fire that burns inside them.

Writing is my superpower, and I am constantly in training.

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Thoughts on Character and Place Names #amwriting

I have addressed the subject of names for both places and people before, in my post of January 14, 2019, Naming Characters. A conversation in an online writers’ group has prompted me to revisit it, but there’s no reason for me to repeat the bulk of that post. However, there are some points that could use a little more expansion.

To begin with, names are more than just handles to carry your characters. How we name our characters, and the names we give places in our worlds offers the reader cultural information that you don’t have to resort to giving through an info dump.

A Viking named “Wayne” wouldn’t be believable. But for most Americans and many Europeans, Viking names are difficult to pronounce when written in Old Frisian, which is the root language that English shares with Danish. A good way to keep a cultural feel but make the tale easier to read is to write the names the way they are pronounced or use simple ones.

Many modern Nordic names are easy for English speakers to read and pronounce and will give your story that Saxon flair. So, consider looking names up on baby naming websites rather than the hokey “Discover-Your-Viking-Name” type websites. While “Wayne” doesn’t really work in an Old Saxon-style society, “Fritjof the Flatulent” doesn’t either, unless you are writing comedy.

I stressed this in my previous post, but I feel it needs to be said again. Do keep the simplicity of spelling and ease of pronunciation in mind when sourcing names for your work.  I didn’t understand that concept when I first began writing seriously. When I named my characters, I did it for how the words looked on the page, never considering that they might be read aloud.

When I wrote Huw the Bard, it never occurred to me that most people wouldn’t know that Huw is Welsh for Hugh and is pronounced the same. I was raised around people of both Welsh and Irish origin, and I wanted Huw to have that cultural flavor.

That spelling choice has been a problem since publication because most people are unaware that a “W” is actually a “Double U” – UU -2 U(s). It is pronounced “Yoo” or “oo” (like goo) in Welsh and in old English words.

I have another character in my Tower of Bones series named Friedr – pronounced Free-der. This name is also a problem for readers.

Audio books are the new “must do” way to get your work into the hands of “readers.” How will that name be pronounced when it is read out loud? Take my advice and write your names so a narrator can easily read it aloud without stumbling. If you are just beginning your career as an author, you probably don’t realize how  important this is.

I learned several things about names the hard way. I only have one book that is an Audio book, but the experience of making that book taught me to spell names simply. I resolved my stupidity by telling the narrator he should pronounce the problem names the way that worked best for him, and that made him happy.

There are many good sites for names on the internet. You can find Norse, French, Hawaiian—they are all out there and they have some wonderful, simple names for you to use. You can get a little fancy—that is good and adds a cultural flavor to your characters. But when readers aren’t sure how to pronounce your main character’s name, they might focus on that rather than on your novel.

Speaking as one author to another, you never want to write something into your narrative that will throw the reader out of the book.

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Mind Wandering #amwriting

I write my blog posts a day or two ahead, usually trying to get them written and scheduled on Sundays. That way, I can concentrate on pretending to be an author.

It’s a pretense today because I just want to slounge around out on my back porch and enjoy that rarest of winter glories—the sunny day.

Some days are perfect for sitting on the porch and just letting my mind wander and this day is too cold, but I don’t care. I’ve had enough of winter and just want to sit in the sunshine, cold though it may be.

I take my blanket out and uncover a chair. I do check for spiders before I sit—they like the porch as much as I do, sadly. Every sunny morning from here on through September will find me out with a broom, chasing spiders off MY territory. My relocation program is inefficient and by August they will far outnumber me, but I don’t kill them. They have a place in this yard, just not on my porch or in my chair.

Fluffy white clouds drift overhead, hummingbirds dart here and there, my eyes close, and I absorb the sounds of my small town all around me.

The trees and shrubs of this small neighborhood harbor mourning doves and they seem to be speed-dating—eager to get on with nest building and rearing chicks.

The drone of large helicopters flying low over my home as they leave the base nearby shakes the house and rattles the dishes. I don’t like helicopters, and really don’t like them so low over my home, but it’s a disturbance I must put up with, as all who live in my area must do.

They pass over the hills and fade into the distance, diminishing altogether. A passing train resounds from the other end of town, sounding its horn to alert vehicles at the crossings. I like hearing the train in the distance.

But back to the finches, hummingbirds, and mourning doves. They share this neighborhood with chickadees, nuthatches, and brown tree-creepers. Crows and stellar-jays, starlings, and wrens also live here.

I need to just let my mind wander. I have a short story jammed in my head, and it will have to find its own way out. I know from experience that forcing them never works for me. Mind wandering is the only way to pry it loose.

Winter has been a long, drawn-out affair this year. We’ve had snow on and off for weeks, and while the piles of dirty snow in the local parking lots are mostly gone, it’s cold, only a few degrees above freezing. I should pull myself together and go inside. I have an editing job I need to finish, but the sun is shining, and the birds are out, and I’m warm enough under this blanket.

The finches and doves go quiet—a lady jay has landed in my still-barren maple tree. She flies down, picking something from the ground, then flies away.

Soon the sounds of the local mourning doves advertising their availability for mating resume, a gentle background to my thoughts.


Credits and Attributions:

Mourning Dove on Easter Day, by Kazvorpal [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Mourning Dove on Easter day.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository,

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Identifying Genre, revisited #amwriting

Some of you have been following my advice to build a backlog of short pieces to enter in contests and submit to various publications. But where should you try to sell your work?

When you open the Submittable App and begin shopping for places to submit your work, you may find the list of open calls confusing. Many times contests, publications, and anthologies are genre specific.

When your work is nonfiction, it’s no problem because your work is targeted to a magazine with a specific readership, so the sub-genre will be clear and where you should submit it was likely evident the day you decided to write it.

When you write short fiction with no specific contest or magazine in mind you can run into problems of where to send it. If you are like me, some of your work may straddle genres, and in that case, how do you decide who will be most receptive to it? Spur-of-the-moment stories may be widely different from your normal work, and perhaps are not in a genre you can easily identify.

This list of genres and what they represent has appeared on this blog before. Genre is defined by setting and content, the author’s intention, their approach, and the way resolutions happen. The ideas explored within the setting are the provinces of these industry-wide distinctions.

Mainstream (general) fiction—Mainstream fiction is a general term publishers and booksellers use to describe works that may appeal to the broadest range of readers and have some likelihood of commercial success. Mainstream authors often blend genre fiction practices with techniques considered unique to literary fiction. It will be both plot- and character-driven and may have a style of narrative that is not as lean as modern genre fiction but is not too stylistic either. The prose of the novel will at times delve into a more literary vein than genre fiction, but the story will be driven by the events and action that force the characters to grow.

Science fiction—Futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life are the core of science fiction. You should be aware that the internet is rife with purists and impurists ranting on what does or does not constitute  sci-fi. If you use magic for any reason you are NOT writing any form of sci-fi.

  • Hard Sci-fi is characterized by rigorous attention to accurate detail in the physics, chemistry, and astrophysics. Emphasis is placed on accurately depicting worlds that more advanced technology may make possible.
  • Soft Sci-fi is characterized by works based on social sciences such as psychology, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology.
  • Other main sub-genres of Sci-fi include Space-operasCyberpunk, Time Travel, Steampunk, Alternate history, Military, Superhuman, Apocalyptic, and Post-Apocalyptic.

The main thing to remember is this–Science and Magic cannot coexist in the Genre of Science Fiction. The minute you add magic to the story, you have Fantasy.

Fantasy is a genre of fiction that commonly uses magic and other supernatural phenomena as a primary plot element, theme, or setting.  Like sci-fi and literary fiction, fantasy has its share of snobs and damn fools when it comes to defining the sub-genres:

  • High fantasy–High fantasy is defined as fantasy fiction set in an alternative, fictional world, rather than the real, or “primary” world, with elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume Often the prose is literary and the primary plot is slowed by many side quests. Think William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien.
  • Epic Fantasy–These stories are often serious in tone and epic in scope, dealing with themes of grand struggle against supernatural, evil forces.Epic fantasy shares some typical characteristics of high fantasy includes fantastical elements such as elves, fairies, dwarves, dragons, demons, magic or sorcery, wizards or magicians, constructed languages, quests, coming-of-age themes, and multi-volume narratives. Tad Williams’s Memory Sorrow and Thorn is classic Epic Fantasy.
  • Paranormal Fantasy–Paranormal fantasy often focuses on romantic love and includes elements beyond the range of scientific explanation, blending together themes from all the speculative fiction genres. Think ghosts, vampires, and supernatural.
  • Urban Fantasy–can take place in historical, modern, or futuristic periods, and the settings may include fictional elements. The prerequisite is that they must be primarily set in a city.

Horror—Horror fiction  shocks or frightens the reader. Some horror induces a feeling of repulsion or loathing – people who read horror like to be challenged by their fears.

Romance—Novels of this type of genre fiction place their primary focus on the relationship and romantic love between two people and must have an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

(07 Mar 2019) Edited to add Mystery and Mystery/Adventure. Mystery is a genre with several subgenres.

  • “Who Dunnit” mysteries, cozy (think Agatha Christie)
  • Mystery, true crime
  • Mystery, hardboiled detective
  • Political thrillers
  • Legal thrillers
  • Medical Thrillers
  • Supernatural Mysteries
  • Romantic Mysteries

I mention Literary Fiction last because it is the most complicated and least understood genre of all.

Literary fiction can be adventurous with the narrative. The style of the prose has prominence and may be experimental, requiring the reader to go over certain passages more than once. Stylistic writing, heavy use of allegory, the deep exploration of themes and ideas form the core of the piece.

I have discussed the following  three books before, but they illustrate the problem of perception—the question of what constitutes Literary Fiction.

Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night is a historical fantasy. However,  the style and voice in which it is written makes it a powerful literary work.

The same goes for George Saunders work. Tenth of December is technically sci-fi, and Lincoln in the Bardo is historical fantasy, but it is his style and voice that makes George Sanders literary.

Neil Gaiman’s book, Stardust, is a magnet for the “that’s not literary/yes it is” debate. The prose is literary, the narrative has a relaxed, thought provoking style to it. I consider it literary.

Be careful of how you present yourself and your work. Never submit anything that is not your best work, and do not assume they will edit it because they won’t.  No publisher will accept work that is poorly written, sloppily formatted, and generally unreadable.

Choose carefully who you submit your work to and be scrupulous in following their submission guidelines. Read a sample of what they publish and only submit the work you have that best fits their publication.

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Conflict, Tension, and Pacing #amwriting

When we sit down to read a book, most readers don’t consciously look for certain key elements, but we know when something is missing. Unfortunately for most authors, I am not most readers. I can’t just read a book anymore. I must dissect it to see what makes it tick. When a story works well, I  want to know why. Then, as needed, I hope to incorporate that bit of author-magic into my writing.

Consider conflict—What pushes the characters? What element drives and forces the momentum of the story?

My book reading group just finished Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. I had read it in 1985 when it was first published, re-read it for a book review five years ago, and re-read it again for the group’s February book. I don’t like the book, but I admire it.

I know–that doesn’t make sense. But it does, because I admire it in a purely mechanical, technical way.

From Wikipedia:

Ender’s Game is a 1985 military science fiction novel by American author Orson Scott Card. Set at an unspecified date in Earth’s future, the novel presents an imperiled mankind after two conflicts with the Formics, an insectoid alien species which they dub the “buggers”. In preparation for an anticipated third invasion, children, including the novel’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are trained from a very young age through increasingly difficult games including some in zero gravity, where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed.

Even though I had read it before, I became involved in Ender’s story on this third read primarily because the author did all the right things.

This, despite the fact I don’t care for Card’s writing style. His ability to convey both character and story outweighs the irritation I have with the prose and style of his work.

  • The plot is always moving forward.
  • There is no overuse of backstory.
  • Showing is well-balanced with telling—it’s not obnoxiously in-your-face with descriptions of minute facial expressions but has enough active prose to keep the reader involved in the narrative.
  • The characters are shown to have a believable internal/external struggle, even though the book is about training children to kill.

Card explores the theme of “Compassion vs. Ruthlessness,” and the book has some exceedingly violent scenes. The three Wiggins children are the primary characters, with Ender being the main protagonist.

Ender is compassionate, and yet ruthless. One thing I found disturbing is that in the book, Ender was 6 when he leaves Earth for Battle School and 11 by the time of the final examination battle. During that time, he has killed (in self-defense) two boys who were bullying him, and untold numbers of the enemy, although he never learns that he caused their deaths until much later.

Valentine, Ender’s older sister, is compassionate, but without the power of ruthlessness both Ender and Peter demonstrate. She becomes Peter’s accomplice.

Peter, the oldest of the Wiggin children, is ruthlessness embodied and is utterly without compassion—a sociopath. His one ambition is to rule the world, and he will stop at nothing and use anyone to achieve that end. Yet, despite his personal lack of compassion, he turns out to be a good ruler. Evil in this book is represented by his acting for the wrong reasons, regardless of the outcome.

I may not like his style, but I have a great appreciation for Card’s ability to reveal a character, and I admire the way he paced the narrative.

The resolution of one conflict leads to another, which is resolved and turns into another—the author keeps the pressure on, raising the tension by always raising the stakes. Yet, he gives both Ender and the reader a chance to rest a little and regroup before flinging them into the (slightly more intense) action again. In these less intense moments, the story is still moving because we are learning something we didn’t know, and that knowledge is crucial to what may follow.

The serious topics of genocide and Western expansionism are explored. These actions are justified or regretted depending on the character in this book. Also, we see lessons in training methodology, leadership, and ethics acted out in a Military environment by bright young children.

The eternal problem of intention and morality is explored. Ender is able to strike and kill his enemies yet remain morally clean.

Those themes fuel the narrative and push the story when the physical action has temporarily calmed. They drive the conflict, create a constant raising of tension, and allow the pacing of the book to hard and fast but not overwhelming.

It is easy to unbalance a narrative by not allowing the reader to rest between scenes of intense violence and action. A scene that is all action is confusing if it has no context. Conversations are crucial because they give context to whatever action follows.

In any story, the crucial underpinnings of conflict, tension, and pacing are bound together. Go too heavily on one aspect of the triangle and the story fails to engage the reader. Balance the three, and the story works even if the reader doesn’t care for the writer’s style or prose.

The book group is going to read The Tattooist of Auschwitz next, for the May meeting. This is a book I haven’t read yet, so I’m looking forward to it. I will be looking at how characters are portrayed, what makes them compelling,  and how the pyramid of conflict, tension, and pacing pushes their growth.


Credits and Attributions:

Cover art, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, published 1985 by Tor Books,  Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “Ender’s Game,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ender%27s_Game&oldid=880941502 (accessed February 25, 2019).

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Characters: the Legalities Rant #amwriting

Reality is stranger than anything I could write. This is why I write fiction—I put reality into more palatable chunks so I can digest it better.

Drawing on the real world to help design the unreal is where good world building comes  into play. However, we shouldn’t use the real names and exact situations of people we are acquainted with in our work. Don’t thinly disguise them with a different name—they can sue us.

Consider the late Betty MacDonald, whose first published book was picked up by J.B. Lippincott. The Egg and I is a fictionalized account of Betty’s life as a chicken farmer. It was set in Chimacum, a small community in rural Washington State. The book was a success, selling well over a million copies and spinning off several movie adaptations.

It also spun off several lawsuits for defamation of character. Although the book was a critical and popular success at publication, in the 1970s it fell into disfavor because of the clichéd treatment and lack of understanding of the culture of our local Native people. The book did give rise to a perception of Washington State as a place full of eccentrics.

We are different, but every part of the country has its oddballs.

From Wikipedia:

Post-publication lawsuits

Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian “Crowbar.” The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins’ (who was also one of the presiding judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as “Pa Kettle.” On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.[3]

Some ideas will come to us from real life, but if we are writing fiction, we must never detail people too closely. If you become a success, some people may see that as their ticket to a little extra money at your expense. This, despite the disclaimer we put on the copyright page:

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.

We can and will, however, draw impressions from them.

A common “coffee shop” game is a good way to develop characters for your stories and won’t get you sued. When you go to a coffee shop that you don’t normally frequent, sit and watch your fellow patrons. Observe their behavior, their speech habits and unconscious mannerisms. It’s easy to imagine who they might be and build a whole fantasy about them.

That character sketch is the kernel that can be the start of a short story or even a novel–and all of it is fiction.

You don’t actually know a thing about them other than they like a Double Tall Vanilla Soy Latte with cinnamon sprinkles. The idiosyncrasies you see in strangers will give rise to a character you can use without risking your financial security and your reputation.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “The Egg and I,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Egg_and_I&oldid=878829393 (accessed February 20, 2019).

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The Apostrophe #amwriting

Today we’re looking at the sometimes confusing apostrophe. It has many uses, but I will only delve into the most common ways we use it in creative writing today.

In creative writing, the apostrophe is a small morsel of punctuation that, on the surface, seems simple. However, certain common applications can be confusing, so as we get to those I will try to be as concise and clear as possible.

First up, we all know that we use the apostrophe to denote possession:

  • This is George’s cat. (George owns this cat.)
  • This is Jorgensen’s cat. (A person who is going by the surname of Jorgensen owns the cat.)

Where this gets a little tricky is in the possessive form of a surname when it refers to the whole family. In this case, you insert a grammatical article (the) and make the name plural, and then add the apostrophe:

  • This is the Jorgensens’ cat. (The Jorgensen family owns the cat.)

If the Jorgensen family have a sign made for their front porch, they would have it made to read “The Jorgensens’ Home” (not “The Jorgensen’s Home,” as that would imply that only one Jorgensen lives there, and his legal name is “The Jorgensen.”)

When two or more people (or other entities such as businesses) are described as separately owning something, each name should be in the possessive form:

  • “Ralph’s and Janet’s cars are the same model.”

However, if Ralph and Janet share possession, include an apostrophe and an s after the last name only:

  • “Ralph and Janet’s car is a Prius.”

In some cases, we need to use plurals of abbreviations. In a military thriller, you might need to say, “They disarmed several IEDs.” (We would not use an apostrophe: IED’s.)

Writing a year numerically has been an area of confusion for me. This is because I rarely have had to write years in this way until recently and the use of an apostrophe for this is now considered outdated. However, this is how they should be written:

  • The tavern culture of the 1600s was flourishing. (1600’s would not be considered incorrect, just old fashioned.)
  • Dresses in the 1960s were shorter than in previous years.

An apostrophe should follow a number only if it is possessive.

  • It was 1985’s worst storm. (Some editors feel this is awkward, but I let it stand when I see it in a manuscript.)

Numbers are frequently written numerically when writing books for middle grade and YA readers, as these stories often center around schools and sports.

A single digit, such as 7, is made plural with the addition of an s: 7s

Insert an apostrophe to denote possession when you must use a number to stand in for a person in an article, such as when an athlete is identified by a uniform number:

  • Number 8’s tackle won the day.

Contractions can be confusing. Two words made into one word are joined by an apostrophe:

  • Do not = don’t
  • We are = we’re
  • You are = you’re
  • They are = they’re

And so on. A list of contractions to watch for can be found at the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia: Wikipedia: List of English contractions

Conjunctions also can be tricky.  Simply add an s, such as in the phrase “There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it” or “A list of dos and don’ts follows.” We do keep the contractive apostrophe in don’t and simply add an s to make it plural.

Sometimes a single letter looks awkward when we just use an s to indicate plurality.

“How many h’s do you spell shh with?” (hs would look very odd.)

When pluralizing capital letters, we don’t use an apostrophe: Mike earned three Ds in English this year but still passed the class.

In a narrative, the two most common missions apostrophes have are to denote possession or indicate a contraction.

  • Who’s is the contraction of “who is” or, less commonly, “who has.”
  • Whose is the possessive of “who” or, somewhat controversially, “which.”
  • Their(s) is the possessive of “they.” (They’re proud to own it, it’s theirs, and it’s not there.)
  • Its is the possessive of “it,” and “it’s” is a contraction of it is.

Note that for both they and it, there is no apostrophe in the possessive form.

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

In most English words an apostrophe indicates possession but can also indicate a contraction. The difficulty arises in the fact that both it and they are frequently part of contracted words.

In the effort to standardize English usage, early linguists made a choice to eliminate the apostrophe in the possessive form. They did this in the (futile) hope of ending confusion.

  • It’s is the contraction of “it is” and sometimes “it has.”
  • Its denotes possession: It owns it.
  • Their: they own it
  • They’re: they are

As with so many things that “seemed like a good idea at the time,” its and it’s will always cause problems for new and beginning writers. Inadvertent misuse happens even for old hands like me when I’m zipping along laying down the first draft of a manuscript, especially during NaNoWriMo.

We have to be vigilant and ensure we have looked for proper usage of its and it’s during revisions. Even the big traditional publishing houses admit sneaky errors like those like to go unnoticed until after publication.

In closing, the most common uses of the apostrophe aren’t too difficult once we learn the rules. Remember, apostrophes are integral parts of the traffic control system, signals that keep your words moving along at the right rate. Using them the way they are intended (and which readers expect) keeps the reader from throwing your book away.

I always suggest you set some time aside for writing new words every day, even if only for fifteen minutes. When we force ourselves to think about and use the basic rules of grammar regularly, we retain what we have learned.

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The Em Dash— #amwriting

Over the years, I have seen many books written by wonderful authors who overuse em or en dashes.

I also tend to do that in blogging and in Facebook posts, and my first drafts can be peppered with them. Em dashes are a kind of author’s crutch because it is easy to rely on them.

Trust me, readers find it distracting to see an em dash in every paragraph. Some editors don’t want to see one on every page. Their point of view is that the em dash is like any other repetitive word in a manuscript. As a tool, it’s useful as a way to emphasize certain ideas, and can also be used to good effect in the place of a semicolon. In my opinion, the em dash should be used sparingly to be most effective.

So, what is the difference between the hyphen and the em dash? Aren’t they the same thing?

Not at all. Hyphens are used to join two words to create a compound word. Never use a hyphen in the place of an em dash or en dash.

  • Time-saving
  • Twenty-one

Hyphens are not always necessary. If the meaning of a compound adjective is perfectly clear when written as two separate words, a hyphen is not necessary. If its meaning is understood when written as one word and common usage writes it as one word, again, a hyphen is not necessary.

Dashes are not hyphens and are used in several ways. One kind of dash that is frequently used is the ‘en dash,’ which is the width of an ‘n.’ UK usage frequently employs the en dash in the place of the em dash.

In US usage, En dashes join two numbers that are written numerically, not spelled. To insert an en dash in a Word document: type a single hyphen between two words, with a space on either side of it:

1994 – 1996 (1994SpaceHyphenSpace1996) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the hyphen will form an en dash.

The dash we are discussing today is the ‘em dash,’ which is the width of an ‘m.’

An em dash (—)   is a versatile punctuation mark. It is the width of an ‘m,’ hence the name. An em dash can serve as a comma. It does the same task as parentheses and serves the same purpose as a colon when used in the narrative.

Misty Barnett—my dog walker—loves to tango.

Tonight’s featured dances—the foxtrot, the waltz, and the Basque Sword Dance.

Used in these situations, the em dash feels less formal than a colon. This shift in usage is all about economics. The reading public drives our written language. Their preference for books with narratives light on formality is why colons are no longer used in narrative prose.

To insert an em dash in a Word document: type two hyphens next to each other without any space between the words or hyphens:

A—B (LetterHyphenHyphenLetter) Once you hit the space key after the second word, the two hyphens will form an em dash.

The em dash can be more emphatic than a comma, yet not as firm a stop as the period. It sets apart any clause bracketed by them—such as this clause—which can easily be overdone.

Their main use in my work is in dialogue. Most editors will agree that current accepted practice for fiction is to not use semicolons in dialogue. Instead, we use the em dash to join short related independent clauses. Used wisely, they can smooth a choppy conversation and make it more normal sounding. A good writer will not pepper their manuscript with them.

In the rush of getting a first draft committed to paper, we use certain words and symbols as a kind of shorthand to ourselves for later, and the emdash can be one of them. When we are making revisions, we need to be alert and reword as much as we can to do without them. Used too exuberantly, they can create a mish-mash of run-on sentences where brevity would be a better choice.

So, what are these alternative forms of punctuation to create that dramatic pause? Be creative with your word choices, phrase things carefully, and see if one of these will work as well or better:

  • PERIOD = a full stop. End of Sentence. That’s all folks.
  • SEMICOLON: Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate two sentences where the conjunction has been left out.Call me tomorrow; we’ll go dancing then. (The AND has been left out.) As I said, the semicolon has fallen out of favor with many editors for dialogue. Also, many people don’t understand how to use them. However, I have nothing against them when they are used properly.
  • COMMA:  We purchased apples, oranges, and bananas.

Authors and editors become habituated to using emdashes without thinking. After a while, the little finger just hits that hyphen key twice whenever the mind pauses.

I have mentioned this wonderful quote before, which is from a blog post called “The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash.”  The post was written by the witty Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic:

“What’s the matter with an em dash or two, you ask?—or so I like to imagine. What’s not to like about a sentence that explores in full all the punctuational options—sometimes a dash, sometimes an ellipsis, sometimes a nice semicolon at just the right moment—in order to seem more complex and syntactically interesting, to reach its full potential? Doesn’t a dash—if done right—let the writer maintain an elegant, sinewy flow to her sentences?”

Write the way you want to, use em dashes where you think they work best, and rely on proper punctuation for the rest of your narrative.

Happy writing!


Credits and Attributions:

“The Case—Please Hear Me Out—Against the Em Dash”  by Noreen Malone, staff writer for The New Republic 24 May 2011 (accessed 11 March 2018).

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