Archive for the ‘Blog Hop’ Category

Characters Shine   6 comments

Tell us what you love the most about your work(s) in progress.

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Plural

I always have more than one work in progress. At the moment, I think I have three — okay, four. The second book in the What If Wasn’t series is a completed draft just awaiting editing. You could call that my primary Work in Progress at the moment. The third book in that series has already been started because it wants to be written. The next book in Transformation Project series is also just getting underway. Both have about 20,000 words written.

So, What Do I Love MOST About Them?

I love characters that talk to me and both series are character rich. In Red Kryptonite Curve, I built Peter up as a rich kid with problems that were bound to affect the people around him. In “Dancing the Centerline” — well, doesn’t that title tell you something about the character’s evolution? At heart, Peter’s a nice kid, but I’m going to put him through hell because he earns it and I think the readers will enjoy the ride. I love his conflict. Peter wants to do better and I keep throwing obstacles in his way. How will he overcome them? Will he overcome them? Or will he fail? I mean, why wouldn’t he? Being a nice kid doesn’t solve his foundational problems. He needs to grow beyond that. What I think I love most is that Peter is conflicted and will not have an easy time of growing up. He gets to be both the hero and the villain of the story because he is his own worst enemy. So how is it going to turn out? Well, you have to read the books to find out. The third book is called “Pocket Full of Rocks”. Yeah, there’s a hint in there. But I always leave the reader and Peter with hope for the future.

In Transformation Project, there’s an ensemble cast to draw from, which may be what I love most about writing this series. I’m not stuck in one head all the time. Shane has been primary in every book so far. He can get a little dark to write because he’s a depressive with PTSD. Some of those issues were confronted in Winter’s Reckoning, but there’s deep trauma that won’t be resolved immediately, plus I left him with some severe injuries to heal from, so other characters are going to step into the spotlight for this next book. Shane will be around, but Cai and Alex will get to shine a bit and, since “A Death in Jericho” involves a murder mystery, who better than an attorney to tackle the project?

I’ve also got a very tertiary WIP in trying to write a romantic thriller again. Yeah — glutton for punishment. I like that I’m three-quarters of the way through blocking the scenes and the characters are still talking to me. Usually, when I try to write a romance, I get to a place where the characters decide to go to sleep. We haven’t reached that point yet. YAY!

Posted September 14, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Condiments Enliven the Meal   7 comments

Does anyone write stream of consciousness or capers anymore, or has the Hollywood hero’s journey ruined that?

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A Word about Capers

Go check out PJ MacLayne’s Harmony Dupree series of capers on Amazon. Clearly someone is still writing them and someone must also be reading them, and how fortunate are we that a member of our blog hop is the author of several capers?

As for Stream of Consciousness

One of the key moments of my high school English career was diagramming a 27-page sentence in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. Ms. Stithem’s Analysis of Literature offered extra credit if we did it, so I did. It was a technically grammatical sentence, but … why? Seriously. Why? Because he could? Faulkner was a great writer, but gimmicks like this — while securing his place in literary history — don’t necessarily make for good reading. I don’t remember the book. I know I had to have read it because I got an A on my analysis of it and the extra credit for diagramming the sentence (me and Mark Greenwald), but I don’t remember the content of the book, so — yeah — gimmicks are a problem.

We also read James Joyce’s Ulysses in that class and I also got a good grade in my analysis of it. And that made a bit more sense because it was interior monologue, attempting to show (as Virginia Woolf meant to do when she pioneered the technique) the way the human mind actually works. We rarely think in a straight-line narrative. We almost always flit from thought to thought in a loose and tangential web of short-lived ideas even when we’re thinking about one specific topic. I do remember more of Ulysses, but I remember a great deal more of writers like Hemingway, who used narrative language beautifully and economically, and Dickens who also used narrative like lovely embroidery, though not nearly as spare as Hemingway.

This might explain the strength of the Hero’s Journey as a literary prop. I don’t wholly subscribe to the hero’s journey myself, but the narrative format of stories is as old as story-telling itself. The Illiad is a hero’s journey tale. While we may think in stream of consciousness, we prefer our stories to be in narrative format.

Because I don’t write to a formula, the hero’s journey doesn’t often come into my thoughts while drafting my novels, but certainly I use narrative format because I think readers find it more comfortable than stream of consciousness. I tend to use the hero’s journey as a measuring stick – Did something happen in the story? Was there change? Did I bring my character to a new base? Those are important questions, but I avoid the formula of adhering to the format, because I think it’s overused, and I don’t think humans (even characters) all go through the exact same motions..

Not Dead Yet

Do I think the hero’s journey is overused by Hollywood? Absolutely! Formula has its place, but this formula needs some freshening up. This is why I don’t think stream of consciousness is completely a dead art form and I don’t think we should denigrate it. It has its place, sometimes even among the hero’s journey.

As I said, I don’t write to the hero’s journey format, but I do write narrative literature. Still, there are times when a little stream of consciousness can show a character’s inner thoughts. Sprinkled lightly through narrative like a condiment, stream of consciousness can bring the reader into the character’s mind at a visceral level — provided you don’t overdue it, which I think most readers find frustrating, which is why you don’t see a lot of stream of conscious still being used. I am unaware of the novelists banging out 28-page sentences, at any rate.

If you like historical romances, one book where I found it done well was Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm. The character of Christian suffers a stroke that severely disables his ability to use and comprehend language and the stream of consciousness highlights that disability well. As he recovers, the author gradually backs off the stream of consciousness technique, showing the improvement rather than telling the reader he is improved. I found her technique so fascinating, I actually read a romance.

I think stream of consciousness is best used sparingly, in ways that make sense within a narrative format. I don’t see it necessarily at odds with the Hero’s Journey. They could, in fact, be used as partners to make writing stronger.

In fact, some stream of consciousness elements show up in my latest novel Winter’s Reckoning. I didn’t take it to Kinsale’s level (and certainly not to Joyce’s) but it was appropriate to the crisis Shane faces and so I explored it a little bit, like that bit of parsley on the side of your dinner plate — a condiment, not a feature.

Flaws in the Gems   9 comments

Aug 24, 2020

Do you hurry through a first draft, or are you conscious of flaws as they go down? Has that changed over time?

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Either-or, black-or-white … you know me, I’m not going to answer with Door #? because, wow, short article.

Letting the Characters Lead

I don’t really think about much when writing my first draft. I have a destination in mind and it’s usually a story my characters have told me while washing dishes or filing. I invite them to run to that destination and then I just try to keep up while they tell me what happens along the way. There’s lots of flaws – passive voice sentences, some misspellings, a lot of typos, scenes that are described in bare detail, dialogue that goes on too long, sometimes scenes out of sequence. Oh, yeah, there’s plenty of flaws and I’m aware of some and don’t care about others.

Looping Back

Occasionally, I’ll get stuck as I write and I have to go back and read what came before to decide what comes next and I become well aware of the flaws at that point. Sometimes I’ll correct them and sometimes I’ll let them go until self-editing. I might append a note so I will come back to it remembering what it was I didn’t like when I read it. I know the writing advice that says “don’t edit until you’ve finished the first draft,” but I think I’ve made it clear that I believe writing rules are helpful until they become dogmas and then they are meant to be broken.

Finding the Hidden Gem

If I’m lucky, I discover a flaw that is actually a gem. That’s how I end up with turns of phrase. I’ll mis-phrase something and then when I go back to edit I’ll pause and go — whoa, that’s — yeah, that’s good — so I keep it. The series name “What If Wasn’t” was such an error. I kept circling back to it during editing. There was just something about it that seemed wrong and, yet, it so succinctly summed up Peter’s life. When more of the series is published, it will make sense to readers.

So the answer to the question is — I try to stay focused on writing the first draft and not get distracted by editing, but sometimes, I have to reread a section and I might or might not fix errors I’m aware of. I’m not into dogmatic rules telling me how to write. My writing process is my own and it serves me well when I allow it to.

Am I conscious of the flaws as I write them? Sometimes. I often know that I need to improve a section of writing before publication, but then everything I write will be open to my scrutiny when I self-edit — just as if I were editing someone else’s book.

I’ve become less tolerant of errors as I’ve put my writing into the public eye. I work much harder to edit them out before publication. I don’t try to get everything down perfectly on the first draft because I’m letting my characters talk to me at that point, but yes, if I see an error and it really bothers me, I’ll fix it — or at least give it good consideration.

Posted August 24, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Don’t Bore the Explorer   7 comments

What is story arc to you?

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Discovery Versus Plotting

As a discovery writer, I could probably joke that it is meaningless. I start writing a story and I add events, dialogue and setting until I get to the end. And, actually a lot of my source material for Daermad Cycle (The Willow Branch and Mirklin Wood) and What If Wasn’t (Red Kryptonite Curve and subsequent books) is of that sort of meandering material. Even some of my drafts for Transformation Project (See new release Winter’s Reckoning here) start out just feeling along, looking for what excites my characters to grab the plot and run with it.

No, discovery writers don’t outline — much — but truthfully, I do usually have a plan for where I’m going and I’ll get to it — eventually.

Story arc refers to the structure and shape of a story. Wow, that sounds boring already. I don’t really “do” plots. I’m all about the characters. But, yeah, I’m answering the topic, so ….

What is Story Arc?

The arc consists of the events in your story — the sequences of occurrences — the plot’s peaks, plateaus and valleys that set the pace. Still kind of boring.

“A good arc is vital if you want to engage your readers from start to finish, and deliver a satisfying conclusion.”

I don’t know who wrote that, but I’m thinking they weren’t a discovery writer. I also think whoever wrote that sentence is a bore at dinner parties.

Narrative or story arc describes a story’s full progression. According to several articles I’ve read, every story has a relatively calm beginning, a middle where tension, character conflict, and narrative momentum builds to a peak, and then an end where the conflict is resolved.

Excuse me. I need to yawn.

You already know this classic example of the story arc:

  • Boy meets girl, boy fails girl, boy gets girl again.

Writers vary that simple trope by adding complexity to the basic arc.

  • Boy meets girl, boy fails girl, boy ends up on an island with girl, boy saves girl’s life, boy gets girl again, boy falls into a volcano, and girl saves boy’s life. Happily ever after here we come.

That sounds a lot like plot and it really is related. Plot is comprised of the individual events that make up your story. The story arc is the sequence of those events. But I don’t “do” plot. My stories are character-driven. Or are they?

A Discovery Approach to Plotting

When I let my characters tell me their stories, they don’t always give me the stories in sequential order. Which is handy for me because I can, usually, get away with ordering the story however I want. I often don’t bother with that until the editing starts. I’m a discovery writer. I want to unwrap all my presents before arranging them in my house.

Yes, I know outline writers whose heads are exploding as they read this article.

Go With Your Strengths

Part of the reason I can do this is that my characters dictate the story to me and I let them run with the plot, knowing I’ll have to do a continuity cleanup later. If you’re prepared for it, it’s really not as bad as it sounds and, frankly, I don’t know another way to do it. If I try to boss my characters around, they’re likely to stop talking to me. Their character arc(s) drive the story arc. Whatever inner demons they have are going to cause them to make decisions that will drive the story arc. It’s a symbiotic relationship. While my characters struggle to reach their goals and often fail, the story arc is created. The way my characters meet challenges spawned by the story arc also bend the character arcs.

According to the 19th-century German novelist, Gustav Freytag, story arcs are pyramidal, comprised of five dramatic stages: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. That would be useful if I wrote stories in the same way people build houses — but I don’t.

Exposition – In the Beginning (Maybe)

Take exposition, for example, It’s the defacto introduction to the book — setting the table — introducing the characters, scattering the seeds of conflict, imparting a bit of background knowledge so the reader isn’t totally confused by what happens along the way.

In The Willow Branch, I introduced readers to Prince Maryn and the Kingdom of Celdrya … and then killed him, so everything readers knew about Prince Maryn sort of didn’t matter (actually it does, because his death is a historic pivotal event that effects life a century later), but it was a much stronger beginning than my original one of Padraig riding down out of the mountains, which tells you a great deal about Padraig and the kingdom, but absolutely nothing really happens in that scene. It’s like watching an episode of 30-Something.

In Transformation Project, I started Life As We Knew It (Book 1) with Shane’s gun in his mouth and his finger just outside the trigger guard. Clearly, I don’t know how to start a story. I’m not alone. P.G. Wodehouse gallops right past the exposition. If it’s good enough for him….

I tried to write exposition for the story, but the truth was, the starting point for Transformation Project needed to be the central tension of Shane’s character. He’s suicidal because he suffers from PTSD. Only when things are banging and blowing up can he care about living and so, every time the plot slows down, Shane’s got to fly too close to a flame. Otherwise, that gun is going to go back into his mouth and, well, he’s still capable of pulling the trigger … as readers might find out when they read Winter’s Reckoning. Somebody might be dead at the end of the book. Would I kill Shane? I’m not telling.

Rising Action/Triggering Event

Some people call it the “inciting incident”. I do make use of that. Before Shane can pull the gun’s trigger, something causes him to get distracted from killing himself. Romeo sees Juliet. Prim is selected during the Reaping. Some circumstance triggers a roll of the plot dice and causes a series of escalating events that set the rest of the story into motion.

In Red Kryptonite Curve, Peter’s triggering event is when he meets Cheyenne. Up to that point, he was a free agent. The character could have gone in any direction (and probably not been worth writing about) until he met the girl and then his other issues came into play.

This is the point in the story where character development takes place and relationships between characters deepen. Tension rises and conflict escalates.

Probably THE classic example of this is in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Everything that occurs after Hercule Poirot steps foot onto the train — up until the murder of R — constitutes the story’s rising action. It strengthens the suspense on the train and reveals the suspects relationships and motives to the reader. How my characters respond to the changing situations during a period of rising action speaks volumes about them.

Climax

According to more than one article I’ve read on the subject, a good climax will build upon everything earlier — the story lines, motives, character arcs — and package it all together. It’s the moment of truth for the protagonist (the peak of the character arc) and the event to which the plot’s built up (the peak of the arc). When the outer and inner journeys come together and click, you know you’ve got the beginnings of a winning climax.

On the flip side, a bad climax is the easiest way for a reader to feel cheated and chuck your book at the wall. I don’t recommend you do that with your e-reader. They’re frightfully fragile and a lot more expensive than a paperback book. So the climax is one of the most important parts of your story arc. While it’s the beginning that sells this novel, it’s the climax that sells the next novel.  

Discovery writers don’t always follow rules. I’m writing series with an ensemble cast. Sometimes there’s more than one climax and I also throw in a cliffhanger at the end. Not always, though. In Winter’s Reckoning, there’s resolution after a mid-point climax, but I also start a new event right at the end of the book. It’s not a cliffhanger per se, but it should make the readers want to come back for Book 7 (tentatively entitled “A Death in Jericho” which will focus on the familiar characters, but with a murder mystery woven in). Okay, I wanted to write a murder mystery, but I struggle to create characters to fill such a plot-driven book. My solution was to find already existing characters with a dead body. Yeah, I know, I’m breaking the rules again.

Falling Action

You’ve just blown up the dam and fixed all your characters’ problems. Good for you. I write series with ensemble casts, so it is possible I’ve done the same — in one thread — but you can bet there’s a cliffhanger fomenting in at least one thread. Why? Because if I resolved everything, I’d probably not get a lot of reads for the later books.

Yes, I know cliffhangers supposedly cause readers to pull their hair out. That’s not been my experience in analyzing KENP reads. They typically read the entire series and nobody has complained about the cliffhangers yet. I’ve got one guy who is mad at me for making military guys act like military guys and a woman who thinks I defamed God by having non-Christians act like non-Christians. Nobody’s mentioned the cliffhangers as a problem yet.. Enough said about that squirrel.

What goes up must come down. This bridge between the climax and resolution is where you show the reader the fruits of the protagonist’s toils. It’s how they get from the thrills and chills to happily ever after.

Often, my books have several climaxes and a cliffhanger at the end, which means the next book might start with a climax in the first few pages. A Threatening Fragility ends with a cliffhanging climax as Shane is thrown off a bridge with a rope around his neck. That required Day’s End to begin with a climax showing how Shane survived that event. It’s then followed by a period of movement that is no less productive to the plot than the climax, but isn’t as all-consuming. There is at least one other climax later in the book.

If I were writing stand-alones with a traditional climax in the middle or toward the end, I would have couples start pairing off and I would tie up dangling ends. Yes, I know how to do it, I just don’t think it’s always the best way to go. Sometimes it is. In Red Kryptonite Curve, which has a more traditional climax, it’s in the falling action where Peter meets Rick, who will save his life, if he’ll let him in the next book.

Resolution

Well, in stories not written by me, you’ve made it to the denouement. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are engaged. Bilbo returns to Bag End. Huck Finn settles down with Aunt Sally to be “sivilized.” Ishmael is rescued from the sea. Readers breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The book is wrapping up. In an old-fashioned detective novel, the investigator would gather everyone in a room and reveal whodunnit. All questions would be resolved, all ends wrapped up. The reader would then close the book with peace of mind.

Maybe.

Does Freytag’s Pyramid work with every story?

History is dotted with novels that bucked the trend. On the Road possesses virtually no narrative arc while To Kill a Mockingbird arguably possesses two arcs (one each for Tom Robinson and Boo Radley). The Trial builds up to a complete anti-climax in the place of a climax; meanwhile, Catcher in the Rye casually drops a sentence in the denouement about Holden going to a mental institution before the book ends, abruptly.

Writing is about exploration and discovery and there’s plenty of room within the art to try something different. Disrupting reader expectations can be risky, but isn’t always a bad thing. A strong story arc gives a story shape, but subplots can provide a measure of variety to a story. There’s no reason not to experiment. It’s not like a tattoo. You’re not stuck with it forever. You can always delete attempts at variety.

Discovery Writer Discovers Plotting

I don’t much care about the story arc until I’ve finished the first draft. The draft is the time for my characters to do whatever they want to do. I know the general destination of my characters, but I let them decide how to get there. When I come back to the story, I read it as if I’ve never seen it before and I’m a beta reader trying to make the story better. When I read it yet again, I start to make notes. I know where I want the story to end up. Does the whole of the novel aim in that direction? Why did I send Cai to a culvert in Wichita and then to a concentration camp in Hutchinson? To make him a better person. To help him to understand his brother a bit better. To make him appreciate his wife more. To make his faith real to him. To bring in characters who will be key to resolving a future conflict. They didn’t live in Emmaus and I had to find a way to get them there. Did the events I described in A Threatening Fragility and Day’s End do for Cai what I wanted to accomplish? I had to do some rewriting to make it happen, but how I depicted Cai in Gathering In could not have been possible if he’d not gone through those earlier events.

Someone gave an apt metaphor for understanding the story arc. Think of plot as the disconnected bones of a skeleton. You could arrange them in a myriad of ways, but there’s really only one right way to arrange them. The story arc is the spine of the story. It provides the framework for the plot and prevents it from being a formless blob. Amoebic formations don’t make good stories. Experimenting with the story arc or letting your characters dictate their own actions can be a delightful experience in experimentation … so long as your whole picture aims in a direction that the story needs to go.

Posted August 17, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Creative Balance   Leave a comment

Are adverbs really the devil? If they sneak in occasionally, does it mean the writer is lazy?

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Dogmas

Stephen King says,

“The road to bad writing is paved with adverbs.”

Soon, all good writers have to a avoid adverbs like they’re some sort of flesh-eating microbe. We just know that we’re failing — ourselves, our readers, our editors — if we use adverbs.

Sure, Stephen King has written a lot of best-selling books that give people the willies late at night. Do those books contain adverbs? Maybe a few. I’m thinking it’s pretty hard to completely eliminate one of the four building blocks of grammar and still write that many novels, but even if King is not a hypocrite, he’s still not the boss of me. I don’t buy that all writers must write like Stephen King. If only for variety’s sake, Stephen King should write like Stephen King and you should “do you”. I should “do me”. Other writers ….

You get the point.

Adverbs are overused in bad writing

Most adverbs modifying verbs are unnecessary. Consider this —

  • The radio was blaring loudly.
  • The radio blared loudly.
  • The radio blared.

Just reading those three sentences tells us all we need to know. We don’t really need “loudly” to understand that a blaring radio is loud. It’s “blaring” after all, and the connotation of “blaring” includes loud. This is an example of a poorly-used adverb.

For subscribers to the “show, don’t tell” school of writing, writers who use a lot of adverbs evidence weak writing skills. Adverbs carry strong descriptions, preventing writers from expressing themselves clearly. Use an adverb like “angrily” and you don’t need to describe what actions a character engaged in that showed they were angry. The reader is just given the information that the character is angry.

“Joe angrily mopped the floor” tells the reader Joe was angry, but “Joe slopped soapy water over the floor, slamming his mop into the corners while muttering under his breath” shows the reader Joe’s rage. It’s more work, but it engages the reader in a more visceral experience.

I don’t hate on adverbs and I agree we should do the extra work to show rather than tell.

Not All That Bad

That doesn’t mean adverbs are literally the devil and we writers — particularly novelists — need to avoid them at all costs.

Adverbs are often redundant. “This is very heavy” is a great example of an adverb that is unnecessary because it’s modifying a adjective that doesn’t need to be modified. Heavy is, well, heavy. However, there are times when redundancy is a useful tool for a novelist or someone trying to make a sincere apology.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • I’m so incredibly sorry.”

Depending on what the character has done, a simple apology won’t be enough. Red Kryptonite Curve ends with Ben telling Peter they can no longer be friends because his drunk driving hurt someone. Do you think Peter can go to Ben in “Dancing the Centerline” and say “I’m sorry” and all will be forgiven? He’s only going to have seconds before Ben walks away from him. “I’m so incredibly sorry” might give him a moment’s pause and Ben might listen to the next sentence or two if he emphasizes that he’s not just a little sorry for not listening to his friend in the previous book.

“I paid for the ticket. I’m attending the concert.” Okay. That conveys the meaning, but consider this —

“I paid for the ticket. I’m definitely going to the concert.” Technically “definitely” is an adverb, redundant, and unnecessary, but think about the meaning it conveys. It actually strengthens the feeling the character is expressing.

Most often, adverbs weaken the verb it is conjoined with, but not always. Sometimes, an adverb carries an emphasis that conveys a stronger sense of meaning. If you take “eliminate adverbs” as axiomatic dogma, you will miss the exception that might prove useful.

Gray Amid Black-and-White Rules

A rule that says “don’t ever” is black-and-white and traps us in corners we might not want to be in. Writing has no rules, unless you are a writer with a weakness you want to correct.

In truth, “don’t use adverbs” is a mutation of some excellent writing advice “be precise in your wording.”

  • The watermelon is very big.
  • The watermelon is enormous.

The second example is clearly more precise than the first. “Very big” is sloppy writing and doesn’t really give the writer the information he or she needs to know — that the watermelon is too big to lift. Both words are adverbs. One has a powerful place in the sentence while the other is filler.

At the risk of derailing this article into a discussion of passive versus active voice, the sentence would be better in active voice.

  • The enormous watermelon threatened to tip the wheelbarrow.

Although you could write the sentence without “enormous”, the adverb strengthens the image the sentence conveys. It doesn’t leave the reader wondering if the watermelon is just poorly placed. You know the watermelon’s size is the problem.

Adverbs can be important to the sentences we write, so long as we give them a role rather than use them as filler.

Adverbs are one of the four main parts of speech, together with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They each perform a special purpose. We construct sentences using these basic building materials. When we omit all adverbs from our writing, we struggle to give important information about not verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.

Adverbs are often thought to end with “ly”, but any word or phrase modifying a verb, adjective or adverb is an adverb:

  • Rick smashed the zombie’s skull until his arm burned and flecks of rotted brain covered the sidewalk.
  • After surviving the exodus from New York, Joline would never trust another soldier.
  • Gregor stumbled back, avoiding Ilya’s grasp.
  • Janice faced forward because riding backwards made her motion-sick.

Almost no one objects to those adverbs because they convey necessary meaning in the sentence. Even “ly’ adverbs, used judiciously, can be powerful. Consider:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson

That’s from the opening of a novel that is considered one of the best setting paragraphs ever written and look at all the “ly” words. They convey incredible meaning to the point where I don’t think the paragraph would have the same impact if they were eliminated.

Adverbs mean everything if you’re writing to a specific word count. As a novelist, Stephen King can describe events in detail. Short stories often need adverbs to stay under a word count, as do magazine articles. Journalists use all words judiciously because they have a tight word count (typically 350 words) and they use adverbs when it carries important information. If you wish to convey a clear meaning and place your sentence in a particular context, adverbs are a useful tool.

Dialogue with Adverbs?

Consider the difference between these two sentences:

  • You missed the train.
  • Clearly, you missed the train.

By reading the first sentence, we know that somebody missed their train. The narrator could be anyone – a ticket officer, a friend, a random passenger.

The second sentence shows a degree of criticism. The adverb clearly, when used in this context, can show some level of scolding or disapproval because the person missed the train. If the writer wishes to convey such a meaning then the adverb is preferred.

  • Diana is an emotional person
  • Diana is an overly emotional person.

Most human beings are emotional, so the first sentence really conveys irrelevant information. Who knows if Diana’s emotions are a good or bad quality. We can’t determine the narrator’s opinion on her emotional state.

In the second sentence, the narrator clearly believes Diana is emotional to an excessive degree. It makes all the different in the narrative.

Break the Rules When You’re Ready

I’m an overly educated writer (who just used an — gasp — adverb). Do you think I didn’t run across hundreds of rules while getting a Master’s degree in Journalism? Of course, I did.

Some people, especially editors, treat writing like there’s a checklist of dos and donts that must be followed. There are rules that are useful and then there are rules that render us weak writers writing weak books.

Of course, we should know the rules and make use of them to improve our writing. Of course, we should take advice from bestselling writers like Stephen King. There’s nothing wrong with that. I have a checklist of my known weaknesses that I use to improve my self-edits. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I also keep a list of items to bring with me on business trips, so I don’t have to waste a lot of time going “Do I have everything I need?” Checklists are useful tools.

The trouble comes when an established writer’s experience (or the experiences of many established writers) becomes dogma. You need to “do you.” Establish your own style rather than copying King’s. Hemingway wrote in a specific style that I admire, but I don’t write like him — unless my POV character is that sort of person. See, how that works?

Writing is an art and art has “suggestions”, not rules. Whether it’s Stephen King who has sold millions of books or me who has sold somewhat less (currently), our “rules” are just advice and, yes, some advice is worth following. Correct spelling, for example, is highly useful for conveying meaning to readers. Using active voice rather than passive voice will almost always create a better story. Don’t overuse adverbs is equally good advance. Don’t use adverbs at all is a bridge too far. Rules are sign posts, common elements we find in great stories, but there are also amazing stories that break some of the rules, rejecting conventions when it makes sense.

Be aware of the rules and the risks inherent in breaking them, but remember, you’re an artist. Trust your intuition and don’t be intimidated by the clipboard Nazis with the checklists who think stories should all be alike. Consider what they have to say because they may be catching problems you don’t, but don’t take their advice as gospel. Enjoy your creative freedom while remembering that rules can be parachutes that will save your life.

See, balance! As important in writing as in trapeze acts and checkbooks.

Photo-Realism in Writing   10 comments

Do you draw your main characters so that a forensic sketch artist could put them on the cover, or do they belong to the reader?

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Now this is a question I never really thought about before.

I can certainly imagine my characters in my mind’s eye and if I could draw, I might be able to sketch some of them. I’m not a very good sketch artist myself. I like landscapes. Faces are hard for me.

I do describe what some characters look like. Shane is dark – curly hair and tanned skin, indicative of his father’s Indian ancestry — but he has green eyes from his mother. His face is angular with high cheekbones, a generous mouth with full lips, large eyes, and a strong nose and jaw. I actually borrowed his look from a kid I saw in a coffee shop when I was drafting Life As We Knew It. You know he’s 6’1″ and fit. I give readers plenty of details to envision him and I’m pretty sure a sketch artist could sketch him fairly accurately.

Ryanna in Daermad Cycle is physically modeled after my daughter, so if someone wanted to do a sketch of her, I’d give them a photo, although I also think a sketch artist could reasonably depict her based on the details given in The Willow Branch.

A Lighter Touch

Other characters may not be so easily defined. You know Rob Delaney (Shane’s father) is tall, broad-shouldered, has graying sandy hair and blue eyes. The Indian blood doesn’t show in his coloring, but it does show in his facial features, somewhat obscured by a reddish beard. You don’t know a lot of other details. I left it up to the reader to fill in the blanks.

I write series and I don’t often go back to describe people more than once. If a POV character meets a character for the first time, I might share their impression of them, but — as I said recently — I don’t really like repetition in novels. I can guess Aes Sedai will wear the fringed shawl. I don’t need to know that in every stinking scene of the book. I described Jill Delaney in Life As We Knew It and it’s not until Winter’s Reckoning that I note a change in her — she’s lost weight and her red hair is growing out gray and brown at the roots — both in keeping with the apocalypse.

I think readers prefer to have a general impression of most characters so that they can choose to envision them however they want. There are times when looks matter. For example, part of Shane’s problem with feeling comfortable in his family stems from how much his looks differ from those of his siblings. He knows he physically resembles his uncle who committed suicide. That affects him. It’s part of the tension that he must resolve within himself. But I don’t need to go into so much detail that the reader feels obligated to envision the young man I saw in that coffee shop.

Engage the Reader’s Imagination

There are times when details matter and there are times when it’s best to work in broad strokes. One of the reasons I avoid face shots on my covers is that I like to give readers a chance to use their imaginations. I don’t utilize a one-technique-fits-all-characters strategy. My hope would be that if I hired an artist to sketch a character, I’d be okay if the details weren’t entirely accurate because I’ve left enough room for the imagination of the reader.

Posted August 3, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Write What You Know?   20 comments

What elements from your life are woven into your latest book?

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Write What You Know

The writing gurus all say we should write what we know – therefore, weave elements from our lives into our books. And there’s validity in that. My winter scenes are probably better than the winter scenes of someone who has never left there Kalahari desert. Their heat scenes might be better than mine (although interior Alaska does get hot in the summers, it rarely breaks 100). On the other hand, I’ve struggled to write stories set in Alaska. Do I know why that is? No. It just is. Maybe I know it too well, so writing it feels like a busman’s holiday (a subject that cropped up in Red Kryptonite Curve). So, I don’t write about Alaska, my home, but I do include all sorts of details from my own life.

It’s Natural

I don’t think we can help but weave elements of our lives into our work because writing is a product of who we are. Places I’ve visited, meadows I’ve seen on hikes, people I’ve met, dogs I’ve known — all crop up in my writing, borrowed by my characters who often feel like they aren’t a part of me, but something separate, and yet they all are spawn from my imagination. In one of my WIPs (Book 2 of What If … Wasn’t, the sequel to Red Kryptonite Curve, working title “Dancing the Centerline”) I include a description of ice cream from a Fairbanks ice cream shop – Hot Licks. The shop I describe hasn’t been there for about 25 years, but the ice cream is still served around the block. I just liked the look of the old shop better, so why not use it? But the real focus of the scene is Peter’s enjoyment of the ice cream. The real life Hot Licks has THE BEST chocolate ice cream ever developed. Unfortunately, I can’t share it with you, but I do try my best to describe it in the book.

In Transformation Project, the mustang Rocket is actually a cross between a mare that belongs to a friend and a mustang my mother loved as a kid. I combined her body with what was described to me as his personality and, viola, I had a horse I liked. She’s named after Rocket in the My Friend Flicka series (another horse with an untamable spirit).

Similarly, the planes that outnumber cars in Alaska play a significant role in Transformation Project because Alaska and Kansas share aviation and Shane and his grandfather Jacob are both pilots. And because a sizable plurality of Alaskans, including some of my friends and coworkers live without running water and sometimes without electricity in their cabins, my descriptions of life after the electromagnetic pulse fries the electrical grid is largely based on my own experiences.

In Red Kryptonite Curve, the boatman Jeff Russell is based on a coworker who I doubt has ever worked on boats, but I like his personality and physical stature so much, I cloned him.

I’ve often said this, but Ryanna in Daermad Cycle is physically patterned after my daughter.

And, of course, the character of Dick Vance is essentially my memory of my friend Dick Underwood, written in homage to him in the days after his death.

Also in that WIP, “Dancing the Centerline”, one of my husband’s stepfathers, Jack, makes an appearance as Ben’s grandfather. Why? Because I liked him and I think he would have liked my books, and because what Ben’s grandfather says to him is exactly the sort of thing Jack said to his stepson.

Meanwhile, the character of Trevor in the What If … Wasn’t universe is loosely based on a friend from high school. Michael H’s big personality and histrionic talents, as well as self-destructive penchant for drugs and alcohol, just needed to find its way into my fictional world. I didn’t know I was doing it until I’d finished the first book and went “Why does this character feel familiar?”

In the 6th book in Transformation Project Winter’s Reckoning (due out August 11), many of the winter scenes encountered by the characters are ones I’ve experienced right here in Alaska. Like I said, I can’t describe the desert as well as someone who lives there, but I can sure describe cold and know what goes through the head of someone who is a long way from shelter when a snow-laden wind picks up.

In one of my anthology short stories (Fairytale Riot, Clarion Call 4 “An Investment Returned), the entire “girl’s” part of the story is based on many of snow machine trip into our cabin site off the Steese Highway. The wolves in the scene however are quite real, from a time in the fall, during a moose hunting trip. The story of Ryan (“Redemption Reformatted, due out any day now in Clarion Call 5, Fire & Faith) is loosely based on some 12-Steppers I know.

And those are just a few of the things that work their way from my real life into my fictional worlds. None of them (except Dick Vance) is a wholesale copy of anything from my life. It’s all just bits and pieces scrambled and reordered, idealized or tainted (depending on my mood and the desires of my characters) or highly adulterated to protect the innocent or the guilty. And a lot of it is just out-and-out fiction because things get boring around here in the winter.

Let’s go see what my fellow blog=-hoppers are inserting into their fictional worlds from reality.

Posted July 27, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Clothes Make the Character   3 comments

How do you decide how to dress your characters?

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Characters are Part of the Setting

Many years ago, a jeweler showed me something interesting. He sprayed a handful of diamonds across a tabletop and asked me what I thought. They weren’t very interesting. Some shimmered a little, but mostly they didn’t seem any more interesting than any other rocks I’d seen recently. Alaska has a lot of cool rocks. Where was the flash, the sparkle, the depth?

He took the smallest, dullest diamond and set it on a square of black velvet, turned out the overhead lights and turned on a lamp right over the table where the square of black velvet rested. There in the middle of it was the uninterested diamond now sparkling as if it was a completely different rock.

What made the difference was the setting? The black velvet and the special light above it.

We authors do a lot of world-building – setting development – spreading the black velvet and adjusting the lighting. The clothes our characters wear are an important part of the setting. Clothes can tell the readers a great deal about the world our characters inhabit or about the characters themselves.

Celtic Fantasy

Daermad Cycle is a high-fantasy set in a medieval world inhabited by the descendants of Celts who were escaping the Romans circa 4th century, as the Roman Empire was collapsing.

How did I choose to dress them? Well, I did some research in the clothes worn by Celts and their descendants. I learned that in regions with heavy Celtic influence, the nobility wear plaids designating their clan particularly as cloaks. I was not making my men wear kilts, but I liked the idea of a lower garment that designed clan, so I gave some thought to how a kilt might become a pair of pants. That became a pair of loose-fitting wool breecs, that are worn by all men in the Celtic society. Nobles wear a plaid that designates their clan and matches their cloaks. Their siarcs (shirts) linen are embroidered in the clan totem. Noblewomen can wear lovely dresses in many colors, often of silk, but their dresses are belted with a kirtle in the clan plaid and the inside of their cloaks are lined with the same plaid.

The ordinary people who work in the noble dun wear wool breecs or aprons in the dominate color of the clan plaid.

Ordinary people who live and work outside of the dun wear wool breecs, dresses and aprons in whatever color they wish.

In the neighboring elven society, the Kin wear a lot of deer skin and the women wear beaded or embroidered dresses. They don’t have a nobility, so people pretty much wear whatever they want to wear, although they tend not to like what the Celts wear because the two don’t get on.

Middle America Apocalypse

I needed to do a lot less research and imagining to dress the people in Emmaus. They live in the United States the day after tomorrow. Masks aside (because the series started pre-CVD19), my people dress pretty much like you’d expect working class Americans to dress — jeans, flannel shirts, maybe some UnderArmour, outerwear. boots. That was easy. I just went on Google Earth and checked out what people were wearing on the streets of Kansas towns. That took five minutes. They dress petty much what Alaskans wear.

Long Island Upscale

My latest series is set in Long Island during normal times. It’s teenagers living on the Gold Coast. I picked a town in the area as my exemplar for Port Mallory. I googled and wandered the streets some. I did some catalog window shopping to understand what kind of clothes teenagers in a wealthy village in Brookhaven New York would wear. I spend more time choosing the clothing of people who think style matters.

Even Simple Stories Need Settings

I occasionally read stories where you have no idea what the characters are wearing and I’ve also read novels where entirely too much attention was spent on describing character ensembles. The extremes bother me. Yes, characters should wear clothing appropriate to the world they live in. If that is never described, I can actually pull up an image of the character naked. On the other hand, after a brief description of what the Aes Sedai or Rand al Thor wore in the Wheel of Time series, I could have happily not returned to the topic and would roll my eyes whenever Robert Jordan would begin some long description AGAIN. I much preferred Brandon Sanderson’s lighter touch.

Still, even simple stories need settings and clothes are one way to define a character. You can learn a great deal about a character’s personality simply by the clothes they choose to wear.

Oh-Oh! Trapped! Or Not!   15 comments

Have you ever let a story write you into a surprise corner? Do you backtrack or shift gears?

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According to several articles I read as research for this article, writing yourself into a corner is kind of the novelist equivalent of discovering the serial killer is behind you in the dead teenager movie.

The Horror!

I think every discovery writer has been there at least once. You’re going along innocently tapping away on the keys, writing some of your best stuff, when the story and set-up stall. It just closes in on itself and becomes trapped like a fly in a spider web and you have no idea how to get out of the cul de sac. There’s just no natural way to get the character to where he or she ought to be in the next scene or by the end of the book. He’s tied up with a rope around his neck and he’s already been dropped over the bridge railing.

Oh-oh! Now what!

If you’ve read Transformation Project, you might remember how A Threatening Fragility ended. I really had no idea how Shane was going to survive being hung when I finished the draft. I typed the last words, sat back, and thought “This series is over if he’s dead.” Of course, I could do something miraculous — a Deux ex machine of someone pulling a truck up under the overpass or…or…or…. I tried to write those scenes, but they read extremely inauthentic. I’d just killed my main character. Where was the exit to this Hall of Horrors?

I’m a discovery writer. My characters have a tendency to quit talking to me if I try to force them in directions they don’t want to go. Shane kept laughing at me. He was going over the bridge railing. Don’t panic. He had this. I started into the editing process certain that final scene was staying in the book (although I really wanted to delete it) and equally certain Shane would take a powder if I removed it. Of course, I’ve figured out how the next novel in the series begins (and sometimes ends) by the time I’m halfway through the first edit, so when Shane told me the “rest of the story” I wiped the flop sweat off my brow and continued editing. He really did “have it”.

He survived and I managed to avoid any tired tropes. I’d already foreshadowed his salvation quite by accident and so it wasn’t really that bad of a corner. No gods in the machine needed. Shane didn’t develop telekinesis and his survival made total sense given his physical abilities and by-the-skin-of-his-teeth persona.

I didn’t change my plot trap because it was cool and intense exactly as Shane told it to me. Something dire was occurring and Shane didn’t know he’d survive as he dropped over the railing. That meant readers wouldn’t be sure of his survival either.

The cul de sac acted as a prelude to an intense brainstorming session that found a dozen unbelievable rescues and a singular believable way for Shane to live through the predicament he found himself in. It couldn’t be improbable. It had to feel real. And fortunately for me, a friend who is a mountain climber gave me the solution about 30 years before Shane dropped over the railing. I’m not telling the details. Buy the book if you need to know.

Scared Witless

The box canyon of writing is terrifying, but it’s also potentially the best place to write an amazing story from. Yes, once you’ve hit it, you’re stuck and panic sets in. You want to concede here, walk your character back to where the plot turned inevitable, try to figure out a well-trod path through the brier patch.

And it does happen sometimes that you need to backtrack and find a way to avoid the implausible, but like so many other “rules” in writing, there are times when you can bend things in the direction you want to go. You are the creator of this story, after all, and imagination is limitless if we don’t accept the limits we put on ourselves.

The character of Shane has a tendency to take the plot in messy directions, places I would never intend to go. In my soon-to-be-released Winter’s Reckoning, he took me into another corner filled with darkness and death and required I find our way out to the light. He didn’t “have it” this time. Thank God for an ensemble cast of characters because when Shane was at his lowest, others stepped in to help. I wrote a few disposable scenes before Shane agreed to take the survival option offered. I’ve been working with this character long enough now that I know he has a good sense of what readers want.

Voracious readers are clever.

You see, readers see corners coming and anticipate the sharp turns writers take to avoid them.

Remember Agatha Christie’s near-career-ending crisis corner where she realized her fans were starting to guess the ending early in the book? She needed a window to a surprise ending and she discovered it.

Don’t miss the opportunity to surprise your readers by leading them into a dark intersection traversable only by a character’s sheer willfulness and maybe a bit of Irish good luck. Sometimes the bottom of the pit is a good place for some self-reflection, not just for the character, but for me as the writer. There are familiar ruts I’d like to chug along in, but maybe going off the beaten track will discover plots I didn’t even consider.

I built the worlds they inhabit, but my characters are not marionettes that I can manipulate. Often, almost always, they take on lives of their own. And it’s in the corners where they sometimes grab the plot and run with it, using their own crisis points to grow and change and face down their personal demons.

Is that a plot twist or a welcome relief from a path that needed to be altered. There’s nothing wrong with using tropes and cliches to comfortably move some parts of the plot along in familiar tracks, but humans are complicated. I’d be doing my characters a disservice if I didn’t explore that complexity. And sometimes, complexity comes with shattered glass and dark demons that present my characters with decisions they never intended to make or force them to endure immense tragedy or unspeakable horrors. If you don’t want bad things to happen to you, don’t volunteer to be a character in one of my novels.

At the end of the day, a corner may well hold a window into an unexplored land. Yes, it’s a pain, but if we want to be better writers — writers worth reading – it pays to be a little spontaneous and open to the unexpected. Corners are opportunities to challenge characters and pressure the plot.

There’s always a way out. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting the back key a thousand times, but before you do that — before I do that — I spend some time looking through that corner window at the tantalizing sight just beyond. What is outside of the safe and comfortable is where the true story lies, where interesting new options exist that might utterly rock your character’s world and give readers the literary ride of their lives.

Although, occasionally, you might want to make liberal use of that back-space key.

Do You Always Go 55?   18 comments

What generic ‘rules’ did you abide by when you started writing that have gone out the window?

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I’m a Highly Trained Writer, Unlearning the Rules

I’ve been writing almost a half-century now. When I started writing, I was unaware of any rules for writing. It was just something I enjoyed doing. I got good English grades in high school, I earned a BA in journalism, worked as a reporter and later got a Master’s in Journalism. I now know lots of rules for writing.

Do I follow any of them? Sure. But there’s a bunch I no longer find useful, so I don’t. The whole art of writing is to acquire enough skill in the craft to know which rules don’t matter and when to break the rules that do.

Grammar Matters … Mostly

There is a huge difference between writing a news article your editor has allotted 150-350 words to explain a complex issue to the reader and writing a 80,000-word novel. Many of the rules I learned in English classes taught how to use language very precisely, but often at the cost of digestibility. Seriously, never write above your audience’s reading level. Many of the rules I learned in journalism classes were designed to condense what we wrote into easily-digestible, information-dense sentences using words everybody knows. Yeah, college was a fun exercise in shifting my writing style from class to class. I once got a compliment from an English professor that journalism hadn’t ruined by ability to write. Maybe that explains my philosophy of writing novels — there are rules, but nobody should ever be aware of my use of them.

Don’t Sweat Split Infinitives

Most non-writers wouldn’t recognize a split infinitive if it sat down on their lap and screamed “Here I am”?

The rule against splitting infinitives says nothing must come between a to and its verb. Sorry, Gene Roddenberry, but it’s incorrect “to boldly go”. You need to rewrite that iconic line as “to go boldly” or “boldly to go”. Play the substitution game and you quickly realize how silly that rule is. The phrase sounds best the way the Big Bird of the Galaxy used it, In fact, it’s a fairly new rule that never bogged down the classic writers. George Bernard Shaw said, “Every good literary craftsman splits his infinitives when the sense demands it.” So, it’s a rule meant to be broken, because it’s mostly silly and readers won’t notice anyway.

Dangling Prepositions

There’s a rule that says don’t end a sentence with a preposition. What is this rule for? I mean, for what is this rule?

I think I just made my point. The second construction creates a clunky sentence that the reader might need to pause and deconstruct to understand. Pausing readers needing to consult grammar books is bad novelist ju-ju to avoided at all costs.

Ending a sentence with a preposition is completely natural in English and rarely wrong. The rule came about during the 17th century when scholars were deeply immersed in the study of Latin and took to emulating Latin as a model of linguistic purity. Because a preposition can’t be stranded in Latin, some thought that the same should hold for English. Latin differs from English in myriad ways, and to cling to a prohibition that forces you to swap It’s nothing to worry about for It’s nothing about which to worry does nothing for clarity of expression. Even the Oxford Dictionaries agree with me.

But what about sentences like Where’s he at? or Do you want to come with? Should those be considered correct, then? No. Those are examples of non-standard grammar because they’re used in non-standard dialects, not because they end with prepositions. At where is he? does not sound any better, and if the problem with come with is the ending preposition, why doesn’t come along sound just as bad? 

Going Beyond Grammar

Of course, writing novels is about more than grammar. I encountered countless rules for writing novels when I was honing my craft.

Don’t make your opening scene too dark.

You’ll run across this advice in many writers groups and I’ve had beta readers bring it up too. Start the novel with an “establishing shot” — something showing everyday life before the dark events start.

Clearly, I don’t subscribe to that advice as many of my novels start with darkness. I start the entire series of Transformation Project with a scene in which the main character Shane puts a gun in his mouth. In Red Kryptonite Curve, I start in Peter’s dream remembering the sexual abuse he suffered as a child.

Contemporary novels don’t have establishing shots. Readers expect us to start in the middle of things. I establish from that first scene in Transformation Project that death stalks this series and anyone — including the hero — is fair game in the Apocalypse. I’ve had fans say “I really like Shane, I hope you’re not killing him off, but I kind of know you might.” That was after I hung him at the end of A Threatening Fragility. You had to read Day’s End to find out if he lives. In the case of Peter, I want people to know that behind his charming personality and teenage angst lurks secrets that are seeking to kill him. The book and the series it’s spawned are all about how he faces those demons.

The “establishing shots” theory of novel-writing probably comes from a misunderstanding of the “hero’s journey.” The “hero’s journey”, based on the teachings of Joseph Campbell, says a story must begin with the hero in his normal life at home, before the “call to adventure,” like Dorothy in Kansas before the tornado hits. Remember the old bat on the bicycle and the storm brewing on the horizon? The Wizard of Oz‘s opening scenes were bucolic, but the snake was visible on the tree.

Home for Shane, a mercenary, wasn’t sunny and pastoral. Yeah, way back in his history there was Kansas and his family, but in his contemporary life, he’s got demons crawling through his brain. And, poor Peter, his mother was always a part of his life.

Readers typically want action and emotion right away and if you don’t provide it to them, they’ll put your book back on the shelf and go to another one that fulfills their desires.

Nix the Contemporary References to Avoid Dating

Yes, you might risk dating your novel with a contemporary reference — or you might create a classic. Will anyone still be reading your novel in 10 years? Life As We Knew It will be five years old this fall and 2020 has been it’s best years in sales. Of course, I’m writing an apocalyptic series and each new book that comes out acts to draw people to read the whole series, but truthfully, most books read today won’t still be actively read 10 years from now, so if you put a pop-culture reference in it, it won’t matter.

I’m a fan of Alex Finn and especially like her Breathing Underwater. She wrote that in the 1990s, back when cell phones were brand-new, Facebook wasn’t a thing yet, and smart phones had yet to be invented. I have an early printing and, while I recognize some of the references as dated, I don’t care. I made both my kids read the book (which is about dating violence) when they were teenagers and neither said “But, Mom, this is so old-fashioned.” A great book can overcome being dated.

I recently bought a copy through Kindle and noticed when I reread it that some attempt was made to update some of the technology in the book. Some of the updates were fine and then there was one where the whole impact of the scene was destroyed by Nick calling Caitlyn on his cell rather than a payphone. Of course, good luck finding a payphone in Miami these days, but the smell of the hairspray and his fear of the germs of others was completely lost and the scene fell flat because of it.

Brand names, celebrities, and current events add a sense of authenticity that readers can relate to. Cultural references also pinpoint your story in time. Go ahead and let your protagonist’s grandma go catatonic for three weeks after the 2016 US Presidential election. That will give historical perspective and tell readers a lot about your MC’s grandmother without actually needing an info-dump.

Speaking of which, for my European readers, the title of this article references a now-mostly defunct federal traffic rule — the arbitrary setting of a national speed limit at 55 miles per hour. I bet my middle-aged American readers got the reference immediately and it probably made them smile and told them something of what I was going to say in this article. Contemporary references can be spice in an otherwise bland meal.

Said” is a Perfectly Useful Verb. Don’t Get Creative.

This is a bit of conventional contemporary “rule-making” that I have ignored my entire writing career. In journalism, you’re taught to make every word count and so strong verbs are your friend. In contemporary novelist circles, we’re told we’ve read too many Hardy Boy’s books if we use any verb meaning “to speak” other than “said.”

These “experts” insist “said” is invisible to the reader. Any other dialogue tag draws attention to itself. So, use other tags judiciously, the way you do with exclamation marks, but if you use them, only use “said.”.

Point of fact, you want to use dialogue tags sparingly, and only when needed for clarity. You can tell the reader who is speaking by connecting action to the dialogue. But occasionally, the sound of a character’s voice matters, so don’t just waste the opportunity with a generic “said”. On the other hand, don’t just use “growled” or “exclaimed” because you can. I stop and think about the impact of a verb before I use it.

Never Use Sentence Fragments – Even in Dialogue

A beta reader who claimed to be a school teacher lectured me on this once. His whole critique of my novel — which was the 4th in the series, mind you — had to do with sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and colloquialisms … in dialogue The people in Transformation Project sound a lot like the people from my mother’s hometown in North Dakota and the Midwesterners who immigrated to Alaska. In other words, they sound authentic. Characters speaking in complete sentences would sound fake. Even people in New England don’t sound like that.

When you write a novel, your aim should be to present realistic characters, not to impress your junior-high Language Arts teacher. Nobody uses perfect grammar when they speak. Not even Ph.Ds. (A third of my church’s membership holds a Master’s or better, and I have now edited about 20 thesis and dissertations – they don’t even use perfect grammar in writing these documents — until I’m done with them.)

The rules for writing fiction are very different from the rules for writing a scholarly essay. If you confuse them, you’re going to end up with a pompous, comical mess nobody will want to read.

Never use the word “was.”

This grows from the very good advice of “don’t use passive voice”, but “was” is not always “passive.” The past tense of the verb “to be” is also used in creating the past progressive tense in English.

Passive: “The book was read by me…” Passive voice tends to sound pretentious and annoying, although sometimes the passive voice is necessary, so don’t try to eliminate it entirely.

Past Progressive: “I was reading the book when some idiot came in and told me the word ‘was’ is taboo for writers.”

If you change the construction to “I read the book” instead of “I was reading the book” you have no sense of the timeline, which would require adding more sentences to fix that problem. That would be dumb.

Yes, doing a search for “was” is a handy tip for self-editing. It helps to weed out passive construction. A “was” search can also pinpoint lazy writing habits like starting descriptive passages with “there was.”

Don’t go overboard though. Some passive construction reduces tension occasionally and prevents the choppy rhythm that sometimes comes with Hemingway-esque all active-voice writing. Used sparingly, it can actually improve the flow of a novel.

All Viewpoint Characters Need Equal Time

When I started writing Red Kryptonite Curve, I tried to follow this rule. I knew there were three perspectives I wanted to tell the sotry from. The problem was, Cheyenne turned out to be shallow. I didn’t enjoy writing her. And as I wrote, I found she mainly thought the same things over and over again – because that’s what shallow people do. When I stood back from the book and looked at it, I didn’t think Cheyenne had anything more to say. Someone suggested I eliminate her point of view, but that didn’t feel right either. Peter and Ben are male friends. They’re not gay lovers. It made no sense for them to take turns telling a story about Peter’s romance with Cheyenne. The story was originally written strictly from Peter’s point of view and I discovered he’s so in denial about his problems that I needed another POV to be the aware one. I needed Ben, but when I wrote his POV, the advice I got was they needed to be lovers. Yeah, no, they don’t. That’s so overdone these days. So I wrote Cheyenne as the third-wheel, but she’s like a small caster compared to their big wheels and I think it works. I plan to do the same thing with 2nd book “Dancing the Centerline”.

Rules are Structure, but Don’t Be Afraid to Play

I kind of view writing rules like I do traffic laws. They help keep the car out of the ditches, but sometimes they can be bent or even broken without consequences and the outcome will be so much better than if I’d stuck to the rules. Sometimes, driving in Alaska, you have to break the traffic laws just to get down the road. Because of permafrost, which renders our roads into asphalt rollercoasters, you probably want to stay below 55 mph, but you might not always want to drive on the right. Sometimes you have to veer to avoid “dips” (a euphemism for a moon crater that has absorbed the lane and will break your axle should you follow the rules). Sometimes in writing, you’re going to end up with a better novel if you aren’t too wedded to “But everybody says.” Everybody can be wrong and you should do you.

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