Archive for the ‘#amwriting’ Tag

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.

Hiding in Plain Sight   10 comments

Do you write under a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, would you ever consider it?

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Keeping Real Life Separate

Don’t ask me what my real name is because I’m not telling. Even if you guess, I won’t verify.

When I decided to publish my first novel, my husband asked me what that might mean for our lives…was it possible I might become famous? Well, there was a remote possibility. There still is as the books become more popular with every new one I publish.

Brad’s related to someone else who is famous, the National Air Traffic Operations Manager who ordered all the planes on the ground on 911. Ben tells us the byproduct of being famous is people wander up your driveway while you’re having a family barbecue either wanting your autograph or accusing you of being part of a worldwide conspiracy to start wars in foreign lands. He doesn’t recommend becoming famous.

But I wanted to share my books with the world. As time went along, I realized that a pen name means I can write on subjects that my employer might not want to be associated with. In today’s hyperpartisan climate, I can be honest about what I think and not worry that my house might become the subject of a riot. It’s not that I am ashamed of anything I write or say, but I don’t want to be poor Ben, trying to explain that I am not who my uninvited visitors believe me to be and they need to get off my lawn now. Some slight cloaking of my identity means that at least if someone does make it that far, they will probably be at least somewhat reasonably intelligent since they would have to do actual research to find out my real name.

Thus, a pen name

It’s a time-honored tradition among writers to use a pseudonym. There was a time when being a writer was scandalous if you were in certain social classes and many women wrote under men’s names back in the days before we were liberated from notions of what women couldn’t write about. These days, I suspect writers use nom de plumes to hide in plain sight, so they don’t have to worry about fans showing up at their teaching job. There’s also a marketing aspect to it. There are authors who use several, changing their names depending on the genre they write in.

My real name is hard to spell and though it’s actually easy to pronounce, the spelling doesn’t hint at that. So going with a pen name cleared up that problem. I chose something that is easy to pronounce “Lela Markham” (Lay-luh Mark-um). The first name comes from a foreign-born student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks who could not for the life of her say my real name correctly. What came out was something like Lela, which became a joke with a few of my friends. So when I contemplated my pen name, something based on my name but not really seemed like a good choice.

My grandmother’s cousin was Edwin Markham, the poet whose poem is inscribed around the base of Lincoln’s statue at the Lincoln Memorial. It seemed a good way to honor the literary tradition in my grandmother’s family.

Of course, I’m not anonymous

You could probably figure how who I am by what I’ve told people of my home town and even just the facts I’ve divulged in this article, but giving myself that layer of protection hopefully will mean fans reach out to me by email, not tour buses driving by my house. And the cranks, well, at least they will likely be somewhat intelligent.

Posted June 29, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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What’s Beneath the Skin   12 comments

June 22, 2020

What are your favorite kind of characters to create? To read?

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Visits from Friends

I don’t really create characters. They come to me and want to tell me their stories. I don’t sit back and say “I’m going to create a character who is a depressed mercenary struggling with PTSD whose loving family want to rescue him, but he’s trapped in an endless loop of despair.” That’s Shane from Transformation Project – a “good guy” character with some dark places in his deep most parts.

Neither did I sit back and say “I’m going to create a character who is a rich teenager with a drinking problem who can’t seem to make good choices even when he wants to.” That’s Peter from Red Kryptonite Curve – a sympathetic flawed character who is still young enough to have hope, but you can predict will have a difficult time as he goes forward.

I tried to create the character of Gregyn from Daermad Cycle as a minion of Talidd, who was meant to be an evil mage. Gregyn wasn’t originally going to be the flawed character he is now. He was only supposed to exist for a couple of scenes, giving Talidd a report on Galornyn. Then he took on a life of his own and became a nuanced “bad guy” character who is still rewriting his own story.

Most of my characters come to me and want to tell their story and I comply. Such flawed characters are fun to write because they won’t always do what’s expected. Such flawed characters can be exhausting to write because they’re often depressed. Shane hallucinates his nemesis, for heaven’s sake. And yet I enjoy these characters more than good-guy characters who are all light and joy. It’s because they’re unpredictable, even to me their ersatz creator. Typically my flawed characters are not irredeemable. I don’t like writing the dark heart of evil, though those characters do exist in my books. I don’t want to spend a lot of time in the heads of my bad guys. I’d rather work with these complicated, contradictory characters who occupy a good-guy/bad-guy middle ground. They’re not anti-heroes, but they’re not pure either.

I also like reading about such characters. When I was in 5th grade, I picked up Madeleine L’Engle’s The Young Unicorns. I mark that as my first “adult” book. It was a YA, but it was a good leap from what I had been reading before (the next year, I would read Summer of 42 with my mother, so I grew up fast). The character of Dave in TYU was such a flawed, but redeemable character. Eventually, he would need to make a choice about who he would be and he did.

Now I wonder what my fellow bloghoppers are saying on this subject.

Ordinarily Extraordinary   17 comments

What’s the most unusual experience you’ve ever had? Have you included it in one of your books?

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Alaska, yo!

Mount Washington, New Hampshire October 2001

Growing up, my childhood just seemed normal because the circumstances I encountered were similar to the circumstances of many of my friends.

They didn’t seem unusual because they were ordinary — for Alaskans. Everybody gets trapped in an outhouse because there’s a moose in the yard. Or sometimes a bear. What’s weird about swinging a machete to clear an airfield as your first high school summer job? Doesn’t everybody need to rebuild a section of public roadway so they can rescue their car from a mudslide because the government that owns the road is hundreds of miles away?

Given that background, I think I might have had a lot of unusual experiences by the judgment of most people, but they seemed ordinary to me, so how do I answer that question?

I literally had to ask my husband, who has lived here 35 years now, but didn’t grow up here to name some unusual experiences we’ve had. Brad ran his suggestions by his father who moved to Alaska in October because when you live in this weird place, a lot of odd experiences just become ordinary.

We came up with several experiences my father-in-law decided were “amazing.” Then I wanted to pick one I’ve used in my writing. That narrowed the field.

Unusual Experience

We went hiking in New Hampshire, at Mt. Washington. When we hike here in Alaska, the days are longer than 12 hours because the summer sun lingers. Last night it went down after midnight. The sky never got dark. I call it “sun dip” where the colors of sunset bleed right into the colors of dawn, which was a little after 3 in the morning. Although I was mostly asleep, there are no curtains on our bedroom window, so I kept waking up to admire the beauty and then going back to sleep. We sometimes go for long bike rides or even hikes after work and every softball game we played in the church league started at 7 in the evening, and no, the fields don’t have lights. Consequently, we don’t give a lot of thought to what happens when the sun goes down because it doesn’t go down all summer and hiking isn’t something you do in the winter. Winter – below zero degrees, dark, feet of snow. Winter is a different country entirely from summer. The sun goes down, sometimes less than three hours after it came up … but our period of civil twilight is nearly as long as the entire day, so you have lots of time to get back to your car and snow … well, it’s reflective.

Hiking, Mt. Washington, October, New Hampshire. Yes, the sun goes down there. We were having a good time. We took the tram to the top of the mountain and planned to hike down to the parking lot. Well within our physical condition and the energy level of our seven-year-old daughter (who is now an itinerant musician and busker who leads her friends on “unusual experiences” like hiking mountains. Who ever heard of getting out of the car and climbing a mountain just because it’s there? Ivyl!)

Thank God we brought her.

We’d paused to change our two-year-old’s diaper and give his dad’s shoulders a break when I noticed the shadows were longer than they’d been five minutes before.

“Hey, Brad, when’s sunset?”

He looked up from explaining something nature-y to Ivyl. His first expression said “Woman, why are you bothering me?” Then the deer-in-headlights expression replaced it. Uh, oh-oh.

“It’s been a while since I had to think of that.” His gaze flickered around the beautiful site we were standing in and then the sky to the south where the sun was visibly dropping toward the horizon. “Twenty minutes — maybe.”

“And how far are we from the parking lot?”

“An hour, if we run.”

Get the toddler in the backpack and start moving. Imagine a Scooby Do episode when they first encounter the “ghost.” We’re booking down the mountain as fast as we can go. To our right is a drop-off that in some places would spell death. Meanwhile, the sun is doing what the sun does. The shadows grow longer and longer and the path becomes harder to see until we stop running because we can’t see.

It hadn’t snowed yet, so the pathway wasn’t reflective. We neglected to bring a flashlight because we’ve never needed to carry a flashlight while hiking. Now what? It gets cold in New England in October overnight. We weren’t going to stay on the mountainside with no gear. We had cell phones, but no reception (this was about 20 years ago). We’re standing in the dark on the side of a mountain, on an unfamiliar trail with two small children and inadequate gear for an overnight.

Time to improvise, baby!

Even back then, cell phones had a flashlight function. I remember ours were called “lanterns” and they were sufficient to get your key into a lock, but they sucked for going down an unfamiliar trail with a cliff to one side. Brad admitted he couldn’t do it after a few turns of the path when true darkness enveloped us.

And the Hero is? The 7-year-old!

“I can see the path.”

Okay, kid. We’ll humor your delusions.

“Really, you can see the path? Which way does it bend?”

“This time to the right. But I’d need light to see it.”

The two-year-old bellowed his agreement. He didn’t like the darkness, we think. We handed Ivyl one of the cell phones and showed her how to keep the lantern on. She extended her skinny little arm and started down the trail.

“Come on. It’s easy.”

Brad and I couldn’t see much except the white of her jacket illuminated by the lantern, so I grabbed the shoulder of that jacket and Brad put his hand on my shoulder and we followed the 7-year-old down the mountain. It was so dark that when we reached the parking lot, Brad and I didn’t realize it until Ivyl said “There’s the car.” Uh, what car?

Everything is fair game for fiction

I’m telling this story casting Brad and I as ill-prepared, oblivious risk junkies and bad parents. They lived! Okay? Yes, it might have created the wild non-violent anarchy of our daughter and that baby has grown up to be a rock-climber who seriously considers climbing the Hurricane Gulch Bridge. But Alaskan parents figure if their kids survive to adulthood without being eat by a bear or stomped by a moose, we’ve done our jobs.

Hurricane Gulch Bridge, Alaska 2020

How did I use that in my bad parenting example in my writing?

The third book in the Daermad Cycle fantasy series is still in development and there’s a scene I’ve already written about a dark night when Padraig and Tamys, two of the main characters, have to find their way home without a torch. Under a new moon, Padraig can’t see any better than Tamys who was blinded in an accident in Mirklin Wood. He’s been learning to navigate his world of darkness using his as-yet-unacknowledged psychic gifts and, when Padraig admits he can’t get them home because he can’t see the road, Tamys takes over. Many of the elements of that scene come from that trip down Mt. Washington clinging to the jacket of a brave and adventurous 7-year-old. Look for Fount of Wraiths sometime in the future.

Posted June 15, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Connection is Key   8 comments

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

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I write series

I have no problem with standalone novels. I read a lot of them and enjoy them. Some stories can be told in 80,000 words. I believe that. There’s nothing wrong with standalone novels.

For me, however, I write series. I’ve got three under development currently. Even some of my WIPs that started as standalone projects have spilled over into two or three books.

First Book Sells the Second Book

A body of work with interconnected stories gives readers a reason to come back to the same author. It’s really a marketing technique. Since Amazon now has an app for tracking page reads, I can see a trend, particularly with Transformation Project. Someone starts Life As We Knew It. Sometimes they read half the first day and half the next or sometimes they read the whole thing in one day. Then, someone (most likely the same someone since who reads the second book in a series without reading the first) starts reading Objects in View. Most of my reads appear to be people reading the entire series, just based on numbers. So while I advertise all the books, I spend my big money on the first book in the series and let it do the work for the rest.

Great Characters Doing Interesting Things

I’m a character-driven writer, but only so many characters with interesting stories present themselves to me, and generally those stories are the ones that wander through my mind the most. Which is good. I have enough of a cacophony of characters in my mind with the active stories. If I had dozens of standalone novels, I’d be horribly distracted — not just from the story I’m trying to tell, but from real life. Yes, authors live real lives beyond the boundaries of our pages and, yes, I want to be present for my life.

Because I write series, I know I have lots of opportunities to tell stories. I can show Peter, the main character in the What If Wasn’t series, acting like an immature teenager without a clue to where he’s headed in Red Kryptonite Curve and yet know I have lots of opportunities for him to get it right — or not — in future books.

World-Building

World-building is where speculative fiction writers rise and fall. It’s tough to build a great alternative universe. It’s a little easier to build a community for a more mainstream story. For me, having done the work, why waste it? You can bring readers time and time again to this world where they know their way around and feel comfortable, so I can then concentrate on the stories the characters want to tell.

There’s power in telling stories over a long period of time. Shane is not the same person in Gathering In as he was when readers met him in Life As We Knew It. External events and internal torments set him on a journey of change. I don’t think I could tell that story in one book. He’d be a flat one-dimensional character and the behaviors I’ll show in “Winter’s Reckoning” (due out this fall) wouldn’t really make sense.

Variety is the Spice & Seasoning of Life & Literature

I enjoy standalone novels and I write series. I also love to read series. There’s something about the story arc done over a period of time that is very compelling. Most of us live in interconnectedness. Our teen years inform our 20s, our 30s inform our 40s, etc. Why should books be different? Some stories can be told in less than $100,000, but others maybe take several thousand pages. And it all works for some readers at different times.

Posted June 1, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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Go Went Gone … Urggg!   5 comments

What are your top five writing mistakes? Either mistakes you make or mistakes that make you cringe when you see them in print?

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Good, Better, Best … Never Let It Rest

Journalists are, supposedly, terrible spellers, but I came to the reporting game with good spelling and strong grammar. My training just enhanced that and make me more sensitive to common errors. That doesn’t mean I never make a mistake. It means I rarely let other people see my mistakes — I catch them in the editing process. I know how to make good writing into better writing, always striving for the best.

Grammarly asked users what their most frustrating grammar errors were and they said

  • Incorrect verb forms
  • Subject-verb disagreements
  • Run-on sentences
  • Comma splices
  • Pronoun antecedent disagreements

Watch for the other three fingers

I certainly have made these mistakes myself, but they do drive me crazy when I see them in other people’s writing — particularly if it’s already been published. Really, people, at least get a couple of beta readers to go over it before you put it on Amazon. By “people”, I mean me and anyone else who has made these mistakes.

Incorrect Verb Form

Irregular verb forms can be challenging because so often we make these errors while speaking and don’t even find them odd when we see them in writing. I was taught to take a pause and remember my credibility as a writer is hanging in a free-fire zone if I get this wrong. Here are the most common verb conjugation mistakes:

Is it “seen” or “saw”? Sometimes you can hear you’re wrong when you read it aloud.

“I seen the movie last week”

Or is it?

“I saw the movie last week”

You can hear the error easily.

But is it?

“I been there” or “I have been there.?”

Most people say “I been there”, but, when writing, it’s really “I have (in the past) been there.” That one really trips some people up and I read it in their books and not just in dialogue, where it is acceptable. Take a pause, folks, and think about it. Unless you’re writing narrative in a regional dialect, it pays to question the words that come out of your mouth and whether they belong on the page.

Subject-verb disagreement

In Spanish and American Sign Language (my other two languages) the subject of the sentence must correctly align with the verb conjugation for both number and gender. I especially found Spanish to be challenging because of this. Less so ASL probably because it’s a visual-gestural language.

In English, compound subjects follow a simple rule. They’re plural. “Mark and Jane” are two subjects (compound). “They” are compound. “We” are compound. So much easier. But then you run across irregular verbs. Oh, those can be so frustrating.

Consider “forces of nature.” Nature is one subject … right? So the verb would be “is”, right? But, no, it’s plural subjects. It’s the forces of nature. Nature itself may be one thing, but it has multiple forces.

“The forces of nature are knocking the heck out of deck furniture.”

I corrected a supervisor one time over “rights of way”. He was planning to send this letter somewhere important, where his credibility was at stake and I was trying to save his career. Trust me, I have that correct. It is definitely “rights of way” (plural). But he spent a good half-hour arguing with me that it’s just one “right of way”. Yes, we were talking about just one “rights of way” in front of a business, but it’s still plural, not singular. We finally looked it up in two grammar books and on the Internet and I won the debate. He’s an engineer. I wouldn’t argue with him about how to build a road, but he wanted to argue with a professional writer about grammar. It was hilarious.

Grammarly suggests you memorize irregular verbs, but you can usually reason them out — that’s how I do them, though I also still pull out my 30-year-old Associate Press Style Guide when I get stumped.

Run-on sentences

A run-on sentence contains two or more independent clauses (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb and that can stand alone as a sentence) that are not connected with correct punctuation. 

Though there are different kinds of run-on sentence errors, most often writers neglect to use a comma before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.).

“I enjoy writing immensely but my deadline is looming I am starting to feel overwhelmed.”

It’s rare for me to include a run-on sentence even in a draft because I am a fan of Hemingway and trained as a journalist. Journalists HATE commas, so are told whenever we feel like putting one in a sentence, we should ask ourselves if we couldn’t use a period instead. If you can use a period instead of a comma, you should use the period. See, you don’t even have to memorize a rule for that, but there is a rule.

Each independent clause must be set apart from other independent clauses with punctuation or a comma and conjunction. Punctuation marks that are ideal for marking complete sentences are periods (full-stops), semicolons, and em dashes. Got it! Use it! Stop frustrating me!

Comma splices

Comma splices and run-on sentences are kissing cousins. Comma splices are really run-on sentences.

“He was very hungry, he ate a whole pizza.”

When a writer joins two independent sentences with a comma instead of separating them with a period or a conjunction, that’s a comma splice and it makes my head pound. Cut it out!

Pronoun-antecedent disagreement

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because he was in her way.”

When you use the pronouns “him” or “her”, readers need to know to whom those pronouns refer. Otherwise, they get confused.

Who is the second “he” in the above sentence — John or someone else? If the reader has to look back at the last sentence to be sure, you’ve not done your job as a writer correctly.

“John had a card for Helga but couldn’t deliver it because Tim was in Helga’s way.”

But what about me?

The one that drives me crazy in my own writing is actually a typo. Sometimes, my fingers get to moving so fast, they write a different word than the one I am thinking — “form” instead of “from”, “dog” instead of “god”, “left” instead of “felt”, and “who” instead of “how” — or the reverse of those. All the grammar-check programs in the world won’t catch them and I think it’s sometimes unavoidable. It happens so often when I’m “in the zone” and I just don’t notice it. I usually catch it when I have Word read the text aloud, but it’s frustrating because it’s so simple and yet so-really-hard to catch and correct. You have to catch an error before you can correct it.

A Place for Your Characters   6 comments

Talk about the setting of your book. Is it entirely imaginary or is it based on a real-life place?

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Settings are almost a character in fiction. Some genres focus more on world-building than others and I write in three genres.

In Daermad Cycle (The Willow Branch and Mirklin Wood) the setting is the world of Daermad and the kingdom of Celdrya and neighboring nations. It’s largely a product of my imagination, based somewhat on reality, particularly the old cities of Europe. It’s a rich varied world with mountain villages and ocean-side cities, vast fields of grain dotted with farmsteads and trackless forests. People make their living fishing, farming, selling herbs, herding horses, serving wine and ale at state affairs, and a million and one other trades. Rivers divide the land into regions, acting as transportation routes as well as borders. My goal is to provide the reader with the feeling of having walked the land and talked to the people. I want readers to feel the mud rolling downhill during a storm, for example — to feel as if they stand off to the side and see the character in that environment.

Transformation Project (Life as We Knew It and the rest of the series) exists in a world that is the United States the day after tomorrow following a series of massive terrorist attacks that thoroughly disrupts life as we know it. There’s a lot less world-building involved simply because we know this world. I picked a town in Kansas and learned a great deal about it, gave it another name and used it as a template for my main setting. I use that real town to answer questions about how the off-ramps on the interstate work, what utilities are available, whether there’s a hospital or grocery store, a Walmart or Costco. Other towns in the series are places we know — Wichita, Hays, Hutchinson. I changed the name of my town because I didn’t want to get into a situation where I place a story in a real-life setting and then realize I can’t do something because the real-life community isn’t set up that way. Back in the 1970s, someone wrote a novel about Fairbanks, Alaska, and then screwed up on some of the details. It wasn’t that great of a story to begin with, but the erroneous details made it painful to read, which I had to for an Alaska Literature class in college. Required reading and it’s wrong. Just shut my head in a car door, please. So I used a real-life town as a template, but moved things around and didn’t use the same road names and called it Emmaus, Kansas — which doesn’t exist. I still want the reader to feel that they could pull off I70 and find this town because it is the world my characters inhabit and the reader is more engaged with the characters if the characters are set like gems within a rich tapestry.

I followed the same process with building the setting in Red Kryptonite Curve. I picked a Long Island town and used it as a template so that I would get the details right, but then I renamed the town and made enough changes that you couldn’t reasonably say it is that town. This allows me to have access to real-life facts — like bus schedules, a description of the harbor, a description of the downtown area, details about the school system — while also moving things around and making stuff up to fit the needs of the story. Peter is a modern American more attune to malls and concert venues, but I want his interactions with his world to seem authentic, to make the readers feel like they’re right there with him.

My view of setting is that most of life is influenced by what goes on around us. I live a certain way in Fairbanks, Alaska, because it’s a frontier town on the edge of a vast wilderness with a certain degree of isolation, long, dark, cold winters, and brief, intense summers when the sun doesn’t go down. People living in other towns at other latitudes live different lives because their setting is different. With a few details, you can build a world that puts characters into an environment rather than just floating in space. This makes for a much richer and more engaging story that shows characters acting like real people in real world settings. And if I get stuck describing something, I can probably find a photo out on the Internet that will provide me with the visual I need to massage my imagination.

The setting of a scene can give added depth to the character’s actions. For example, in Red Kryptonite Curve, Peter often describes the Wyngates’ backyard has having rose bushes that he hates. They are pretty to look at, but they have no fragrance and there are thrones. They’re a metaphor for his mother who planted them and adored them, and then ran off to Florida with her lover. Peter would take a machete to them if he could. Without really going into the relationship with his mother, you can surmise who she is and what she is like through the inclusion of her roses in the setting. And, thus, the setting becomes not just the world the characters inhabit, but a character in and of itself.

Let’s go see what my fellow blog-hoppers think on the topic.

Posted April 20, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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A Princess or ….   9 comments

What did you want to be when you grew up vs. what you are today?

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Like almost everyone else, I had plans for my life and John Lennon explained to us that “life is what happens while we’re making other plans.”

I’m pretty sure I went through a fairy princess stage because most girls raised in the era of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty wanted to be fairy princesses as some point in their lives. I do remember thinking Tinkerbell would have fun.

I remember watching the North American Sled Dog Race sometime in late elementary school and wanting to be a dog musher. It’s a lot of work to be a dog musher. I grew out of that as soon as I saw that.

My mother was a diner waitress and I remember wanting to follow in her footsteps, until I did it one weekend at a diner belonging to a friend of hers and realized that was a hard job too.

I wanted to be an architect in junior high school. I still love architecture, to look at, but when I discovered the math involved in being an architect, I moved on.

I wanted to be a writer. I reported for the high school newspaper and then I studied journalism in college. I took a job as a home-town reporter. I did that for a couple of years until my editor asked (uh, euphemism there) that I slant local stories to accommodate his political viewpoint and I decided I needed to find another career. I published a few magazine articles after that (all of this under my legal name), and then gradually let it go as we raised kids because the idea that you have extra time when you’re working full-time and raising kids is kind of delusional.

I became an administrator. Yay, such an exciting career, but it pays the bills, so I’ll keep doing it until I retire.

From about age 12 on, I had a wish to be a published author. I don’t think I thought I’d be writing apocalyptic fiction and self-publishing was definitely not a thing then, but I did manage to make that wish a reality. It only took 40 years of writing for my own amazement and honing my skills bit by bit.

Posted April 6, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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When you have to bring the curtain down   Leave a comment

Richard Dee’s Blog Post

Posted March 31, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in #openbook

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RIP   15 comments

March 30, 2020

How do you feel about killing off one of your major characters?

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Disclaimer – this topic was chosen for the bloghop before Covid19 was a thing, but I still don’t disavow my statements here. Death is a natural part of life.

Fiction Imitates Life

People die! It’s a fact of life and should be a fact of fiction because the best fiction has some reality to it. People die.

In high fantasy, people walk around with swords and get all hot and bothered about honor and cattle. Of course, someone is going to die in that situation. You didn’t think those swords were jewelry, right? They’re weapons and they’re bound to get used from time to time. Plus, there’s rarely been a medieval society that had invented penicillin. We forget that people regularly died from cuts and sinus infections before World War 2. Dying is a natural part of life.

In apocalyptic fiction, people should die. I mean think about it. The world is spinning out of control. Do you really think everyone is going to survive that?

So I’m down with killing major characters occasionally. In Daermad Cycle’s first book The Willow Branch, I killed a major character before Page 10. I built Prince Maryn up to be the hero of the book and then I plunged a 10-foot-long spear through his guts and into his spine, staking him to a tree — and thereby established that anyone can die in this series. I then killed his father and his brother Perryn by the middle of the book. Although they haven’t died yet, I’ve blinded Tamys, drove Daryl mad, put Danyl into a coma, and paralyzed Teddryn by the end of Mirklin Wood. Any one of them or someone else could die at any page turn.

In Transformation Project’s first book, Life As We Knew It, I killed 30 million people. The readers possibly got to know a couple of them. They weren’t major characters, but yeah — anyone can die in an apocalyptic novel. In the second book Objects in View, I killed about 80 townspeople. They were all minor characters, but one of them even had a speaking role before I turned him into a corpse. I built up Jacob Delaney into the 95-year-old voice of reason and radicalism throughout the first five books of the series — and he died at the end of Gathering In, the latest book. I also had Shane leave his best friend to die. Yeah, I’m not nice to my characters.

Maryn, Mike and Jacob were major characters at the point of the story where they died. Why did I kill them?

Remember what I said about I’m mostly transcribing the stories the characters tell me? Well, Maryn stopped talking to me after I wrote the first scene. He wasn’t supposed to die. I had this romantic story outlined for him. He fathered a child and his lover’s story was clear to me, but he was just never in it. I wrote a lot of the first draft of The Willow Branch trying to write this wooden character into different scenes and I finally admitted that Maryn must have died. I went back to where he last spoke to me and — Maryn went out like a hero at the end of the first chapter of the book. Who exactly killed him remains as big a mystery as who John Snow’s mother was for all the way through Dance of Dragons in the Song of Ice and Fire, so his death served a purpose — it wasn’t just to show I can be blood-thirsty.

Right before I finished the draft of Objects in View, an old friend died — the father of a friend and my former Sunday school teacher. I thought I’d honor Dick by putting him in my book as a minor character. He was just supposed to flit in and flit out because I don’t base characters on people I know, but the character of Dick Vance took on a life of his own — for a period of time. But I felt the strain as I wrote scenes for him in A Threatening Fragility and I knew he wouldn’t survive the end of the book. He was never a character that spoke to me in the same way that my fictional characters do. Mainly I drew upon “What would Dick say in this situation?” and when I got to the point where I couldn’t see what my real-life friend Dick would say, he needed to die. I was glad to give him the respect of his final rest, as glad as I was to give him the honor of gracing two of my books. I enjoyed sending him out as a hero.

Jacob was harder. I knew almost from the start of writing the series he would die at some point. I just can’t visualize him in the last scenes of the series. I visualize other people quoting him, but he’s just never there. But he still had lots of story to write and I enjoyed it. He was like visiting an old and deeply wise friend, but I always knew that a 95-year-old is not going to survive the apocalypse. When I started planning Gathering In, I sensed Jacob shutting down. He gave me a great couple of final scenes and then he sat down in a recliner and went silent. Now that I’m working on the next book Winter’s Reckoning, I understand why, but it hurt to let the old man go. It was like if my own father passed away.

It’s been two weeks since I published Red Kryptonite Curve, a YA about a teenage boy struggling with alcoholism and the consequences of his inability to control his choices. It’s a series and while nobody dies in the first book, I’m aware that someone will die in the second one due out next year. It’s realistic and I like realism. And yet, every time I consider the draft points for the next book “Centerline”, I mist up because I don’t want to kill the character I know must die.

So I have mixed feelings about killing off major characters. Reasonably, I know major characters have to die or the fiction doesn’t feel real and that’s vitally important when you’re writing series. But I mourn them. I feel the loss of their voices in my head. And I feel sorry for their family and friends who will miss them. But pretty much, if they quit talking to me, they’re dead and it’s up to me to figure out how they will die in the best way possible to advance the story to the next level.

So Rest in Peace, guys! Know that your deaths were for a good cause.

No spoilers as to who will die in future books, but in Gathering In, I introduced a flu that is somewhat mild in the northern territories, but quite deadly in the southern climes. Why? I’m not telling. It opens up a whole lot of reasons to kill off major characters. Shane’s best friend Mike has already succumbed to the disease and Dylan Rigby has been brought low by the secondary effects of the virus. And, no, I started writing Gathering In back in November 2018, so I’m prescient, not pandering because of CoVid19. I liked Mike. I was sorry to see him go and he didn’t quit talking to me so he’ll probably show up in Shane’s memories. I like Dylan and I hope he lives. But nobody gets out of the apocalypse unscathed and death is just one of the tragedies that might befall a major character.

It’s the apocalypse after all.

_______

Go check out what my fellow blog hoppers have to say on this topic. And also consider following my buy links, because there’s hope in the apocalypse, even as I kill of the characters you might love.

Posted March 30, 2020 by aurorawatcherak in Blog Hop

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