Friday, January 30, 2015

Transparent Words

You’ve probably been told not to be repetitive in your writing. You were probably told this back in middle school, when they gave you an assignment to write a brief story, or perhaps when they were explaining how to write a book report. Don’t be repetitive. Don’t be repetitive. Don’t be repetitive…

It reaches the point where you want to tell them to stop being repetitive.

It’s good advice, in general, but not all repetition is bad. In fact, there are some words that are repeated over and over again and we don’t even notice, not even if they are in close proximity to each other.

For example: there are three words that I used five times thus far in this blog post. You may have guessed that one of them is 'repetitive.' You are correct.  But the second and third words might not stick out to you as much.  I can sort of imagine you hunting for the other words. (If you aren’t, allow me a moment of delusion.) There are quite a few words that I use more than once, but not five times.

The other two words are ‘to’ and ‘in.’ ‘Be’ comes in at four times.

You’ll almost always notice larger words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs – but some will elude your attention altogether. These are what I call “transparent words.” We are so accustomed to seeing them that our brains practically skip over them, much in the way that they skip over punctuation. Now, we’ll notice if they need to be there and aren’t, but we don’t really notice them when they are there.

You know, except for when you are reading a post like this, and then you’ll probably be hyper-aware. Exhausting, isn’t it? Noticing every tiny little word?  It’s probably similar to when you’re learning a foreign language, like Spanish, and you notice that they use la/el way more often than we use ‘the.’ You notice that they use ‘de’ close to every other word in some sentences. Guess what? Native speakers don’t really notice how often they use ‘de.’ It’s as transparent to them as ‘to’ usually is to us. They would probably think it’s ridiculous how often we use ‘to,’ since their infinitives are one word and ours are two words – one of which is ‘to.’

So, the point is that repetition is unavoidable when it comes to these words.  It’s precisely because they are repeated so much that they are transparent. When writing fiction, there are a couple more things that need to be transparent: character names and dialogue tags.

Wait a second…character names?

Yes. This means that even – especially – if you need to identify the same character five times in one paragraph, you need to use only one name for the character. Every time.

Isn’t that super-repetitive? Yes. It is. But what makes the other words transparent? They are repeated so often that your brain notes their meaning, but you’re not really consciously aware of them.

With very few exceptions, character names should also be transparent.  Because you have to name the character so frequently, especially in multi-character dialogue or action scenes, you want that to be as transparent as possible.  Suppose you have a character named Carissa. Carissa is blonde, slender, always wears pink, and is a cashier at a local store. Changing the character’s identification (Carissa, the woman in pink, the cashier, the blonde, the slender woman) actually creates repetitiveness where the same word over and over does not. 

This is because changing how you refer to the character makes it painfully apparent how often you are referring to her. Furthermore, it forces your reader to stop and decipher what he or she is reading. It takes a concept that is best left transparent and makes it opaque, in the same way that my opening paragraph’s use of the word ‘repetitive’ was opaque.

As the writer, you will notice the fact that you’re using the same name constantly; your reader will probably not.  Remember that reading and writing are very different processes. Repetition should be avoided to some degree. Varying your word choice is good, varying your sentence structure and paragraph length is good, but varying things that should be transparent makes them opaque. 

Transparent things should not be opaque. You don’t really want your reader to be aware that he or she is reading. You want them to be so absorbed in the story that they forget they are reading it.

Dialogue tags should also be, for the most part, transparent. ‘Said’ is the best choice in most cases, as it almost functions more as punctuation than as an actual word. Try to use as few tags as necessary; when you have a lot of them characters speaking in sequence, avoid using the same thing over and over again. For example:

“Ready to do this, ladies?” Leigh said.

Rachel grinned. “I was born ready.”

“Yeah, girlfriend!” Michelle cheered.

“I guess I’m in, too.” Shrugging, Danielle followed them.

Be careful of constantly varying things in dialogue; in very intense sequences, repetition can be helpful because your reader will be trying to read things as quickly as possible (he or she will be excited) and the repetition aids in this. In slower parts of the story, however, dialogue tags may be a little more varied.

Now, there are some who think that using anything but ‘said’ for a speech tag is bad. A lot of people in the publishing industry favor this style. So, my use of ‘cheered’ for Michelle instead of ‘said’ would be frowned upon. (But it’s better than “said with excitement.”)

I kind of disagree with that. (Well, obviously.) I think there are other speech verbs that our minds sort of glance over, but only once or twice. For example, if you use ‘cheered’ a lot, your readers will notice that in a way that they won’t notice ‘said.’  Even some of the never-use-anything-but-said camp will admit that ‘asked’ is acceptable when used occasionally.

Remember my post about ways to improve your writing without writing? I recommended reading books on writing, but cautioned against setting too much store by them.  Don’t ignore the suggestions, but don’t swallow them whole. You are your own person. But…you do need to be aware of how often you are using alternate speech tag verbs – because while the occasional switch-up is fine, too much switching is painfully opaque. And I mean painfully.

(As an additional caution: don’t use words that aren’t actually speech words for speech tags. You can’t ‘smile’ a sentence, or ‘laugh’ it. You might be able to ‘sigh’ one word like ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but using it for a whole phrase might be stretching it. If your character is laughing or smiling, feel free to make note of it, but don’t use it as the tag. While we’re on the topic, I would like to caution you against using ‘spoke’ for a speech tag. ‘Spoke’ is the same thing as ‘talked,’ not the same thing as ‘said.’)

But yeah. If you’re getting tired of using ‘said’ repeatedly, don’t use speech tags at all. Just use beats, or leave the tags out if you can. For more on dialogue, check out the post I did on it a while back. I don’t really touch on the transparency issue there, since it focuses on the mechanics of dialogue.

I hope that this post has made sense. It also ties in with my current Word-Craft Wednesday series on narrative POV, since the identifier you use for a character depends on the POV character. (More on this will be discussed next Wednesday.)

And as a reminder: I am not the end-all-be-all of writing advice. I really don’t think anyone is. But in my experience, this advice is pretty sound. Just be aware that writers and editors amongst themselves over this type of stuff ad nauseum, and don’t set too much store by any one person’s opinion.

[Addendum: When I say that you need to identify a character, I mean that you are in a situation where you can't use a personal pronoun without confusing people. I posted this and then realized I forgot to say that.]

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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Word of the Week: Obsequious

It's time to put another word in the arsenal of your vocabulary!

Word: obsequious

How you say it: [uhb-see-kwee-uhs]

What it is: adjective

What it means: 1.) characterized by or showing servile complaisance or deference; fawning: an obsequious bow. 2.) servilely compliant or deferential: obsequious servants. 3.) obedient; dutiful (Definition courtesy of

[Side note: this word tends to have a negative connotation (implied meaning, not literal meaning) rather than a positive one. Think, "obedient to the point of being a brown-noser." 'Complaisance,' one of the words they use to help define this, basically means 'compliant.' Don't confuse 'complaisance' with 'complacence,' which means a false sense of security, especially when accompanied with smugness.]

Use it three times and it's yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory.

Serena, normally a sluggish worker, became industrious and obsequious the minute her manager walked into the room.

The valets were more obsequious than they were friendly.

Obsequiousness is not necessarily a positive trait. 

[Another side note: many adjectives can be converted to nouns with the suffix -ness.]

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

POV: Writing First-Person Narrative

Image courtesy of Ambro at
First-person narrative is pretty cool, inasmuch as the story’s narrator is an actual, physical character in the story. It allows readers to insert themselves into the story and pretend to be somebody else for a while – the ultimate form of escape. Writing in first person is fairly self-explanatory, but there are a few other rules that may not be as obvious as one would think.

Be tense about it

This is a rule that I cannot emphasize enough, and it expands across all narrative styles: pick a main tense and stick with it. I have seen a lot of occasions where new writers will use present tense and past tense interchangeably – do not do this.  Your narrator should always use either the past tense or the present tense except for during references to previous events or flashbacks.

Now, interestingly, when we verbally and/or casually relate stories about our days or other goings on, we do switch freely between past and present. For example:

“So I walk (present) over to him – right? – and I said (past), ‘Dude, you need to chew gum with your mouth closed.’ And he just smacks (present) his gum even louder. I was (past) pissed off.

This is so widely accepted in vernacular (common) speech that it is easy for us to decipher. We are aided in our understanding through the assistance of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. When we come across it in correspondence, it might be a little harder to read, but since we are used to hearing the person’s voice and are familiar with their mannerisms, it’s still readable.

This won’t fly in narrative. It’s fine in dialogue, if that’s the way your character talks, because the point of dialogue is to mimic the way that people actually speak, but don’t use it in narrative.

Pick a tense. Stick with it. Got it?

The main reason for this is simple: it’s bad grammar (Won’t somebody think of the children!). Also, if you don’t pick a main tense, flashbacks and memories are much harder for the reader to pick out. If you’re not 100% sure on what I’m talking about with tense, don’t worry: I will be devoting an entire post to tense in narrative at a later point in this series of Word-Craft Wednesdays.

You are limited by your character’s perception

When using first-person narrative, you can only write what is inside the character’s brain.  This means that unless your character is telepathic, you can’t write about anyone else’s thoughts. Now, you might switch POV characters every chapter, but while you are in any given character’s head, that’s the only brain you get to explore.

Likewise, you can only write what your character can see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. You can’t actively describe a battle in a city where your character is not currently located.  Your character can hear about the battle or see footage on TV, but if your character can’t observe it, you can’t write it. (If the battle was in the past, and the character was there, then you may certainly write about it in a flashback.) Your character can’t see that somebody is sneaking up behind them (unless they are psychic or something).

Furthermore, your character needs to think like a living, breathing person. Something I see a lot is stuff like this: “As he looked into my beautiful, deep blue eyes…”

When somebody is looking you in the eye, do you tend to think about the color of your own eyes? Not so much.  I can’t tell you the last time I actively thought about my own eye color.

Your character needs to behave similarly. If you’re determined to work in the stuff about eye color, it needs to fit your character’s personality. If your character is vain, they will probably try to use other people as “mirrors” – they might notice the color of their own eyes in a reflection on somebody’s glasses. Or, they might be thinking about how they are affecting the other person: “His gaze faltered; I knew that my deep blue eyes affected most men.” Either way, it comes across as very self-centered – which is fine, but only if your character actually is self-centered.

Character descriptions are limited

If you’re writing in first person, you won’t have a lot of opportunity to describe the POV character’s appearance. People just don’t usually think, “I pushed my brown hair out of my eyes.” We think, “I pushed my hair out of my eyes.” You will be able to squeeze in a description if your character is observing themselves in the mirror, but for the most part, books with first-person narrative are scant on description of the POV character. Think about it. You focus more on what you see than what you look like. It should be the same for your character.

You can leave your POV character’s appearance almost entirely up to the reader (one or two clues might be nice) – unless the character’s appearance is important to the story.  An extremely ugly person might think more about their appearance as they live their life in a judgmental society. Susan Kay’s Phantom, a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera, is partly written in first person from the Phantom’s point of view. And he thinks about his appearance. A lot.

But what if you really, really, really want to give your readers a blow-by-blow description of the POV character? You have two options:

1) Pick a different POV to tell the story.

2) Give your character a moment of self-obsession or hyper-self-awareness, but make it fit with the rest of the story, and especially find a way to make it fit with the character’s personality.

Well, what if you open your story thusly? Doesn’t this work?

My name is Benjamin. My dark hair is speckled with white, and my chin and jaw line are covered by a coarse beard. I have brown eyes, a long nose, and a thin, severe mouth.

Okay…is that an exciting way to open a story? Not terribly. Information dumps like this are seldom a good idea, especially in opening. In fact, most people will be bored and won’t care, unless you immediately give them a reason to care, such as continuing the story this way: 

It’s the long nose that gets most people. Then their eyes rove over my other features. I can feel them looking. I can almost hear their thoughts: Filthy Jews, corrupting our society…those inferior, no good Christ-killers, cheating us, stealing our money…

And here I am. A forty-year-old Jewish man, out of work, trying to find work – any job will do – and most of the people in this town would do anything to see me and my people expunged from the face of the earth. As I walk through the city square, my stomach twists as I see a crowd of bald, blue-eyed men sizing me up. There are bands around their arms. Red. A white circle. A black, x-shaped, twisted cross.

I am proud of who I am. Proud of what I believe.

But my pride is not enough to stifle the terror as they approach me.

See? In this case, the character’s appearance is relevant to the story. The main character has reason to be self-conscious: he’s out of work, looks stereotypically Jewish, and lives in an anti-Semitic culture. He’s surrounded by people who hate his heritage and his faith, and they can tell he’s Jewish because he looks like it. Suddenly, the description goes from ho-hum to giving the readers an immediate reason to empathize with him.

(This example also shows that your first person narrator can still speculate on what other people are thinking. They can’t know for a fact, though.)

You are limited by your character’s vocabulary

So, not only should your character relate things in a way that seems like the normal thought processes of a person, you also need to consider that their vocabulary is limited, too. If your viewpoint character is six, he or she probably won’t be using words like ‘obsequious.’ This doesn’t just apply to dialogue, either. The character is narrating, therefore, the narration needs to sound similar to internal dialogue. You know what internal dialogue is like. It’s much like the way you speak.

However, just because there's internal dialogue and I said that main tense changes work in dialogue, this doesn't mean you can ignore the 'pick a tense' rule. Things will get messy quickly if you do this. Tense changes only get to happen inside of quotation marks. 

Have you noticed that almost all of these sub-headings include the word “limited”?

First-person POV is awesome, but it doesn’t allow for a ton of leeway. There are things you can get away with in other POVs that simply won’t work with first person.  On the other hand, first person allows the reader to become intimate with the character in a way that no other POV can. Like I said last week, people latch on to the word “I,” because it’s how they think of themselves. When done right, it creates believable characters that your reader will want to follow through thick and thin.

So, how do you know if first-person narration is right for you? Here are the things you need to consider, in descending order of importance:

1) Do you want to write the story in first person?

2) Can you live with the limitations of first person?

3) In what way do you want the reader to identify with the character: like self, or like other?

If you want to write the story with the limitations and perspective of first person, but want the reader to identify with the character as an ‘other,’ third-person limited will probably fit the bill for you.  It has all the advantages of first person in that it creates an intimate painting of a character, but it is better for the ‘other’ effect. If your character is really, really unlikeable, you’ll probably want to use third-person limited, but this doesn’t always mean that first person is preferable for likeable characters.

Well, there you have it – a crash course in first-person narrative POV. Check back next week for a closer look at third-person POVs.

[Side note: those who are observant may notice that sometimes I hyphenate "first person." This is because first-person is the modifier, first person is the noun. Therefore, first-person POV is written in the first person. Those who are even more observant may notice that I didn't not hyphenate any of them last Wednesday. That was a mistake. Thanks to my husband for catching that.]

Share any thoughts or questions in the comments. 

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Totally Random Tuesday: Cookies!

Welcome back to Totally Random random, you'll never know when it's coming (other than a Tuesday at some point) or what on earth it's going to be about!  

(Today's post isn't about writing at all, so if this is your first trip to my blog, scroll down to "older posts" for posts that actually do have to do with writing.)

Lest you think all I do is write, I would like to demonstrate that I do, in fact, have other talents.

Like...baking cookies!!!

Look! I even made tiny canisters of mutagen!

Why would I make these? Do I even need a reason for that? Because COOKIES! Because NINJAS! Because COOKIE NINJAS! I really wish I could say that I baked these for some kid's birthday party, but no; I made these for my husband and me.

Yeah, I know.  This post has less than zero to do with writing. But come on. They're Teenage Mutant Ninja Cookies! And in all fairness, Totally Random Tuesdays are totally random.

I hope that all of my readers are having an awesome week so far! See you tomorrow for Word-Craft Wednesday!

Besides writing, what is your favorite activity? Share any thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, January 26, 2015

Lessons from Stormdancer

© St. Martin’s Press
Recently, I had the opportunity to read Jay Kristoff’s Stormdancer. Well, more like I saw the book in the store, thought, “Sweet!” and bought it. I had it read in two days, but alas: my bookstore no longer has the sequel, Kinslayer. I’ll just have to wait patiently, or order it on Amazon. Considering I found it at the local bookstore, though, it feels weird to buy it somewhere else (Hey, bookstore, thanks for the tip! Now I’ll buy this at your competitor!).

Here’s the back cover copy (“copy” is publishing jargon for accompanying promotional material):

The Shima Imperium verges on the brink of environmental collapse; an island nation once rich in tradition and myth, now decimated by clockwork industrialization and the machine-worshippers of the Lotus Guild. When hunters of Shima’s imperial court are charged by their Shōgun to capture a legendary griffin, they fear their lives are over. Any fool knows the beasts have been extinct for more than a century, and the price of failing the Shōgun is death. Accompanying her father on the Shōgun’s hunt, Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in Shima’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. Even though she can hear his thoughts, even though she saved his life, all she knows for certain is he’d rather see her dead than help her. But together, the pair will form an indomitable friendship, and rise to challenge the might of an empire.

Sounds cool, right? I thought so too. As I read it, and then proceeded to read reviews that other people had left on Amazon – I was curious to see what others had thought – I realized that Stormdancer has a couple of valuable lessons for aspiring writers.

Lesson #1: You can’t win ‘em all

I really enjoyed this book.  By no means was it perfect, and it certainly wasn’t mind-blowing in the way that earns a book a spot on my super-special bookshelf (yes, I have a super-special bookshelf). Nevertheless, I liked it, and I’d probably read it again.

However, a few people left scathing – and I mean scathing – reviews on Amazon. They called it crap, and junk, and a hack job, and said that the protagonist was a Mary Sue – one of the worst insults in the industry, for some reason – and said that Kristoff screwed up all things Japanese culture due to poor research. (I’ll touch on the Mary Sue conundrum in a later post.)

This book had hundreds of glowing five-star reviews, slightly fewer fair, balanced four-star reviews, a good share of three star-reviews, very few two-star reviews, and a nice big handful of one-star reviews.

Do you think Jay Kristoff is worried about those negative reviews? He might take some of the criticisms and apply them to become a better writer in the future, but is he worried? Do you think he beats himself up about it, because not everybody liked his book?

I highly, highly doubt it.  The book is raking in money for the publisher, which means it’s raking in money for him, and I imagine he’s quite content with the state of things.

As an aspiring author, take this lesson to heart.  Haters gonna hate. Are you going to listen to them, or to the people who support you? Choose wisely.

Lesson #2: Nobody’s Perfect

I certainly have my criticisms of this book.  A lot of them, actually. None of them so bad as to warrant a one-star review, though. Were I to leave a review on Amazon, it would probably be a three- or four-star review. (Note that despite this, I still want to buy and read the rest of the trilogy.) Stormdancer was not as fresh as say, The Hunger Games. While Collins borrowed some stuff from ancient Rome for her stories, Kristoff practically takes Japanese folklore word-for-word (not quite). He added a little of his own mythology, but it was all heavily, heavily borrowed.

He also committed what is, in my opinion, a most egregious error: referring to the character by multiple names within a short amount of space. One character was called by his name in one paragraph, “the giant” in the next, and “the tall man” in the next. Firstly, to me, ‘giant’ indicates extremely abnormal height, where as this guy was just about a foot taller than most of the people around him. Not my first word choice.  Secondly, it’s a little disorienting to always have to figure out to whom the author is referring; names should be, more or less, transparent.  (I’ll touch on what I call “transparent words” this Friday, so be sure to come back.)

Another thing I didn’t like so much was that he used Japanese phrases and English phrases interchangeably – and he would always, as soon as he used a Japanese phrase, explain it in English.  It sort of bogged down the story.  My preference would have been to either use the Japanese and let context explain it, or simply use English.  The important thing, in either case, would be consistency. His use of Japanese words bordered on what James Blish (a prominent Sci-Fi author) calls “shmeerps.” Basically, a shmeerp is giving something an exotic name just for the sake of making it sound exotic. It’s a little silly, but hey. It wasn’t enough to keep me from finishing the book.

Other people, more learned in the ways of Nihongo than I, pointed out that Kristoff’s use of Japanese words were clumsy at best – apparently he misused the suffix ‘-sama’ to disastrous effect. And he also referred to ‘chi,’ which is a Chinese, not Japanese, concept.

There was even a typo where Yukiko’s name was spelled ‘Ywukiko,’ but let’s face it – that is the fault of the editors, not Kristoff. (It’s kind of their job to catch that stuff.)

Oh, well.

The book is far from perfect. Of course, perfect is a word like ‘normal’ – nobody is really sure what it means. At any rate, the book’s ‘flaws’ are not a deal-breaker.  Remember the question, “Is it more important to be a good writer, or a good storyteller?” Kristoff is a good storyteller, which, if you’re in the business of telling stories, is most important.

As an aspiring author, you can know that your book will be imperfect.  You can also know that, in the long run, it just has to be a good story. (Get somebody to edit it, though, because sloppy grammar and spelling makes it super hard to enjoy that good story. And even if your editors miss a stray ‘w,’ most people will be too caught up in the story to care that much.)

So, there you have it. Two lessons you can take to heart: “You can’t win ‘em all” and “Nobody’s Perfect.” As you go about your writing, for goodness’ sake, just relax. Relax and tell your story.  The more you enjoy it, the more likely it is that other people will too.

Do you put a lot of stock in the fear that you’ll be criticized? What do you think is more important: good writing, or good storytelling? Share your thoughts or any questions in the comments.

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Note to those who are considering reading Stormdancer and are concerned about such things: Stormdancer has one occasion of the “f-bomb” that I remember and contains some innuendo. In addition to that, it is made clear that protagonist has sex, but it is very subtly done and there are no explicit details. I always caution individuals under the age of 18 to check with their parents regarding books not specifically targeted at a YA audience. Yeah, I know, I’m no fun.  

Friday, January 23, 2015

Why Won't Anyone Read My Stuff?

Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at
Something you may encounter a lot as a young writer is that when you try to get somebody to read what you have written, people will give you a flat out no. Even worse, they’ll say that they are going to read it, but then they don’t, or they start to read it and then never finish it.

If you’re lucky like I was, you’ll have a best friend who not only read the stuff you printed out for them, but kept your story in their desk drawer for over ten years. (Love you, S.!)

Sadly, the younger you are, the more likely it is that you’ll experience this lack of interest in your writing. Even more sadly, I actually did this to my sister multiple times when she was writing stories. “No thanks, not right now…” “Maybe when it’s finished…” “Sorry, that doesn’t sound interesting…”

In retrospect, I wish that I hadn’t brushed her off.  I wish I’d read her stories.  In the Great Computer Crash of 2000-whatever, all of those stories got lost, so now I can’t read them. I just wish I’d realized sooner that I was doing to her what others were doing to me – the things that truly hurt me. It drove me nuts that my older sister wouldn’t read my story, especially since I took the time to read her Star Trek: Voyager fan fictions.

I’m writing a novel here! An actual novel! The least people could do is read it.  Nobody takes me seriously.

But I never took my younger sister’s work seriously, even though she read my story. How’s that for hypocrisy?

So, if you’re a writer whose siblings don’t seem the tiniest bit interested in your writing, let me offer a little bit of perspective for you.

These are your siblings we’re talking about.

You know, the people who can’t stand it if you like the same music as them? Or the people who fight with you over who gets the front seat of the car, who gets to play the new computer game first, why one of you is allowed to wear makeup/use the ride-on lawn mower/watch scary movies at a younger age than another one of you is…

…and you expect these people to take an interest in your writing?

When all of you are older and moved out of the house, you’ll probably find that you have an easier time getting along. Then, you might find that they are willing to look at your writing, if you still want to share it with them. But in the meantime, as much as it sucks, remember that it’s almost a universal constant that you’ll have a hard time getting along with your siblings.  Don’t look to them for validation here.

What if your friends at school aren’t interested in reading it? That could kind of make you feel a little down – even my own friends don’t want to read my story.  However, do you and your friends have identical interests? If your story is a zombie vampire slasher and your friends prefer things like The Fault in Our Stars, they probably don’t want to read it for the same reason that they wouldn’t want to read a zombie vampire slasher novel, probably even if it was written by Nicolas Sparks.

It feels personal.  A lot of these things feel personal. But they aren’t.  It’s a question of people’s interests. As much as it sucks to realize this, it can be kind of liberating. The problem isn’t you.  It’s that you’re asking the wrong people, sort of like the Omaha Steak Company trying to market their product to vegans.

What about your parents? If you’re like I was and have a really close relationship with your parents, it can sting if they’re not interested. But…if you’re writing a romance and your dad only likes zombie vampire slashers, it’s not that he’s uninterested in your work – it’s that he’s uninterested in romance.

This leaves what’s probably the most frustrating thing – people who say they’ll read your stuff, but never do. (Or they start, but they don’t.) They keep saying that they’re too busy, but you start to get the feeling that they are just brushing you off.  It’s super easy to take this personally. This is one of those things that really hurts. It’s one thing for people to say ‘no,’ but it’s another for them to say ‘yes’ and then act like they didn’t mean it. This can feel like they lied to you.

I’m going to give you the single most difficult piece of advice ever: don’t take it personally. 

Everything about it feels personal.  But you have to understand: you only have control over yourself. You can’t make them like or read your story, but you can choose your reaction to them.  Will you feel hurt? Yeah. Angry? Yeah. You still have the choice to hold a grudge or just let it go.  Confrontation probably won’t end well, especially if it’s somebody close to you. 

So, put on your Queen Elsa dress and start singing “Let it goooo…”

Way, way easier said than done. Especially if they don’t make an Elsa dress in your size. 

If you give them enough time and space, they’ll probably finish reading it eventually. And if they never do, they never do. Let it goooo…
You have enough things to worry about without fixating on this. Remember that your circle of acquaintances is not representative of the world at large, so don’t worry that NO ONE will EVER like your work because nobody but you seems interested right now.  Trust me. At some point, you’ll be able to belt out, “The cold never bothered me anyway.” 

Do you feel like people around you simply don’t take interest in your work? Share your thoughts or any questions in the comments. 

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Word of the Week: Effluvium

Who's ready for another Word of the Week? 

Word: effluvium

How you say it: [ih-floo-vee-uh m]

What it is: noun

How to pluralize it: effluvia [ih-floo-vee-uh] or effluviums

[Side note: While both effluvia and effluviums are listed as acceptable pluralizations, common usage is the Latin plural for Latin words. Linguistically, we are seeing a shift in this, such as amoeba being pluralize as amoebas instead of amoebae. I think it is best to retain the original pluralization, since we still say 'bacteria' and not 'bacteriums.' Of course, I'm the backwards American who still spells 'amoeba,' not 'ameba' and 'dialogue' not 'dialog,' so maybe I'm just bitter linguistic clinger-on.]  

What it means: 1.) a slight or invisible exhalation or vapor, especially one that is disagreeable or noxious. (Definition courtesy of

[Another side note: Note the fact that 'slight' has to do with volume, not necessarily how offensive or strong its effects are. Also, note that this word works well in a figurative as well as a literal sense.]

Use it three times and it's yours! Using a word three times can help it stick in your memory.

Every time she opens her mouth, it's another effluvium of nonsense.

As they cracked open the mortuary, they were assaulted by the effluvium of rotting flesh.

Sam's breath was such a nostril-offending effluvium that everyone tried to avoid standing to close to him.

Share your three sentences in the comments!

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

POV: A Refresher

Word-crafting is far from an exact science. It’s more of an art.  To craft a work of art like narrative prose, you need to have a good understanding of POV.  So, this is the first in a series of Word-craft Wednesdays that will explore how good use of POV will make your writing better.

But first, a quick refresher.

You’re probably familiar with the term POV. And if you’re not familiar with the acronym, you probably know what it stands for: point of view. You also probably know that in writing, this refers to the point of view from which the story is being told – the narrator’s point of view.  You’re probably even familiar with the types of POVs, but since reviews are always nice, here’s a quick reminder:

First Person

This POV uses the first person pronouns, i.e., ‘I,’ ‘we,’ and ‘us.’ The narrator and the character are one and the same,  so the POV only allows us to see what the character sees. There is very little flexibility in this; the character can’t know what other people are thinking, so any attempts to get inside of other character’s minds must be speculative. The character is the audience’s filter: if the character can’t see it or hear it, neither can we.

Second Person

This POV uses second person pronouns (you) and is almost never used in storytelling. Exceptions include “choose your own mystery” genre. You’ve probably read these as a kid: “You walk into a spooky castle and see a massive staircase in front of you. A dark hallway is to your left, and a sealed door is to your right. What do you do? Go up the stairs. (Page x) Go down the hallway. (Page y) Try to break down the door. (Page Z)” While entertaining for youngsters and the young at heart, these stories are seldom viewed as ‘good’ entertainment.

Maybe it is possible to make a second-person narrative POV  work, but a major problem arises: it is incredibly presumptuous to tell a story from your reader’s perspective.  That’s what using the second person POV does. If the character (“you”) does something that the reader (the supposed narrator of the story) would not do, the reader immediately feels alienated. If you really want your reader to feel like they are ‘living’ the story, then use first person.  People identify with the pronoun ‘I’ much, much faster than they do ‘you.’

Third Person

Can you guess which kind of pronouns this POV uses? Third person pronouns! (Shocker.) However, third person narration has the most variety, and can be broken down into three major categories.

Third Person Subjective

Most often, you’ll hear this referred to as ‘third person limited.’ It is essentially the same thing as first person, but using third person pronouns, the character’s name instead of ‘I,’ and so on.  So why use one over the other?

If you really want your reader to ‘live’ the story, then first person works best.  But if you want them to immediately identify with your character, see them as a companion that they follow through the story, then third person limited works best. This isn’t to say that first person can’t offer that sense of companionship and third person limited can’t offer the sense of living the story, but they do tend to lend themselves better to one way or the other. Sometimes, it can take longer for readers to warm up to first person than it does for third person limited.  Both are very useful, popular types of storytelling, often chosen based on which one the writer prefers.

Third Person Objective

Frequently, this one is called ‘fly-on-the-wall.’ This POV is severely limited, but it still can be used with great effect. Almost every single movie and play out there uses third person objective. The narrator is nothing more than an observer, and any attempts to foray into the character’s minds must be speculative. In most cases, it’s best to let the readers speculate for themselves.  This POV relies heavily upon “show, don’t tell.” It can be extremely difficult to write, but it is also a highly rewarding challenge.  The reader will tend to have less of an emotional investment in the book, but if your story is intriguing enough, they’ll stick around.

Third Person Omniscient

This narrative POV can basically be anywhere or everywhere at once. This is the most versatile. It has a downside, however. Have you ever taken an open book test and found out that it was more difficult than a closed book test? That’s kind of what using this POV is like. You have to choose what you will and won’t reveal, whose thoughts you explore, and so on.

So, those are the basic types of narrative POVs.  Next Wednesday, we’ll launch into ways to use them effectively.

If you have a narrative writing project right now, what POV are you using? Do you have any questions you’d like to have answered over the next few Word-craft Wednesdays? Share any thoughts in the comments.

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Monday, January 19, 2015

Ways to Improve Your Writing Without Writing

Image courtesy of Surachai at
If you play a musical instrument, or know anybody who plays a musical instrument, you probably know that the single most important thing to do is to practice. If you do not practice, you’ll never get anywhere.  Practice ‘til your fingers/lips/tongue (depending on the instrument you play, this might be all three) fall off.  There’s a reason that trumpet players tend to use a lot of lip balm. 

On the other hand, there are ways to improve your instrumental skills without playing your instrument. You can, for example, listen to music, which improves your sense of pitch. You can watch experts play their instruments, which helps give you an idea for how to implement technique. You will have to apply all of things in order to master them, but just by watching and listening, you can improve your skills. In fact, if you just practice without observing others – stumbling around in the dark, so to speak – you might be holding yourself back as a musician.

Likewise, one of the best ways to improve your writing is to write.  Just write.  And write.  And write.  But, there are ways to improve your writing that don’t involve writing at all. 

OMG, right? (I should probably stop trying to sound like I'm even the tiniest bit cool.)

Read, read, read

Just like listening to music and observing technique can help improve your skills as a musician, reading will improve your skills as a writer. It improves your sense of what makes for good writing, and it gives you an idea for implementing technique. So read.  Read good books. A lot of them. Read the classic books, read modern books, and especially read books in the genre you’re writing in.

Also read bad stories. Really bad ones. You know how when you were being taught bike safety, the instructors would smash a melon on the ground to demonstrate what happens without a helmet? That’s what reading bad stories is like. They show you just how bad things get when plotting is loose, when characters are unbelievable, when grammar is atrocious. They are cautionary tales. Take heed.

Work to understand the difference between the two.  If you have well-developed sense of pitch, listening to an orchestra where even one instrument is out of tune is excruciating. If you’re still developing it, you might realize that something isn’t right, but you might not be affected by the discordance as strongly. The more critically you approach performances (remember that ‘criticism’ means ‘systematic evaluation’ and not ‘being mean’), the more you can differentiate between a good performance and a bad one.  Likewise, approaching all books with a critical eye will help you differentiate between good and bad.

Really stop to evaluate every book after you’ve read it.  What did you like and why? What didn’t you like and why? How did the author build suspense? If the book was non-fiction, was the information presented cleanly and in logical order? Think about the writing itself. Was it clear and concise? Was it garbled? If something felt 'off' about the book, but you’re not sure what, apply yourself to figuring out what made it feel not quite right.

Read books about writing.  Take note: books about writing should be approached with a very open mind, understanding that for every writer out there, there is a different opinion on what constitutes good writing.  A lot of books, and especially articles on writing, tend to present things as “THE ONLY WAY TO WRITE.” You should not ignore the advice in these books, but neither should you swallow it like it’s pure doctrine handed down by God himself. Rather, use them to help you define your own path.

Whatever you do, don’t exclusively read books about writing. By reading a lot of other stories/non-fiction you’ll learn way more about what good writing looks like, and you’ll see that good writing takes hundreds of different forms.  You’ll also start to see styles you like and styles you don’t like, which will help you define your own unique style even better than books about writing will. Don’t get me wrong, books about how to write are useful, but they shouldn’t be all that you read.

If you’re in college or highschool, you have an extra advantage: teachers who will help you with this kind of thing.  Ask your teachers questions, and get their opinions on this type of thing. It really makes a difference.

Watch television

Another thing that can help you improve your writing is to watch movies and TV shows.  Yes, believe it or not, this will help you improve your writing, as sacrilegious as that sounds.  After all, the visual arts are still a form of storytelling, and if you want to become a good storyteller, it’s good to pay attention. (If you want to write non-fiction, documentaries are useful.) Pay attention to the characters and how they are developed.  Do they behave consistently? What about pacing and plot? Do the writers of the show do a good job? Also, if the acting is good quality, you can develop a feel for what people do with their bodies while they speak.  One of the most neglected parts of dialogue is body language. 

You’ll quickly discover both good and bad TV shows. Identify why the good ones are good and the bad ones are bad. Be prepared to defend your analysis, as others might disagree with you. (This also goes for reading books.) This will help cement what you like in storytelling. (If you don’t like the story you’re writing, why would anyone else?) You shouldn’t ignore the professional criticisms you hear about a show, but you don’t have to buy them hook, line, and sinker.

Listen and look

Listen to actual people speaking.  Don’t exclusively rely on television for this.  Listen to their inflections and word choice.  Notice how different people speak differently. Develop a feel for what sounds natural.  A lot of time, dialogue is poorly written because it doesn’t sound like stuff any people anywhere would actually say.  To get a feel for speech of different time periods…that’s right, hit the books again. Again, don’t rely on TV for this, because unfortunately, a lot of period dialogue in many shows sounds like it was written by a hack. (Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Reading can help you determine the difference.) Really paying attention to the way people actually speak will give you a better sense of how to write dialogue.

Watch people while they talk. Notice their mannerisms. Do they look you in the eye? Stare at the ground? Look up when they’re trying to remember something? Do they fold their arms, get fidgety, etc.? This actually improves your interpersonal skills too, so it’s a step worth taking.  You just might discover that people are sending you subtle hints through their body language, and you can seem friendlier by adjusting your own.

Pay attention to yourself.  It’s a little hard to do this without altering your natural state, but with a little practice, you can do it.  How do you speak? How does your inner dialogue relate to your outer dialogue? What do you do with your body when you speak – when you like somebody, when you like like somebody, when you dislike somebody, and when you flat out hate somebody? How do you move when you’re excited? The list goes on and on. It’s important to write from life. I’m not saying your characters should be clones of you, but if you know what it’s like to be in somebody’s head (your own) you can imagine and translate that kind of thing into somebody else’s head (your character’s).

I cannot stress enough how useful this activity is, both for your life and for writing.  Dialogue is the place where most screw-ups in writing take place, and this will help you avoid that. This also allows you to show your audience your character’s mood or ‘tude instead of telling them. Instead of saying, “He was getting bored with the conversation,” you can write, “He glanced at his watch and crossed his arms over his chest, resisting the urge to tap his toes.” The second one is better, because everybody knows how it feels to be in that position.  We’ve all done it.  A good story will make the reader forget that they are reading, and studying and then writing natural behaviors will help you achieve that goal.

Get psyched out

If you’re in high school or college, don’t snooze through your psychology class. (If you happen to be an older writer, and you did snooze through your psychology class, do some research.) This class will do more for your writing abilities than you realize.  It will help you write believable characters, and it also helps you understand how not everyone’s thought processes are the same. If you have a chance to take the official Meyers-Briggs Personality Inventory, take it. Research what your personality type is and what all of the other ones are, too.  When you’re creating characters, trying to assign them one of these types will really help you make them seem real. There are a lot of websites with info on these, but nothing beats the original, official stuff.

Act just a little bit crazy

Okay. This one is from personal experience, so your mileage may vary.  I also know for a fact that at least one other person on the planet does this. I can definitively say that this simply won’t work for some people, while for others it might be the writing miracle you’ve been waiting for.

Walk around in circles and talk to yourself.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, I promise! It’s so much more than that.  What I personally do is to walk laps around my basement or room, and I talk to myself about my story. I act out some of the motions, speak the dialogue that I’ve imagined, and try to actually feel what the characters feel. I probably look like an asylum escapee, walking around, muttering, and sometimes crying.  But really – it’s less walking around and talking to oneself than it is acting, like you’re on a stage and you’re the only viewer.  I’ve done drama in the past, and it’s not all that different from exercises to get into character. So, if drama is something you really like, this might be an immensely useful activity for you.

This isn’t just for fiction – I’ve done this for essays, blogging, and poetry, too, all with great success. (Guess what I did to help me write today’s post?)
What this does for me is twofold: it can take the place of prewriting (taking notes or a quick outline of the scene), and it cements what I want to wind up on paper. It also really, really helps with dialogue, because I can actually say what I want the characters to say, and see if it sounds natural.

So…I guess we’re up to three folds now, unless you include dialogue under the ‘what I want on paper’ fold.  

If this sounds totally ridiculous to you, go ahead and give it a try anyway.  You will either totally love it or totally hate it. If you hate it, you’ll never have to do it again. I will warn you: you will feel pretty ridiculous the whole time.  I still do, and I’ve done this for well over a decade.  I absolutely cannot do this if I know that anybody can see me or is within earshot. And, if you’re still not convinced that this isn’t total malarkey, remember that scientific studies have shown that physical movement does increase creativity and productivity.  In fact, some companies have wised up to this and are actually promoting “standing desks” so that people can do desk work while standing. So if the whole talking thing freaks you out, take a walk or get on some exercise equipment and just think about your story instead.

Take care of yourself

Here is a final thought: if something is good for your body, it’s good for your mind, which means it’s good for your writing. Eat nutritiously, sleep well, exercise, and practice good hygiene. (…she wrote, as she glanced at the half pan of brownies on her countertop.)

None of these activities should take the place of writing (well, you might want to prioritize your health at least a little), but they will make your writing more effective. Even if you only implement a few of them, you will benefit a lot.

What are your thoughts on some of these techniques? Are there things that you like to do to help improve your writing? Share any thoughts, questions, or opinions about how crazy I am in the comments.

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Character Creation

Image courtesy of Akeeris at

So, let’s say you’ve had an awesome idea for a story.  You just have one problem: you don’t really know who your characters are.

Everyone’s creative processes are different, and often, different from project to project.  Some people come up with characters and then create a plot around them, while others come up with a plot and then create characters for it.  Some people have the idea hit them all at once. Either way, you have to create your characters. Unless you’re writing fan fiction, nobody will hand characters to you on a silver platter.  You have to sculpt them from the ground up.

Now, there are hundreds if not thousands of resources and recommendations regarding this topic, so my two bits really are just a spit in the ocean.

The first thing to remember with character creation is that your character is fluid.  You can change your character at any time.  Say, you’ve been writing your character as blonde but change your mind and want a redhead instead.  That’s fine.  Change it.  Need your character to be 25 instead of 21? Change it. Short instead of tall? Plump instead of slender? Robert instead of Joseph? Even male instead of female? Change it. You are not committed to the very first things you put down on paper.

But…what about character consistency? You might hear about this in literature classes, or maybe you’ve read about it.  Yes, your characters absolutely have to be consistent.  This is not an option. This just means they have to be consistent throughout the story, so if you do change Stephen into Stephanie halfway through your book, you have to go back and change every little thing to reflect that. (Unless your story is about a sex change operation, but you know that’s not what I’m talking about.)

So, yes, the character must always be consistent throughout the story, but the character him/her/itself is fluid. This is because you are the puppet master of the microcosm you’ve created. You don’t have to commit to anything. Simply remember that once you’ve made a change, the change has to be applied across the whole story – this is not an optional step.

The fact that character creation/design is fluid is an important thing to note, because I can almost guarantee you that your character will evolve and change from your initial plans as you write the story.  You’ll need to make changes, you’ll want to make changes, and this is totally okay. It is a pain, because when you change your character you have to rework literally everything you’ve written, but changing your character is, in many cases, necessary.

Additionally, please keep in mind that this reflects my creative process and is by no means the only way to do this. There are some things I feel more strongly about, but remember that none of this is written in stone.

Having gotten that out of the way, you need to start thinking about the fundamentals of your character.

Okay, Cassidy is five-foot-four with blonde hair and green eyes and she has a few freckles on her cheeks and she wears a size 8 US with a shoe size 10 US and she’s a little uncomfortable about how big her feet are –

No! Cut that crap out! These are, for the most part, SECONDARY considerations. This is not where you start when creating your character.  Well, I suppose you can, but this is a little like picking out serving dishes before you’ve even decided what to make for dinner.  You might get a little inspiration from the dishes, like we can get some inspiration for Cassidy’s personality based on her self-consciousness over shoe size, but in the long run, these attributes will be the most likely to change. Holding off on them for now might be best. (But, if you really want to start here, go for it.)

The first step in character creation, often times, is to ask “In what time period and place is this story set?” This is a bit like looking in the refrigerator to see what you have on hand before you start making dinner.  Why time period and place? If your story is set in Africa in the 1800s but your character acts like an American in the 2000s, you have a massive problem. Time period and region of origin are a huge part of how people define themselves and choose their behaviors.  If you’re a girl, you will have a significantly different understanding of your role as a woman in 2015 than a woman in 1915.  It will also be different based on whether you live in America or Papua New Guinea. (The same goes for fantasy worlds.)

Once you have a setting figured out, you need to decide on your character’s personality attributes. You may need to float around a bit in the process here, since if the character has a chronic illness, this will most likely affect his/her personality. So, this isn’t a hard and fast step.  None of these steps really are, as your character is totally fluid.  But these steps can help you stay on track. 

So, to establish personality attributes, first establish a baseline for your character.  This is your character’s wake-up-on-an-average-day behavior.  Are they diligent? Lazy? Optimistic? Morose? For an idea of what this might look like, try to imagine first how you would describe your average behavior, personality, moods, thought processes, etc.  Now, come up with descriptions that fit your character.  Keep in mind that if you are writing this down, a good trick is to use a pen, not a pencil. Strike out the things you change instead of erasing them. You never know – you might want to back-track.

Once baseline is established, explore your character’s extremes. How does your character behave when extremely elated? How do they behave under extreme duress?  All of these behaviors need to have some root in your character’s baseline. A very brave person will act differently under duress than a coward does. A lot of times, I like to establish extremes first, because that helps me choose their baseline behavior accordingly. (Not hard and fast steps, remember?)  

Now, you may pick a name for your character.

Wait…what? The name isn’t first???

Well, you can pick the name first, but keep in mind that names are a reflection of setting. A girl from the fantasy world of G’tharlubul probably won’t be named Betty.  A guy from 18th century Japan probably won’t be named Robert. An average white dude in 16th century England most likely won’t be named Tanaka. Conversely, in 21st century America, just about any name works, up to and including G’tharlubul, depending on how out-there the child’s parents are. (If your name is G’tharlubul, understand that I mean you no offense. Also: your parents named you G’tharlubul??????!!!!!! What’s your last name, Cthuluhu?)

Watch.  Now some person actually named G’tharlubul is going to leave me hate mail.

Ahem. Back on track.

Furthermore, names can often be symbolic. They don’t have to be, and they aren’t always, but they add a little something extra when they are. You can go with an ironic twist, like somebody who was born during winter being named ‘Summer,’ or you can go with something a little deeper. A woman who is trapped in servitude her whole life might be named Jenny.  At first brush, this might not mean anything to you, and if you look at what the name Jennifer means, it means ‘fair one.’ But, just like a female deer is called a doe, a female mule is called a jenny.  So, it’s subtle, but it’s a nice touch.

Once all of this is done, decide on the physical attributes of your character.  Keep in mind that certain physical attributes can affect personality, but a short guy doesn’t necessarily have to be insecure about it. Also, keep in mind that you probably won’t every actually tell people how tall your character is unless it’s relevant to the plot. However, you need to know so that you can write your character accurately.  

Character creation, at least as far I’m concerned, isn’t a tidy step-by-step process.  They make massive character checklists that you can download, and I’m sure that for some people, these are awesome tools. For me, character creation is a big page of random notes with lots of stuff crossed out, and then I finally emerge triumphant with a character that I am satisfied with.

If you want to learn more about good character creation, please check out Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card.  It’s one of my go-to books, and he offers much more concise guidelines.

Do you think that this process is useful? Have you created characters before? What is your process, and do you currently like it? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

Also, I wrote this in a massive hurry, so if you find any major grammatical errors, it’s because I didn’t proofread this. Your tolerance and forgiveness is appreciated.

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