Should “data” be singular or plural?

From The Economist:

For more than a millennium after the fall of Rome, educated Europeans were distinguished by their knowledge of Latin. One of the three subjects of the trivium—the basic tier of a classical education, itself based on a Roman model—was Latin grammar. Europeans have long since stopped writing primarily in Latin, but learned people are still expected to be able to deduce that to “decimate” means to destroy a tenth of something (a mutinous legion was punished in this way), or sprinkle annus mirabilis and mutatis mutandis into their speech.

It is not for lack of knowledge of, or affection for, Latin that The Economist marks a change this week. The reform involves one of the most curiously polarising issues an ending on a foreign word has ever generated in English. We will now allow singular use of data alongside the plural. Specifically, when considered as a concept—as in data is the new oil—the singular will be acceptable, as well as when the data in question is considered as a mass (the data on this mobile-phone plan is insufficient). However, when data points are considered as a group of pieces of information, the plural should still be used: data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicate the hottest summer of all time.

Data, as every child at a grammar school once knew, is the plural of Latin’s datum, “something given”. Originally that plural sense was carried over into English. But already in 1702, the Oxford English Dictionary records, came the first appearance of singular data, in an astronomy textbook. This was almost 60 years after plural data was first recorded.

The rise of computing has changed the balance. While an 18th-century scholar’s data might be a single column of numbers, today’s computers quickly manage billions of bytes. Data points begin to seem like the water molecules in the ocean and so, in such contexts, to be perceived as a mass. Singular data is now more common than the plural in books, and far more prevalent on the web.

Data is hardly the first foreign word to undergo grammatical change in English. The nearest equivalent is agenda, an old plural of agendum, “something to be acted on”. Once those collected agenda started being thought of as a list, the English singular was born. (Candelabrastamina and insignia were all Latin plurals, too.) The Economist’s style guide prescribes a list of Latin -um words in English that pluralise with -a (memorandastrata), but many more that violate Latin grammar and take -ums (forums, stadiums, ultimatums). It demonstrates that those words are now English; Latin rules need not apply.

Those who oppose singular data argue that the word refers to a set of numbers. Yet the properties of the thing itself are not a reliable guide to a term’s grammar. Go to a shop where dried goods are sold from barrels and note rice (a singular) next to lentils (a plural), and wheat (singular) next to oats (plural). Head to the pasta section and see what happens to other languages’ words in English: spaghetti and lasagne, both Italian plurals, are singular when served up in English.

Link to the rest at The Economist

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Not Fitting In

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of Not Fitting In

Notes

As social creatures, we all have a basic human need to be loved and accepted by others. This requires us to be able to fit in with the people around us. When your character is unable to do this or they worry about failing in this area, their need to be accepted—in general or by a specific group—can become an obsession.

What It Looks Like

The character allowing people to mistreat them if it means being part of the group
Using self-deprecating humor
Sharing personal accomplishments to impress others
Hiding ideas or beliefs that wouldn’t be popular with the group
The character changing their personal habits (clothing, food preferences, the music they listen to, etc.) to fit in
Over-preparing to be sure everything is perfect
Mimicking the actions, speech patterns, and habits of others
Struggling to say no
Telling people what they want to hear
Laughing or smiling at things the character normally wouldn’t approve of
Putting others down if doing so pleases the group
The character being pressured into doing things they don’t agree with
Seeking out like-minded individuals
Being a loner
Being quiet, withdrawn, and content to stay in the background
Proactively rejecting others before they can reject the character

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

What is Your Character Hiding: The Power of Secrets

From Writer Unboxed:

In Kate Atkinson’s When Will There Be Good News? Joanna Hunter, whose mother, sister, and baby brother were murdered by a lunatic when she was six years old, explains to a police officer why she tells no one about this: “People look at you differently when they know you’ve been through something terrible. It’s the thing about you that they find most interesting.”

Most people, however—and characters—do not harbors secrets out of fear of being “interesting.” On the contrary, what we choose to keep hidden, and why we do so, says a great deal about what we fear, if exposed, will undermine or even destroy our standing among our friends and family, community and peers. That fear may be unreasonable, out of all proportion, but that’s far less important than that it exists—especially for writers.

Secrets provide writers with an intrinsically valuable way of conjuring depth in a character—there is automatically an inside and an outside, what is concealed and what is revealed. And the tension created by the character’s decision to conceal something about themselves provides an immediate dramatic payoff—we can’t help wondering what they’re hiding, why they’re hiding it, and what will happen if the secret is revealed.

Secrets also provide an economical way to depict vulnerability—the very fact a secret is being kept means the character fears being exposed.

That threat—of being exposed or “found out,” and therefore ostracized or abandoned—is one of the key dreads of existence. In a sense, our secrets hint at the isolation we associate with death, and our keeping them hidden is part of the magical thinking we perpetuate as part of the ritual of life.

The mask we call our ego or persona is crafted on the premise of concealing our fears, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities—our secrets. Instead we display to the world our confident, competent selves—with some allowances for self-effacing humor and sociable humility.

A great deal of modern drama is premised upon the peeling away of the mask concealing our secret selves, and the struggle to summon the courage and honesty to deal with the consequences of being known more authentically, more completely.

It may be that there is no such thing as living without a mask, and that the stripping away of one simply predicates the donning of another. It may be that what I think of as my honest self is really just a different one: slightly less dishonest, defensive, deluded. But it remains true that whatever mask I wear, its purpose isn’t mere concealment; it’s also protection.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Them’s the Breaks

From Daily Writing Tips:

Including an extract from Boris Johnson’s recent resignation speech, a reader suggested that a post on the expression “them’s the breaks” might be in order.

I was a bit puzzled, considering that the expression is quite common. I was surprised that the out-going British Prime Minister, a classical scholar, graduate of Oxford’s Balliol College, would use such an informal expression—an Americanism at that—in such a formal context.

It is clearly now the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister. … I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.

Following the speech, a flurry of tweets expressed confusion as to what the retiring Prime Minister had meant by saying, “them’s the breaks.’”

A BBC article included some of the pleas for an explanation:

What does them’s the breaks even mean?? I’m lost on that one.

I missed the ‘thems the break’ thing and now everyone is saying it. Please can someone explain what it means?

Hi I’m from Colombia and I have no idea what ‘thems the break’ means. Can someone explain? Please, I’m so lost.

Thems the breaks?? What does that mean I don’t understand British English.

Origin

“Them’s the breaks” comes from the game of pool.

As the game begins, the balls are racked in a triangular frame. The frame is removed and one of the players takes the first shot. This is called “the break.” The balls go rolling around the table and land in random positions. The players must then make do with where the balls have landed.

Sometimes, the balls are lined up in such a way as to make it easy to take the desired shot. But if the balls are not in favorable positions, there’s nothing a player can do to change them.

The idiom describes a situation in which something not only does not go according to hopes or expectations, but is a fait accompli, a done deal. One can only accept disappointment and move on.

Still, I remain surprised that Johnson’s expression caused such a media uproar.

As may be expected of an American slang term, it has a wide use in the US. For example, a TV comedy series called Con Man has an episode called, “Them’s the Breaks.” A former Disney series called The Owl House had an episode called, “Them’s the Breaks, Kids,” and there’s a song by John Robert Matz with the same title.

But the phrase is not unknown outside US English. I have seen it used in the sports pages of the British newspaper, The Guardian.

Them’s the breaks, I suppose, but we can more than hold our heads up high, considering we were the only team in the whole competition to come from outside the respective countries’ top tiers.

The New Zealand Film Commission has produced a dramatized documentary titled, Them’s the Breaks, based “on the experiences of a group of young Māori women in New Zealand.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Filling Your Writing Life

From Writer Unboxed:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could pick up a manual on “Best Writing Practices” and follow its advice all the way to publishing success? Reality is, though, we writers are each wonderfully and necessarily unique, and how we spend our days will reflect that. Because new opportunities and changing priorities have caused me to revisit the components of my diminished writing life, a recent episode of THE HAPPINESS LAB, a podcast hosted by Dr. Laurie Santos, clarified my issues by offering up a commonsense image of how to envision time in my overfull life. I share it here in case it might help you, too.

A professor placed a big, clear jar on his desk and then filled it with golf balls. When he asked if the jar was full, the students nodded. Then he poured pebbles into the jar, which filtered in between the balls. When he asked if the jar was now full, the students nodded with knowing smiles. Then he poured sand into the jar, which filled in even smaller gaps. When he asked if the jar was now full, the students said yes.

He said, “This jar is your life. The golf balls are the things that really matter to you. The sand is all the thoughtless ways we spend our time. If we put that in first, the important things won’t fit.”

. . . .

If you could spend your day exactly how you wanted, what would you do to be happier?

The podcast guest who shared the golf ball story, social psychologist Cassie Holmes of UCLA’s Anderson School of Management and author of the forthcoming Happier Hour, had something to say that will be relevant to the writer who has fantasized about clearing eight hours day to finally nail their novel: psychologically, that might not be the best solution.

For an optimal sense of fulfillment, Holmes’ research suggests we seek a sweet spot of 2-5 discretionary hours per day to invest in activities that will make our lives feel fulfilling. So while there is such a thing as having too little discretionary time, there is also such a thing as having too much: on the regular, her data shows that having more than 5 hours per day of discretionary time results in a decreased sense of life satisfaction.

If you were to dump the contents of your jar, which activities would you add back in to foster the most fulfilling creative life?

Our answers will have much in common, since writers have little discretionary time. Writing itself requires a handful of golf balls right off the bat. Publication adds more. Many golf balls may well be devoted to the reliable paycheck that supports our writing habit. We must continue our education, be that reading novels or craft books, researching, or giving/receiving critique.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Shakespeare, Pronouns, and the New World Order

From Daily Writing Tips:

One of my favorite go-to news sources is the BBC Daily News. Reading an account of a shooting in Norway not long ago, I came to this sentence:

King Harald, Norway’s monarch, said him and his family were horrified.

The BBC is an institution I have long admired. During the seven years I lived in London, my main source entertainment was the radio. I even named a child after a character on The Archers. I often consult the “BBC Learning English” site for explanations and examples of standard usage.

And then came that sentence about King Harald and his family.

The error was corrected before the end of the day, but the fact that it found its way onto a BBC page at all left me feeling shaken. I suppose it seemed as if the last bastion had fallen.

For a long time now, I have been hearing subject/object pronoun errors in British productions like Father Brown and Midsomer Murders and even in the speech of members of the royal family, but to see something like this appear even briefly on the BBC site gave me a jolt. (I can at least comfort myself with the thought that the person who wrote it probably won’t write a subsequent article to defend the usage.)

Another institution that has represented canonical literacy to me is Harvard. I’ve always imagined that even Harvard freshmen must be much better-read than most teens. Then I read an interview with author Geraldine Brookes in the New York Times (June 16, 2022). One of the questions the interviewer asked was “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

Her response:

I taught writing at Harvard last year and half my students had never read a Shakespeare play. That set my hair on fire.

She did not answer the question directly, but I infer that she means that the works of Shakespeare should be read before the age of 21.

That revelation did not disillusion me about Harvard, but about the feeder high schools that send students there. Ninety-three percent of the Harvard class of 2024 earned a place in the top ten percent of their graduating high school classes. When I graduated from a small-town Arkansas high school (nowhere near the top) years ago, my class (most of whom were not headed to college) had studied four Shakespeare plays—one per year, from ninth to twelfth grade. And we could quote from all of them.

. . . .

Does it matter?
According to a recent survey, Harvard is one of only four of fifty-two universities on the US News & World Report list of the highest-ranking educational institutions that still require English majors to study Shakespeare. English majors. (That fact sets my hair on fire.)

Some of my readers may be thinking,

So? Why the fuss about Shakespeare or pronoun case? Everybody knows that Shakespeare is irrelevant, not to mention misogynistic, racist homophobic, classist, and anti-Semitic. And, as for Standard English, the Conference on College Composition and Communication has decided that teachers should “stop using academic language and standard English as the accepted communicative norm.”

The battles over Shakespeare and pronoun case are not mere academic quibbling. The BBC pronoun error made me realize that conflicts about language and literature are universal and that they mirror other clashes going on in the body politic.

Does having one standard English dialect for general use unify or divide?

Does rooting English instruction in a traditional literary canon enrich thinking and communication, or does it perpetuate a mindset unsuited to a modern secular and racially diverse society?

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Writing Elusive Inner Moments

From Writer Unboxed:

Some of the most important moments in our lives could not have been captured on video.  They happened inside.  Those moments define us even more, perhaps, than life’s observable milestones: graduations, marriages, births, trophies, moving, funerals.

I’m talking about the moments that define who we are and whom we are becoming: realizations, revelations, decisions, turning points.  When we relish our triumphs or recognize our follies we, for a moment, pin ourselves to a cork board.  When for a split second we see ourselves objectively, as others must, our experience of our own being is stone solid.  We know at those moments exactly who we are.

When we affirm a conviction we become even more ourselves.  On the other hand, when we change our minds we become someone different.  The self is not static.  It’s dynamic, meaning changing.  Our inner shifts are steps in an journey without end: our search for meaning and purpose, our quest for ourselves.

Call it the human condition but whatever it is, we humans feel a strong need to capture, mark and name those critical moments in our experience.  We journal.  We think in questions and expect that there will be answers.  We hunt for words to express that for which there are no precise terms.

Moments of profound self-awareness are different for everyone, too.  That is as true for fictional characters as it is for our corporal selves.  To bring a character alive on the page, then, requires finding words to capture immaterial inner states.  When something big happens wholly inside, how do you get that across?

Approaches to the Invisible and Inchoate

Despite the difficulty, writers have for centuries found ways to pin down the wispy fog of self-realization.  That is especially evident when an effective story brings a character to what is often called the mirror moment, middle moment or dark moment.  It is not exactly the moment of all-is-lost—that’s a step late in a plot—but rather the time when a character is sunk in despair, hollow inside, lost in the dark with no lantern or map.

Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (2014) is a dreamy, magical novel set in a nowhere place in a nowhere time (although there are lightbulbs).  Denfeld’s protagonist is known only as “the lady”, who investigates prisoners on death row.  As the novel opens the lady visits a prisoner called York, who wants to die.  Finding the lady kind and non-judgmental, York opens up to her:

York talks and talks until his words sound like poetry even to him.  He tells her why he has volunteered to die.  “It isn’t just that it is torture,” he says, “being locked in a cage.  It’s never being allowed to touch anyone or go outside or breathe fresh air.  I’d like to feel the sun again just once.”

Her eyes show a sudden distance.  What he said is true, but it isn’t true enough.

“Okay.  I’m tired of being meaningless,” he admits.  “I’m done, okay?”

He talks about the confused mess inside of him.  He says everyone thinks sociopaths are super-smart criminals, but he is just a messed-up guy who doesn’t know why he does what he does.  Except there is like a switch in him, and when the switch flips, he cannot stop.

“If it made sense, I would tell you,” he says.  “When you kill people, it is supposed to make sense.  But it doesn’t.  It never does.”

The lady nods.  She understands.

With each secret that he tells her, her eyes get darker and more satisfied…The look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious.  Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marveling at all the beauty and pain in the world.

A couple of things to note about York’s moment of bleak despair: First, it doesn’t come in the middle.  It’s only a few pages into the novel.  Second, he is given a mirror into which to look, which is the lady.  Third, what he sees in that mirror isn’t what’s squatting inside him, it’s what isn’t there.  No meaning.  No sense.  He doesn’t understand why he has killed.

The lady in Denfeld’s novel is, like the author, a death penalty investigator.  The lady delves into York’s life and, naturally, her own.  Over the course of the novel, the lady comes to understand York, learns the horror inflicted on him and his mother, and discovers meaning in what, for him, is his meaninglessness.

The mirror moment, in Denfeld’s novel serves as motivation.  The lady seeks to fill an empty void.  There is in that opening darkness a sense that there has to be light around somewhere, somehow.  The very fact that early on York can express his hopelessness—that he is conscious of his condition—allows us to hope that the lady can succeed.

Thus, the “dark” moment is not only about darkness but about knowing that there is nevertheless light, even if that light isn’t present right now.  A lost character isn’t completely lost, it’s just that such a character just doesn’t yet see a path forward and maybe despairs of ever finding one.  But knowing what should be there is, in a way, an affirmation that what’s lacking nevertheless is able to be found.

Empty isn’t empty, then, it’s rather just the feeling that comes with waiting—waiting when you don’t even know what you’re waiting for.

Another approach to the dark moment can be through analogy.  Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel Missing Person (1978—translated Daniel Weissbort) is a detective-with-lost-memory novel about Guy Roland, who lost his past during the war.  He doesn’t know why.  Having inherited a detective agency from his retired boss, Hutte, Guy follows the few slender and ambiguous clues to his identity in the agency’s files.

At a certain point, for Guy, the contradictory hints about who he might be becomes overwhelming.  Maybe the truth about himself will never be known.  For some people, it never is:

Strange people.  The kind that leave the merest blur behind them, soon vanished.  Hutte and I often used to talk about these traceless beings.  They spring up out of nothing one fine day and return there, having sparked little.  Beauty queens.  Gigolos.  Butterflies.  Most of them, even when alive, had no more substance than steam which will never condense.  Hutte, for instance, used to quote the case of a fellow he called “the beach man.”  This man had spend forty years of his life on beaches or by the sides of swimming pools, chatting pleasantly with summer visitors and rich idlers.  He is to be seen, in his bathing costume, in the corners and backgrounds of thousands of holiday snaps, among groups of happy people, but no one knew his name and why he was there.  And no one noticed when one day he vanished from the photographs.  I did not dare tell Hutte, but I felt that “the beach man” was myself.  Though it would not have surprised him if I had confessed it.  Hutte was always saying that, in the end, we were all beach men” and that “the sand”—I am quoting his own words”—keeps the traces of our footsteps only a few moments.”

Modiano finds in the analogy of “the beach man” an apt expression of how his protagonist Guy Roland feels.  A man is present—the evidence is there in holiday photos—but is unknown.  He’s real but at the same time it’s as if he doesn’t exist.  If you’ve ever looked at old family photos, say of a wedding, and wondered who is that?—and who hasn’t wondered such a thing—then you have briefly felt the bewilderment of Modiano’s existential hero.

Writers of the pulp noir period were especially good at using atmosphere to evoke alienation, emptiness and despair.  Their method was to conjure a dread state by suggestion.  Everything in the environment points to the inner feeling but the inner feeling itself isn’t named.  In a black-and-white world full of silhouettes and shadows, we sense what’s there but not fully seen.  We feel bleak because, heck, the place we’re in is bleak.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Is Decision Fatigue Standing Between You and Writing Success?

From: Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Steak or salmon?

Red or white?

Wash the car or mow the lawn?

Weights or barre class?

Do the laundry or empty the dishwasher?

Mustard or mayo?

Petunias or pansies?

Cheddar or Swiss?

So what?

What’s the big deal?

Why are you wasting my time with stupid questions?

I’ve got more important things to think about, you say, and then tell me to take a hike.

My polite response: Perhaps you might want to reconsider.

Decision fatigue.

Recent articles about the draining mental aftereffects of decision-making are, I think, relevant to some of the universal problems writers confront. Being, as former president, George W. Bush, once put it, “the decider,” takes brain power and has consequences.

You’re kidding me, right?

No. Not at all. Here are a few examples.

Doctors, brides, car buyers.

Judges, menu planners, college professors, and high school students.

According to recent studies, decision fatigue affects everyone from doctors who prescribed more unneeded antibiotics later in the day than earlier to car buyers who, after deciding on model, color, upholstery, and accessories, can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rust proof their new car.

Brides beware!

A clinical psych grad studying decision fatigue and ego depletion remembered how exhausted she felt planning her wedding. She recalled the evening she and her fiancé went through the ritual of registering for gifts.

What style appealed? Modern or traditional? Rustic or sophisticated? Feminine or tailored? Girly or grownup?

What kind of dinnerware? Matched sets or flea market eclectic? Corelle or stoneware? Plastic or china or melamine? Oh, and does it have to be dishwasher safe or are you willing to hand wash?

Plus flatware: What do you prefer? Stainless steel? Matte or mirror finish? Bistro ware? Your great aunt’s silver? Which needs to be polished.

Then: towels. What size? What color? How many sets? Hand and bath definitely, but what about washcloths? Do you use them? Or do you prefer sponges? Foam or natural? Matching tub mats? Or coordinating? And what about shower curtains? Not to mention soap dishes —plastic, wood, cork, silicone or ceramic?

Sheets. Fitted or flat? Cotton or linen or flannel? Plain or printed? Striped or floral? Plaid or perhaps something with a SuperMan or WonderWoman motif? Maybe an art deco vibe? Or an Andy Warhol pop art choice? Don’t forget Jackson Pollock!

“By the end, you could have talked me into anything,” she told her fiancé, “because I just didn’t care any more.”

. . . .

Shortcuts don’t cure decision fatigue

Decision fatigue routinely warps the judgment of everyone — doctors, judges, car buyers, brides — and, I wonder, writers? Few are even aware of decision fatigue, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.

Decision fatigue is different from ordinary physical fatigue. You’re not consciously aware of being tired, but you’re low on mental energy because the more choices you make throughout the day, the more difficult each one becomes.

Your brain, deprived of glucose, eventually looks for shortcuts, usually in either one of two ways, neither of them helpful.

One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?)

The other shortcut — the one that caused my friend to break into tears at a large toy store, is paralysis. It’s the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid making any choice at all.

Which leads to questions about the connection between writer’s block and procrastination.

Writers are the ultimate deciders.

Writers make choices from an almost infinite palette of possibilities. Basically, we spend our working lives making decisions about everything from what genre we want to write to the almost infinite number of choices about plot and characters.

The genre—

What, exactly, do you want to write? Mystery, thriller, superhero, romance, women’s fiction, historical fiction, cozy, sci fi, fantasy?

Gotta pick one.

Or maybe two if you have a mash-up in mind.

The title—

Too long? Too short? Or just right?

Anne’s post offering 5 tips for choosing a title points the way.

Plot, characters and POV—

Unreliable narrator, first person, second person, or omniscient third person?

Who’s the good guy/gal? How about the hero? Who’s the villain? And what about the side-kick? Or the incidental character who turns out to play an important role?

Not to mention the thousand (at least) details about what they’re wearing, where they work and what they eat.

Plus what they look like.

Blonde, brunette or redhead?

Touches of flattering silver or drab shades of grey? Dyed or natural? Highlighted? Straight or curly? Long, short or bobbed? Permed? Ironed? Bald? Comb-over? Fro? Mohawk? Pony tail? Pig tails? Dreads? Crew cut? D.A.? Elvis-style pompadour?

And that’s just hair!

What about everything else that brings a character to life and makes him/her memorable?

Blue eyes or brown?

But don’t forget green or hazel. Beady eyes? Almond shaped, wide-set, or small?  Near sighed, far sighted, color blind? And what about that squint? Suspicious? Untrustworthy? Or is that just the bright sun in his/her eyes? 20/20? Contacts or glasses? Goggles, a microscope, a telescope, or a jeweler’s loupe?

Fat or thin?

Tall or short? Bulging biceps or beer belly? Runner slim or linebacker bulky? Svelte and sexy or pleasingly plump? Stringbean skinny or XXL?

Big city, small town?

Mountains, beach or desert? House, mansion, apartment, penthouse, refuge camp, log cabin? Hotel, motel, tent, palace, homeless shelter, distant planet, undiscovered galaxy?

Jobs and careers?

Funeral director or Hollywood stylist? Cyborg or medieval knight?

Or? Or?

Need I continue?

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Until Fiction Do Us Apart

From Publishers Weekly:

Most novelists will tell you it’s okay—even encouraged—to mine your darkest thoughts and bring them to light in your fiction. But what about the dark thoughts that involve the people you love most? And is it better or worse if you do it with humor?

I’m not particularly proud of the moment that sparked the idea for my eighth novel, Take My Husband. It was in the thick of the pandemic, and I was living under the same roof with my beloved and three 20-something children. For someone with an almost pathological need for alone time, it was rough going.

But my messy little office with its desktop computer, two printers, overloaded bookshelves, piles of pages, and compact coffee pot was my haven. To keep from being disturbed while writing, I put a polite sign on the door that read “Please Knock.” When that didn’t work, I added a second sign—this one in bold purple—that simply read “Knock.” When that proved inadequate, I got testy enough to make a third sign reading “Knock Means Knock.”

It worked. Sort of. I was toiling away on a new project—deep in the zone of intense concentration as I tried to untangle a beast of a paragraph—when my husband knocked once, swung the door open, and announced something about a new shipment of toilet paper at Stop & Shop.

That was the moment it happened. My muse barged into the room right behind my husband—without knocking or even clearing its throat—to deliver the idea to write a book about a happily married woman who wants to throttle the man to whom she had pledged her undying love.

No, I thought. Absolutely not. It’s too… mean. But it’s a comedy, insisted my muse. Still, I resisted, as it felt dangerously close to ridicule, which has never amused me, either as giver or receiver. In fact, throughout my long marriage to a very funny man, our teasing has always been of the gentlest sort.

Take, for example, the quip he made years ago when our youngest was reading aloud from one of those corny joke books they publish for children.

“What do you call a woman with a big head?” she had asked.

“Honey,” my husband responded.

I’m still laughing at this joke. And yes, I understand you had to be there. If you were, you’d know I have an unusually enormous head, while my high-IQ husband has a child-size skull. It’s been a kind of running joke between us over the decades of our marriage. The fat-headed girl meets the pin-headed boy, they fall in love, marry, and have three normal-headed children who like bad puns.

Now, I know deconstructing a joke is a comedy crime even more egregious than withholding a punch line, so I’ll just say this: my husband could have responded “Ellen” and it would have been funny. His term of endearment was a better choice, though, thanks to the built-in domesticity. Also—and this is important—it wrapped the tease in tenderness. My husband, bless his heart, would never want to hurt my feelings.

I would never want to hurt his, either. So this book idea was not for me. Still, my muse nagged, and I knew why. There was truth in it, and as a novelist, it was my job to hold that truth up to the light.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

A Roadmap for the Author’s Revision Process

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Is there a better feeling in the world than finishing a manuscript? Typing The End, gazing lovingly at the overall word count, and recognizing you’ve accomplished something that not many people can do…you’re floating on cloud nine, and all is right with the world.

And then come the revisions.

Hear that sound? That’s you, crashing to the ground.

A Different Way to Look at the Revision Process

Revision isn’t typically super fun because it requires you to look at your story—your perfect, incredible, one-of-a-kind story—realistically. You’re going to find problems—BIG problems—that need fixing. You’ll have to take a scalpel, machete, or jackhammer to your baby and carve out some of those words you were so proud of coming up with. It’s hard. Writers aren’t typically excited about this part of the journey.

But I would encourage you to look at it differently. Revision is how your story goes from good (or garbage) to great. Characters become more authentic and well-rounded, plotlines are streamlined, settings become multi-dimensional, pace-killing fluff and filler are eradicated, and your voice begins to shine.

When you’re able to look at the revision process through this lens, it becomes a positive experience that results in something amazing, something that couldn’t have come about without it. So changing your mindset about revisions is a huge part of getting the most out of them.

But it’s not just our attitude about revision that limits us. Sometimes, it’s the process itself. There are so many story elements to examine and fix; it’s daunting to do all of this, especially for a full-length novel. This is why Angela Ackerman and I created the Revision Roadmap at One Stop for Writers. It takes authors through the revision stage for their story one step at a time, breaking the process into manageable rounds. There are a million ways to revise, but here’s how we suggest chunking the process to make it doable.

A Roadmap for the Revision Process

1)     Run a First Draft Health Assessment for the Revision Process.

After you’ve let your manuscript sit for a while to give you some much-needed objectivity, it’s time to read it again — but don’t make any changes. Not yet. At this point, just make notes of all the things you notice that need work. It can also help to use a checklist to make overall impressions about the major elements of the story, such as characters, plot, pacing, etc. Create your own resource or use our list of Final Draft Challenge Questions, which can be downloaded via the Revision Roadmap.

2)     Revision Round 1: Rough in the Big Changes.

Using the notes from your read-through, go back to your story and start working on the big-picture fixes: primary characters, character arc, plot, setting, theme, and pacing. Don’t try and make everything perfect; just get the changes framed in to shore up the weak spots.

. . . .

4)      Round 3: Incorporate feedback from critique partners.

Getting feedback from other authors is pivotal for improving your story. This can happen at any point in the process, but we like it after the second round. This ensures that you’ve already fixed the problems you’ve been able to identify and will be giving readers a pretty solid version of your story. While you’re making changes based on their feedback, keep an eye out for other issues, like places where you’ve told instead of shown, spots where the pace is flagging, and descriptions that can be updated to do double-duty.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

Biased and Prejudiced Against

From Daily Writing Tips:

In a recent post about confusion between the words precedent and precedence, a reader commented on a similar confusion between noun-adjective distinctions like bias/biased and prejudice/prejudiced. Thereby hangs this post.

bias (noun): Tendency to favor or dislike a person or thing, especially as a result of a preconceived opinion; partiality, prejudice.

biased (adjective): Influenced by preconceived opinion, favoritism, or prejudice; demonstrating, reflecting, or characterized by lack of impartiality.

Searching for nonstandard usage, I found it in sources I’d expect to set a better example.

Official transcript of a court appeal in the state of Washington:

I made numerous requests to Prosecutor without success and petitioned the Court to make the Prosecutor comply with the rules of Discovery. The Judge however would not as he was bias against me and did all in his power to deny me due process and fairness.

Journalism graduate commenting on a professor he had while at the university:

[The professor] was bias against me because he believed I offended him on a project I did for class.

A third example comes from the Quizlet site. Quizlet (valued at $1B) is an app that offers study materials. Who creates the materials is not clear. I have found them to be a rich source of misspellings and misused words. This is from a discussion of Title VII. [Title VII prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.]

If he was bias against older people, he wouldn’t have hire him in the first place.

Note that the word hire is also missing its ending.

prejudice (noun): Preconceived opinion not based on reason or actual experience.

prejudiced (adjective): Affected or influenced by prejudice; (unfairly) biased beforehand.

. . . .

Possible sign of the times
The fact that this error can be found in sources associated with education and official communication suggests that the nonstandard usage is gaining ground.

Just as the idioms “cut and dried” and “first come first served” have become for many speakers “cut and dry” and “first come, first serve,” the errors illustrated above could eventually gain acceptability.

Careful writers, beware.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

How Long Should Your Book Be?

From Writer Unboxed:

Ruth was reading an old Susan Howatch novel on her Kindle, which tracks the percentage of the book you’ve read without bothering about page numbers.  After reading for a few days, she noticed that she hadn’t made much of a dent on the percentage.  I asked the internet and found that the paperback of the novel had been more than 1100 pages long.

I’ve always argued that a manuscript should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story.  A lot of successful books – Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Bridges of Madison County spring to mind – are not much more than novella length.  The Lord of the Rings, broken into three books but really a single, continuous story, clocks in at 1086 pages, not including the appendices.  None of them feel too short or too long.

Besides, trying to force your story to fit a predetermined page count because you think that’s what the market demands is almost always a recipe for disaster.  Adding or cutting material just for the sake of adjusting the length leads to either in gaps in the narrative or padding that drags the story down.  This is not to say that all first drafts are the right length out of the gate.  Sometimes stories do drag and need trimming to flow better.  Others are too thin and need subplots built up or more details on the characters’ internal lives.  But these are changes made for the sake of getting the story right, not to fit the market.

So how do you know whether your odd-length manuscript is just what it needs to be or is too bloated or anemic?  Successful novella-length novels usually succeed because they are centered around a character development or story point that didn’t need a lot of pages to convey but that carries the emotional weight of a full-length novel.  Readers can finish them quickly and not feel underfed.

. . . .

Extremely long novels also have a couple of features that make readers willing to put up with four-digit page counts.  The Lord of the Rings creates a complex world with several independent cultures and thousands of years of backstory.  It takes time to get all that across.  The same is true of massive, multigenerational works, like the Susan Howatch book Ruth was reading.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Isolation

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

. . . .

Fear of Isolation

Notes
As social beings, it’s common for human beings to seek out others for support, companionship, or safety. But alone time is also important for people to be able to rest, reflect, and recharge. And no matter how social a character is, there will be times when they’re on their own and need to be comfortable with themselves as company. A character with a fear of isolation will struggle in these moments due to the intense discomfort that arises when they’re alone.

What It Looks Like
Having a large family
Pursuing a public career or one that requires the character to interface with others
Living in a highly populated area
Having an overly active social life
Always having a significant other
Being in multiple romantic relationships simultaneously
Flourishing in large groups of people
Being the one who coordinates get-togethers
Keeping the TV on all night as background noise
Working in an office rather than remotely
Calling people often to chat
Being the last one to leave the party
Making do with surface-level relationships when deeper ones aren’t available

Common Internal Struggles
Needing downtime to decompress but not wanting to be alone
Being stressed by a packed social calendar yet continuing to fill it
The character fearing their inner thoughts and emotions when they’re alone
The character fearing they cannot take care of themselves on their own
Negative thoughts and feelings taking over in the absence of other people
Feeling anxious, unsafe, or panicky when alone
Being assaulted by inner demons and bad memories when no one is around

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Aristotle in the Writers’ Room

From The Wall Street Journal:

The whole world is story mad. Pundits invoke the political “narrative”; passing news items become breathless podcasts; restaurant menus portentously recount “Our Story.” In the corporate world, storytelling has become a résumé bullet point. Microsoft, which generally eschews the smarmy job titles issued by tech rivals, has employed a “chief storyteller,” and for $497, an online course will teach you “the MOST important skill in the 21st century.”

Screenwriters have long mined Aristotle’s “Poetics” for craft tips, but at last someone has thought to update it for the civilian raconteur. “How to Tell a Story: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Storytelling for Writers and Readers,” by Pepperdine professor Philip Freeman, is a lively new translation geared for maximum utility, featuring a short introduction, pithy but invented section titles (“A Brief Note on Bad Plots”) and basic endnotes.

Aristotle’s original text comprised close studies of both tragedy and comedy, with asides on the “Iliad,” “Odyssey” and other examples of epic poetry (a form he judged inferior to tragedy). The section on comedy has sadly been lost, but the extant half contains, among much else, Aristotle’s famous definition of tragedy. It is a genre, he writes, intended to elicit pity and fear, and thereby produce a (somewhat mysterious) catharsis.

Plot is the most important component of a good story, he continues; a story has a right size, neither too long nor too short; and every story has a beginning, middle and end. Tragedy depicts characters who are better than we are—but not so much as to be unrelatable—whereas comedy is about those worse than we are. This definition would exclude comedies featuring lovable naifs such as Buster Keaton; it’s not always easy to tell when Aristotle is asserting his own taste and when he’s simply being historically blinkered.

The how-to framing isn’t an imposition by Mr. Freeman, to be clear. Written in the fourth century B.C., the “Poetics” was meant to be prescriptive as well as analytical: This works best, Aristotle says repeatedly, for these reasons, with his characteristically empirical approach. (For a project on government, he and his students analyzed the constitutions of 158 different states, and his zoological studies were accurate enough to impress Darwin.) He supports his arguments by citing not only particular authors and plays but even individual verses—which means that it helps for readers to be familiar with works such as Euripides’ “Medea” and Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.”

Certainly the attraction of the “Poetics” isn’t the prose. The text, like all of Aristotle’s surviving works, is most likely some version of lecture notes. Transitions and conclusions are omitted in some places, repeated in others, perhaps reflecting the serial revisions of a practicing teacher. The style is always plain and often abrupt. Reading Aristotle, the 18th-century poet Thomas Gray wrote, is like eating “chopped hay.”

Mr. Freeman does his best to find some still-sharp needles in the stack. “A plot should be structured,” Aristotle urges, “so that if any of its episodes were rearranged or removed, the whole story would be disturbed and dislocated.” A good tragedy, he stresses, will inspire fear and pity even with a simple summary of its events; acting and staging are secondary. A carefully devised plot, that is, is almost mechanically effective, regardless of style (or lack thereof).

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

How Writers Fail (Part 6): Words

From Kristine Kathryn Rus ch:

Lately, I’ve been stuck in words. The right word, as a matter of fact.

As some of you know, I’m studying Spanish, rather intensely, truth be told. I’m slowly moving away from being functionally illiterate in Spanish (where I know every word except the important one) and moving toward marginally literate in Spanish.

But you should hear me talk. Or maybe you shouldn’t. It’s somewhat embarrassing. I go along great guns and then I forget—if I ever knew—some word. In class one day, the word I forgot was the word for sixteen. Which I have known since I was sixteen, if not since I was eight. That word just left my head.

Of late, I’ve made it a point not to ask anyone in Spanish, “How do you say sixteen?” with the word sixteen in English. A lot of my fellow students do that, and someone usually provides the word. That doesn’t help.

. . . .

There are a million ways to make yourself understood, many of them imperfect, but they work. Work how? They communicate, which is the entire point.

. . . .

When you’re in the words, though, the words become important. Learning languages teaches me that on a weird level. The goal, when you speak another language, is for the language to flow. I don’t want to talk rapidly and then stop and fumble for the right word…or any word.

If I make too many mistakes in a conversation, I suddenly become tongue-tied because I’m afraid of making more mistakes.

I’m trapped in the words and I lose track of my thoughts as well as the thread of the conversation. That’s when the other speaker jumps in and tries to supply a word, not to make me more comfortable or even to make me feel stupid, but to recapture the flow.

We want to lose ourselves in the conversation. We don’t want to think about each word. Imagine how difficult it would be to discuss anything if everyone was pausing and searching for the perfect word.

It simply doesn’t work.

Yet so many writers write that way. I have known many writers over the years who were so happy to get a paragraph done in their daily writing session. I know one writer, badly broken in his years in Hollywood, who spent eight hours getting that one paragraph, which he would then erase the following morning and start again.

It took him months to finish a short story, and he wondered why everyone thought his writing had declined.

His writing hadn’t. His storytelling skills had.

He spent so much time searching for the perfect word, the perfect phrase, that he wasn’t getting lost in the story.

When stories flow, we writers tell those stories to ourselves. Most of us actually have stepped into the world of the story. We can hear the dialogue, see the people (characters) talking, feel what the protagonist feels, and feel the events unfold around us.

Most writers lose track of where they are, which is why writing in a safe space is important. When I’m in the flow, someone could tell me that they’re going to give me a million dollars and I wouldn’t hear a word. I know Dean is that way too.

Writing is, in many ways, akin to the act of reading. After a certain point, it’s not an intellectual exercise. It’s a full-body escape. You might be sitting on the couch, reading your favorite author’s latest, but in your mind, you’re climbing an ice flow or running from a vampire or kissing the sexiest person in the room.

We all know what that kind of reading feels like. The act of writing—really, the act of storytelling—does the exact same thing.

Too many writers worry about the words. They worry that they have the wrong word or that they stated something “incorrectly.” It took me years to realize that only I knew if something was or was not incorrect. It was my story after all. No one else knew what was going to happen next, and no one else knew what I was trying to communicate.

I found that realization quite freeing. I could stop worrying about words and their cousin, grammar, and start focusing on the story.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Writing Powerful Scenes, Part 4: Conflict

From My Story Doctor:

When writing strong scenes, conflict is key. If there is no conflict, the “scene” probably doesn’t contribute much to the story.

Every story needs conflicts to drive it. You can write pieces that aren’t stories and that therefore have no conflict. We typically call these “slice of life” pieces or vignettes. They might simply be powerful bits of description that bring a setting or character to life, but they aren’t a part of a larger story.

At the heart of each story, you need a powerful conflict. This needn’t be a life-or-death conflict. It needn’t put an entire world in jeopardy. It only needs to move us powerfully, and that can happen for a couple of reasons. For example, conflict may move me powerfully because I relate to it so well. I’m often charmed when I see a shy boy struggling to let a girl know that she has become the object of his affection. I was terribly shy when I was a teen, so I get it.

On the other hand, the movie An Education is a beautifully crafted story about a promiscuous young woman who is in the act of “throwing her life away.” While I recognize that many people relate to that, the truth is that for most of my life, that was never a problem for me. I set goals and didn’t let things—like my attraction for a woman—get in the way.

There are of course conflicts that I can’t relate to at all, and if you start discovering early in a movie or a book that you just can’t “get into the story,” very often the problem lies in that the conflict doesn’t engage you.

As a writer, you can get around that problem by creating more sympathy for your character. You might create a protagonist who we care deeply about. Sometimes it helps just to create a likable personality, but that’s not always the case. Even a flawed character can gain sympathy if you pile on multiple conflicts for that character.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

10 Things Beginning Writers Should do Before Trying to Publish a Book

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

Here’s more about the mistakes I made so you don’t have to. If I had worked harder on these things instead of doggedly piling up wordcount without having a clue what I was doing, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and heartbreak on my road to publication.

1) Come Out of the Writing Closet

It seems half the people I meet are “working on a book.” A lot of them have been working on that same book for years — even decades.

But they never show it to anybody.

Many of them also never read writing guides or blogs or magazine articles that might improve their writing skills. This is especially true of memoir and other nonfiction writers. They don’t think they need to know about writing craft if they’re writing nonfiction.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Nonfiction needs to be even more carefully structured than fiction — especially memoir. A simple chronology almost never makes for compelling reading. (For more on writing memoir, see my post on How to Write a Publishable Memoir.)

Then there are the writers who pile up files of half-finished stories and essays for years and never polish them or send them to potential publishers.

And I remember a writer who proudly told a Facebook group that he’d paid a vanity press to publish his book. But he’d never shown his writing to anybody. He wanted to know where he could find beta readers before he sent in his manuscript. Ack! (And of course, a vanity press is almost never a great way to publish a debut novel.)

I know why they do it. I was a “closeted writer” in my early writing years.

If you don’t show your work to anybody, and don’t compare it to anything in the marketplace, you can hang onto the fantasy that you’re a fabulous self-taught genius who has so much talent you don’t need to take a class or learn anything about writing craft.

Hey, you went to college. You’ve always got your nose in a book. Of course you know how to write.

Um, maybe not. You may love to drive, but that doesn’t mean you can build a car.

If you hope to publish someday, spending years in a writer-closet will not work in your favor. You’re setting yourself up for nasty disappointment and/or some serious scamming.

2) Develop Rhino Hide

One of the most important reasons to get out of that writer closet is to build up the soul-callouses a writer needs to succeed in this business.

I recommend that beginning writers join a critique group. A writing group can be a great way to learn the ropes without taking a bunch of expensive writing courses, and networking with other writers can help in your career. Often groups can improve your writing. Sometimes they can’t.

But a very big benefit is that they’ll help you toughen up and learn to process criticism.

Hey, if you’re scared the people in that critique group might be hard on you? Wait until you read your reviews. Yes. You’ll get bad reviews. All writers do. It’s the dues you pay for membership in the published writers club.

I know it’s all painful and crushing to your creative soul, but we have to learn to take this stuff with grace. Unfortunately, rhino hide is part of the job description. Ruth Harris wrote a great piece on growing that rhino skin.

3) Read Bestsellers, Especially in Your Genre

It’s amazing how many people who want to be writers do not read. Try to talk to them about books that have sold in the past 5 years and they go blank, or get huffy and say, “I only read the classics.” (Which they probably haven’t opened since college.) I hear so many new writers say they don’t read bestsellers because “they’re all crap.”

Which is usually followed by statements like:

“I’ve read Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Faulkner…and every word Vonnegut ever wrote. You seriously expect me to learn from reading books by some Kardashian’s ghostwriter?”

The problem with that argument is that you can’t enter the marketplace if you don’t know what buyers are looking for. As brilliant as the novels of Virginia Woolf are, they’re not bestsellers right now. And even if you are the reincarnation of William Faulkner, you’re probably not going to attract a lot of 21st century readers writing lush, Southern Gothic prose. You need to learn how to write for the people buying books right now.

No, you don’t have to read celebrity tell-alls. But you need to read voraciously in your chosen genre. And yes, literary fiction is a genre.

I once read a great piece of advice from an agent who said you should read the debut novels of top-selling authors in your genre. Don’t only read the stuff superstars are putting out now they’re famous. See what popular writers first created that allowed them to break into the business. Studying those will help you break in, too.

And beginning writers of nonfiction, I’m talking to you, too.
Many beginning writers don’t even Google their subject to find out how many similar books are out there.

Even though nobody in your immediate circle may know what it’s like to be married to a narcissist or care for a parent with dementia doesn’t mean the books aren’t there. (Amazon lists over fifty pages of books on narcissism and at least that many on Alzheimer’s disease.)

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write on these subjects — they are popular and most people need more education about them — but if you intend to publish, you need to know what’s available so you can approach your subject in a fresh way.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

When Story Is Medicine

From Writer Unboxed:

There are many different kinds of stories in this world.

Stories that stoke our curiosity with tantalizing clues and tricky plot reveals. Stories that touch our hearts with “aww, isn’t that sweet, the world isn’t a total flaming Dumpster fire” sorts of moments. Stories that linger with us for a few days, and then lift off and drift away.

There’s nothing wrong with those types of stories. But to my mind, the very best stories do more than that.

The very best stories act as medicine, delivering some emotional insight or understanding that changes who we are, on some level, and the way we operate in the world. And they stay with us much, much longer.

These types of stories often come to us at our hour of greatest need, and one came to me in 2015, when I was recovering from cancer: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

On the surface, this novel offers a fine escape from reality: It’s a historical novel, set in the 1800s, and chronicles the life of a female botanist and her ill-fated marriage to a pious lithographer with an almost otherworldly sense of goodness about him.

For me, it was the perfect novel to read while on the mend from the surgery that, as it turned out, would save my life: immersive, transportive, funny, intellectually stimulating, and even a bit sexy at times. (It also clocks in at 500 pages, which is a great length for putting reality firmly on hold.)

But there’s a message at the heart of this novel (and my sharing this with you won’t spoil the story, because as with any story, it’s the journey, not the destination, that ultimately matters). This message is that being good, being pure of heart, being selfless and giving and kind—being all those things that women especially are taught to be—may get you into heaven but will not save you here on earth. Because here on earth, it is often the toughest that survive—the ones with the strongest will to live, the strongest love for life itself, in all its messy, earthly glory.

You can imagine how visceral this message was for me, at this time in my life. Elizabeth Gilbert gave me a great gift with that novel, and that gift was the emotional, bone-deep understanding that life is not, in fact, fair, but it is precious—and sometimes, if we want to hold onto it, we have to actually fight for it.

There’s an indigenous concept of story as medicine—the idea that the right story, at the right time, can actually heal you, in spirit and maybe even in body. For me, The Signature of All Things is such a story, and like all of the novels I’ve loved best in my life, I carry it with me, inside me, wherever I go.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Infidelity

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

. . . .

Fear of Infidelity

Notes
Relationships are built on trust, and when one partner cannot trust the other, the entire relationship is jeopardized. In some cases, the partner may have a history of cheating or questionable relationships. In other situations, the character may be projecting their own self-doubt and insecurities onto their partner. This fear could become so great in the character’s mind that, despite a desire or need for romantic relationships, they’re avoided altogether.

The character doubting their own abilities and attractiveness
Being overly jealous or territorial
Secretly checking up on a partner—accessing their phone without permission, following them, etc.
Trying to “trick” a partner into confessing to suspected indiscretions
Enlisting friends to spy on the other party
The character overcompensating to impress their partner
Worrying excessively if a partner is late or doesn’t call

Checking in obsessively via texts or phone calls
Making unfounded accusations about a lover’s faithfulness
Being overly needy
Forbidding a partner to have relationships that aren’t sanctioned by the character
“Catfishing” a significant other online (or having a friend do it)
Bending over backwards to please a lover
The character agreeing to bedroom activities they’re not comfortable with to appease their partner

Common Internal Struggles
The character wanting to trust their partner but being unable to do so
The character worrying that the partner is disappointed in them (physically, intellectually, etc.)
Experiencing soaring anxiety despite having no tangible reason for it
The character questioning their suspicions (Is this real or am I being paranoid?)
Feeling guilty about spying on or checking up on a partner
The character wanting to discuss their suspicions but also being afraid to find out the truth

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Let Your Words Grow Wild

From Writer Unboxed:

It’s firefly season in my part of the world. As I write this, it’s dusk, and my front yard is just starting to light up. For the next few hours the fireflies will flash their little butts at a much higher concentration in front of my house compared to my neighbors.

I get a better light show in the first half of summer not because my yard is more beautiful or well-kept than others, but because in the two years we’ve owned our house, we haven’t raked or blown away a single leaf. We don’t mow the grass very often, and we don’t do anything to control the population of clover, fleabane, and purple dead-nettle as they slowly take over. Fireflies spend 95 percent of their lives as larva in leaf litter and other dark, moist environments, and they only live for about two months as adults. If we had bagged up all those leaves last fall to be taken away, we would have lost all those larvae.

We’re lucky to live in a place without a homeowner’s association to dictate what makes a yard “attractive,” so we’ve been able to allow nature to reclaim some of what had once been an average suburban yard: a stretch of seeded grass, azaleas bushes (which don’t attract many pollinators, as they bloom too early in the season), and some border grass (an invasive ornamental). When I tell other homeowners I’ve let my yard go wild, they will sometimes joke that it must be so much easier to not have to do yardwork. And, yes, it is easier to not have to spend hours mowing the lawn, raking, pulling weeds, or filling in patchy sod every weekend. But it does take work: we’re constantly cutting back ornamental vines that threaten to choke off pollinator-friendly plants, and uprooting invasive plants that will outcompete native flora if left unchecked.

And that’s one of the major differences between the wild yard and the more traditional manicured lawn: one attempts to dominate and control the landscape. The other works with it. This means that I’ve had to teach myself how to identify the most common plants that crop up in my yard (there are some great apps out there that make this easier than it once would have been). I’ve learned which ones are native and which ones are invasive, which feed local wildlife and pollinators, which enrich the soil when they break down, which offer shelter for beneficial insects in the winter.

As writers, we’re frequently told by other well-meaning industry professionals about the “rules.” I don’t mean grammar rules, bur rather the rules of structure, of story progression, of beats. It’s easy to get bogged down in trying to follow all the rules. Am I hitting all the correct beats for my genre? Does every scene further both the plot and my main character’s internal development? Does each plot point occur the on the exact correct page?

Do these frameworks help create interesting stories? Abso-freaking-lutely. Just as I still put effort into my yard, guides for story structure and genre are worthwhile tools. But—like most things—there are limits to what one can accomplish by sticking strictly to what’s considered “good.” Particularly when we force our writing into a structure, set of beats, or genre that it may not perfectly fit, we’re only doing a disservice to our readers and our own creativity.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

Writing Fiction for US Adults

From Daily Writing Tips:

Writers of children’s fiction are constantly aware of the need to write with their readers’ reading level in mind. Writers of adult fiction—perhaps not so much.

Technical writers agonize over the need to simplify product information and guidelines, but I suspect that novelists generally tend to assume that adult readers read at “the adult level.”

In fact, when it comes to fluency in reading, US adults present a mixed bag of ability. The frequent assertion that the average US adult reads at “eighth grade reading level” is belied by US and international statistics.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 54% of U.S. adults 16-74 years old—about 130 million people—lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level. Of that 54%, about 18% read at fourth-grade level or below.

The most recent PIAAC results indicate that about half of US adults do read at eighth-grade level or above, i.e., they have the ability to read and navigate dense, lengthy or complex texts.

The inability of millions of Americans to comprehend texts written at or above the eighth-grade level is one of the nation’s preventable failings, but that’s a different post. When it comes to fiction, US adults reading below eighth-grade level are in luck. Plenty of fiction has a readability factor of sixth-grade or below.

Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) 6.1
The Great Gatsby (Scott Fitzgerald) 5.5
The Secret Adversary (Agatha Christie) 4.8
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) 4.6
The Old Man and the Sea 4

NOTE: The figures are derived from the Flesch-Kincaid readability formula. This is the tool available to users of Microsoft Word.

Determining readability
So, should writers run a readability check on everything they write?

Not necessarily.

Like most easily accessible reading formulas, Flesch-Kincaid reaches a score by counting syllables and sentences. Words of more than two syllables are identified as “hard” words. Long sentences are identified as less readable than short sentences.

Counting syllables and sentence length is an extremely inefficient and soulless way to determine readability.

Many extremely common words have more than two syllables. The following, for example, are among the 300 most frequently used English words:

America
animal
another
different
family
Indian
important
example
together

. . . .

Writers aiming for maximum readability need to exercise caution when using Word’s built-in assessment feature or others like it. There is more to readability than word- and sentence-length.

Content, style, and organization also contribute to the readability of a text. Writers can achieve maximum readability by first mastering and then observing ordinary writing conventions. And we can all benefit by reviewing George Orwell’s six rules of writing well:

1.Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2.Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3.If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4.Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5.Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6.Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

To Comma, or Not to Comma

PG Note: The OP is part four of a series. If you click on the link at the end of the post, you’ll see links to the other three.

From Writers in the Storm

Are you a comma criminal? Do you steal commas from places where they really need to stay? Or maybe you’re a comma enthusiast and stick them in wherever you “feel” they need to be? If you said yes to one or both, you’re not alone. When it comes to commas, most people don’t go by any solid rules. Not only can that make your sentence structure inconsistent, it can confuse your readers about what you’re trying to say.     

It’s comma time again. I know. Try to contain your groans. We’re almost done! In this fourth part of the series, we’ll talk about pauses, sentence clarification, places, people, dates, words at the end of a sentence, and dialogue. And yes, it’s going to be easier than it sounds. Once you get the hang of commas, using them will come more naturally. I promise.

. . . .

TAKE A PAUSE

Sometimes, even if we follow the comma rules, the meaning of words in a sentence can be unclear or need some contrast. Especially when those words fall at the end.

Incorrect: He’s just being quiet silly.

This literally means he’s being “quiet silly.” Which isn’t really a thing.

Correct: He’s just being quiet, silly.  

Incorrect: He was only distracted not stupid.

Correct: He was only distracted, not stupid.

As a general rule, use a comma before “not” at the end of a sentence.

Incorrect: Our robotic math professor seemed different today almost human.

Correct: Our robotic math professor seemed different today, almost human.

Incorrect: That’s John’s new car isn’t it?

Correct: That’s John’s new car, isn’t it?

SENTENCE CLARIFICATION

Commas come in handy if there’s ever an issue with understanding what a sentence means. 

Incorrect: Jeremy gestured at the herd of stampeding horses yelling wildly.

Above, the horses are yelling wildly, not Jeremy. But with a comma added in the right place below, it becomes clear that Jeremy is the one yelling.

Correct: Jeremy gestured at the herd of stampeding horses, yelling loudly.

PLACES, PEOPLE, DATES

Use commas to set off specific geographical places and addresses, people’s titles, and dates.

Examples of Places:
  • Dallas, Texas, is where I’m from.
  • I used to live in Madison, Wisconsin, before I moved.
  • My sister lives at 676 Maple Lane, Plano, Texas.

Yes, you need a comma after the state too if it’s not at the end of the sentence. The odd way it looks throws many people off.

Examples of Titles:
  • My primary care doctor is Glenda Green, MD.
  • Glenda Green, MD, is my primary care doctor.
Examples of Dates:
  • September 11, 2001, is a date no one will ever forget.
  • May 18, 1943, was the day my mom was born.
Yes, you need a comma after the year too. Even though it seems weird.  

Exception: There is no comma with just the month and year—unless the date is used an opening clause.

  • I married my husband January 1991.
  • In January 1991, I married my husband. 

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Far be it from the English to use the subjunctive

From The Economist

It is often bemoaned in Britain that English is going to pieces—and Americans are generally to blame. Whether you call it decline or not, the moaners are on to something: America has indeed produced many of the innovations that have made their way into global (and British) English, for better or worse.

Bucking that trend is an intricate feature of old-fashioned English grammar that has not only survived in America but made a comeback in Britain, thanks to the unwitting preservation efforts of the Americans: the subjunctive. British commentators seem flummoxed by the unusual situation of Americans being more conservative than the mother country in this aspect of grammar.

The subjunctive in question is the present one, which can be distinguished by the lack of the usual –s on first- and third-person singular verbs, as in take instead of takes. (The subjunctive of to be is be.) Everyone knows a host of fixed phrases using it, even if they don’t realise they are subjunctives. Far be it from me. Heaven forbid. So be it. These are not declarations but a sort of wish, equivalent to May it be far from me. May heaven forbid. May it be so. Britain and America even have distinctive national refrains with a subjunctive: God save the queen and God bless America. These look a bit like imperatives, but they are not; the faithful do not order the creator of the universe around.

The transatlantic difference is that, in America, the subjunctive remained what linguists call “productive”, meaning that people use it in sentences never uttered before. Americans naturally write or say things like It is essential that every parent remain supportive or She suggested that he talk to someone else.

In Britain, the subjunctive had a very different 20th century. In 1906 the Fowler brothers, co-authors of “The King’s English”, a venerable usage guide, thought the subjunctive would not last another generation, a disappearance they approved of. But it did not disappear. An article in the Observer in 1936 referred to “the most remarkable phenomenon in modern American syntax, viz., the pedantic revival of the subjunctive”.

By the middle of the century, revered usage writers in Britain such as Eric Partridge and Ernest Gowers were warning of the subjunctive as “a hallmark of officialese” which had “a formal, even pedantic air”. Another British commentator, Catherine Nesbitt, feared the return of the subjunctive was “now spreading so rapidly that, if left unchecked, it will do real damage to the structure of the language”. By the end of the 20th century it was firmly associated with Americans who, wrote Kingsley Amis, a novelist, “often indulge in subjunctive forms”.

What a strange fate. The subjunctive was common in the classic writings of the early-modern English period, particularly in the King James Bible—as in “hallowed be thy name” or “before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice”. By the 1990s it was being treated by Amis and others as a vice a writer or speaker might “indulge” in. But such warnings were issued precisely because British scribblers were, in fact, indulging: use of the subjunctive increased markedly in the 20th century in Britain.

Link to the rest at The Economist

4 Ways To Write A More Cathartic Story

From My Story Doctor:

A lot goes into a successful novel, from compelling characters to an engaging plot, solid pacing, and a vibrant world. However, none of these things are quite as important as catharsis.

If you’ve never heard of catharsis before, this is a Greek term that describes the feeling of emotional satisfaction you get at the end of a good story. Your novel should build emotional tension by putting its characters in tricky situations, forcing them to learn and grow, and then setting them against one last challenge. In those final moments, we see just how much their journey has shaped their lives, releasing that emotional tension in a rousing and memorable conclusion.

Basically, catharsis makes reading feel good.

“When you release the character from the jeopardy of whatever problematic situation they’re in, then the audience experiences catharsis. A sigh. Whew.” – G.M. Barlean

Of course, the idea of catharsis is one thing, but actually creating it is another. A truly cathartic novel will need three things to succeed:

  • Change: Throughout your novel, you’ll need a variety of turning points that shake up both your plot and your characters’ lives. These moments of change introduce suspense and uncertainty, encouraging readers to get invested in your story.
  • Failure: Alongside change, your cast will also experience failure. As their world turns upside down, they’ll struggle to adjust and make mistakes in the process. This both ups the tension of your story and makes your character’s eventual victory all the more sweet.
  • Timing: Finally, these moments of change and failure should be carefully spread throughout your novel. This creates a steady drip of emotion, one that builds until you release the floodgates during your finale.

These elements will weave through every aspect of your story, from your plot and pacing, to your characters themselves. If done well, the result will be a powerful finale, one that leaves your readers deeply emotionally satisfied.

. . . .

1. Raise the Stakes

First up, one of the best ways to create catharsis is by introducing meaningful conflict.

This is something many writers struggle with. On the one hand, “conflict” is usually associated with car chases and gunfights, but the truth is that conflict takes many forms. Losing a spelling bee, getting sick at dinner, or arguing with a friend are all forms of conflict—no explosions required!

Regardless of what your conflicts look like, their job is to create stakes.

The stakes of your story are the consequences your characters will face if they fail to achieve their goals, and they’re a big part of both motivating your cast and writing a cathartic story. Without clear stakes, your characters have no reason to fight, struggle, and learn, robbing your novel of both the change and failure it needs to create catharsis.

Because of this, don’t be afraid to raise the stakes!

Think carefully about the conflicts driving your plot, and then consider how those conflicts affect your characters on a personal level. If they can’t resolve that conflict, what will happen? What are they afraid of, and what will push them to keep going even in the face of failure?

. . . .

3. Create Mirror Scenes

Moving on from characters, we come to plot—specifically mirror scenes.

A mirror scene is basically what it sounds like. This is a pair of scenes that mimic each other, referencing their partner in subtle ways that strike a powerful contrast between your novel’s beginning and end.

How does this create catharsis? Well, mirror scenes encourage readers to think back to the start of your story by calling up similar images, situations, characters, and dialog. Though often subconscious, this causes readers to reflect on just how much things have changed as a result of your plot. Their mind will run through everything they’ve experienced, building up to that feeling of catharsis you’re aiming for.

So, how can you create mirror scenes of your own?

Well, the easiest way to do this is by focusing on plot points. Think carefully about the earliest plot points in your novel, especially ones that introduce major changes or turning points into your story. Then, consider how you could mirror those later on. How has your story changed, and what symbols, actions, and situations can you use to highlight that?

Whatever your mirror scenes look like, aim to have at least one pair bookending your story.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

3 Ways to Infuse Character Voice

From Writers Helping Writers:

Vocabulary and the way a character speaks are the outer layer of character voice—the icing on the cake. Instead of trying to build character voice from the outside in, get under the character’s skin by revealing how they experience and interpret the story world from the inside out.

Character voice bubbles up organically when every aspect of the story is seen through a character’s-eye view of priorities, perspectives, and agendas. It’s less like cobbling together a latticework of characters, setting, and events than it is establishing a running commentary on how the character views everything caught in that web.

“Running commentary” may sound like something suited for first-person or deep third point of view. In fact, continually inflecting the story with a character’s personal concerns is a fit for any point of view whose narrator is also a character. It’s a seamless way to write. The character voice—with all its attendant observations, judgments, opinions, prejudices, preferences, thoughts, and emotions—effectively becomes your framework for worldbuilding.

The idea of character voice often brings to mind a character’s favorite words and phrases—for example, whether a character calls something neatcoollit, or dope. That’s coming at character voice from the outside in. To build character voice from the inside out, start with what the character observes in the first place.

1. What Characters Notice

What you know is inside a room will almost certainly be different from what the viewpoint character notices. What gets noticed depends on who does the noticing. Everyone sees the world through the lens of their own mindset, a potent brew of knowledge, experience, motivations, goals, preferences, hopes, fears …

A musician notes different qualities in a concert hall than an interior designer. A six-year-old child beelines right past the collection of R&B vinyl to get to the puppy. The best friend sees a comfy, lived-in nest while the exhausted mom sees dirty socks and a pile of bills on the counter.

This is where knowing your characters’ histories comes in handy. What memories and emotions are associated with the people, places, and things they meet?

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Mystery of Subtext: An Appreciation

From CrimeReads:

During my high school years, when I was at my most rebellious, my eyes glazed over and rolled with impatience whenever our beloved English teacher, the indomitable Mrs. McFadden would talk about the role of the forest in the Last of the Mohicans. Who cared about such trivia when there were more important things to be concerned with—like that cute boy in my fifth period math class or the next Saturday night’s dance.

Undeterred by our lack of interest, she would continue unabated, telling us about the literary devices authors often employ to bring a simple story up to the level of art. She would describe the metaphors and similes that enrich the narrative and give the characters depth and substance. She explained that the form and structure an author uses to create a story tells the reader as much about the plot and the themes as do the words on the page. And it is the subtext, she said, lurking just beneath the surface—what the author chooses not to say, or say obliquely—that often speaks the loudest. If we could find this buried treasure, if we could recognize these hidden gems, and unravel the mystery behind the words and images, only then would we grasp the true meaning of the story, the real intent of the author.

Despite my respect for Mrs. McFadden and her passion for literary fiction, I preferred mysteries to the heavier, more obscure texts that were assigned to us. I would open a good mystery—Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, for instance or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and know full well that whatever was presented at the outset, might not be what it appeared to be. As a reader, I was willing to second guess everything, to look beneath every word and description for the clues I knew the author had left for me. I eagerly traversed the path she laid out and followed her like a devoted acolyte to the end where I knew everything would make sense and the mystery would be solved. Along the way, I examined every event and deed, trying to discern what was true and what was false. There was something thrilling about analyzing what was really happening or who someone really was before any of it became apparent. The habitual problem solving, the act of turning over every possible scenario in my mind made me feel as if I were one with the author, that she had written this story solely for me and together we were solving this great mystery before us.

After college, when my initial rebellion against literary fiction ebbed, I decided that I wanted to learn more about the genre. It was Kafka’s Metamorphosis that made me realize I could approach literary fiction in the same way I approached all those mysteries I loved because truly, this novella had to be about something more than a bug. But what was it about? What was Kafka trying to tell me? The more I read, the more I wanted to know.

. . . .

Suddenly, as I read on, picking up the clues that Kafka offered, the story spoke to me in a very personal way. I too was an alienated young artist—a writer whose many rejections made me feel akin to this man turned insect who now spoke in a voice that no one around him could understand or was willing to listen to. As I plumbed the depths of this narrative following word by word, image by image the path he mapped, I discovered a connection with him and with the character that I had not felt anywhere else. And though we were separated by years and death, culture and gender, I was able to say to this author: Yes, I see what you see, I know what you know, I feel what you feel.

Readers instinctively know how to approach mysteries. They don’t instinctively know how to approach literary fiction. So many times, I read the reviews in this genre that run something like this: “Maybe I missed the point of this story …” or “I’m not sure what the theme is”, or “What…did I just read?!” They don’t understand that they need to look for the clues the author has left behind in the images and in the subtext, the same way they would do if they were reading a mystery. If they follow the path the author has cleared for them, if they look beneath the surface of the symbols and ponder the words, the setting, and the characters, they will understand that nothing is as it appears to be. Readers will then readily solve literary fiction’s mystery hidden in the subtext, and arriving at the end, despite time and cultural differences, they too will say: Yes, I see what you see, I know what you know, I feel what you feel.

And isn’t this why we write and read literature? 

Link to the rest at CrimeReads

From Literary Terms:

What is Subtext?

The subtext is the unspoken or less obvious meaning or message in a literary composition, drama, speech, or conversation. The subtext comes to be known by the reader or audience over time, as it is not immediately or purposefully revealed by the story itself.

Examples of Subtext

Example 1

She smiled when she heard someone else had won, but knowing what she was thinking, the smile was a façade which covered her true disappointment at having lost the election.

The subtext in the situation is the reality that what is below the surface—disappointment—does not match the surface—happiness and congratulations.

. . . .

Example 3

This mint is really delicious. It’s got a very unique flavor. Do you want one?

The enthusiasm expressed by this person is an example of subtext. As beneath this message is the clue that someone else has bad breath and should take the mint.

. . . .

Types of Subtext

Subtext can work in a variety of ways, depending on how information appears in a narrative. Here are a few key types of subtext:

Privilege Subtext

Privilege subtext is subtext in which the audience has certain privileges over the characters in a narrative. In other words, the audience is aware of something the characters are not aware of. For example, imagine a character who has three missed calls from her mother. We as readers cringe as we know she is about to find out her sister has been in a car crash which we have seen but she is not yet aware of.

Revelation Subtext

Revelation subtext is subtext that reveals a certain truth over time throughout a story, leading up to a revelation. For example, imagine a boy who has been trying to figure out what he wants to do when he grows up. He considers firefighting, being a policeman, or even being an actor. Throughout his childhood, though, he enjoys drawing, painting, and sculpting for fun. The revelation subtext here is that his hobby has been his calling all along: he will become an artist.

Link to the rest at Literary Terms

Make a Pass; I Dare You: Revising Your Draft

From Writer Unboxed:

Recently, I allowed myself to type those two precious words:

THE END

I’d completed my first rough draft of my historical novel-in-progress. Of course, finishing a draft is not THE END at all.

Those two magical words are the call to arms, the rallying cry to get one’s butt back into one’s damned chair, to double down, dig deep, grovel, beg, and maybe ugly cry.

It’s time to revise.

Hopefully, one is armed with tissues as well as a stash of tried-and-true methods for honing, pruning, enriching and revealing; plus the fresh input of trusted beta readers, freelance editors, a publishing editor, and/or literary agent (if one’s agent is the editorial sort).

I asked four generous and highly esteemed fellow authors whose names begin with “J” about their tips-n-tricks for revision so that I can, selfishly, mine their ideas for my own use. And yes, I am sharing the 411 here with you.

Janet Fitch- author of the Oprah’s Book Club selection and feature film, WHITE OLEANDER; and most recently, CHIMES OF A LOST CATHEDRAL. Her Janet Fitch’s Writing Wednesday YouTube series is a gem.

“I think in terms of revision “layers”. First layer, the scenes—making sure each scene has a change, that something has good and truly happened, and the POV character can’t go back to the way it was before. Second layer, I check the senses—am I embodying the story, using all the senses, every page? I make sure the WHERE is firmly established and continues to be refreshed. Third layer, the polishing. I make sure every sentence sings—checking the verbs for specificity and flavor, that the language has texture or ‘crunch,’ and that there’s variety in sentence length and structure. I will read this draft aloud, listening for the music I’m making.”

Jane Healey- bestselling historical novelist and host of the fab webinar series H3- Historical Happy Hour. Her most recent book, THE SECRET STEALERS is out from Lake Union Publishing.

“When I’m revising I always remind myself that readers are very smart, so in the first round of revisions, I do what I think of as a “macro” review and question every chapter, every scene and every event and ask myself, does this chapter/scene/event matter enough to remain in the story? Does it advance the narrative or shed light on character enough that it deserves to stay in the novel? And if it doesn’t, I take it out (always saving it somewhere else just in case). And then the next round is the micro review – more of a line by line review of exposition, dialogue etc. to make sure that I’m not talking down to readers in any way – I’m not repeating things they already know, or annoying them with details they don’t need to know. I find reading out loud helps at this stage, it’s much easier to spot clunky dialogue or unnecessary description when I read out loud.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

How to utilize exposition and context in a novel

From Nathan Bransford:

Striking the right balance with exposition in a novel is a really crucial and difficult-to-master skill.

On the one hand, the reader needs to have enough information to understand what’s happening in a story, and it’s very easy for an author to lose sight of what is and isn’t on the page. On the other hand, we’ve all read aimless and boring infodumps that feel like they were more fun for the author to write than they are for us to read.

So how do you provide just the right information at just the right time? Here are some tips for utilizing exposition and weaving context into the narrative.

Forget about “show don’t tell”

Many writers go astray with exposition because they are misapplying the old writing canard “show don’t tell” and think it’s somehow against the rules to provide exposition or context. (For what it’s worth, I think “show don’t tell” has more to do with the way characters react to things).

Let’s get this out of the way first: It’s okay to just provide the reader with the information they need to understand what’s happening.

Sometimes writers think they’re being pedantic when they explain unfamiliar concepts, but the reader isn’t going to light up a red buzzer on you for “breaking” a “rule.” They’re going to be too busy appreciating that they now know what the unfamiliar concept is so they can just get on with enjoying the story.

If you don’t provide this context, things the reader doesn’t understand can pile up and pile up and it starts to feel exhausting because we can’t get our bearings within the story.

The crucial principle for exposition

So how and when do you provide exposition and context in a novel?

Here’s the crucial principle: The information is tied to specific events happening in the plot at the time of the explanation.

In other words, the key is that the information helps the reader understand the present narrative that’s currently unfolding in the story.

If the exposition or context helps us make sense of what’s happening in the novel right now? Great.

If the information is just being dumped on us just because “it will become important later?” Chances are it’s going to feel aimless, smushed in, and confusing and the reader will be tempted to skim ahead until they get back to the actual story.

We don’t need static introductions to characters or settings just for the sake of introducing them

When I’m working with authors on edits, often the first fifty pages of a novel will feel very aimless because all we’re doing is meeting characters and places for the sake of meeting them, but the story doesn’t get going until later.

Again: if we’re only getting the information because “it will become important later,” it’s going to feel meandering and a bit pointless. This is what people mean by “infodumps.” It’s information that’s disconnected from a story.

Trust that you can introduce characters and settings when they become important to the present narrative. Otherwise, if you’re trying to show a character’s life prior to the inciting incident, consider a mini-quest to give the opening some momentum, which will feel much more active than an opening infodump.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford

How to Write an Apology Letter

From The Grammarly Blog:

There may come a time in your life (or maybe it’s already happened) when you offended someone or let them down. Depending on the situation, a simple “I’m sorry” might not be enough to make up for the mistake or hurt you caused.

Writing an apology letter for a mistake or wrongdoing might be the first step in repairing the recipient’s dignity and restoring respect and trust in the relationship.

What is an apology letter?

The purpose of an apology letter is to atone for a mistake, offense, or harm that you caused toward another party. In addition to acknowledging your responsibility in the situation, it’s an opportunity to validate the recipient’s experience and feelings. It’s also a way to begin to restore trust and communication in the relationship by affirming how you’ll work to repair the damage and avoid causing offense in the future.

Keep in mind that an apology letter is not a tool for justifying your actions or exculpating yourself. The letter is for the recipient, meant to address your actions and their feelings. 

When to write an apology letter

An apology letter can be valuable in situations when you’ve caused or contributed to wrongdoing or a mistake that adversely affected another person. 

For example, you might want to write a letter to a friend, family member, or partner whom you care about but have insulted or taken for granted. Apology letters can also be useful when you’ve compromised other relationships, such as those in the workplace. You might decide to write an apology for a job-related mistake or for failing to give a colleague credit.

How to write an apology letter

 Writing a letter of apology starts with the apology itself, but before writing down your thoughts, make sure you feel calm and clear-headed. 

Give yourself enough time to process your own emotions and the scenario so you can understand the recipient’s perspective. When you’re ready to apologize, include the elements below in your letter.

1 Apologize unconditionally

At the beginning of your apology letter, write “I’m sorry for . . .” or “I apologize for . . .” followed by what you’re specifically remorseful about. Expressing remorse upfront shows humility and awareness about how you’ve affected the other person.

2 Acknowledge the impact

Next, recognize the effect that your actions had, whether on the recipient, a group, or a larger situation. Accepting responsibility for how you impacted others demonstrates that you understand why they’re hurt, upset, or disappointed. This is a critical step because it validates their feelings, which can help them feel heard and seen. 

Sometimes it might seem helpful to briefly explain what happened that led to the offense. However, be cautious about making excuses for your behavior. A recipient who’s slighted may not be interested in the reason behind why you’ve broken their trust—only that you have.

3 Atone for the wrongdoing

In this part of an apology letter, express your wish to make amends. Offer suggestions on how you plan to change your actions moving forward. Avoid statements, like “Tell me what I can do to make this right” which puts the burden of finding a way forward on the recipient.

Instead, do the mental labor by bringing your own solutions to show that you’re coming from a genuine place of learning and goodwill.

4 Offer reassurance

Reiterate your desire to rebuild from this experience together. And, assure them that you’ve learned from your mistake.  

When you’re finished writing the apology letter, it should be concise and honest. Importantly, it should demonstrate that you hear and empathize with the recipient’s experience.

Remember that an apology letter doesn’t guarantee the other person’s forgiveness. It’s the first step to potentially recovering lost faith in a relationship that’s important to you.

Link to the rest, including what not to say in an apology letter, at The Grammarly Blog

Writing Memorable Character Flaws

From Writers in the Storm

A character flaw is an undesirable trait that negatively affects the writer’s character. The degree of this effect will depend on the type and magnitude of the defect. Fortunately, the struggles caused by these imperfections often forge great strength of character.

Life is messy.

A perfect character has nothing to learn. The reader will find this person boring and unrelatable.

Weakness + Struggle = Growth.

Flaws—minor, major, and fatal— make memorable and captivating characters.

. . . .

Three Character Flaw Categories

1. Physical

Cultural ideals determine beauty in a society, so let’s say, that in this case, flaws are deviations from the culture’s norm.

Beauty itself can be considered a flaw. In this study, beautiful women who wear makeup are deemed aggressive.

Any character can be assigned “flaws.”

2. Emotional or Personality

Shyness may seem like sensitivity. In reality this trait may be due to a lack of self-love.

Neediness may appear as emotional openness and end up causing co-dependence.

Need for control might look like discipline but can be punishing.

3. Ideological

A character’s ideology is the set of beliefs and values important to the character. These principles can be a flaw as well as a source of attraction.

Characters might find each other’s ideologies fodder for jokes, at least initially. But the reality of these views can easily create conflict.

Character Flaw Types

Minor Character Flaws

A minor character flaw has minimal impact on a character’s life. Some may be lovable, others maddening. Minor imperfections can move the plot along.

These flaws distinguish your characters, making them memorable. They don’t impact the story but can affect dialogue or reactions to scenes. Examples are as follows:

  1. Being perpetually late.
  2. Poor decision-making skills
  3. Gossiping.
  4. Lazy and unwilling to do things.
  5. Spoiled.
  6. Spacey.
  7. Preoccupation with one’s physical features.
  8. Poor hygiene.
  9. Naive.
  10. Clumsy.

Examples in novels

  • Clumsy – uncoordinated and fumbling; often accident-prone. Example: Bella Swan in Twilight.
  • Naive – easily fooled or persuaded to believe something. Example: Valentine Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land.
  • Spacey – having one’s head in the clouds; absent-minded. Example: Luna Lovegood in Harry Potter.
  • Spoiled – bratty and self-centered as a result of overindulgence. Example: Mary Lennox (at first) in The Secret Garden.

Sometimes flaws aren’t negative as they serve to cause a roadblock for the character, leading to character growth.

Major Character Flaws

A significant character flaw can damage the character and the people within their reach in a physical, mental, or moral manner. These character flaws can drastically impact a character’s life and the lives of those around them. Here are some examples:

  1. Addiction – drugs, gambling, smoking, sex, serial killer.
  2. Recklessness.
  3. Possessive.
  4. Deceptive.
  5. Short-tempered.
  6. Greedy.
  7. Narcissistic.
  8. Revengeful.
  9. Weak-willed.
  10. Inconsiderate.

Examples in novels

Short-tempered – quick to anger. Example: Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Possessive – overprotective and controlling. Example: Edward Cullen in Twilight.

Weak-willed – timid and spineless. Example: Peter Pettigrew in Harry Potter.

Inconsiderate – caring little for the feelings of others. Example: Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Snack tips for writers

From Substack:

In April, Substack welcomed 11 writers into our Food Intensive, a mini-fellowship where we collectively incubate ideas, deepen strategies, and hone the direction of their publications. 

This week, our fellows discuss what snacks they keep on hand while writing. From the art of Leah Koenig’s “procrasti-snack” to the nefarious “peanut butter eaten from the jar with a spoon,” the food writers share what nourishment they take to keep their creative practice flowing and stave off the rumble of impending deadlines.

. . . .

I am always hungry. Writing about food or looking through my photos to add to my newsletter makes the hunger worse. I try to eat healthy things while I write because I can find myself going without lunch many days from sheer forgetfulness and would rather be full on good snacks than junk food.

—Natalie Love Cruz, Food For Thought

During my years spent writing from a desk parked directly next to my bed—and just a few paces to the kitchen door—I like to think I have mastered the art of the midday snack, and also the procrasti-snack. Because the siren call of the popcorn bag only grows louder when a story deadline looms. Here’s my most recent procrasti-snack: plain yogurt, a drizzle of maple syrup, a sliced banana, and a sprinkle of peanut butter granola. Take that, deadline.

—Leah Koenig, The Jewish Table

Link to the rest at Substack

“Disembodied” Does Not Mean That

From Daily Writing Tips:

In a very interesting BBC News article about ancient gardens, the writer describes an ancient relief that shows the vegetation-loving but brutal ruler Ashurbanipal and his wife reclining under a grapevine.

It’s an archetypal garden paradise—that is, except for the disembodied head of an enemy, which is hanging from a nearby tree.

The writer seems to think that disembodied—like dismembereddecapitated, and severed—has something to do with cutting off body parts.

It does not. Disembodied is the opposite of embodied.

Embodiment

The verb embody and its opposite can be used literally or figuratively.

embody (verb): to put into a body, to give a form to.

People, institutions, and laws are said to embody various abstractions. For example, Chef José Andrés, who organizes meals for people in disaster areas, embodies the Christian ideal of caritas—love of one’s fellow human beings.

disembody (verb): to separate from the body or to free anything from the form in which it is embodied.

disembodied (adjective): divested of a body; freed from that in which it has been embodied.

A frequent use of disembodied is to describe the voices of unseen speakers.

• A disembodied voice warns the crowd that the moment is about to arrive.
• The conversation is restrained, disembodied voices emerging from the darkness.

Writers of science-fiction and fantasy often explore the existence of creatures that exist without physical bodies.

• Megatron’s disembodied spark, trapped within the chaos-bringer, called out to Prime.
• She survived as a disembodied spirit and took over the bodies of some of the Council.
• Is there comfort in the idea that Max lives on as a disembodied consciousness in a parallel universe?

Dismemberment

dismember (verb): To deprive of limbs or members; to cut off the limbs or members of; to tear or divide limb from limb.

dismembered: Deprived of members or limbs; divided limb from limb.

• Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster from the dismembered bodies of dead men.
• The real heroes are those who came back dismembered, mangled, crippled and blind.
• His dismembered remains were found April 24, 2004, on Baldwin Road in Bedford.

Anything that has parts can be “dismembered.”

• After the Caliphate was dismembered in 1015, a new, more decadent, era started.
• Formed in 2008, when the Home Office was dismembered, UKBA has always been a mess.
• When the empire was dismembered, peoples of all nationalities were everywhere.

Removing the head

decapitate (verb): To cut off the head of a person, animal, and sometimes other things that have a “head.”

• In March, authorities discovered a decapitated pig’s head wrapped in a blanket.
• African violets need to be decapitated at the crown level when issues with the roots or soil arise.

severed (adjective): cut in two, separated

Fishermen discovered his severed head in a canal 120 miles away two weeks later.

To avoid misuse of disembodied, ask yourself if the thing being described as “disembodied” would in fact be visible to the eye.

Consider the following examples:

• In the first TV commercial, a disembodied arm writes in big block letters CREATE.
• Is the disembodied arm under the couch too noticeable, or should we move it farther back?
• In a corner of a laboratory in Sydney, Australia, a disembodied lizard tail is flicking.

In each example, the thing being described as “disembodied” could be seen by a viewer and is, therefore, not disembodied. The arms are unattached to bodies, but are visible, as is the tail.

Link to the rest at Daily Writing Tips

Work Alone: Ernest Hemingway’s 1954 Nobel Acceptance Speech

From The Marginalian:

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag observed. Solitude, in fact, seems central to many great writers’ daily routines — so much so, it appears, that part of the writer’s curse might be the ineffable struggle to submit to the spell of solitude and escape the grip of loneliness at the same time.

In October of 1954, Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But he didn’t exactly live every writer’s dream: First, he told the press that Carl Sandburg, Isak Dinesen and Bernard Berenson were far more worthy of the honor, but he could use the prize money; then, depressed and recovering from two consecutive plane crashes that had nearly killed him, he decided against traveling to Sweden altogether. Choosing not to attend the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm on December 10, 1954, Hemingway asked John C. Cabot, the United States Ambassador to Sweden at the time, to read his Nobel acceptance speech, found in the 1972 biography Hemingway: The Writer as Artist (public library). At a later date, Hemingway recorded the speech in his own voice. Hear an excerpt, then read the transcript of the complete speech below:

Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize.

No writer who knows the great writers who did not receive the Prize can accept it other than with humility. There is no need to list these writers. Everyone here may make his own list according to his knowledge and his conscience.

It would be impossible for me to ask the Ambassador of my country to read a speech in which a writer said all of the things which are in his heart. Things may not be immediately discernible in what a man writes, and in this sometimes he is fortunate; but eventually they are quite clear and by these and the degree of alchemy that he possesses he will endure or be forgotten.

Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.

For a true writer each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed.

How simple the writing of literature would be if it were only necessary to write in another way what has been well written. It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.

I have spoken too long for a writer. A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it. Again I thank you.

Link to the rest, including an audio recording of the speech, at The Marginalian

One Writer’s Beginnings: The Bitter Gift of Trauma

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ‘60s. My father was an extremely sensitive, artistic, and intelligent man who, from, the get-go in his marriage with my mother, became an abuser. His violence was mostly directed at my mother, occasionally at my brother. All of us were terrorized by my father’s displays of frustration and rage, which involved a crescendo of yelling and crashing about that led to a violent act, followed by our withdrawal to safety and, eventually, his remorse.

My father always seemed to love and admire me as much as he attacked and belittled my mother. It made for a really toxic triangulation situation between my mother, my father, and me: the more he showed me behavior she saw as belonging, by rights, to her, the less she could co-opt and feel good about the milestones of my childhood.

Summer theater, and theater arts classes throughout high school, provided an escape from the sturm und drang of my family life—and gave me, every season, a new pretend-family with whom I could interact and work at being loved.

It was only after the publication of my second novel, Vivaldi’s Virgins—the story of a girl growing up in a foundling home in 18th century Venice—that I came to recognize my own orphan scenario: the well-spring of mother-love that was taken away from me; the resulting self-doubt and psychic pain. Once I’d done the bulk of my research for the novel and began writing, it felt as if the inner world of my orphan protagonist, Anna Maria dal Violin, was fully accessible to me—because I could remember precisely what it feels like to be without the protection of a mother or father, afraid, uncertain and abandoned; dependent on one’s own determination, ambition, and grit.

Writing literary fiction requires a highly tuned degree of empathy of the sort that’s typical of the best therapists, an ability and willingness to look inside people’s words and behavior, and explore the buried trash and treasures of their past: all that makes them who they are; all that makes them conceal who they are, from themselves and others; shining a light to try to find all the gleaming little keys that might fit the locks of their most hidden places.

For any novel—or any poem, for that matter—to really speak to readers, there has to be emotional juice there for the writer.

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Change

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental health condition, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life. 

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

This thesaurus explores the various fears that might be plaguing your character. Use it to understand and utilize fears to fully develop your characters and steer them through their story arc. Please note that this isn’t a self-diagnosis tool. Fears are common in the real world, and while we may at times share similar tendencies as characters, the entry below is for fiction writing purposes only.

Fear of Change

Notes
Most people are averse to change at some level, and a certain amount of unease when it comes to change is normal. It only becomes a problem when a person is so determined to keeping things the same—possibly because they don’t want to give up control or are afraid of the unknown—that their quality of life is impacted, relationships are damaged, and they’re unable to grow and evolve in a healthy manner.

What It Looks Like

  • Dismissing new ideas without considering them
  • Humoring people; giving the appearance of considering something new but always rejecting the opportunity
  • Avoiding making decisions that require change (so the status quo can be protected)
  • Reacting emotionally rather than logically
  • Using outdated sources or ineffective arguments to make a point
  • Becoming emotionally activated when new ideas are being considered
  • Clinging tightly to “old school” methods: resisting technology, ignoring scientific advances, rejecting tools that deviate from what they’re used to, etc.
  • Sentimentality
  • Loyalty (to people, a job, a community, etc.)
  • Inflexibility
  • Repairing and fixing material objects rather than replacing them
  • Living in the same house even when it’s falling apart or the property value has skyrocketed
  • Sticking close to home; not traveling far or taking long trips
  • Frequent strife with family members who want to make changes the character is resistant to
  • Resenting others for moving on and leaving the character behind
  • Going to extremes to avoid change (manipulating others, lying, being mean or lashing out at someone who is suggesting a change, etc.)
  • Being more interested in the past than the future

Common Internal Struggles

  • Disliking being left alone/behind but being unable to embrace the changes required to keep up with others
  • Feeling obsolete
  • Feeling selfish for being so unbending but not knowing how to be more flexible
  • Wanting to go back in time to when things were happier or simpler
  • Struggling with anxiety or depression
  • Feeling stuck in a situation but being unwilling to make changes

Flaws That May Emerge
Confrontational, Controlling, Cynical, Defensive, Evasive, Hostile, Ignorant, Inflexible, Irrational, Judgmental, Nervous, Obsessive, Oversensitive, Paranoid, Possessive, Resentful, Stubborn, Uncooperative

Hindrances and Disruptions to the Character’s Life

  • Staying in a situation that makes the character unhappy or is unhealthy because it’s preferable to facing the unknown
  • Difficulty making even small changes to a daily routine
  • Missing out on meaningful activities with others (a trip with friends, a family reunion, dinner at a friend’s house, etc.)
  • Becoming isolated from others
  • Difficulty utilizing modern advances that most people enjoy because the learning curve is too great
  • Always having to make excuses for turning down an opportunity
  • Avoiding people who are likely to suggest activities or changes that threaten the character
  • Always needing to do things their own way; resisting new methods or ideas that would make their life easier

Scenarios That Might Awaken This Fear

  • New technology or processes at work that must be learned and used
  • A scenario requiring the character to move (the house being condemned, no longer being able to pay rent, etc.)
  • A spouse having to move into a retirement home, leaving the character on their own
  • Grown children moving across the country and asking the character to come with them
  • The culture shifting to embrace ideas the character disagrees with
  • Being given a new phone, a computer, or some other tool the character isn’t comfortable with but must learn to integrate into their life
  • The character’s children wanting to deviate from a long-held tradition

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

The Vital Difference Between Plot and Story—and Why You Need Both

From Jane Friedman:

Writers buy plotting books by the dozen and do their best to create the plottiest plot that the world has ever seen. They stuff their novels with action-packed sword fights, explosions, fist fights, and screaming matches. Plot points, pinch points, and grandiose climaxes abound.

But the problem is this: in the world of great novels, Plot and Story are very different entities, and every great novel needs both.

Plot refers to all the external events that happen in a novel. The plot encompasses things like sword fights and explosions. It also encompasses the logical flow of the narrative as a series of cause-and-effect events. (Plot even encompasses your Inciting Incident—you know, that oh-so-important event that catapults your reluctant protagonist into the action in the first place!) Think of Plot as the external and highly visual part of your novel.

Story, on the other hand, refers to the internal transformation that your protagonist must make throughout the course of the novel in order (usually) to become a less flawed version of themselves by the end. Story tracks the character arc of the protagonist, showing us exactly how they get from point A (maybe selfish or cowardly) to point Z (maybe unselfish or brave). Story is largely internal, and it follows the emotions and thoughts of the protagonist as they try to make sense of (and adjust to) their ever-changing world. It is here in the Story where we see the protagonist slowly transformed by the events of the Plot.

Think of Plot as what’s happening to your protagonist and Story as what’s happening within your protagonist. And certain events force them to wrestle with their internal demons, fears, misconceptions, and prejudices until (finally) they come out the other side of your Plot as a changed person. (Or, possibly in a tragedy, not changed.) When that happens, the Story is done!

Novels that have an interesting Plot but not a deep Story are dramatic sequences of somewhat related external events that would rival any Hollywood action flick. But…those action-packed events don’t seem to have a throughline, and there is no emotional continuity for the reader to grasp hold of. Plot without Story is unrewarding for readers. In fact, neurologist Paul Zak found that both plot and story must be present for test subjects to pay attention to a narrative and feel empathy for the characters involved.

Here are seven ways to infuse your Plot with Story.

1. Design a clear character arc for your protagonist. Your protagonist is an imperfect person, because they would be totally boring if they already had everything figured out from the beginning. Decide which aspect of their imperfection your story will focus on. This will be their basic character arc. Here are some common (simple) arcs, but there are many more that vary in complexity.

  • Selfish to selfless
  • Cowardly to brave
  • Mistrusting to trusting
  • Deceitful to truthful
  • Lacking self-confidence to having self-confidence
  • Afraid to unafraid

2. Create a compelling backstory that makes your protagonist’s character arc make sense. If your protagonist is selfish, have a specific and concrete backstory that supports this flaw. The backstory you create will be sprinkled throughout the narrative like seasoning, helping the reader understand your protagonist and begin to empathize with them.

3. Make that character arc clear from the beginning of the novel. The opening scenes and chapters are the perfect place for your protagonist to show off their imperfection. If their character arc is cowardly to brave, the reader should see them acting cowardly (and what effect that has on their life and happiness) early in the novel.

4. Test each plot point (narrative event) to see if it relates back to the Story. The events in your novel aren’t just there to be flashy and dramatic. They should pressure your protagonist to change in a very specific way. In essence, plot points exist to make your protagonist walk the trajectory of the character arc you have designed. So, if your protagonist’s character arc is cowardly to brave, then each plot point should relate back to that idea.

Sometimes these events will cause them to be less cowardly and sometimes more cowardly. Their character arc is a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back sort of thing. But, overall, there should be forward momentum and the reader should feel it.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

Writers: Pantser, Plotter … Roadster?

From Writers in the Storm

I have known a lot of professional, much-published writers over the years and the pantser/plotter descriptions fit everybody to some degree. The pantser, of course, writes with minimal advance plotting by the seat of the proverbial pants and the plotter prefers to have a detailed outline while writing. I started out as a pantser and became more of a plotter.

I don’t recommend any particular approach—whatever works for someone makes sense to me, including combinations of the two approaches. I’m merely looking back at my own evolution along this line. If others shared this experience, we’re not alone. I hope I’m not completely alone, as that is a weird thought.

Starting Without a Map

When I was first writing with the goal of becoming professionally published (I had written stories from the time I was very young), I chose to begin with short stories. I liked reading them and had found a number of them meaningful to me over the years. So that’s how I started, with the intention of writing novels later.

I worked out story ideas many different ways. Sometimes I had a premise and then worked up the protagonist. Other times I had a character in mind first and sometimes, less often, a setting came to me first. I was totally writing by the seat of my pants, as the metaphor goes. One result was that I wrote a lot of fragments, attempts for which I got stuck and never figured out how to go forward. I did write some complete short stories this way. One was accepted by a regional magazine, which folded soon after my story appeared—and before they paid me the fifty dollars that had been promised. The ones I sent to major magazines and anthologies were all rejected.

At this time, I was writing fantasy and science fiction stories, which I continued to write, and also short crime fiction. Back then, I got nowhere with the latter.

Less than a year after I set out in this endeavor, I was able to take part in the Clarion Writers Workshop. At Michigan State University then, it focused on writing science fiction and fantasy. I had a great experience. Immediately afterward, I was unable to put into words what I had learned—I tried, talking to other writers as well as nonwriters. Over time, I processed a great deal of the experience to my benefit. This did not, however, influence the process I was using.

One Note, Two Notes, Three Notes… and More

While I was pantsing on a story, however, sometimes I thought of something to add farther into the story. That something might be a character, a plot device, maybe some dialogue. To avoid forgetting it, I wrote a note to myself.

That was the first step toward becoming a plotter. Yes, it took a long time, and my first two professional sales (the sale to the regional magazine was not considered professional by the Science Fiction Writers of America) were written mostly by pantsing, though I came up with the ending for the second one pretty early while I was working on it.

So, as I kept writing, I also wrote down notes for later—more and more, over time. I needed to note when in the story I planned something and began putting the notes in the order I would use them. Okay, you can see where this is going. Still while pantsing, I would sometimes take enough notes that they represented events all the way to the end. That constituted an outline—not detailed at first, but an outline.

During this time, I also came to the concept that a story is about its ending. In casual conversation, we might say a story is about a plot premise or a protagonist as “someone who does something or other.” How the protagonist resolves the conflict of the story, or fails to do so, is what the story is really about.  

Over time, without any particular decision-making, I found myself writing up notes until they began to take shape as an outline every time I worked on a story. In particular, I was still writing down anything I didn’t want to forget.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

The real problem with dangling participles

From The Economist

Reading this sentence, it may occur to you that something is slightly awry with it. Or you may not notice anything wrong at all. The first three words are a “dangling modifier”. This writing fault has been deprecated for over a century. It has made its way into countless usage guides, perhaps because of its catchy and evocative name, as something to be avoided at all costs.

The most common kind of dangling modifier is a dangling participle, as at the beginning of this column. Participles are those verb forms that end in -ing in the present tense, and usually in -ed in the past tense: playing, played. (Some past participles, like born and spoken, are irregular.) Participles are so named because they “participate” in two parts of speech. They are verbs in sentences like She has spoken French for three decades, but act like adjectives in those like French is the most spoken language in Belgium.

Participles can be used to add some contextual or explanatory information to a sentence: Speaking Spanish, he ordered three beers. Spoken in Paraguay, Guaraní is the source of the word “jaguar”. Since participles are a bit like a verb, readers seek an appropriate subject to go with them, typically in the first noun they find. The problem comes when these don’t match up. Writing gurus have often conjured up clumsy examples to highlight the issue: Trembling with fear, the clock struck twelveAfter fighting the flames for hours, the ship was finally abandoned. The clock was not trembling, nor did the ship fight the flames.

By no means do such abominations have to be invented. Take “Pulling off his boxer briefs, his erection springs free. Holy cow!” The quotation, from E.L. James’s “50 Shades of Grey”, has a classic dangling participle, the kind of thing that makes critics mock the style of her erotic novels. (A bit of envy may be mixed in with the condescension: “50 Shades” was the bestselling novel of the 2010s.)

Consider, though, that James Donaldson, who provides this example in his recent doctoral dissertation, also cites 21 dangling modifiers from a rather more critically admired source: Virginia Woolf. “Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her.” “Rubbing the glass of the long looking-glass and leering sideways at her swinging figure a sound issued from her lips.” “Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too.”

The idea that an introductory phrase must always apply to the subject of the clause that follows is a useful rule, but not a cardinal one. Speakers often introduce a remark with some throat-clearing about their own feelings on the statement to come, as in “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” It is but a short step to saying things like Frankly, he is lying to you—which under a strict rejection of “dangling modifiers” would be incoherent, as the speaker, not the liar, is being frank.

Yet these kinds of things crop up all the time, as when Richard Nixon said “Speaking as an old friend, there has been a disturbing tendency in statements emanating from Peking to question the good faith of President Reagan.” The dangling participle—“Speaking as an old friend”—has nothing to attach itself to. But Speaking as… is also a common introduction, the type that includes ConsideringAssumingLeaving aside and so forth. Only occasionally are these accompanied by an explicit I or we, which are nevertheless so strongly implied that they hardly need spelling out—a reason so many dangling modifiers go unnoticed. Moreover English sentences often have a dummy subject, such as “it” (Considering inflation, it seems plausible…) or “there are” (Given our situation, there are three options…). That makes dangling modifiers all the more likely to slip past editors.

It is best for writers to avoid, and those editors to fix, any danglers that give rise to absurdity, or even just a momentary jolt of confusion. Even if they bother only a few readers, those readers are disproportionately likely to think that the writer does not know how the parts of a sentence are meant to be combined. They are also disproportionately likely to write letters to the editor.

Link to the rest at The Economist

From ThoughtCo:

Dangling participles are modifiers in search of a word to modify. Dangling participles can be unintentionally funny because they make for awkward sentences.

The participle in subordinate clauses should always describe an action performed by the subject of the main part of the sentence.

An example of a dangling participle would be: “Driving like a maniac, the deer was hit and killed.” This makes it seem like the unfortunate deer was driving. Correct the sentence by including the missing proper noun. “Driving like a maniac, Joe hit a deer.” The corrected sentence makes it clear that Joe was driving.

. . . .

Avoid dangling participles because they can make your sentences awkward and give them unintended meanings. The Writing Center at the University of Madison gives several humorous examples:

  1. Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.
  2. Waiting for the Moonpie, the candy machine began to hum loudly.
  3. Coming out of the market, the bananas fell on the pavement.
  4. She handed out brownies to the children stored in plastic containers.
  5. I smelled the oysters coming down the stairs for dinner.

Link to the rest at ThoughtCo

Endings

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

For more than a decade, writers have asked me what they can do to sell their existing books. I always tell them to write the next book. Some writers don’t have time for promotion. Others don’t have the constitution for it.

. . . .

The one thing that will sell your next book is the ending of the current book.

If your book ends well, leaving the reader satisfied, then they’ll want to repeat the experience with your next book. If your ending falls flat, then some readers won’t care about your next book. If your ending is truly awful, the readers will avoid your next book completely.

What made me think of this was a movie that Dean and I watched on Amazon Prime. The movie is called Parallel. We knew nothing about it before we watched it, except for the bit of advertising copy. The movie’s about multiverses, which we both love, and it looked promising.

When we watch something together, we have a rule: either one can veto the movie at any point in the movie. We figured this one would be an early veto. Instead, it was a good way to spend an hour-plus. The script was tight, the characters—though unlikeable—were well drawn. There were some quibbles (no way could those bodies have been disposed of easily), but they were minor.

The movie hummed along. It even had the perfect ending. I was enjoying it…and then some idiot tacked on a scene with a minute and a half left.

That scene ruined the movie. I have since looked at reviews, and everyone calls the ending a jumbled mess. Yeah. It is. But had the movie ended a minute and a half earlier, it would have been just fine.

Here’s what the ending did wrong:

  1. It introduced new information that contradicted the information in the movie.
  2. It threw in a plot twist that literally made no sense.
  3. It was pointless and emotionally flat.
  4. It did not match the tone of the rest of the movie.
  5. It raised questions that could not be answered.

What that last scene was going for was a gotcha! sequence that you often see in horror films. You think everything is fine, and then—nope—there are little plants growing in suburbia (as in Little Shop of Horrors) or a hand rises out of the grave (as in Carrie).

But Parallel, for all its terrifying moments, isn’t a horror film. It’s a science fiction film. It even tells you that midway through by quoting Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.

The gotcha! ending doesn’t work in a science fiction film. The movie needs to be about the ideas and the characters, which it was, until 90 seconds before the end.

. . . .

Endings are really important. They have to be done right or the reader/viewer is going to be turned off completely.

What does “right” mean?

It means offering an emotionally satisfying ending, one that says “The story is over, and here’s the emotion you’re left with.” Sure, we all know that the couple in a romance will marry, have kids, fight before bedtime, and occasionally storm through the house. But they’ll still be together at the very end. They’ll probably die on the same day around their 100th birthday, hands clasped and declaring their love for each other in whispery voices ravaged by time.

The mystery ending will put order on chaos. Not every mystery ends with the killer behind bars, but at least we know who done it. And we know what the repercussions are.

. . . .

The real key to all fiction is an emotionally satisfying ending, one that ends, and does not leave things hanging. You certainly can’t introduce new ideas in your last chapter that changes or contradicts what has come before.

If you are going to change or contradict what has come before, you must set the seeds for that earlier. Little teeny hints of things not being as they seem.

And if you kill your protagonist, well, we need to know that on page 1, paragraph one, or even in the title.

“On the day that Devon died, he discovered the secret of the universe….”

Usually readers forget that you told them Devon would die, but when they get to it, they go “oh, yeah” and are okay with it. If you have Devon discover the secret of the universe and then hit by a bus without any warning at all, no one will read your next book. It’s that simple.

So the conundrum comes when you’re writing a series or linked stories. Most writers opt for the stupidest and least effective way of handling it.

They just end the action, with nothing resolved.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

Dos And Don’ts For Writing Viewpoint Voice

From My Story Doctor:

Many readers and editors state that a strong voice immediately draws them into a story, and one of the most important voices will come from your viewpoint character. But even when you’ve developed their personality and voice, it can still be tricky to actually get them on the page. Here are nine dos and don’ts to help out.

Hi all, September C. Fawkes here, back to talk more about voice. Last month, I broke down how voice works at three levels: the author, the narrator, and the characters each have their own voices. Voice is essentially that person’s personality, as it shows up on the page. In my opinion, when broken down, voice is made up of two things:

What the Person Thinks or Talks About + How They Say It = Voice

And this equation works at any level.

Most of the time these days, the narrator will actually be the same as the viewpoint character. Whether they are written in first person or third person, the majority of stories are written from a character’s perspective.

Yet even when we know the voice equation, it can sometimes still be tricky to actually figure out how to get that voice on the page. So today I wanted to share some things that do work well, and some things that don’t.

Avoid These 4 Things When Crafting Viewpoint (or Narrative) Voice

1. “Always” Sentence Structures 

(Ex. always talks in long sentences or short sentences)

When looking at developing voice, it might seem like a good idea to play with sentence structure–heck, it is a good idea, to an extent. But if you are too rigid with it, there are problems. The most obvious is that trying to read a story where every sentence is about the same length is usually a terrible experience. Beyond that, sentence structure is also used to control pacing, tone, and emotional experience. If you get too locked into a specific type of sentence structure, you doom other parts of storytelling. Besides, most people don’t adhere to a specific structure, constantly, in real life either.

2. Dominating Emotions that Undercut the Story

If you are writing in a voice where the viewpoint character almost always sounds calm or relaxed–guess what? Chances are it’s going to minimize the tension you have in your story. Because if they are calm, the reader is probably calm. If they aren’t worried, the reader probably isn’t worried. The only way you can get away with this consistently, is if you are writing a story with very high stakes at every turn, so that the calmness is a counterpoint that adds humor or irony.

Likewise, a character who is consistently sad about whatever, might start to sound melodramatic–and when you get to the really sad part later in the story, it won’t be as powerful, because we’ve already spent so much time feeling sad. In short, frankly, some dominating emotions work better as a viewpoint character’s voice than others. Avoid those that are going to undercut the power of your story.

3. Stock Voices

Once in a while you run into a character voice that sounds like a hundred other character voices of that genre. For example, YA is known for protagonists having snarky voices. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, but if you do have a viewpoint character whose voice sounds similar to many others, find a way to individualize it. Lots of people are snarky. But they are snarky in their own ways. How is your character snarky?

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

The Complicated Ethics of Writing Violence in Fiction

From Time magazine:

There are some hard ethical questions in the writing of crime fiction.

For me, the most difficult one is how to portray violence.

For one thing, should you depict it all?

And if so, how do you do it with some sense of morality?

I wrestle with this issue all the time. It’s a fine line to walk. On the one hand I don’t want to sanitize violence—I don’t like presenting murder as a parlor game, or worse, a video game in which there are no real consequences. On the other hand, I don’t want to cross that thin line into what might be called the pornography of violence, a means to merely titillate the worst angels of our nature.

But we have to deal with it.

After all, we write crime fiction, and crime often involves violence. So either we choose crimes that don’t—the slick, bloodless heist, the clever con game—or we write scenes that involve shootings, stabbings and various kinds of murder.

And maybe that’s the answer—maybe we have come to a time when we should stop writing violent crime altogether. But if we make that choice, we say goodbye to the murder mystery, the procedural, the forensic novel.

And maybe I’m wrong about not sanitizing the violence. There is, after all, a place for the cleverly plotted, suspenseful whodunit with its witty dialogue, exotic locales, and intriguing characters. (Who am I to judge?) It’s fine, as long as we know it’s a game and we play by its rules and know its conventions. So if Colonel Someone kills Lord Someone Else in the study with a monkey wrench, we don’t expect to see the blood and brains and we don’t feel much from the grieving family except anticipation of the will.

Fair enough, I suppose.

But I write realistic crime fiction.

For twenty-three years, I wrote close-to-the-bone novels about the Mexican drug cartels. The actual violence was horrific, and I was faced with a stark choice: Do I back away from the violence, soften it, mute it, make it less terrible than it was, or do I bring it to the reader in realistic, graphic language that showed it the way it was?

For the most part, I chose the latter option.

It was hard choice.

Link to the rest at Time magazine

When PG found the OP, he realized that, after a significant number of years as a subscriber to Time and reading almost every issue cover-to-cover, he had allowed his subscription to lapse.

And he hadn’t thought about Time for a long, long time.

Things change.

Fear Thesaurus Entry: Agoraphobia

From Writers Helping Writers:

Debilitating fears are a problem for everyone, an unfortunate part of the human experience. Whether they’re a result of learned behavior as a child, are related to a mental illness, or stem from a past wounding event, these fears influence a character’s behaviors, habits, beliefs, and personality traits. The compulsion to avoid what they fear will drive characters away from certain people, events, and situations and hold them back in life.

In your story, this primary fear (or group of fears) will constantly challenge the goal the character is pursuing, tempting them to retreat, settle, and give up on what they want most. Because this fear must be addressed for them to achieve success, balance, and fulfillment, it plays a pivotal part in both character arc and the overall story.

. . . .

Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder that causes people to be afraid of the places or situations that could bring on a panic attack. Their fear of being unable to get help or escape during one of these attacks can make it difficult for them to navigate open spaces, elevators, crowds, concerts, church services, movie theaters, or any place where a panic attack might come on. In extreme cases, a character suffering from agoraphobia may reach the point where they’re uncomfortable leaving their home at all.

What It Looks Like
Frequent panic attacks or elevated anxiety in certain places
Consistently avoiding certain locations or situations
Making choices that enable the character to stay at home (working from home, having groceries delivered, etc.)
The character often declining social invitations to certain places (amusements parks, church services, weddings, etc.)
Only venturing outside with a companion
Clinging to the friends or family members who are supportive
Becoming isolated

Common Internal Struggles
Wanting to not be limited by a fear but it being too strong to ignore
Knowing the fear is irrational but being being compelled to give in to it
Feeling guilty for making excuses about not being able to attend certain events
The character feeling like they can’t trust their own mind or emotions
Feeling defective or broken
Becoming depressed
Slipping into despair—believing that things will never change or get better
Wanting to seek help but feeling too overwhelmed or incapable
Feeling misunderstood and alone, as if the character is alone in their suffering
Worrying about what others think

Link to the rest at Writers Helping Writers

Avoiding Claustrophobia on the Page: Letting Some air into a First-Person Narrative

From Woman Writers, Women’s Books

I’d like to say that I deliberately chose first-person narration for my new novel In the Lonely Backwater, that this was a craft decision made with writerly forethought. After all, the book is both a psychological exploration and a mystery, in which clues are unfolded and the reader moves toward knowledge step by step alongside the narrator. It’s a natural for the first-person POV.

The truth is that Maggie’s voice was so clear and distinctive from the moment she opened her mouth that I couldn’t imagine the story being told by any other person, or in any other way: “There wasn’t anything wrong between Charisse Swicegood and me except that she was her and I was me, and with the family history and all it was just natural.” That was the opening of the book from the get-go.

As the police investigation into Charisse’s disappearance and death unfolds, Maggie will prove to be an incredibly candid narrator of her own experiences and opinions, but also an unreliable one. I’m bothered by that familiar term “unreliable narrator,” because it posits the existence of a reliable one, and when are humans absolutely factual and dispassionate in the telling of their own stories, or anyone else’s? Can even computers be trusted (see: HAL 9000)? We see what we see, remember what we remember, and shade the truth for profit or kindness or survival all the time. 

So the writer chooses to have one person tell the story. The reader is caught in that awareness for the length of a novel, looking out through those eyes. It might get a touch claustrophobic.

“The benefit of telling a story in first person is that readers discover the voice and psychology of a character as expressed directly by the character. This gives immediacy, the sense of ‘being there’. … On the minus side, first person narration can restrict your readers’ access to the inner worlds of your other characters.” Now Novel

The intimacy with the character (and often therefore with the writer) makes this the most powerful of forms, to my mind: the concentration, the “single effect,” of one voice. Of course a writer can always choose to use third-person or second-person or omniscience or multiple narrators, but whatever the decision, point of view is fundamental to the tone and structure of the work that will emerge. 

Claustrophobia may be exactly what is needed, a narrow window on the world. 

Some of the great books have depended on this: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Jane Eyre, Gulliver’s Travels…the list goes on. And Edgar Allen Poe (whose quote introduces the novel) was a master at letting the reader fully inhabit another consciousness. Within the first-person form, writers may employ techniques such as stream of consciousness, interior monologue, letters (epistolary novels), frame stories, or even set up the whole thing as a recounted tale or a recovered document. 

Link to the rest at Woman Writers, Women’s Books

Focus Again

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

The other challenge I gave myself in 2021 was to work on the Fey. I had blamed traditional publishing for the fact that the next series didn’t exist and while that was true, it’s not the whole story.

I have a lot of baggage on that series. A lot. All the bad things that can happen in traditional publishing happened to me on those books.

. . . .

An editor rewrote me horribly, and did some of the work without my permission to make chapters shorter. So the rereads were traumatizing. I did them by hand, so I had to put in the corrections and restore what I could (because some of the original files were lost). I stalled out.

But I kept writing on the Fey project. Since I write out of order, it took me most of the year to realize I was writing outlines for the next several books. I’d write maybe 100 pages of the book and then outline. I’m good at writing something that seems like fiction, but really isn’t.

That’s what I was doing.

I finally sorted out that mess, but the story just wasn’t flowing. I blamed the pandemic. Then I found the novella at the heart of everything, figuring that would solve the problem. Nope.

. . . .

Until one morning, I woke up and realized I needed to schedule my writing year. I hadn’t over-scheduled my writing year in maybe ten years. First, I was so sick that I didn’t dare. (I underscheduled then.) Then, I stopped trying to schedule at all. (Nearly died, so was focused on just finishing words.) Then we moved (always disruptive). I got better…and the damn pandemic hit and ate my brain.

So figuring out the schedule made Dean happy. (“You’re back!” he said. Yeah, maybe he’s right.)

But it also made my subconscious happy.

What does figuring out the schedule mean? It means I had to figure out what I was writing when. Then I had to figure out a realistic word count for the week/day. Then I had to do math to figure out when I would finish Project #1 and so on and so forth.

I know myself well enough to know that I can’t write the same subgenre for each and every project. So I had to switch off.

I outlined it all…and I not only mentally relaxed, the stories started flowing. I was able to get lost in them. I would wake up and there, in my brain, was the solution to some problem I hadn’t even realized I had in the book(s).

I’m excited about writing again.

I think this is because I believe I have a future. Or we have a future. Or as much of a future as the human race always has, subject to the whims of crazy leaders and stupid viruses and personal emergencies (note the word personal, not a worldwide emergency like we’ve been living in).

It’s not normal. As some grumpy pundit said about the whole returning to normal movement: there was no normal before the pandemic. There was just what we were used to.

My brain has transitioned into a world filled with Covid and other problems. I feel less of a need to be hypervigilant about the world around me, and I’m able to escape into a world I invent.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

What If You Gave Up?

From Writer Unboxed:

NOT writing as a whole. Neither of us would be here if we wanted to give up writing. But what if you gave up an idea that is holding you back? Might it free you, your writing, your creativity?

I have to finish this manuscript before I can write the next story.

What if you didn’t? What if you moved on to another story? Just tested it out. You can still come back to the old manuscript. But what if the self-imposed idea that you have to finish something before you start the next thing is preventing you from working both on the old story and on the new story? Maybe you don’t like the old thing anymore, or the story isn’t quite working and you can’t figure out how to fix it, or it reminds you of a bad time in your life, or any other reason. If you gave yourself permission to put it aside would that be so wrong?

Would that make you a quitter? Or would that make you an adult who has looked at the options and decided to go another way? Laying aside a writing project that isn’t working / that you aren’t working on might be energizing. It might even help you make your way back to that project and finish it.

This is what I’m telling myself about the trilogy I’ve been working on for several years. I indie published the first book, fully drafted the second, and mostly drafted the third. And I’m just not working on them. But I won’t let myself move on, either, because I have to finish them. It was on a walk a few days ago that I asked that scary question: What if I gave up the idea that I had to complete the trilogy before I wrote anything else?

I’m close to giving myself permission to put them aside, at least for now, so I can start the next story idea. It might take until the end of this post, but I’m working on giving up this idea.

I have to find The Best System for Writing.

It can ease the anxiety of writing to put all your trust in an expert who has a system they say always works. But when that system doesn’t work for you, or it stops working for you, or some new expert comes with a Shiny New System that throws your system into question, or the novel you wrote using The Best System is rejected, that increases your anxiety. And you think it’s your fault–either for not following The Best System well enough or because it must not be The Best System and now you have to find the real Best System.

Writing is an anxiety-producing endeavor. No system and no writing advice will help you avoid it completely. And no system or writing advice can guarantee commercial success. Not even our own beloved Don Maass’. When I was in the Writer Unboxed Breakout Novel Dissection Group, every book we read violated at least one of his characteristics of a breakout novel.

Giving up the idea that there is a Best System can set you free to pick up and run with the writing advice that gives you energy and makes your imagination churn with ideas, and set aside writing advice that stymies you. Many multi-published writers who sell well experience self-doubt and anxiety at some point in the process of every novel. Remind yourself of this when you’re tempted to put all your trust in The Best System.

My only option is to be traditionally published.

This one was mine for many years. I was seeking the approval of a publisher and trying to avoid the insecurity and steep learning curve of indie publishing. Repeated rejection wasn’t fun, but I expected it, and didn’t let it stop me from keeping on trying.

But then a friend told me a story about raccoons: they love shiny things so much that they’ll stick their paw in a jar to get a shiny thing out, not be able to get their closed fist out of the jar, but they won’t free themselves because it would mean letting go. They’ll wind up in near starvation and all they need to do is drop the shiny thing.

Traditional publishing was my shiny thing. Letting it go meant a lot of work, and learning, and decision making. But I’m glad I chose myself. I might still try to get traditionally published in the future, but for now, I’ve written four projects that are out in the world, and I’m proud of that.

What if you gave up that idea that it’s traditional publishing or bust?

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

One Plotting Tool for All

From Writers in the Storm

Whether you’ve just finished a project or you’ve just started writing, facing the blank screen (page) is daunting. It can make even the best ideas shrivel in your head and freeze your fingers. Some believe that story structure is essential for success and advise all writers must plan their story in advance. Others believe spontaneity is crucial to creativity and advise that everyone should pants their story. What is a writer, especially a new writer, to do? Consider that both are correct. Story structure is important and spontaneity can be a boon to creativity. Neither are the only right answer. There are tools that can help all writers regardless of their preferred story development method. One plotting tool for all is the story sentence.

Where Do You Start?

You stare at the screen and think that the great idea you had is really a cliché, or it’s too slight to be the epic novel you envisioned, or that the idea is only a two-step plot. Hold on. It’s not that bad. All you need is one sentence. But before we begin that, we need a common understanding of what plot means.

What is Plot?

To paraphrase and meld together definitions by Dwight V. Swain, Donald Maass, and Jessica Page Morrell: 

Plot is a series of scenes where something changes. Each change builds intensity and tension and increases your reader’s sense of foreboding until there is a devastating fear that your focal character may not attain her goal. When the intensity reaches its maximum, there is a release of tension in a satisfying manner. 

It’s a mouthful, but all of those things are part of the word plot represents. What changes, how things change, how intense or tension-filled your story is comes from the situation, genre, and tropes you select to build your plot. Overwhelmed yet? There are a lot of pieces to plot and it can be overwhelming. So let’s pare it down to a bite-sized chunk—the story sentence.

What is The Story Sentence?

It is not a tagline. A tagline is a tease. That’s not what we want right now.

The sentence is closer to a log line. But it’s not that either. It isn’t for marketing. It isn’t for your readers to understand. 

It’s a plotting tool, a sentence meant to help you focus your story. Maybe you’re like I was. You’ve heard writers are supposed to boil their story down to one sentence but you can’t figure out how to do it.

I did not get it until I took Holly Lisle’s “How to Revise A Novel” course. Simply put, she advised that the sentence included a protagonist, an antagonist, a conflict, and a hook. She recommended the sentence should be no more than thirty words in length. With her more detailed class instructions, I finally understood. Since then, I’ve studied how others use the story sentence and eventually made it my own. 

The Parts of the Sentence

I break down the sentence into parts–

An [adjective] [focal character] needs [to do something] for [an important personal reason] but [an adjective] [obstacle] needs [something] which [verb of conflict or stakes].

This is both easier and harder than it looks. Those of you who are grammar nerds may find my next statement objectionable. Don’t worry about grammar when you construct the story sentence. This isn’t about making a well-constructed sentence. It’s about getting the essence of your story down.

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Want Strong Dialogue? Don’t Forget The Subtext

From My Story Doctor:

Realistic, evocative dialogue is an important part of any successful story. We need our characters’ interactions to be authentic, consistent, and engaging to draw readers into what’s happening. So when we’re learning to write, we spend a lot of time on mechanics—learning all the grammar and punctuation rules. But proper form is just the first step.

When writing strong dialogue, we often forget that real-life conversations are rarely straightforward. On the surface, it may seem we’re engaging in simple back-and-forth, but if you look deeper, to some degree our conversations are carefully constructed. We hide our emotions, withhold information, dance around what we really mean, avoid certain topics, downplay shortcomings, or emphasize strengths—all of which lead to exchanges that aren’t totally honest.

Completely candid dialogue scenes fall flat because that’s not the way people converse. Subtext plays a huge role in conversation. It’s often tied to how characters are feeling, which can trigger readers’ emotions and increase their engagement. So we need to include this crucial element in our dialogue scenes.

Simply, subtext is the underlying meaning. Hidden elements the character isn’t comfortable sharing—their true opinions, what they really want, what they’re afraid of, and emotions that make them feel vulnerable—constitute the subtext. They’re important because the character wants them hidden. This results in contradictory words and actions.

A Subtext Example

Consider this exchange between a teenage daughter and her dad.

“So how’d the party go?”

Dionne plastered on a smile and buried herself in Instagram. “Great.”

“See, I knew you’d have a good time. Who was there?”

Her mouth went dry, but she didn’t dare swallow. Despite the hour, Dad’s eyes were bright, like spotlights carving through her mocha-infused fog.

“The usual. Sarah, Allegra, Jordan.” She shrugged. Nothing to see here. Move along.

“What about Trey? I ran into his mom at the office yesterday and she said he was going.”

“Um, yeah. I think he was there.” She scrolled faster, images blurring.

“He sounds like a good kid. Maybe we could have him and his mom over for dinner.”

Her stomach lurched. “Oh, I don’t know.” Her fingers trembled, so she abandoned the phone and sat on her hands to keep them still. “We don’t really hang with the same crowd.”

“Well, think about it. Couldn’t hurt to branch out and get to know some new people.”

Dionne blew out a shaky breath. How could her dad be so smart at work and so stupid about people?

Something happened at the party involving a boy Dionne’s now avoiding, and she clearly doesn’t want her father to know about it. While Dad is kept in the dark, the reader becomes privy to Dionne’s true emotions: nervousness, fear, and possibly guilt.

This is the beauty of subtext in dialogue. It allows the character to carry on whatever subterfuge she deems necessary while revealing her true emotions and motivations to the reader. It’s also a great way to add tension and conflict. Without subtext, this scene is boring, just two people chatting. With it, we see Dionne desperately trying to keep her secrets while it becomes increasingly difficult—even unhealthy—to do so.

So how do we write subtext into our characters’ conversations without confusing the reader? It just requires combining five common vehicles for showing emotion. Let’s look at how these were used in the example.

1. Dialogue

We all go a little Pinocchio when we start talking, and Dionne is no exception. Her words scream status quo: nothing happened at the party and she doesn’t feel anything in particular. But the reader can clearly see this isn’t the case.

2. Body Language

Nonverbal communication often reveals to readers the truth beneath a character’s words. Notice Dionne’s body language: the plastered-on smile, frantic social media scrolling, and trembling hands. Readers hear what she’s saying, but her body language clues them in that something else is going on.

Link to the rest at My Story Doctor

Creative Ways to Brainstorm Story Ideas

From Writers in the Storm:

Inspiration is a fickle beast. She strikes at inopportune times (3 AM, anyone?) then disappears for months on end. She doesn’t call, she doesn’t write. Or maybe she treats you differently, pouring on so many ideas that you can’t tell the golden nuggets from the stinky ones.

Finding and prioritizing story options can be a frustrating process, but it’s easier if you approach it from the right angle. Here are a few possible starting points.

Start with Genre

We know that emotions are transferrable, from author to page to reader, so writing something that gets you excited pays off in dividends.

  • What do you like to write?
  • What do you like to read?
  • Which kinds of stories are you passionate about?

Do you like fantasy? Which elements? Think dragons, portals, evil wizards, shapeshifters—then consider how those elements might be reimagined.

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series gave us a whole new take on dragons, turning them from marauding villains into loving creatures that impress upon humans at birth and use their fiery powers for good.

Then, twenty years after the first book was published, she released the dragons’ origin story and how humans first came to Pern. While the previous books were straight fantasy, this one was also science fiction, showing the settlers traveling to the new world and using their technology to establish communities and bioengineer full-blown dragons from foot-long fire lizards. Dragonsdawn is an innovative blending of the sci-fi and fantasy genres in a way that was new and entirely fresh.

So think of the genre you want to write, then tweak the standard conventions to create something new. Or blend your preferred genre with another one and see what ideas come to mind.

Start with Character

Everyone’s process is different. It’s one of the things I love about the writing community—the vast diversity of thought and method that can birth uncountable stories. Maybe you’re the kind of writer who’s drawn to characters. They come to you fully-formed, or you have an inkling of who they are before you have any idea what the story’s about. If this is you, start by getting to know that character.

  • If you have a good idea of their personality, dig into their backstory to see what could have happened to make them the way they are.
  • If you already know about their troubled past, use that to figure out which positive attributes, flaws, fears, quirks, and habits they now exhibit.
  • What inner need do they have (and why)?
  • Which story goal might they embrace as a way of filling that void?

Characters drive the story, so they can be a good jumping-off point for finding your next big idea.

. . . .

Start with a Story Seed

But maybe it’s not characters that rev your engine. When I’m exploring a new project, I have no idea about the people involved. Instead, my stories typically start with a What if? question.

  • What if a man abandoned his family to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush—what would happen to them?
  • What if all the children under the age of 16 abruptly disappeared?
  • What if someone’s sneezes transported them to weird new worlds?

Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm

Getting Over It

From Writer Unboxed:

Last week my youngest daughter went back to work in her office for the first time since the pandemic began. It was harder than she expected. Her office is an open space with dozens of cubicles, and she found herself distracted by all the faces and voices, by the need to be “on” all day with people, self-conscious about others overhearing her as she conducted meetings from her cubicle. It felt, she said, like being thrown into the proverbial deep end of the pool and being told to swim. And this kid is an extrovert. Maybe the organization could have handled this transition better, she said.

And I said, How much experience do you think your company has with transitioning employees back to in-person work after a global pandemic? They’re learning as they go, too. We’re all figuring it out.

This made me think of one of the newer aspects of what we’ve been through the past few years, which is RECOVERY. As writers, we spend a lot of time thinking through the trials and tribulations our characters have to face. We all know the basic story diagram of background/inciting incident/rising action/climax/falling action/resolution. But who are our heroes after they’ve survived their ordeals? How do they get through their days, interact with the world? If their ordeal has affected other characters and the world they inhabit, how are those others coping? What does this new world look like?

As you write your characters into the latter parts of their story, as they come out the other side of whatever you’ve put them through, think through all the aspects of their recovery (or rebirth or redemption or healing). Flesh out their adaptation to their post-ordeal selves and post-ordeal world. Consider:

What they value. Whether your character has been through a broken love affair, an epic battle, a devastating loss, a challenging journey, or whatever hell you’ve unleashed upon them, it’s a good bet their priorities have changed. Look at us as we emerge into this post-pandemic world, for instance. I know I spend less time sweating (or doing) the small stuff and more time prioritizing people I love and making time to do things I genuinely enjoy. Connection of all kinds means more to me than ever, and I will never take hugging for granted again., What were your character’s priorities before? What are they now? How and why did what they’ve endured change those priorities?

Who they value. Facing down challenges has a way of clarifying your vision, so you see more clearly the people who lift you up, and the people who drag you down. Forged by adversity, it’s easier to turn your time and attention and energy toward those who restore you, and away from those who deplete you. Who are those others in your character’s life? How has their relationship to those closest to them changed?

The dark side. Listen, when you go through an ordeal of some kind, you rarely emerge unscathed. Sometimes hardship heightens our flaws and our fears; sometimes it scars us in ways that leave us forever different and a little (or a lot) damaged. Someone who was prone to melancholy before an ordeal may find themselves more likely to sink into black holes of despair afterwards; someone who was filled with hubris may become more patronizing and condescending. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it may not make you kinder, braver, calmer, or cheerier.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed